January. Seasonably the worst month of the year. After all the holiday hullabaloo, we make those traditional New Year’s resolutions; diet, exercise, spend less, save more. Best to just forget it all and dive into a good book. Luckily, those Christmas gift cards are waiting to be cashed. Here are a few reasons to spend them.
First on any list should be Careless Love, by Peter Robinson (McClelland & Stewart, 340 pages, $29.95). Robinson is one of Canada’s most reliable crime writers, consistently producing books with solid plots and enduring characters. For 30 years, he’s managed to keep his Inspector Banks series fresh by adding new characters such as Annie Cabot, originally a possible love interest but now a woman with a life and career of her own, and a fine cast of reappearing supporting police. There are also Robinson’s plot lines, sometimes echoing real crimes and always ingenious.
Careless Love is no exception. There are two bodies in North Yorkshire. One is a young woman, apparently a suicide, but there are things that twig at Chief Superintendent (many promotions through the years) Alan Banks’s clever mind. Shortly, DCI Annie Cabot is called to a dead man on the moor. Well dressed, alone, obviously not a hiker, he died in a fall. What was he doing in this lonely place and how did he get there? There’s another plot line involving Banks’s family that helps maintain the suspense but the book doesn’t need it. Annie and Alan can hold the investigation on their own.
The Burglar, by Thomas Perry (Mysterious Press, 304 pages, $38.95) is a tiny gift for fans of the Jane Whitefield series. Perry does smart, resourceful women like no one else in crime writing and Elle Stowell, heroine of this novel, is totally up to the standards set by the late Jane, one of crime fiction’s most intelligent and clever female characters.
The plot hinges on Elle’s profession. She’s a burglar. She cases out and robs high-end homes of portable valuables, primarily cash and jewellery. She’s on the job when she stumbles into a grisly triple-murder scene. How Elle becomes involved with the killer and how she continually outwits him is what this book is all about. Fans of Perry know how he loves the details of daily life for eccentric people. Elle’s lifestyle and skills are deftly woven into a tight plot that keeps you reading.
Firefly, by Henry Porter (Mysterious Press, 480 pages, $40.50) is one of the best thrillers of last year. Porter, U.K. editor for Vanity Fair, spent decades as a foreign correspondent in the Near East and he has covered the migrant trail across the Mediterranean, so we have a plot that’s as current as the daily news, with more than enough authenticity to balance a very complex geopolitical plot.
Paul Samson is an Anglo-Syrian who came to London as a child refugee from another war. He’s also an ex-MI6 agent, now working for a private security firm specializing in hostage retrieval. He’s also rich, thanks to a talent for very high-end gambling. He’s failing to rescue a woman held by the Islamic State when MI6 comes calling. A 13-year-old boy from Syria is somewhere on the migrant trail across Europe. Where, they don’t know. They don’t even know his name. What they do know is that he holds vital information about an impending terrorist attack somewhere in Western Europe. They want Samson to find him, befriend him and get him to safety where they can head off the attack.
How Samson carries out his task is all of this book. The high-tech surveillance and communications of several European countries are available, including instant GPS on his cellphone, endless loops of surveillance tape from isolated convenience-store cameras, advanced face-recognition software and drone photos. How all these techological aids are used to identify and follow a child on the run is what makes Porter’s work so realistic. But what clicks with the reader is that the boy is using very low-tech methods to fend off everything from murderers to pedophiles on deserted roads and in huge, squalid camps. Help comes to him in bits from very good people who gradually move him toward his goal in Germany. The pace is slow for a thriller, but that gives the author time to provide depth to his beautifully constructed characters, who are full of heartbreaking hope.
The Nowhere Child, by Christian White (Minotaur, 366 pages, $34.99) is a very auspicious debut. Despite a few first-novel bobbles (extraneous plot lines), this is a very tightly written book with a dynamite plot.
Kimberly Leamy is a happy art teacher in Melbourne, Australia, when a stranger approaches her on the street and informs her that she isn’t Kimberly. He believes her to be Sammy West, abducted from her Kentucky home at the age of 2. Her entire life is false and another awaits her. Kim doesn’t believe it, of course, but questions to her family don’t give her satisfactory answers, and so she goes to Kentucky to see the people who may or may not be her biological parents. Nothing, of course, is what it seems and the search/chase is on, leading to a twist ending. Don’t read the last page first.
The most frightening time for parents is when our children strike out on their own. With only a phone and social media to ease minds, we think of kids backpacking across the Alps or getting drunk in a New Zealand bar. Anything, we think, can happen. That’s the background for The Suspect, by Fiona Barton (Penguin Canada, 416 pages, $24.95 paper).
Female journalists as detectives can be tricky (the cliché of legs to here and cleavage to there springs to mind), but Barton’s Kate Waters is the real deal. Her reporting skills and intrepid style come in handy in far-flung places. When two 18-year-old British girls go missing in Thailand, she sees a real story. The parents are frantic, the British police unable to help, the Thai police convinced the girls are fine, just trekking somewhere. The case falls to the media and Kate heads out. The answer, when it comes, is closer to home than anyone knows. This is a great binge-read.
Bear No Malice, by Clarissa Harwood (Pegasus, 368 pages, $25.95) isn’t bad but it could be a lot better. Harwood, an English PhD and university instructor, lives in London, Ont., and her special field is 19th-century literature. Surprisingly, the real mystery in this book is the lack of description. Victorian England might as well be Nebraska. It’s that ability to evoke place that gives Anne Perry or Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) their power in this field. And Harwood should learn from them.
That said, there is talent here. The plot, with some complex characters including a sexy clergyman and a pair of isolated artists, moves between rural England and London and there’s plenty of action. One more solid edit and rewrite and this book could be a winner. Let’s hope Clarissa Harwood keeps writing.