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A Death at the Party, by Amy Stuart

Simon & Schuster Canada, 304 pages

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A Death at the Party by Amy Stuart.Handout

It takes real guts to incorporate a classic novel element into a mystery but Toronto author Amy Stuart has succeeded. Think of A Death at the Party as Mrs. Dalloway with murder, but this excellent novel is far more than just a plotline. Like Virginia Woolf before her, Stuart lets character dictate events and it works just as well in 2023 as it did a century ago.

We begin with a murder. We know who’s doing it. Nadine Walsh, hostess, classy wife, devoted daughter, worried mother has just watched someone in her basement die, begging for help. Nadine is cool and composed as a party of her planning goes on in the house and garden above her. Who’s dead? And why?

We move back to the morning of the party as Nadine stresses about flowers and food and plans her day. The party is the 60th birthday of her mother, celebrated novelist Marilyn Millay. It also marks the anniversary of the death of Marilyn’s sister but hardly any of the hundred or so guests know about that. Tonight is all Champagne and celebration.

As Nadine moves through her day, events, memories and ideas take form and the old death, never forgotten, begins to reappear, just as Clarissa Dalloway’s old romance intruded into her perfectly planned event.

We know what’s coming and, as in all reverse mysteries, the suspense has to be carefully planned and orchestrated. Stuart gets a bit weak toward the end but that really is forgivable in a story this good. This is Stuart’s fourth novel and it marks a definite talent. This one should be on the best book lists for the year.

The Drift, by C.J. Tudor

Doubleday Canada, 368 pages

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The Drift by C.J. Tudor.Handout

What if the COVID vaccine developed to save the planet from destruction had failed? That’s the backdrop for this superb mix of speculative fiction and locked-room murder. I confess that it’s haunted me for weeks since I read it. What if?

The story is told from three different perspectives in three different locations. Hannah, a student at a prestigious school, is in a crashed bus full of dead and dying students. They were on their way through the Colorado mountains in a snowstorm, fleeing infection from a deadly virus, heading toward something. Will they survive until they can be rescued?

The second narrator is Meg, who awakes from a drugged sleep in a stalled cable car heading up a mountainside. There’s a blizzard and the inhabitants of the car are trapped and freezing, all except for the dead man on the bench. He’s been murdered.

The third narrator is Carter, maimed and resilient jack-of-all-trades at a ritzy sanitarium/research lab called the Retreat. Most of the workers and doctors there are dead but a handful of survivors live in relative luxury and safety. How they maintain this is questionable but Carter doesn’t care. He just continues on his way.

All these stories converge in a unique way with the continuing backstory of an epidemic that has upended civilization. Most of the infected are dead. Those who remain are infectious and physically damaged by lung disease. Their wheezes and laboured breathing turn them into pale and ghostly “Whistlers” who move on the margins of what’s left of the world. There are a lot of deaths in this book, reminding one of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I couldn’t stop reading until the final page.

Murder At Haven’s Rock, by Kelley Armstrong

Raincoast, 340 pages

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Murder at Haven's Rock by Kelley Armstrong.Handout

Fans of Kelley Armstrong’s Rockton series (and I am one) were bereft when the author decided to take Detective Casey Duncan and her husband, Sheriff Eric Dalton, out of their crime-ridded but idyllic small town. The best news is that Duncan and Dalton are back, with a new location in rural Yukon. This time, though, the town is Haven’s Rock. The pair are financing it and they have total control over who will get to live there. This is a refuge and a renewal and, as it rises in the wilderness, there’s only one rule. Don’t go into the woods. When two construction workers disappear, it’s clear that someone, somehow, didn’t get the message.

Armstrong, who lives in rural Ontario, has become one of Canada’s best crime authors as well as one of our most prolific fantasy writers. This is her eighth mystery originating in Rockton and it’s the perfect way to freshen up the characters and keep the action moving. There’s no decline in quality as this combo heads into Yukon’s wilderness.

Don’t Fear the Reaper, by Stephen Graham Jones

Saga Press, 464 pages

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Don't Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones.Handout

Jade (Jennifer) Daniels is fresh out of prison when she heads back to her old hometown of Proofrock, Idaho, scene of a massacre years before. Jennifer left a town in shock and she returns to a town scarred. Friends have moved on, married, had kids. The local sheriff is a weaker, older version of the man she remembers. The lingering feeling of loss is everywhere and Graham Jones is brilliant at evoking that miasma as it pervades every encounter. When serial killer Dark Mill South escapes prison and heads for Proofrock, it seems history is about to repeat itself. Bodies start dropping and, be warned, no one dies easily in this book.

This is the second in a trilogy featuring Daniels and set in Proofrock and, like all middle books, it harks back to the events of the past and sets us up for what is to come in the next instalment. That said, it does stand on its own but the first thing I did when I finished reading was get the first book, My Heart is a Chainsaw. You can read Don’t Fear the Reaper on its own, but Graham Jones is a subtle and nuanced writer and references are clearer and characters more understandable when you have the history with wisps of what’s to come next. I’ll be waiting for the final chapter in the Jade/Jennifer saga.

A Death in Tokyo, by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray

St. Martin’s, 360 pages

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A Death in Tokyo by Keigo Higashino.Handout

If you haven’t already discovered Japanese crime fiction, there is no better time to start. Translations of classics are abundantly available and new authors like Keigo Higashino – a hot bestseller in Japan – are regularly appearing. The Japanese have a long tradition of crime writing and some of the best is in their Honkaku tradition, which reworks the old puzzle plot with a lot of twists. Higashino leans into that tradition and A Death in Tokyo, his third novel featuring Kyoichiro Kaga, homicide cop, provides twists aplenty.

The body that starts the story is found on the Nihonbashi Bridge underneath the statue of a mythic beast. He’s a businessman who died there but he wasn’t stabbed there. As Kaga is still assembling the clues, a young man races away from the police, is hit a by car and severely injured. He has the dead man’s wallet and briefcase, and the two men worked for the same company. Clearly, he must be the killer, but he’s in a coma. Kaga and his cousin investigate and, as the case deepens, Kaga isn’t convinced they have the real killer. Higashino is a master at sleight of hand and, while this book isn’t quite as clever as his masterpiece, Malice, it’s mighty good. He’s a great author with whom to start exploring the Honkaku universe.

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