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The Heron’s Cry, Ann Cleeves (Publisher’s Group Canada, 400 pages)
If there is a writer who does atmospherics better than Ann Cleeves, I don’t know who it is. Her chilly take on the Shetland Islands has become an essential read for tourists to Scotland (including this one) and the Vera Stanhope series made the north of England as familiar to me as Yonge Street. This book, number two in the Two Rivers series, features Matthew Venn and is set in Devon, one of the most beautiful spots in Britain. By opening The Heron’s Cry in a heat wave, Cleeves immediately sets the tone. Tourists are flocking to the beaches and roads are packed – in the melting heat, a man is murdered with a shard of glass from a vase blown by his daughter.
If that little bite doesn’t tempt you to read on, then you’re no mystery fan: Cleeves’ pace is slow but her twists are doubled and tripled and her grasp of character is impeccable. Venn, the homicide detective, quickly discovers that his husband has a connection to the dead man and the artists’ collective that provides the suspects. The mix of personal and professional is enhanced when another body is found, with a similar fatal wound.
As the heat wave surges and the tourists flock, Venn must hide his personal concerns and search for a killer. Strange to say, but Cleeves says she was concerned about writing this book because “second novels are notoriously tricky.” True, many writers flop the second time out, but Cleeves, one of Scotland’s finest, isn’t one of them. The Heron’s Cry is, if anything, even better than Venn’s first outing in The Long Call (soon to be on television, along with Jimmy Perez and Vera).
The Basel Killings, Hansjorg Schneider, translated by Mike Mitchell (Publishers Group Canada, 268 pages)
One of the biggest thrills for any reviewer is the discovery of a new author. This book is the fifth novel in the series, but the first to appear in English, and I was immediately hoping for more to come. We may not think of murder and Switzerland together, but Schneider’s take on his home country is a long way from the idealized land of William Tell and the cuckoo clock.
We open with a now-classic trope; the inebriated, aging, ailing, lone detective. This time it’s Inspector Peter Hunkeler of Basel. Staggering out of a bar, in search of a place to pee, Hunkeler spots a man he knows. As he lists his complaints and miseries, he notices that his listener, Hardy, isn’t replying. That’s because Hardy is dead, strangled, and his earlobe sliced off and his diamond earring missing. The police immediately decide this is an Albanian drug feud, but Hunkeler isn’t convinced.
The Albanian angle allows Schneider to open up an entirely new vision of Switzerland. A place with many émigré cultures tucked into a tidy façade. And those émigrés are not all welcomed by their neighbours, including the ones in nearby Germany and France. The novel was written in 2004 when the breakup of Yugoslavia was fresh, so that political edge is enhanced. The cultural mixes, historic ties and political twists provide a marvellous mélange for Schneider’s left-liberal views, which give the novel a solid spine with plenty of twists. What’s missing is how Hunkeler got to this place in his life and why. That’s obviously in the four novels not yet translated. Let’s hope those treats are coming soon.
Another Kind of Eden, James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, 243 pages)
In a world of overstuffed, overwritten “blockbuster” books, it’s a pleasure to pick up 243 perfect pages with not a word or comma out of place. James Lee Burke doesn’t need filler to flesh out his stories.
Burke is best-known for his Louisiana mysteries with his detective Dave Robicheaux. But his Western series are just as stunning and, for fans, Hackberry Holland is as familiar as Dave and his various progeny have appeared in other works. Here, Aaron Holland Broussard is the lead, an aspiring writer in the early 1960s West. The West is a golden land of fertile fields and gorgeous sunsets. Aaron, however, is no Marlboro Man. He has trauma from his service in Korea and that takes the form of alcoholic blackouts and blind rages.
When he falls for a local waitress, he quickly learns that she’s already involved with one of her college professors. The sheriff asks him to snoop around because women are turning up murdered and, because they are prostitutes, the locals aren’t too concerned.
To pack all of this plot into such a short book is a task only James Lee Burke could do, and while there are some unresolved issues at the end (another book, please), the big stuff gets taken care of. Another masterwork from one of the finest novelists in North America.
Denial, Beverley McLachlin (Simon & Schuster, 375 pages)
Second novels often fail to please. Denial is, in many ways, better than its predecessor, Full Disclosure. The legal plotline, hinging on a possible mercy killing, is highly topical and the legal intrigue is terrific. Lawyer Jilly Truitt is summoned by a true legal titan, Joseph Quentin, to defend his wife, Vera. Mrs. Quentin is accused of murdering her mother, who was dying of cancer and suffering from dementia. Legal counsel have advised a plea deal. Vera Quentin isn’t having it. She says she didn’t do it, despite all the evidence and the fact that she was the only other person in her mother’s room at the time of death. But Vera is insistent. She wants a jury trial and she is convinced that she’ll be proved innocent.
That premise is enough for any novelist to keep writing, and McLachlin’s vast legal knowledge is on display. She knows all the tricks counsels use to convince clients to take an easy out. McLachlin’s strength is in playing against that type and convincing Jilly (and, incidentally, the reader) that Vera Quentin just may not have done it and, if she didn’t, who did?
If McLachlin had only a legal thriller going, Denial would be terrific. Alas, she also has to build some psychological backing for Jilly, a very thin creation, at best. A subplot to fill in some background is dull and hampers the pace of the real story. Even slowed down, Denial’s story is a good one but Jilly Truitt isn’t Beverley McLachlin either on paper or in real life. A plot this good deserves a better protagonist.
Death On Darby’s Island, Alice Walsh (Vagrant, 232 pages)
There’s a lot to be said for charm and Newfoundland has plenty of it. Alice Walsh takes full advantage of the local colour in this pleasant novella set on a fictional island basking in a golden summer. It’s 1975 and folks are looking forward to a performance at the community hall. The Great Prospero, hypnotist and magician, has driven off the ferry and ended up on the island. Let the show begin.
Prospero does perform but there are some hiccups. When he suggests that the audience are seagulls, no one heads for a crust of bread. But local lad Jake Pickford takes off, arms flapping, and disappears. Then the local Archbishop is found stabbed on the beach. The logical suspect is Jake but he can’t remember what he did, flapping or otherwise. Enter RCMP officer Blanche Ste. Croix, a local girl gone away. There are plenty of reasons why Blanche left and why she’d rather stay away, but a storm stalls a team from arriving from the mainland and that puts Blanche in charge and in the hot seat.
Walsh’s background is in works for children and young adults and this is her second mystery for adults. Her knowledge of the area, the people and the history makes this a slick, short and highly readable book.
Never Saw Me Coming, Vera Kurian (HarperCollins, 392 pages)
This debut is by Vera Kurian, a psychologist with a resumé almost as long as this novel. That gives her more than enough cred to write a novel about a group of psychopathic college students who are part of a study. They have each been given a full-tuition scholarship to a tony Washington college in exchange for their participation in the study. They wear smart watches that clock their every movement and are expected to keep detailed records of their emotions. Science is watching. One student, Chloe Sevre, has her own reasons for participation. She’s planning to murder another student in 60 days.
The psychopath novel has pretty much been done to death (so to speak), but the idea of a pack loose on a college campus, armed with scientific inquiry and the usual late adolescent cares, is new and Kurian knows her characters. When someone starts killing off the psychopaths, things get even better. But somewhere, Kurian gets bogged down and overwrites. Chloe, in particular, gets lost in the maze of subplots. This is a decent book, which, if carefully cut and edited and rewritten just one more time, could have been great.