Anyone who can’t find a new crime, mystery or thriller novel to enjoy over the next three sunnier months simply isn’t trying. My initial sweep of book catalogues and online sources turned up 175 novels in the genre I’d like to read between now and Labor Day. Not that I’ll have the opportunity or stamina to do so.
Read the Rap Sheet’s interview with J. Robert Janes, the author of ‘Bellringer.’
Below, I’ve culled out just 10 of those books I think will be sure winners. In the process, I’ve ignored such heavily publicized picks as Megan Abbott’s Dare Me and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which were already included in a recent Kirkus list of upcoming titles. I have also sought a mix of stories by men and women, published in both the United States and Britain.
Death and Transfiguration, by Gerald Elias (June, U.S.)
Who knew that the world of classical music could be so cutthroat? In his fourth novel (after Death and the Maiden) to feature blind, aged and routinely irritated violin instructor Daniel Jacobus, Elias—a concertmaster and symphony violinist himself—takes readers behind the scenes of the famous Tanglewood Music Festival and into the snakepit of a touring orchestra. Amid that ensemble’s combustible contract talks, its much-harassed acting concertmaster slashes her wrists, and Jacobus goes looking for answers in the shadowy background of brilliant but tyrannical conductor Vaclav Herza. Elias’ portrayal of the classical-music industry can be enthralling, but it’s his humor and his exposition of Jacobus’ eccentricities that most deserve ovations.
The Kings of Cool, by Don Winslow (June, U.S.)
Winslow never forgets that crime novels, no matter how dramatic the pacing or how twisted the intrigues, are ultimately only as good as the complications of their characters. In this sequel to the much-lauded Savages (2010), he swings back into 1960s Southern California to explore how his trio of pot-growing pals—Ben, Chon and the stunning O (for Ophelia, an old joke)—got to be the way they are. Part family saga, part love story, The Kings of Cool has these three facing off against corrupt cops and corrupting drug dealers, and facing up to the ways in which their parents’ past affects their own future. When trouble strikes, will Ben, Chon and O place their loyalty first with their families, or with each other? Witty discourse and social commentary add to The Kings of Cool’s appeal.
An Unmarked Grave, by Charles Todd (June, U.S.)
The mother and son who, as “Charles Todd,” created the long-running Insp. Ian Rutledge series (The Confession) now offer their fourth book featuring World War I nurse Bess Crawford. It’s the spring of 1918, and Sister Crawford has to deal not only with battlefield casualties, but also influenza patients. Among them is an officer who once served under her father—and who she’s convinced was murdered. However, Crawford is struck down by the deadly flu before she can investigate further, and by the time she recovers, the dead officer has been buried. As this nurse tries to determine the soldier’s fate, she becomes the killer’s next target.
Dead and Buried, by Stephen Booth (June, UK)
Vicious acts of arson plague central England’s scenic Peak District in the 12th of Booth’s novels to feature countrified Det. Sgt. Ben Cooper and his more cynical, city-reared superior, Det. Insp. Diane Fry. The local constabulary would prefer to leave such problems to the hose brigade, but the discoveries of a years-old dual homicide as well as a much fresher corpse draw Cooper and Fry into an especially knotty investigation—one likely to earn them unwanted attention from a clever slayer. Only the first half-dozen of Brit Booth’s novels (beginning with Black Dog) made it across the Atlantic; then the spigot dried up, which is too bad, because the Cooper/Fry series is distinguished no less by its small-town ambiance and quirky players than its dexterous plot twists.
Broken Harbor, by Tana French (July, U.S.)
Det. Sgt. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy of Dublin’s Murder Squad boasts one of his unit’s highest solve rates. So it’s no surprise that he’s handed the bizarre case of a father, Patrick Spain, and his two children who were stabbed to death in a half-vacant coastal housing development—an attack that also left Spain’s wife critically injured. Spain, who had been clobbered by Ireland’s economic recession, might well be behind this ugly business. However, as Kennedy and his rookie partner soon realize, the crime scene raises more questions than it provides answers. For Kennedy, there’s a personal dimension to this investigation, as well: His family used to vacation nearby, and his bipolar sister remains besieged by memories of their mother’s suicide during one such holiday. Replete with details of police procedure and emotional conflicts, Broken Harbor is a masterly follow-up to French’s Faithful Place.
The Crowded Grave, by Martin Walker (July, U.S.)
It’s difficult not to be charmed by journalist Walker’s series about Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, the affable and shrewd chief of police in the village of Saint-Denis. These tales (including 2011’s Black Diamond) combine elements of mystery and political intrigue with a conspicuous appreciation of rural France’s gustatory and scenic attributes. Here, archaeologists searching for Cro-Magnon remains instead unearth a corpse with a bullet in its noggin. Soon after, the professor responsible for that dig vanishes. While contending with an intrusive new magistrate, escalating protests by animal-rights activists against local foie gras makers and the attentions of not one, but two female admirers, Bruno—wine in hand and dinner on his mind—plumbs Europe’s history of terrorism for a solution to modern acts of malfeasance.
Only One Life, by Sara Blaedel (July, UK)
In her third Insp. Louise Rick novel, Danish former journalist Blaedel (Call Me Princess, 2011) dispatches her series protagonist to Holbaek Fjord, west of Copenhagen, where an immigrant girl named Samra has been fished from the frigid depths, a concrete weight secured about her waist and peculiar circular marks on her neck. As Rick pursues the case, she learns that Samra’s father had previously been accused of assaulting her, and the girl’s mother contends he would certainly have harmed Samra, had she behaved dishonorably. Samra’s friend Dicte pushes that honor-killing motive, but after Dicte is bludgeoned into an early grave, Rick is left with ever-more-confusing clues and a predator just waiting to strike again.
The Twenty-Year Death, by Ariel S. Winter (August, U.S.)
More than 650 pages in length, this is really three connected books under one cover. Debut novelist Winter rolls out the tale of an American writer, Shem Rozenkrantz, whose life and marriage are rent asunder by violence, conspiracy and disaster. The story starts in the 1930s, in a book penned in the style of Georges Simenon; continues into the ’40s in a yarn inspired by Raymond Chandler; and in the ’50s, concludes in a style that’s reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s work. The sleuths and criminal plots are different in each story, but some characters stride through all three—especially Rozenkrantz, whose skill at falling for the wrong woman becomes near legendary.
The Absent One, by Jussi Adler-Olsen (August, U.S.)
Although it showed some weaknesses, I was a big fan of Adler-Olsen’s first English-translated crime novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes, so I approach this second story about grumpy Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck and Department Q with high expectations. The Absent One (titled Disgrace in Britain) finds Mørck, his improbable sidekick, Assad, and their new female associate revisiting the case of two teenage siblings, beaten to death in a summer cottage back in 1987. A member of a privileged gang of boarding-school students already confessed to the crime and is serving a life sentence, but Mørck thinks there’s more to the story than files reveal. Trouble is, several of the alleged killer’s classmates now hold prominent positions. One, however, a woman named Kimmie, is living rough on the streets—perhaps hoarding crucial information about the killings—and it’s up to Mørck and Assad to find her before she’s shut up for good. Adler-Olsen’s humor and his portrayal of Kimmie’s sad life make The Absent One stand out among today’s flood of Nordic mysteries.
Watching the Dark, by Peter Robinson (August, UK)
Robinson’s books about British Det. Chief Insp. Alan Banks can sometimes be inconsistent in quality, but when they’re good (such as In a Dry Season, Close to Home and Piece of My Heart), they’re dynamite. This 20th in the series sees Banks brought in to probe the crossbow death of a police colleague, who apparently left some compromising photos behind. The DCI won’t declare a fellow cop guilty without convincing evidence, but he’s having a hard time collecting any, what with a fellow inspector dogging his steps to ensure against police corruption. How might all of this mess relate to an English girl who disappeared in the Baltics half a dozen years ago? Watching the Dark isn’t due out in the States till February 2013.