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The Madness Of Crowds, Louise Penny (Minotaur, 436 pages)

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I’ve been waiting for the first novel on COVID-19 to arrive and here it is. From the redoubtable Louise Penny comes a tidy, elegant morality tale which places the intelligent and careful Armand Gamache at the helm of a dilemma. In an effort to not give too much away, I’ll say that this conundrum makes this murder mystery rise above the run of the mill and gives the reader both pause and cause for discussion.

The story opens in Three Pines, with COVID-19 cases decreasing and things starting to open up as vaccines do their work. But just like in reality, the past two years of self-isolation has changed life, and certain ideas that would not have been given much credence pre-COVID are now being debated by academics and intellectuals. One such person is Professor Abigail Robinson, who is scheduled for a public appearance and receives a death threat. Gamache is asked to provide security and although he finds her views abhorrent, he agrees to protect her in the name of free speech.

Then, there’s a murder and the plot line moves along on the customary route of suspect, clue and conclusion. However, the conflict facing Gamache and other residents of Three Pines stays. Robinson’s views may be repulsive to many, but I’ve heard those same ideas in different forms mentioned by Canadians in recent weeks. Penny has opened the door to the reality of post-COVID life and taken us right into the brave new world we now inhabit.

The Perfect Family, Robyn Harding (Simon & Schuster Canada, 352 pages)

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This excellent psychological suspense book is Vancouver author Robyn Harding’s fifth novel and her best so far. That’s saying a lot when one considers that The Party and The Swap were critical successes and all her books have been fan favourites.

Like other Harding books, we have a seemingly idyllic setup and a lot of buried secrets. This works particularly well in the story of the Adler family. They are the folks on the block who everyone else envies (their lawn is perfect; their house is charming; their kids are polite and attractive and play well with others). So why does this perfect family wake up one morning with eggs spattered all over their perfect veranda?

That’s just the beginning of Harding’s recounting of the Adlers’ descent. Told from various points of view as what at first appears to be childish pranks turn into nasty vandalism and then frightening threats, the beleaguered family insist they have no idea who is behind the events. The police, flummoxed, attribute it all to bored teenagers. As the terrorism escalates, the perfect family’s cracks begin to show and then to widen. Everyone has secrets – even the most perfect family on the block. This is an excellent cottage weekend book.

The Case Of The Murderous Dr. Cream, Dean Jobb (HarperCollins, 404 pages)

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The subtitle of this superb book is “The Hunt for a Victorian Serial Killer” – but true crime writer Dean Jobb, a member of the Creative Writing program at King’s College in Halifax, goes way beyond that promise. In the sorry saga of Neil Cream, born to a wealthy family in Quebec City, Jobb manages to incorporate the smells and sounds of Victorian London, build in a dense history of the public’s demand for true crime writing, and restore a bit of humanity to Cream’s female victims. I found this true crime book as good as, or better than, many other fictional accounts of similar manhunts.

The basic chase moves from Canada to the United States to London. Cream is incarcerated in Illinois for several years and, after his release, returns home to Quebec where his affluent family pays him off with twenty thousand dollars (a huge sum in those days) to emigrate to London and “start over.” Start over, Cream does, by seeking out and poisoning his victims – mostly “women of the streets” and always poor. He becomes known as “The Lambeth Poisoner,” and his notes taunt the police as they hunt for him, leading to national and, eventually, international notoriety – which only increases his vanity and extends his murderous spree.

Cream’s tale is full of “almost” events where poor police investigation, a lack of modern forensic tools, and the nonchalance of the British (and Canadian) class system means he keeps going for years. Jobb fills in all events with careful attention to detail, which give the saga depth and, with more than seventy pages of source notes, we understand just how intricately he’s reconstructed every bit of Cream’s history including the lives of his victims. I am not a fan of true crime, as a rule, but I found this book a real page-turner.

False Witness, Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins, 504 pages)

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I have a handful of authors who never disappoint me and Karin Slaughter is in the top five. With more than twenty books to her credit, her Sara Linton series continues to be engaging. Her stand-alones, of which this is one, are my personal favourites and here, once again, she manages to combine her talents for taking us to the American south, warts and all, and introducing characters with deep family ties and solid backstories.

Harleigh and Calliope are poor, victimized sisters, earning school money by babysitting Trevor Waleski – a rich, disturbed kid with noxious parents. Callie, 14, believes she is in love with Trevor’s father Buddy, and one night, while sipping liquor and waiting for him to come home, she finds a camera focused on the couch where Buddy always engages her. Furious, she confronts him when he arrives, and when he attacks her, she kills him and then calls Harleigh for help. Together the two girls cover up the death. That’s the prologue of the book.

Twenty three years later, Leigh (she dropped the Har) Collier is a highly successful defence attorney with a top firm. She’s not too happy about using legal tricks to get rich people out of jams, but it helps her maintain her lifestyle. She’s at a function at her daughter’s select private school when the firm summons her to defend a man accused of rape.

The man on trial is Trevor Waleski, now known as Andrew Tenant. His guilt or innocence is inconsequential to Leigh. She always plays to win, but Andrew has incentives for her as the events of his father’s death become public. Aided by a corrupt private detective and pushed by Andrew’s slimy fiancée, Leigh has no choice but to drag Callie back into her life. Callie has no wish to return, but a threat to one sister is a threat to both. How the pair work out the dynamics of past and present form the spine of the book. As always with Slaughter, I read this one in a weekend without putting it down for anything but food and sleep.

The Family Plot, Megan Collins (Atria, 509 pages)

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This is one of the smartest and wittiest books of the summer and definitely a contender for one of my best books of the year. Collins has combined a brilliantly original backstory with a classic murder mystery and it all works wonderfully.

The Lighthouse family are a coven of true crime fanatics. The parents, who’ve read everything and retained all of it, have kept their offspring at home, drenched in tales of everything from Hollywood’s Golden Age to Victorian Serials, as well as current events like Ted Bundy and the Unabomber.

The story of the Lighthouse family is told by daughter Dahlia (named for the Blue Dahlia) who has been gone from the family’s secluded mansion for several years. Dahlia is scarred not only by her childhood in the family’s crime-obsessed seclusion, but by the disappearance of her twin brother Andrew, who vanished ten years before. No one has heard from him and it’s presumed that he’s built a new life.

Dahlia returns to the family compound for her father’s funeral and it’s the perfect time for old family rifts to open but no-one is prepared for what happens when it comes time to inter him – there’s a body in the grave and it’s Andrew. Just who in the clan might have taken the family’s obsession to a whole new level and, even more intriguing, why? Save this one for a weekend when you won’t be interrupted.

The Wonder Test, Michelle Richmond (Atlantic Monthly, 448 pages)

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Fans of fast action won’t like this finely wrought mystery. There is a lot of character development and the pace is slow to build, but those who persevere will enjoy an excellent exploration of grief and an examination of America’s current penchant for basing personal and future happiness on the academic achievements of our children.

FBI agent Lina Connerly has left her home in New York for California’s Silicon Valley to clear out her deceased father’s house. Meanwhile, Lina and her teenaged son, Rory, are also grieving the death of her husband in a car accident. In addition to the deaths, she’s also had a career setback. “Annus Horribilis” is what Lina calls her past year and it’s appropriate.

Settled in their new temporary home, Lina and Rory discover that Silicon Valley has its own rules for education. At Rory’s new school, there are no grades, no templates. Everyone studies toward one test called The Wonder Test, and scores determine more than just what college you get into.

Lina is in town only a short time when her skills are requested. Kids have been disappearing and turning up on local beaches. Meanwhile, an old espionage case of Lina’s is also heating up. For a woman on leave, she’s remarkably busy.

The ends all get tied up and some of them are a bit predictable. But Lina is a smart and engaging woman and I liked the plot line with the test scores. Richmond plays with the options and it makes a fine story.

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