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The Kingdom, Jo Nesbo and translated by Robert Ferguson (Random House, 548 pages)
First and most important, this is not a Harry Hole novel. Those awaiting Norway’s only serial killer specialist must be patient; they should also read this book and continue to be patient. The opening, which is all important, sets the mood, scene and backstory and it’s very slow. The setting is the rural Norwegian village of Os, a picturesque nowhere with nothing to offer.
Roy Opgard, owner of the local gas station/snack store is our narrator and he is, to say the least, unforthcoming. But Os is about to have a renaissance – Roy’s brother Carl Abel has arrived from the United States with his new wife, Shannon. Carl Abel, who fled Os years ago, has become a wealthy real estate entrepreneur in Minnesota and Canada and plans to turn the Opgard farm, “The Kingdom,” into a flourishing hotel spa. There will be jobs, cafés and success galore. We know this is not going to turn out well but it’s the trip that captures the imagination. There are more than enough secrets and lies here to keep a reader happy. Nesbo doesn’t need another grisly serial murder. Whatever you do: Do not read the end first.
Still Life, Val McDermid (Grove/Atlantic, 437 pages)
This is the sixth Karen Pirie book and Scotland’s preeminent cold case detective has her work cut out for her. A lobster fisherman discovers a dead body and there’s a long-time missing politician to find. In short, this is McDermid at her best. The dead man turns out to be a naturalized French citizen but that ID simply covers up the fact that he came into existence only 10 years before. So, who was he really? As Pirie and her team unravel the French tale, another crime takes place and that leads to a man who disappeared 10 years ago, a politician caught in a scandal involving art works stolen from Scotland’s National Collection and replaced with forgeries so good that they passed inspections. McDermid always gives us a fine plot and terrific characters but this time she’s outdone herself. The art forgery backdrop and the twists it adds keep this plot going and the history of the dead man in the lobster trap kept me reading far into the night.
The Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves (Macmillan, 373 pages)
Setting is a major component in all Ann Cleeves’s brilliant series and this latest one in the Vera Stanhope saga takes full advantage of the dark, sinister cold of a Northumbrian December. Cleeves uses the story to fill in some interesting background on Vera herself, as well as giving us one of her very best and most intriguing mystery novels. Vera is out too late on a bad road in a snowstorm. Driving blind, she gets lost and ends up at a farm fence where a car has run off the road. When she checks it, she finds a small baby in a car seat. There is every indication that the parent went searching for help but why leave the doors open? Vera leaves a note and packs up the infant. She ends up at Brockburn, the local gentry’s vast mansion and the gentry happen to be named Stanhope and Vera knows she’ll be tolerated but not welcomed.
The backstory of Vera and the other Stanhopes is every bit as dramatic and fascinating as the mystery of the abandoned baby and, as we can expect, the body discovered in the snow on Brockburn’s extensive grounds. Was it murder or accident due to weather? Again, you can’t stop reading this one until the final page.
Invisible Girl, Lisa Jewell (Atria, 356 pages)
Lisa Jewell specializes in psychological suspense – the old-fashioned thriller that depends on character not clues. Lately, some of her books have been uneven. Invisible Girl is her best book to date and, with its simple but complex plot, brilliant characters and careful construction.
The story is set in upmarket London and rests on three major characters. Owen Pick is single, living with his mother and has just been suspended from his teaching position because of allegations of sexual misconduct. Across the street from Owen live the Fours. Cate is a physiotherapist and Roan is a psychologist. They find Owen creepy and suspect he’s been following their teenaged daughter home from school. Saffyre Maddox is a former patient of Roan’s and she’s obsessed with him. When Saffyre disappears, the investigation inevitably opens the cracks in the Fours marriage and makes Owen a logical suspect.
Strangely, while the case of the missing Saffyre is the plotline, it’s not the meat of the novel. The Fours marriage, Owen’s dive into the dark world of the involuntary celibates (incels) and the elegant upscale world these people inhabit is really what makes this book move.
The Detective And The Spy, Angela Misri (Cormorant Books, 235 pages)
If Sherlock Holmes had a granddaughter, she’d definitely be a clever and devilishly curious woman like Portia Adams. That’s what Misri – who has written several essays on Holmes, as well as three other Adams books – believes and she’s convinced me. This is my introduction to the PA canon and while it’s not as enthralling – yet – as Conan Doyle’s own, it’s a very good start.
This isn’t Sherlock’s London: It’s 1935 and the Great Depression is nearly over but things are changing over in Europe. Portia has taken over the Consulting Detective business at 221B Baker Street and she’s enjoying some success. Then a bomb goes off, literally, and blows Portia and her world apart. She awakens in a hospital, deaf and mute.
While Portia begins to examine her changed circumstances, the bomber is wreaking havoc across London. Portia believes she can still contribute to solving the crimes but everyone from her old friends to Scotland Yard dismisses her as disabled. How Portia begins to investigate the crimes from her new perspective is the heart of the character development of this book and Misri does a fair job of taking us into the world of silence.
En route to the denouement, many old friends of Sherlock appear, along with friends of Portia and an interesting possible love interest. This indicates a long-running series with more adventures to come.
Tell Me My Name, Erin Ruddy (Dundurn, 344 pages)
I wanted to love this book. It’s a debut from a new writer and the premise, laid out early, is great. A nice young couple, Neil and Ellie, are basking in a child-free weekend at their gorgeous new country cottage. It’s all very upmarket Muskoka and sexy and wild. Then, the pair are dragged out of bed by a neighbour who claims to have been Ellie’s lover. “What’s my name?” he demands. As he takes the pair prisoner, it’s clear that he’s obsessed but Ellie has no idea who he is. He gives her three chances to get his name. After that, he starts carving bits off Neil and if she doesn’t get it right, Neil will die. If Erin Ruddy had kept up the pace for the rest of the novel, this book would have been a smash.
However, the pace drops when Ellie does get the name. But this requires a lot of recall and backstory and things drag. They drag further when the police arrive with a detective who tells people “toodle-oo.” No, you just can’t. Ever.
Despite the middle muddle Ruddy gets the book back on track for a very solid and satisfying ending. This indicates that she’s got the talent, she just needs to work a bit harder on the execution and especially on developing characters. She’s one to watch for.