Whodunit: An embarrassment of fine mysteries
September is a big month for mysteries this year, both in terms of excellence and page count (close to 2,000 pages in the four books here—truly a reviewer’s marathon!). If ever there were a month deserving of four Top Picks, this is it.
First up is The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny, whose Chief Inspector Gamache has retired to Three Pines, a village so tiny it appears on no map. The change in scenery is nice for him, but it is unlikely that hard-line suspense aficionados will be pleased with tales of gardening triumphs, woodland walks with a dog and scones well baked. No worries, though, because Three Pines has just offered Gamache a mystery of the first order. After a falling out, local artist Peter Morrow and his wife, Clara, agreed to meet in one year to assess the possibilities of a future together, but the deadline passed without a word from Peter, and Clara fears the worst. Gamache soon finds himself embroiled in a case as compelling as any he has ever taken on. His search leads him to an ominous part of the province known as The Land God Gave to Cain, a fitting appellation, for fewer will return from the journey than embarked on it. Excellent as always, this is a character-driven tour-de-police-force by Canada’s favo(u)rite suspense writer.
ONE LAST HURRAH
The theme of mostly retired police inspectors carries over into Darkness, Darkness, John Harvey’s final thriller featuring Charlie Resnick, the sandwich-chomping jazz aficionado protagonist of 11 previous police procedurals set in and around Nottingham, England. In the mid-1980s, Resnick found himself on the front lines of the violent confrontation between striking coal miners and the British government (a fictional hero in a real-life situation). Amid the turmoil, a young instigator named Jenny Hardwick disappeared without a trace. Some 30 years later, her bleached bones turn up beneath some new construction. Who better to look into the matter than Resnick, one of the few “old guard” cops with the insight and history to ferret out a murderer three decades after the fact? Resnick’s last case is also his best.
BAD GIRLS' CLUB
Nobody does teenage girl dialogue better than Tana French. This is a dialogue-driven book, and she simply nails it—the insecurities, the eye-rolling flouting of authority, the depth of the friendships, the ruthless bitchiness of the enemies. Eight girls in an Irish boarding school make up the core cast of The Secret Place, and one of them holds the key to solving a murder. It will be up to two cops to extract that knowledge. The storyline alternates between past and present, with the “past” chapters keyed to the time remaining in the life of young Chris Harper and the events that will inexorably lead to his death. The “present” chapters take place largely from the perspective of the police investigation. Thus the big reveal of Harper’s killer takes place for the reader (in a “past” chapter) at almost the exact time it becomes clear to the cops (in a “present” chapter). This must be the longest book I have ever read in one sitting, but I just could not put it down!
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Pretty much everyone who reads this column should be intimately familiar with James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, four of the finest suspense novels of their time. Perfidia is the first book of Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet, and it is a hell of a good start to the new series. Set in Los Angeles in 1941, the narrative begins the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Anti-Japanese rhetoric is on the upswing when the LAPD is handed a political hot potato: the murder (or is it?) of a Japanese family, by the traditional samurai disembowelment ritual called seppuku. Many of the characters from the initial L.A. Quartet appear here, but a new character captures the limelight: Hideo Ashida, a budding expert in the new field of criminal forensics, and the only Japanese in the LAPD. Ashida gives a face to the egregious wrongs visited upon the Japanese in WWII-era America: loss of livelihood; confiscation of property; internment into concentration camps. Perfidia (Spanish for “betrayal”) is an apt title for this ambitious novel, as shifting allegiances abound, and the only thing you can be sure of is that you cannot be sure of anything.
This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.