1979, Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly, 432 pages)
Any new novel from McDermid, one of Britain’s finest crime novelists, is cause for joy. The first book in a new series is even better because it promises stories to come. 1979 is the first work to feature Allie Burns, a Glasgow-based investigative journalist who works in an environment where casual misogyny is part of everyday life and outright harassment is expected. McDermid, a writer who can cast a character like few others, has created the perfect circumstances into which to introduce a woman of intelligence and ambition living in a world that works to push her into the kitchen.
The story begins with a year of strikes, power outages, blizzards and political unrest and Allie sees the possibility to escape the dreaded “women’s pages” larded with diets, recipes and fashion. She inveigles herself into the life and work of a wannabe investigative reporter named Danny Sullivan and the two start working on an international tax fraud story. The pair are hardly into the dig when they discover a link to a Scottish ultranationalist group. Danger beckons but a big story is a big story. This book has everything one expects from McDermid but it offers a bit more; some history, some politics and a peek at what came before. Get to this one before Christmas – you don’t want to break off reading to deal with holiday madness.
Vile Spirits, John MacLachlan Gray (Douglas & McIntyre, 320 pages)
Who says Canadian history is dull? Certainly not fans of author/playwright John MacLachlan Gray, whose first mystery, The White Angel, set in 1920s Vancouver, introduced readers to Constable Calvin Hook, reporter/poet Ed McCurdy and an eavesdropping telephone operator named Mildred Wickstram. Now they return in a delightful sequel that focuses on the international trade in booze. In short, we have a perfect collection of people and plot to get a terrific novel moving.
Liquor, and the sins that it is supposed to supply, is once again legal in Vancouver. Prohibition, American style, has failed but its proponents are not defeated. Plenty of temperance advocates are voters and they must be appeased. Enter B.C. attorney-general Gordon Cunning, whose ambitions extend further than the Rockies. He establishes the Liquor Control Board, which oversees supply. That means, all supply from Champagne for elegant weddings to cheap beer in local saloons: the scourge of drunkenness shall be slain. But then Cunning turns up dead, a martini glass in hand. Shortly after, Mrs. Harlan Crombie, socialite and wife of a powerful politician, drops dead after a drink following her book club gathering. Is it an accident? The papers report that hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans are dying from drinking home-brews that turn out to be poisonous. Could this be happening in Canada?
I finished this terrific mystery and then celebrated with a gin martini. Dry. No olive.
Hell And Gone, Sam Wiebe (Harbour, 316 pages, $24.95)
This is Wiebe’s third novel featuring the team of private eyes Dave Wakeland and Jeff Chen and it’s the best of the three, which means there are more to come. Wiebe also edited Vancouver Noir, a collection of short stories in the acclaimed series. He knows his town from Pai Gow parlours to motorcycle haunts and this story begins with a massacre in a Chinatown office building. Who and why are the opening questions. Wakeland and Chen are on the tab of a motorcycle gang to find out what happened. Why the gang wants to know is part of the mystery and I won’t divulge, but it’s good.
Chen and Wakeland are also assisting in the police investigation of the crime, but soon, things go south. The shooters are ending up dead. Someone, somewhere, is cleaning up the crime but why? And who? Soon Wakeland and Chen find themselves in the crosshairs of a case they can’t fathom.
The Doll, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated by Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton, 450 pages)
Iceland, one of the world’s most peaceful countries, is fast becoming a mecca for fictional gore and Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of the hottest authors around, writing two series for adults, a batch of books for children, plus a stand-alone book drenched in blood and myth. The Doll, the fifth in the excellent Freyja and Huldar series, never lets up right from its first sentence.
The story begins with a fishing trip and a doll. Mother and daughter are having a lovely day together, peacefully trolling. The only thing they catch is an old doll, obviously in the water for ages and deformed and mutilated. The mother thinks of tossing the awful thing but the child begs to keep it. A little thought of kindness to an old and lost toy. The mother posts the story on social media. Two days later, she’s dead and the doll is gone and there are no clues. The case eventually goes cold.
Several years later, Detective Huldar is enduring a boat trip, one of his least favourite things. He’s part of a search for human remains and finds far more than he expects. He enlists psychologist Freyja to unravel just what he’s seeing but then another death takes him in a very different direction and Freyja ‘s expertise becomes more important than ever.
Rabbit Hole, Mark Billingham (Little, Brown, 389 pages)
Mark Billingham’s latest psychological thriller begins and ends inside the head of Alice Armitage, who was/wasn’t a police officer. Whatever Alice may have been, she’s currently a resident in a long-term psychiatric facility after a serious psychotic break brought on by heavy indulgence in drinking, drugs and plenty of self-destructive behaviour. Alice believes it was brought on by PTSD but, after all, she is her own worst enemy and the least reliable narrator.
That twist allows Billingham to work on one of his finest novels to date. A patient on the ward dies and Alice feels her investigative juices kicking in; however, the police have no interest in her. They’re dealing with a classic locked-room mystery and all the patients on the ward are possible suspects, as well as the staff. But Alice perseveres, forming her own investigation. Then her prime suspect is killed and Alice finds herself once again falling down the rabbit hole of her own mind.
When You Are Mine, Michael Robotham (Sphere, 404 pages)
Robotham is quickly becoming the go-to author for the psychological thriller and this book, his 16th, is a superb example.
Philomena McCarthy is the daughter of a London drug lord and also a member of the Metropolitan Police force. Tempe Brown is the significant other of a member of the police elite. When Phil is called in for a domestic dispute, she finds Tempe in need of protection from a fellow copper. In no time, Phil finds she’s got a great friend and, as a result, has made a serious enemy.
That’s the situation when the two women move in together and then bad things start to happen. Just how far Phil’s commitment to a friendship that may be toxic will go is what Robotham asks as he twists the knife with skill and precision.
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