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Bitter Paradise by Ross Pennie (ECW Press, 352 pages)

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No doubt Ross Pennie intended this novel to be about the obstacles facing refugees in terms of getting professional accreditation and finding jobs, and just managing in a new and unfamiliar country. But in this third month of the pandemic, his latest medical mystery ends up being even more timely. The book opens with a vicious murder at a barbershop in Hamilton, where Dr. Zol Szabo’s teenaged son is getting a haircut. While it’s obvious to regulars that one of the killers is an ex-employee, the manager insists the attack was the work of outsiders. What evil has immigrated to Southern Ontario?

A brutal murder would seem to be more than enough for a thriller, but Szabo – who, like the author himself, is an infectious disease specialist – also has a potential epidemic on his hands. A strange, polio-like illness has broken out at a local elementary school. Three children are seriously ill and a teacher has died. Symptoms are spreading. Szabo and his fiancée, Natasha Sharma, have to find the source of the virus and avert a public health disaster.

The search for the killer, coupled with the serious issue of life in Canada for professional refugees, make for a good read, but what really drives this story is the hunt for the virus. Pennie’s expertise is on display here as Szabo and Sharma look for the tiniest clue to keep Hamilton, and Canada, safe. Pennie’s prose is plodding, but ignore that – his story is as crisp as today’s headlines.

Postmark Berlin by Anne Emery (ECW Press, 368 pages)

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Postmark Berlin is the 11th novel in Anne Emery’s excellent Halifax-based series featuring Father Brennan Burke and criminal lawyer Monte Collins. Over the course of the series, set in the mid-1990s, we’ve built relationships with these two very different but equally compelling characters. In Emery’s last outing, Though The Heavens Fall, she pulled Monte and Brennan out of their traditional haunts and tossed them into “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The adventure ended with Brennan in prison, tortured and sentenced to six years. A superior court freed him, but the damage was done. He blames Monte for his imprisonment and he’s using alcohol to dull the memories – which can only lead to trouble. When a professor asks for his help, he blows off the meeting and gets drunk instead. Now she’s dead of an apparent suicide.

Estranged from Monte and wracked by guilt, the priest is desperate to uncover what Prof. Meika Keller wanted to discuss with him, her confessor. When her death turns out to be murder, he’s convinced the clues lie in East Germany, where Keller was born and from which she escaped in 1974. Brennan heads to Berlin for clues.

Deep into this series, Emery is clearly trying to open up the plot lines for her two main characters, but spy stories aren’t her natural metier, and the old Checkpoint-Charlie Berlin is long gone. A novel set nearly 30 years ago can’t help but be a bit hoary, but readers – including me – love Monte and Brennan, and it’s their story of reconnection after a traumatic separation that makes for compelling reading. There’s just one problem: this book contains many references to previous events, so new readers might want to start with earlier instalments and work up to this one.

A Stab at Life by Richard King (Baraka Books, 250 pages)

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In the reviewing world, there’s a school of thought that no first-time mystery novel should be reviewed. While some first novels herald the arrival of new brilliance, most are muddled and it’s often the third or even fourth book in a series that establishes a fan base. Richard King, former co-owner of Montreal’s storied Paragraphe bookstore, is the author of four books, but this one is obviously intended as the first of several. The problem is, King can’t decide if it’s a tale about Montreal’s gritty underside or a Canadian cozy with a light romance. As a result, A Stab at Life is a bit of a mess.

The part that works is the setting: a major Montreal hospital, based on Montreal’s Jewish General, where King has been a volunteer for many years. Here, skilled emergency nurse Annie Linton is on duty when rookie cop Gilles Bellechasse arrives with a gunshot wound after being hit accidentally by a member of a teenage pot-dealing ring.

As sparks fly between Annie and Gilles, death stalks the gang of kids. Then comes an assault on a doctor at Annie’s hospital. There are obvious connections and the two team up (in more ways than one) to follow the clues, which take them to dangerous places.

King’s problem is the police work. He knows a lot about hospitals but a lot less about cop shops. Still, the book shows promise, and he’s obviously planning a second adventure for Gilles and Annie. First, he might want to check out Karen Slaughter’s combination of doctor and cop for ideas on how to combine complex characters, romance and police work.

Killings at Little Rose by Finley Martin (Acorn Press, 300 pages)

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What if Anne Shirley stepped into a time machine and found herself in a Green Gables village 100 years hence? We can bet she wouldn’t be a school teacher. How about a private investigator working undercover at a fish processing plant with problems?

Well, we don’t have the time machine, but we do have Anne Brown, local sleuth in Little Rose Harbour, a village that would fit right into Lucy Maud Montgomery’s old-time tale. Someone is committing acts of vandalism at the local plant. As Anne searches for the culprits, she’s confronted with lies, secrets and gossip that could lead to a motive for murder.

This is a quick book with delightful characters and a good puzzle at its heart. And yes, there is a Gilbert waiting for Anne (though they may or may not live happily ever after). This is obviously the start of a series, and Anne is engaging enough and the setting charming enough to last for a number of books.

No Going Back by Sheena Kamal (Morrow, 360 pages)

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I wanted to like this book. Sheena Kamal is a gifted author, and Nora Watts is a solid character who can carry a series. The trouble is, it’s time to kiss the Triads goodbye. Maybe I’d feel differently if these were ordinary times, but holed up in my house during a pandemic, I got very tired, very fast, of Nora’s vendetta against the villainous Dao and his henchman.

In two previous books, Nora has used her world-class smarts and fighting skills to face down the Triads and, most recently, save her abducted daughter from the evil Ahang family. Then Nora nearly dies in Detroit and Dao is back to following her daughter, and along comes Bernard Lam, a billionaire with plenty of time to chase bad guys … and if you’re still reading at this point, you did better than I did.

Kamal knows new crime writing demands character development, but this backstory is done. And newly uncovered “families” can be a cement weight (as both Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton discovered). It’s time for Kamal to dump Dao and the Triads, and possibly devote herself to walloping bad guys in Vancouver, Toronto or even Calgary.

Running From The Dead by Mike Knowles (ECW Press, 360 pages)

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As we discovered in his most recent crime novel, Tin Men, Mike Knowles does noir really, really well. Running From the Dead is even better. It’s a smart, serious, carefully crafted gem that belongs in the rarified company of writers such as Dennis Lehane and John Sandford.

The opening is irresistible: private detective Sam Jones is at a coffee shop when he spots some blood on his cuff. We don’t know where it came from, but he goes to the washroom to wash it off. Then he notices a message written carefully on the wall in eyebrow pencil, not ink. It’s a cry for help from a young girl.

The backstory here is that Jones spent six years searching for a missing child and finally found him – dead – along with the man who abducted him. If he can save this abducted girl, he’ll at least even the guilt score. But where to begin? Knowles takes us on a wild journey through the back alleys and mean streets of modern Toronto and then to small-town Ontario, where evil can penetrate even the prettiest of places.

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