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Fortune, Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi, 352 pages)
This is the third book in the Uncle Chow Tung series. Hamilton is also the mastermind of the Ava Lee novels – one of the best characters in Canadian crime. It’s now 1995, and in two years, Hong Kong will become part of the People’s Republic of China, but Uncle isn’t merely interested in money or business. He and his family in the Triad gang in Fanling want power and know that power, in the People’s Republic, belongs to the Party – not the people and certainly not the Triads.
That backdrop is important here because Hamilton, whose books are cemented in an excellent knowledge of economics and history, is taking us on a clever road to the building of an international syndicate, a “family” of carefully chosen and appointed individuals who will reappear in the Ava Lee books, which take place 20 years later. Keeping everyone straight and maintaining the characters’ psychology is essential, and Hamilton does it all. We travel Uncle’s road and see how his genius unfolds, and while the pace is slow at first, action soon makes its appearance.
Fans of the series know that Uncle thrives, but the mechanics of how he does it is what keeps this series of prequels going. At the end, we learn that there’s one more “Uncle” to come, one that will take him up to his relationship with Ava Lee. If you haven’t already read Fate and Foresight, the first two Uncle novels, read them before this one. You’ll want the entire story from the beginning.
People Like Her, Ellery Lloyd (HarperCollins, 288 pages)
I read this little gem the week a mob stormed the Capitol in Washington, and while I was laughing out loud at Lloyd’s clever prose, I found the underlying story scarily accurate. Can you live out your fantasies online without consequences, and when you’re influencing a million people about what they should consume, can you be “normal” in the offline world?
The setting is England, pre-COVID-19. Emmy Jackson, former fashion editor, is “Mamabare,” an influencer whose life is an open book. Life with three-year-old Coco and five-week old Bear is constantly filtered and sent to millions of watching eyes. But the life she shows online isn’t completely bare and open. Emmy’s husband Dan, aka “Papabare,” is a failed novelist, and he knows that Emmy’s online world is as phony as the pitches she drops for her sponsors, which include a toilet paper company. What drives it all? Money.
But a life in the very public eye has its downside, and Dan and Emmy are about to learn just how down it can get after Coco disappears in a department store. She’s found, but then photos start turning up. And it’s soon clear that someone, somewhere, has it in for Mamabare, but where do you begin to look when the entire world has been watching, learning and believing your every word? Suddenly, Emmy has to revisit words, actions and events and think of their consequences. This is a trenchant. funny book with a really solid message at the core.
Pretty Little Wife, Darby Kane (HarperCollins, 403 pages)
This excellent debut novel (Kane is the pseudonym for a former trial lawyer and current romance novelist) is the perfect weekend escape from a grey, chill winter. It has engaging, if a bit stiff, characters, an idyllic setting and, best of all, a really compelling plot.
Lila Ridgefield has a charmed life, or so it seems. She’s married to a popular high school teacher whose students rave about his intellect and sensitivity. But there is a darker side, one that Lila knows all too well. A side that drives Lila to kill him and carefully arrange his body near the high school in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches. Her plan is to claim suicide, and she’s set the scene well. But as any reader knows, the best-laid plans can go awry, and this plan really does explode.
The plot of this novel is far too good to give out a teaser, but suffice it to say that Lila’s dead husband disappears. Is he still alive, and if not, who moved him and why? It’s all hidden in the confines of the pretty, solid little college town where Lila thought she’d found a forever home.
The detective charged with sorting out the tale of the missing teacher is Ginny Davis, an excellent cop who deserves to continue her fictional career. She’s smart and sympathetic but no pushover when it comes to evidence.
There are some flaws in this first mystery as Kane jumps from past to present in a narrative that gets choppy and is occasionally difficult to follow, and there are also a couple of long information dumps. Still, those are minor cavils in a book that introduces a terrific new detective and has a heroine who murders her own husband. Darby Kane is a name to remember.
The Butterfly House, Katrine Engberg, translated by Tara Chase (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages)
Many authors write smashing first novels and then completely crash on the second. This is one reason reviewers prefer to wait until book three before telling readers to buy in, but I love tipping people off to new and exciting writers, and when it pays off, it’s pure pleasure. That’s the case with Katrine Engberg, who arrived in 2019 with the brilliant novel The Tenant. Now, with The Butterfly House, she picks up a couple of years after The Tenant, and the new case resting on the quivering shoulders of Copenhagen homicide detective Jeppe Korner is gripping. A woman is dead, posed carefully in a fountain in the centre of the city, and the only clue is that she was deposited there by a man on a bicycle.
Korner is on his own this time. His partner, Anette Werner, is at home on maternity leave, finding that care for her newborn daughter is draining and difficult. But she still wants to work and manoeuvres Jeppe to keep her at the edge of the investigation.
Things begin to spiral when a second body also appears in a fountain. The killer is moving fast, and a careful search finds only one possible connection – a long-closed hospital for mentally ill children known as the Butterfly House.
Engberg’s strength is her careful revealing of the clues and backdrop to the crimes. It’s worth pointing out that a couple of characters from The Tenant return to fill out their story, and Werner’s maternity problem, while carefully drawn, doesn’t intrude into a plot that has Jeppe Korner developing as a detective. Werner and Korner are obviously scheduled to return, and, reader, I for one can’t wait.
The Shadow, Melanie Raabe, translated by Imogene Taylor (House of Anansi, 336 pages)
Fans of Ruth Ware should love this creepy psychological suspense novel from one of Germany’s hottest new crime authors. It drips with atmosphere and has a meandering plot that allows for plenty of reflection on the past.
The setting is Vienna, and Raabe turns up the heat with elements from The Third Man. Norah Richter is alone in a new city after her life in Berlin ended in an event always referred to as The Disaster. Just what that was is at first hidden, but it ended her very public journalism career and took her away from her circle of friends in Berlin to Vienna, where she knows only one person. However, she now has a job at a prestigious journal where she’s rebuilding what she’s lost.
Being alone in Vienna lets Raabe/Norah wander the streets and cafés of a city that seems to have been born for mystery novels. Norah’s loneliness is magnified in her apartment, which she hasn’t unpacked. Her connections, few as they are, depend on texts and e-mails or phone calls. When a homeless woman predicts she’ll kill a specific man on a specific date, she ignores it, but then the potential victim turns out to be real and has a distant connection to her past.
As the events unfold, it’s clear that we are in gaslight world, where someone is setting Norah up. Raabe is clever with this novel. We see the framework of the plot against Norah but never quite know who’s pulling the strings. You may figure out who the central villain is, but I was still engaged by how Norah ultimately unravels and takes revenge. Raabe is definitely on my watch list for future books.
The Art Of Violence, S. J. Rozan (Pegasus books, 352 pages)
The rarified world of high art is ideal for a murder mystery – after all, big money and gigantic egos can lead to strange and frightening confrontations. But what if someone thinks they’ve committed murder – two murders, in fact – but they can’t remember. That’s the case that confronts detectives Bill Smith and Lydia Chin in this terrific new mystery from S. J. Rozan.
Sam Tabor is an old client who’s just spent five years in prison. He’s a brilliant painter, and he’s on parole largely through the efforts of dealers and patrons of his works. No one questions the violence at the heart of Sam’s art, but that’s the nature of the work, not the artist. At least that’s what his supporters believe. But since Sam’s been out, two people are dead, and he thinks he did it.
Sam is, of course, suffering from several different mental illnesses, which he treats with vast amounts of alcohol. He’s not reliable on anything but art, and there, his focus is absolute. Bill is convinced that Sam’s horrors exist solely on canvas, and he wants Lydia to find out what happened and why Sam seems to be the target of some sort of plot.
The search for the killer is good, but what I really liked in this book is the slick portrayal of the New York art scene in all its nasty glory. At a time when we’ve been locked inside for months, a chance to put on your good clothes and sashay around a gallery with a glass of mediocre white wine and a bite of something is just irresistible. Even if it’s in the imagination. I loved every page of this book.
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