While most other readers are now focused on what books they might receive as presents (or simply purchase for themselves) this holiday season, I have moved forward to thinking about which works of crime and thriller fiction I should sample during the first three months of 2014. Four or five weeks ago, I started looking through online catalogues (such as this one and this other one) of crime-fiction titles scheduled to be published—on both sides of the wide Atlantic—between now and the first day of spring. I casually assembled a tally of books that looked interesting…and wound up with more than 200 choices! Acknowledging my sad lack of superhuman reading skills, I have since struggled to pare that protracted register down to a more manageable length, and have come up with eight novels—all to be released in U.S. bookshops—that I really want to spend some time with before springtime arrives in the Northern Hemisphere.
An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris (January):
The case of Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Jewish descent who, in the 1890s, was sent to a remote prison for allegedly passing military secrets to the Germans in Paris, became an international scandal. Yet there were many people who doubted Dreyfus’ guilt. One of them, in Harris’ tale, is Col. Georges Picquart, an ambitious gent who headed the agency behind Dreyfus’ conviction, yet has since been convinced that another spy remains at large in the French military. Although his superiors want no evidence exculpating Dreyfus, Picquart persists in his digging, pursuing an alternative trail of suspicions that leads him to prominent government officials and causes him to doubt his own deeply held beliefs. Even readers conversant in the twists of the Dreyfus affair shouldn’t be disappointed by Harris’ dramatic re-creation.
This Dark Road to Mercy, by Wiley Cash (January):
Hoping to build on the renown earned by his first novel, 2012’s A Land More Kind than Home, North Carolinian Wiley Cash now delivers this story of love, redemption and vengeance, conveyed in Southern tones that can be deceptively reassuring. Following their mother’s drug-induced death, 12-year-old Easter Quillby and her 6-year-old sister, Ruby, have been thrown into a small-town foster care system in the Appalachian Mountains. That is until their peripatetic father, an unsuccessful baseball player named Wade Chesterfield, decides he wants them back. Trouble is, Wade has already relinquished his parental rights, so the only way he can retrieve his children is by convincing them to run away with him. This turn of events doesn’t sit well with the girls’ court-appointed guardian, ex-cop Brady Weller, who defies FBI threats as he searches for Wade and his daughters, and uncovers information linking Wade to an armored car robbery. Raising the stakes here further is another failed ballplayer, Robert Pruitt, who’s also hunting for Wade—and may have no compunction against killing Easter and Ruby in order to take him down.
The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, by Peter Swanson (February):
I can’t tell yet whether to hate this book for its pretensions (critical comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre and the film Body Heat have been rampant) or champion it as a purportedly “edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller.” For now, I can only try to explain its plot. It focuses around 40-year-old Boston literary magazine employee George Foss, who long ago resigned himself to an unremarkable existence and evenings exhausted at a nearby tavern. But then back into Foss’ life swings Liana Decter, a woman he hasn’t seen since they fell in love during their freshman year in college—the same year she supposedly committed suicide. When, soon after, she asks Foss for protection from men she claims are chasing her since they believe she’s stolen their money, he can hardly say no. Even though he’s sure that she’s trouble, a serial transgressor who may have been involved in a long-ago homicide. Suddenly, Foss’ life isn’t so dull anymore. Whether he can survive the change is another question.
The Kept Girl, by Kim Cooper (February):
Both author Raymond Chandler and his best-known creation, private eye Philip Marlowe, will be working the fictional mean streets of Los Angeles this season. March brings the debut of The Black-Eyed Blonde (not to be confused with Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1944 novel of the same name), penned by Irishman John Banville under his Benjamin Black pseudonym, and pitting Marlowe against wealthy Bay City residents as he searches in the early 1950s for a beautiful woman’s misplaced former lover. February, meanwhile, welcomes The Kept Girl. Set in 1929 LA (“a city on fire with becoming”) and inspired by actual events, it imagines then oil company executive Chandler being asked to retrieve money squeezed from his boss’ nephew. With the help of his secretary/mistress, Muriel Fischer, and their idealistic policeman friend, Tom James (reportedly a model for Marlowe), Chandler discovers the young man’s involvement with a sinister cult of angel worshippers and embarks on a quest for answers that will lead into some very dark corners of booming southern California.
Cold Storage, Alaska, by John Straley (February):
Alaska investigator-turned-writer Straley had a good run in the 1990s, capturing a Shamus Award for The Woman Who Married a Bear, his first novel about Sitka PI Cecil Younger, and producing another five entries in that popular series before pretty much falling off the publishing map. After an almost-under-the-radar return in 2008 with The Big Both Ways, he’s now back with Cold Storage, Alaska, a quirky escapade centered on Clive “The Milkman” McCahon, who, after doing time for cocaine commerce, returns to his less-than-lively Alaska hometown. Aside from his younger brother, who’s been taking care of their sick mother, most locals know little about Clive. Yet he’s followed home by some folks who’ll raise his profile considerably, including a cop bent on bringing him down for further transgressions, and an ex-business cohort who thinks Clive took dough he wasn’t owed. If Clive wasn’t in enough trouble already, he’s worried that his sanity is going, as he’s begun communicating with the wildlife.
After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman (February):
Felix Brewer created a handsome life for himself in Baltimore, even if his income wasn’t all made in the old-fashioned, legal way. In 1976, though—facing a lengthy incarceration—he fled with his money to Montreal, Canada, leaving his wife of almost two decades, Bambi, to take care of their three daughters. Felix also left behind his girlfriend, Julie Saxony, who Bambi believed knew more about her husband’s whereabouts than she’d admit. When Julie eventually vanishes, she’s thought to have rejoined her former paramour; only the unearthing of her corpse from a wooded area puts an end to that neat conclusion. And it’s not until years later, when a retired police detective, Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, starts digging into Julie’s slaying, that there’s hope of untangling the manifold mysteries scattered in Felix’s wake. Lippman unfurls her narrative slowly, jumping between time periods and points of view; but the character depth and surprises she packs in here certainly reward patient readers.
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, by Adrian McKinty (March):
It’s astonishing that McKinty isn’t better known. His police procedurals are really thoughtful, often humorous and inevitably moving portraits of life in Northern Ireland during its Troubles. His third novel starring Sean Duffy, a Catholic member of the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, sends readers to Belfast in the mid-1980s. Recruited by the British intelligence agency MI5, Duffy is searching for Dermot McCann, an IRA bomber recently escaped from prison. In the course of his search, Duffy encounters a woman who may be able to supply McCann’s location—but first she wants answers to the mystery of her daughter, who perished in a pub locked from the inside.
Providence Rag, by Bruce DeSilva (March):
After laboring at newspapers for many years, I remain a fan of crime fiction set in deadline-driven newsrooms and among people who value print journalism over other sorts. So it was inevitable that I’d gravitate toward DeSilva’s series (begun with Rogue Island) featuring Providence, R.I., investigative reporter Liam Mulligan. This new, third installment was inspired by Rhode Island’s notorious Craig Price murders of the 1980s. It finds Providence Dispatch veteran Mulligan at ethical odds with his newspaper-heir pal, Edward Anthony Mason IV, over the case of a serial killer who, after being prosecuted as a juvenile, remains behind bars well past the time the law requires, apparently kept there thanks to fabricated charges and in order to safeguard the community from his further predations. Mason is appalled by this injustice and hopes to free the prisoner. At the same time, Mulligan searches for legal means to keep such a “monster” incarcerated. DeSilva raises important issues and doesn’t resolve them easily. Highly rewarding.
Also worth checking out: From the Dead, by Mark Billingham (January); Hunting Shadows, by Charles Todd (January); Orphan Choir, by Sophie Hannah (January); The Last Dead Girl, by Harry Dolan (January); The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins (January); Dominion, by C.J. Sansom (January, though I reviewed it after its 2012 UK release); The Contractors, by Harry Hunsicker (February); Who Thinks Evil, by Michael Kurland (February); Body Slam, by Rex Burns (February); Seven Grams of Lead, by Keith Thomson (February); The Resistance Man, by Martin Walker (February); Mind of Winter, by Laura Kasischke (March); The Accident, by Chris Pavone (March); The Outcast Dead, by Elly Griffiths (March); The Player, by Brad Parks (March); Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (March); and The Cairo Affair, by Olen Steinhauer.