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Eight heart-racing new novels bring much-needed escapism to the dead of winter.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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The Dark Hours Michael Connelly (Little, Brown, 388 pages) It’s New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles and chaos is rising. Renée Ballard is working the graveyard shift and she knows it’s going to be loud when L.A. revellers shoot off their guns at midnight. Just wait for the air to clear and hope things quiet down. Seconds after midnight, she gets the call she doesn’t want. An auto shop owner has been shot and killed amidst a huge block party. Accident or worse?

Ballard quickly determines that this bullet was intended and it’s linked to an unsolved case that Harry Bosch is already working on. She hands the investigation to Harry while she hunts down a pair of vicious men who terrorize women and depart, leaving no clues. They are dubbed the Midnight Men for their favourite attack hour. New Year’s Eve is no exception.

With a murder and multiple assault cases on her list, Ballard wants to catch the perps and, as usual, it’s a slog. LAPD is beset externally by COVID and social unrest and internally by its own history of racism and misogyny. Her only trustworthy ally is Bosch, himself a retired relic, and together they begin to dig into what few clues they have. One of Connelly’s best and that’s saying a lot of the man who wrote, among other wonders, The Concrete Blonde.

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Autopsy, Patricia Cornwell (Morrow, 398 pages) It’s been five years since the last Kay Scarpetta novel and, with changed politics and COVID, it seems a lifetime. So to have Scarpetta return – to her native Virginia, to being a forensic pathologist and engaged in a hunt for a possible serial killer – is simply terrific.

A woman has been slashed and murdered and her body displayed on the local railroad tracks. Scarpetta is on the trail and it seems to lead unnervingly close to her own old neighbourhood. Then the White House calls. There’s been a disaster in a top secret laboratory in space. Just what happened and why is essential and Scarpetta is part of a team to find out the answers. Forensic investigation in space is a whole new kind of science and Cornwell, always a science nerd, does it with panache.

Back on earth, the dead woman’s trail seems to be leading to a dangerous serial killer but Scarpetta isn’t convinced. The science, as readers know, will tell. Yes, this book is overwritten by about a hundred pages and Cornwell does drift into the ether a bit, but it’s still gold-star Scarpetta at work and I loved it.

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All Her Little Secrets, Wanda M. Morris (William Morrow, 384 pages) There was a lot of attention paid to The Other Black Girl this fall and, in the hoo-ha, this very fine debut was a bit overlooked. That’s a pity because Wanda Morris, lawyer and author, has written a superb first novel focused on the things that separate Americans in this critical time and the limits people will go to survive and thrive.

Ellice Littlejohn is a top Atlanta lawyer, the only Black partner in the legal department of Houghton Transportation, a prestigious and very white Atlanta company. On paper, Ellice is Ms. Perfection, graduate of a prestigious boarding school, an Ivy League law school, a woman who doesn’t put a foot wrong. To complete the picture, she’s having an affair, just sex, no commitments, with her white boss. She shows up at the office for a meeting and finds him dead, possibly a suicide.

Ellice doesn’t call in the death. She shuts the door and slips away. Let someone else find him. Ellice has things to hide, things that will wreck her carefully constructed life. She grew up in a dirt-poor Georgia town, went to school on a scholarship and has a brother in and out of prison.

That decision made, Ellice finds herself head of legal at Houghton, a Black woman in a town that’s still quite racist. There’s no shortage of people who want her to fail and no shortage of history that may drag her down. This is a terrific novel from a bright new voice. Morris has the credentials that make this book credible. Not to be missed.

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Beneath Her Skin, C.S. Porter (Vagrant Press, 224 pages) In a season of 500-plus page behemoths, this slight book may get overlooked. That’s a pity because it’s a tough, carefully constructed mystery with a great setting and a great female detective. In short, for a debut, it’s a sure winner and deserving of attention.

The story takes place in rural Nova Scotia in an idyllic setting where a particularly cruel murder has happened. Big town homicide detective Kes Morris is summoned to lead the case. Kes is a woman of many parts, few of them quiet. In addition to smarts and pluck, she’s got major anger issues. Just what drives her to succeed is part of the plotline and, since it’s clear the author intends a series, not all the questions get answered,

Before Kes can get her team together, there’s another grisly murder and it’s clear that the killer has no intention of stopping. Kes begins to analyze the method and mind of the murderer and to dig into the town’s secrets. Soon it’s clear that these deaths are recent manifestations of gruesome crimes going back decades. Just what happened and to whom? That question will keep readers glued to the page right until the end.

With a solid story, I don’t think we need the added “mystery” of who C. S. Porter is. Male? Female? Who cares? Let’s just hope he, she, they have another Kes Morris book in the works.

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The Ex-Husband, Karen Hamilton (HarperCollins, 346 pages) A cruise sounds so nice. Maybe a trip around the islands, or a dash down the South American coast. That is, it was nice, until COVID upended the sweet life by trapping tourists on board and cities refused to let them land. That, plus a shortage of the staff that make all those amenities so luxurious. Now, Charlotte takes us to a private engagement event on a superyacht sailing to the Bahamas. Problem is, someone is trying to kill her.

There are some creaky bits in the plot but it mostly works. Seems Charlotte and her ex-husband, Sam, used to be a pair of con-artists soaking rich people for their extra cash. Charlotte insists that no one really vulnerable was hurt but she stopped anyhow. Now, she’s an events planner for the mega-rich and she’s happy to leave Sam and the past behind. But it appears that someone wasn’t quite so untouched by those little cons. Not only do they want Charlotte and Sam to pay, they want a public accounting, one that will expose the couple for the grifters they were. Meanwhile, Hamilton spares no description of life on a superyacht and glorious time in the Bahamas. Not as good as a cruise but a lot safer.

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My Darling Husband, Kimberly Belle (HarperCollins, 344 pages) My Darling Husband’s story begins with Cam Lasky, ex-celebrity chef, in an interview. Lasky’s nadir was his connection to a disgraced pharma entrepreneur who bought the rights to essential drugs and then jacked the prices to the skies (Martin Shkreli, we’re thinking of you). The stench of the scandal has derailed Cam’s career but there’s a whole lot more to the disaster and Cam is ready to tell all.

Once upon a time there was the perfect family. Celebrity chef was on his way to stardom and he had the charming wife, Jade, and two cute kids. Then one day he arrives at home to find a stranger holding his family for ransom. He has very little time to raise a ransom of exactly $734,296. The number obviously has meaning but to whom? And what does it have to do with Cam?

There are, of course, a lot of hidden secrets in this perfect family’s perfect life. Belle reveals them slowly and with maximum suspense so, although we know that Cam has gotten out alive (after all, he’s being interviewed) his reputation and, possibly, his marriage, have not. This is a great weekend read when you’re sick of baking and ready to just sit and eat all those cookies.

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The Replacement Wife, Darby Kane (HarperCollins, 416 pages) There are a few issues with this novel by Kane, a pseudonym for a romance writer/trial attorney. It’s a bit slow and the finale is a trifle contrived but the plotline is so good that it’s worth a read anyhow.

We have the usual unreliable narrator and the lovely family but this time, it’s brother-in-law Josh who’s the problem. Seems he just can’t hang on to a woman. First, it was his wife, Candace, who fell over, hit her head and died. Then his fiancée Abby disappeared on the eve of the wedding. Josh blames cold feet but his sister-in-law Elisa isn’t convinced. Why hasn’t Abby contacted her family? Or Elisa, supposedly her best friend. Seven months later, there’s Josh’s latest love, Rachel, who’s been around a lot longer than anyone knew.

Elisa is sure that Josh is responsible for Abby’s disappearance and possibly Candace’s death. Trouble is, no one takes her seriously because Josh is so likeable and, furthermore, she has PTSD from a shooting at the hospital where she worked. She’s prone to panic attacks and has reactions to the powerful meds she’s taking. But Elisa is convinced that she has to save Rachel and so she begins to delve into Josh’s history. Despite the slow spots, this plot works and Elisa was a solid character to carry the story.

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Mercy, David Baldacci (Grand Central, 406 pages) Fans of Baldacci know to expect the unexpected and this fourth book in the Atlee Pine series is no exception. Is this the end? Will FBI agent Atlee Pine finally find out just what happened to her twin sister who disappeared 30 years ago, causing Atlee’s parents to abandon her? Atlee is an ace investigator and her spare time is devoted to the case of her missing sister. Atlee is convinced she’s still alive but how did she survive her abduction and escape? And where and how is she living now?

Those are the big questions that have marched through the previous three books. Now we meet a remarkable woman who just may have the answers. Or, is she the answer? Baldacci has a gift for combining interesting characters with somewhat creaky plotlines and then giving readers a twist. I’m not giving this one away because it’s just too good. Atlee may be on the trail but there’s more than one case to be solved in this complex novel about very interesting women. One of Baldacci’s best.

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