Unspeakable Acts, Sarah Weinman (HarperCollins, 216 pages)
“The fascination with murder and illegality is a perennial one, because the shock of the deed creates a schism between order and chaos. We wish for justice but even when we get it, the result rings somewhat hollow,” reads part of the introduction to Unspeakable Acts.
I used to avoid true crime books because I did, indeed, feel that justice was hollow. People were dead and con artists locked up, but I wanted more than just that minimal justice. Sarah Weinman, the author of several well-written and beautifully researched books including The Real Lolita, an examination of the young woman who inspired one of the century’s best-known novels, has convinced me that there is true crime writing so good that it should be on my bookshelf.
Unspeakable Acts is a carefully curated selection of some of the best true crime work happening now. There are 13 articles from a variety of magazines, including one by Weinman herself, and each one is a gem. She even manages to include writers with new twists on the Ted Bundy saga and the “Slenderman” murders, which have had endless reruns on television.
Best of the 13, for me, was “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge” by Canadian Karen K. Ho, which details how an ordinary young women elaborately constructed an alternative brilliantly successful academic career to please her parents and, once the charade collapsed, how she killed them. Ho’s account of Jennifer’s real life and her elaborate fantasy is mesmerizing reading. The Slenderman story takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the teenaged psyche; the reckoning digs into why some women fall for the charming grifter who steals their money and their hopes. I read this collection thrilled by the ideas emerging from this new type of true crime storytelling by exciting writers.
The Silent Wife, Karin Slaughter (Morrow, 495 pages)
Karin Slaughter’s books featuring Dr. Sara Linton comprise one of the most popular series in current crime reading. Fans, including this one, love it for the interesting detective work, but also for the evolution in Sara’s life. She was once married to a storied police officer and then widowed; now, she’s in a relationship with the damaged-but-durable Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Where will Sara go next? This question is as important in this story as the investigation of an old cold crime that may have resulted in the incarceration of an innocent man, which also casts a shadow over the career of Sara’s late hero husband.
Beckey Caterino is a bright young college student with a bad roommate problem. On a day when she’s spent the night cramming for a chemistry paper, she drifts home to find chaos, no food and drama from clashing couples. So Beckey heads out for a cleansing run and ends up in a bad place. When a voice calls her name, she turns, and her world is forever changed.
Beckey’s assault comes to GBI’s Will Trent, who has chaos and confusion of his own. He seems to be angering Dr. Sara Linton, and he can’t figure out what he’s doing wrong. Sara is fuming and not telling. Meanwhile, Will’s investigation of the Caterino assault leads to a man in prison. He says he’s innocent, and he was framed by the cops headed by Sara’s late husband. This is a path Will must tread gently, and every step leads him further into a thicket. Slaughter has twenty books to her credit now, and while I love her stand-alones, I find the Will and Sara relationship in this series irresistible.
Dark August, Katie Tallo (Harper, 438 pages)
This first novel from Ottawa scriptwriter Katie Tallo is a terrific debut. Despite some predictable set pieces, Tallo’s excellent characters and solid pacing keep the story moving as readers whip across a Southern Ontario ghost town.
August (Gus) Moran is a girl going nowhere. The bright life she imagined has turned to dross. Then a phone call comes; it’s about her grandmother who raised her after her mother, a police detective, was killed in a car accident. “Raised” is a bit of a twist, since Miss Santos, Grammie Rose’s nasty nurse, made sure that nine-year old Gus was packed off to a boarding school in St. Catherine’s, Ont. Now Gus’s grandmother is dead, and Gus is her heir of an estate that includes a house and a very old dog named Levi. Clearing out the attic, Gus finds her mother’s notes from a case she was following when she died. Gus is intrigued and, with nothing else on the horizon, decides to follow her mom’s old leads.
Night Call, Brenden Carlson (Dundurn, 327 pages)
This book came to me by happy accident so, for once, I have to thank the wretched plague that has us cut off from the world. I don’t usually read science fiction, although I do like it, and appreciate crossover writers like Robert Sawyer, who is a marvellous mystery author as well as one of the best science fiction writers on the planet. That said, we have a nifty little gem from chemist and student Brenden Carlson who plans a series that’s combined history, mystery and so much more into a dazzling little debut novel.
The setting is New York and it’s 1933. Energy is free and robots do the heavy lifting, but, even with that, the Great Depression still has most of the workforce on the dole and hunger is everywhere. This, of course, brings out the Bad Guys. That’s a job for Elias Roche, who used to be a policeman but who now works for a Mafia boss and who tries to maintain a bit of peace between the various vicious factions that control the city. The book begins with a battle on a garbage dump, and from then on, the action never stops.
Carlson wonderfully creates a world that is instantly recognizable but is still populated with a new landscape filled with people we recognize and understand. This writer is definitely one to watch.
Seven Lies, Elizabeth Kay (Viking Canada, 352 pages)
Jane and Marnie have been best friends forever; they’ve told each other every secret, shared every loss and made promises to stay friends forever. Now they’re grown up, and Marnie has met and married Charlie, her dream man. He’s rich and charming and full of life and, of course, she asks her best friend’s opinion of Mr. Right. Jane has a decision to make; she chooses to lie and tell Marnie she likes Charlie. That’s the first lie, and it opens the door to a host of others.
Seven Lies is a good old psychological thriller of the Patricia Highsmith school. It’s so solid that it’s hard to believe that it’s a debut and, while there are a couple of first-time bobbles in the plot, they’re hardly noticeable as we navigate the treacherous and mendacious ways of Jane’s brain and its effects on the life of her best friend.
The Cat Between, Louise Carson (Signature, 215 pages)
I came within a whisker of not reading this book. After decades of Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who...” mysteries, I was in no mood for another pair of Siamese puss sleuths. However, Louise Carson quickly set me at ease. While Gerry Coneybear is definitely a cat lady with 19 mewing beauties, she’s also a teacher of art at the local college and a woman of many parts. And she does her own detecting.
This is the second in a series set in the Maples, which seems to stand in for the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The charming setting owes a bit to lovers of Louise Penney’s Three Pines books, but there’s plenty of village life to go through more than one rural series and Carson, a resident of Sainte-Lazare, knows her way around local culture, which gives the Maples books a nice cozy feel. There’s a bit of romance for Gerry, too, with a handsome ski instructor to give a Canadian winter a boost. This is a quick little old-fashioned mystery that still thrills readers who miss Agatha Christie. And the cats are part of the story, but they don’t solve the crime – which suits my no-pets-as-private-eyes rule.
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