Bonavere Howl by Caitlin Galway (Guernica Editions, 294 pages, $25)
Who knew there was a Southern Gothic mystery novelist hiding up here in Toronto? Caitlin Galway’s novel is splashed with bayou water and laden with New Orleans scenes, all of them working well with a finely honed plot about a missing girl and the secrets she carries. It’s 1955 and Bonavere Fayette is the youngest of three sisters growing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans. While her parents entertain to the strains of jazz and the sip of cocktails, Bonnie and her sisters are sequestered in their bedrooms.
At the end of the afternoon, Connie, the middle sister, dresses up and sneaks out. Fritzi, the eldest, helps. They expect Connie to be back soon, but she doesn’t show. Then she’s missing. Their parents think she’s run off, not for the first time. Bonnie can’t shake the feeling that something is seriously wrong and sets out to find her. The journey takes her from her safe little world in the Quarter to places she never dreamed her sister knew. But Connie’s secrets are like Russian dolls, and each clue seems to unravel just another mystery. And the crime that may or may not have happened. There’s always a historical root to the genre and Galway plays fair and keeps it, but it’s the characters and setting that keep one reading here. Galway is a dab hand at southern dialogue, too. This is a writer to watch.
Shadow Puppet by Jeffrey Round (Dundurn, 308 pages, $16.99)
The story of Toronto’s Gay Village serial killer was far too macabre and mind-boggling not to be turned into fiction, and Jeffrey Round has done it justice. It’s the sixth of his series featuring P.I. Dan Sharp and the best of the bunch so far. He’s changed bits and names, and certainly the plot line has a new twist but, this is as good a whodunit as we’ll see this year.
Series followers know that Dan is gay and lives in the Village. When a man dies, Dan is naturally drawn to the investigation, but that turns out to be cursory. Dan begins his own search and turns up other dead men. All of them alone, all of them Muslim. There has to be a connection, but Dan can’t convince the police that a serial killer is on the loose. He believes that the connection may be in the Village’s sex clubs, and he gets volunteers to question and check. But the someone else disappears and suddenly people are very concerned – and Dan’s private investigation turns public.
Round fleshes out the mystery with Dan’s community of friends and family; his son Ked, his son’s mother, various neighbours. Along with the investigative details which are well done, there are touches of everyday life that give depth to the characters, particularly, Dan, as he meets up with a vicious and manipulative murderer.
Only Pretty Damned by Niall Howell (NeWest, 255 pages, $19.95)
One of the treasured books of my childhood was Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks With The Circus. It chronicled the awful life of an orphan boy who ran away with a circus and discovered how vile and dreadful it was. If ever I was tempted, well Toby taught me to run in another direction. That’s pretty much the plot line of Only Pretty Damned, a dark and deceitful noir novel by Calgary’s Niall Howell. In this telling, Toby is all grown up and a failed trapeze artist. He’s now a clown and the circus corruption hasn’t changed much. It’s just gotten darker and dirtier.
The action takes place in and behind the Big Top as Toby attempts to re-establish himself as a top act. His current girlfriend is a dancer searching for a spotlight. His ex and his former aerial partner, Genevieve, may or may not be essential to Toby’s return to glory. Meanwhile, there are areas of Toby’s past that hamper his future. Along with the story, Howell pops in terrific insider stuff from circuses – how to do professional clown makeup and what people do after the show – lots of insider bits that may or may not be authentic but certainly seem so. That said, this is a gritty novel that takes noir seriously. One urinal scene in a bar ends up with teeth in the toilet. The grit is part of the style and Howell doesn’t lard it on but it’s there and it’s not for the squeamish.
The Birds That Stay by Ann Lambert (Second Story Press, 296 pages, $19.95)
Dawson College literature teacher Ann Lambert is best known as a playwright. This is her first try at mystery fiction and, while it has some first-novel bobbles, it’s got a lot of good writing, particularly in the setting and the central characters, policeman Romeo Leduc and Marie Russell, a divorced naturalist. The first half of the book is slow as Lambert introduces the plot and a large cast of characters and suspects. The pace is also slowed by the odd rant on things irrelevant to the story, such as the failings of the national health system, for instance.
The setting is the Laurentians, north of Montreal. That leads one to inevitably think of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, but let the comparison stop there. Yes, both are rural and very Quebec, but Lambert is telling a very different story in a very different way.
The opening is clear – Anna Newsome, an elderly woman, has been strangled. Marie Russell is in town to settle her mother who is sinking into dementia. It is Marie’s mother who utters the words that become the clue to the mystery and lead Marie to join Leduc in the investigation. There is a connection to an event in Montreal in 1970 and, from this point, the pace picks up and things go well until a whole new plot line opens with old Nazi secrets and Hungarian émigrés. This isn’t a bad story line. It just belongs in another book. Here Lambert shows her first book flutters, combining as many plots in one book as she can. Since she obviously intends Russell and Leduc to be a series, the Hungarians could have been saved for another time.
The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming (St. Martin’s, 358 pages, $27.99)
First and foremost, this novel is an homage to Casablanca. As a fan who has seen the film at least 100 times and who can recite the dialogue almost by heart, I loved the book from the moment the spy named Laszlo was introduced on the first page. That smart touch is Charles Cumming at his best and this is one of his best works.
The setting isn’t wartime Morocco. We’re in today’s much more complicated world where a group calling itself Resurrection is targeting autocrats and those it deems to be autocrats with harassment and, then assassination. The Resurrection leader has been killed. His girlfriend, Lara Bartok, is on the run somewhere in the Middle East. MI6 has traced her to Marrakesh. It enlists Kit Carradine, an author of popular spy fiction, to get a message to her. Carradine, a great character on his own, jumps at the chance to be a “real” spy instead of just imagining it but, of course, he soon learns that lying and betrayal are part of the landscape of espionage. Cumming makes the most of his setting, and keeps the suspense tight. Lara may or may not be the innocent Carradine believes her to be. And just who is running the show anyway?
The Huntress by Kate Quinn (William Morrow, 560 pages, $21)
The Huntress is topping bestseller lists and the reason is simple. Nina Markova is the best heroine since Lisbeth Salander and this book, ostensibly a historical spy chase, belongs to her. There are other characters – Ian Graham, a British war correspondent turned Nazi hunter, a romance that belongs in Harlequin’s archives, and a bright American girl who belongs in another book altogether. Nina, however, is the real story and she never disappoints.
The Huntress is the nom de guerre of a murderess, mistress of a high-ranking Nazi officer. She is known to have shot a group of small children who escaped from a train heading to a concentration camp. She has killed others, as well, but it’s her murder of Sebastian Graham that has put his brother, Ian, on her trail. And because of Sebastian, she’s on Nina Markova’s list.
Markova is a navigator who flew more than 600 bombing sorties in the Russian Air Force. She is based on real women who did real things and every page devoted to her in this very long book is worth reading. How these women lived and died is a great tale worthy of its own book some day. But meanwhile, we have Nina, child of the Taiga, in the air and on the trail.
Before She Was Found by Heather Gudenkauf (Park Row Books, 368 pages, $21.99)
All parents know is that the most frightening thing about pubescent kids is the secrecy. A child who once told you everything suddenly has a life without you. Is it harmless? Full of dreamy crushes on rock stars? Or is it something else, like a guy online who may or may not be what he seems? That’s the underlying premise for this scary story of three girls who go for a walk in the woods. Two come home unscathed but one is severely injured, nearly dead. What happened and who is responsible?
This plot line owes something to the creepy Slender Man true crime, including the small-town setting, but there’s a lot more going on as the police, parents and even the kids try to sort out just who knifed Cora Landry and left her for dead on a railroad track. Gudenkauf, a school curriculum specialist, knows a lot about kids and social media and that drives this story along, although Cora’s old-school journal seems a bit dated. Do 12 year-old girls still do detailed descriptions in ink?
That said, the other voices here – and there are several – fill in details that keep adding up as suspicion falls on the girls who accompanied Cora, her family members, a popular teacher, and other locals. But it’s the creepy details and atmosphere that really make the pages move. Where are the kids, really? You may want to check out your kid’s favourite social media page again.
The Department Of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (Knopf Canada, 240 pages, $29.95)
I have lost count of the number of series popping from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith, he of The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, along with at least six other series and a batch of stand-alone books, as well. Here, the intrepid writer takes on the hottest trend in crime, Scan-noir, and transforms it into Scan-fun. But it’s also smart, witty and clever as only Smith can be.
The setting is Malmo, with only a touch of the expected darkness and cold. The Sensitive Crime unit, a group of suitably chill Swedes, is in charge of crime outside the box; like a man stabbed in the knee, or a missing imaginary boyfriend who may or may not have been murdered. The man in charge is Ulf (Wolf) Varg whose abilities are unchallenged and shared by his team. The crimes get solved in clever ways, but it’s Varg and the gang who run this novel, as is usual with Smith. The dialogue speeds along with references to everything you never expected to read in a crime novel (dry skin cures). This series is for more than McCall Smith’s legions of followers. Scan fans will love its gentle send-up of the beloved Nordic tropes and its smart plot lines.
Flowers Over The Inferno by Ilaria Tuti, Translated by Ekin Oklap (Soho, 360 pages)
The Italians turn out terrific crime novels but this debut is in a class by itself. To begin with, we have Superintendent Teresa Battaglia, a true original. She’s a tough woman who’s made her career in a hard school. With a background in criminal profiling, she counts her successes. The crime is grotesque: a man with his eyes gouged out. The setting is an isolated village in the Italian Alps, a village where people don’t talk, even to each other, much less the police. Enter the new man assigned to Battaglia, full of urban ego and backed with anxiety. But the killer isn’t through and, as more macabre deaths lead to an old palace that’s been demoted to a hospital and an orphanage, the village itself seems to be a killer. This is an extremely auspicious debut and readers are going to eagerly await Battaglia’s return.
Metropolis by Philip Kerr (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $37)
It’s most appropriate that the final Bernie Gunther novel should be the beginning of his story. Fans of this superb series know that it began in 1933 with “March Violets,” the name given to Nazis who joined the party late and advantageously. Bernie was a Berlin P.I. then, an ex-cop specializing in lost daughters. Three books later, he was on the run, following the rat-line of ex-Nazis to South America and his exploits became irresistible. But what was Bernie’s own history? We got glimpses and the odd reminder but Metropolis is the real story and it’s great, as good as great crime fiction gets.
In 1928, Bernie is a jaded war veteran, a detective with the Kriminalpolizei in Berlin and Hitler is just rising to power. As always, Kerr manages to keep the description light and the atmosphere perfect. Bernie and his pals never dwell on the politics, but they get the messages across. Some of them will reappear in later books in new roles. But it’s not the big crimes that bother Bernie, it’s the small local ones. A dead Jewish girl murdered is a case to solve, even if the cause is political. This little plot line takes on more meaning for readers who know that one girl will stand in for millions to come. Then a killer moves to maimed Great War vets and Bernie is even more invested. This is one of Kerr’s best and no fan of Gunther should miss it. Those who don’t already know this superb author can begin here and then move through the series to follow one of crime fiction’s finest sleuths.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.