Pity those poor books scheduled to debut just after Christmas. Not only do they barely miss an important deadline for being considered as presents to give to friends, colleagues, and loved ones, but by the time the next holiday season rolls around, they’ve been…well, pretty much forgotten. At the close of each year, when I put together my list of favorite crime and mystery novels issued during the preceding 12 months, it’s inevitably the ones rolled out in January, February, and March that weigh lightest upon my memory. So I make a special point of going back to see which books I’d recommended around the previous New Year’s Day, and cracking open any that still wait hopefully on my to-be-enjoyed pile. In 2015, for instance, I’d placed Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train in my stack when it first appeared last January, but—because I thought her thriller was probably being overhyped—didn’t get around to a proper reading of it until November, only to realize I was wrong to have been so skeptical: the tale actually merited inclusion on my “bests” roster.
Right now, I can’t possibly guess which works, set for U.S. release over the coming three months, will still raise a satisfied grin on my face next winter. But there’s no shortage of candidates. A quick-and-dirty culling of what I consider to be the most promising crime, mystery, and thriller titles due in stores before spring 2016 numbers almost 200. That represents myriad late nights and obsessive page-turning, and it includes fresh fiction from both sides of the Atlantic and all corners of this genre.
January: Questionable Deaths and Dubious Heritage
Next month, alone, will bring offerings from three different novelists of note. Benjamin Black (aka Man Booker Prize–winning Irish author John Banville) introduces the American edition of Even the Dead, the seventh installment in his series about a 1950s Dublin pathologist known as Quirke, a moniker that suggests the protagonist’s behavior as much as it identifies his family lineage. This time out, he contends with a suspicious suicide; the deceased’s pregnant and fearful ex-girlfriend, who seeks shelter from Quirke’s daughter, only to then disappear; a brain lesion that temporarily incapacitates our hero, heaped atop a drinking problem that sends his personal life off kilter; and troubling links between the cases at hand and Catholic Church machinations (always a popular Black target). Rivaling Even the Dead for attention will be Even Dogs in the Wild, Ian Rankin’s 20th book-length outing for congenitally cantankerous John Rebus. Here, the veteran detective is yanked out of retirement to aid his former Edinburgh police associates in probing an attempted shooting of “Big Ger” Cafferty, Rebus’ old nemesis/drinking buddy, and determine whether the crime is traceable to revenge, a boiling turf war between Edinburgh and Glasgow gangsters, or perhaps some less-expected motive. And Mick Herron, who captured the 2013 Gold Dagger Award for the black humor-filled Dead Lions, is back with a thickly plotted sequel, Real Tigers. When one of the disgraced, female British spies relegated to MI5’s Slough House is kidnapped, and the ransom demanded is classified information, her fellow misfits see an opportunity to demonstrate skills they haven’t employed for far too long. At the same time, an ambitious new home secretary is harrying the MI5 brass, setting up a power struggle that places the future of Slough House in jeopardy.
Still need further suggestions? Try After the Crash, French author Michel Bussi’s award-winning story about a 1980 airplane tragedy in the Swiss Alps, which kills more than 160 people, leaving just a single survivor: a 3-month-old baby. Unfortunately, there were two such tykes on board, one of them from an oil-rich family, the other from a clan of significantly more modest means. Even 18 years later, the girl’s identity remains in question, and a private detective who’s failed to get to the bottom of that mystery contemplates suicide. He’s stopped only by a previously unrealized clue, one he won’t be able to reveal, before he’s murdered—or so it seems. Alternatively, you could pick up the comic thriller Once a Crooked Man, by David McCallum (yes, the same guy who starred on television in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and currently appears in NCIS). It focuses around a down-on-his-luck actor who, after accidentally overhearing gangster brothers discuss how best to eliminate somebody with too much information about their nefarious affairs, tries to warn the intended victim…only to wind up becoming a target himself. Or how about Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where It Hurts, the opening entry in a noirish new series? The lead here is taken by Gus Murphy, a retired Long Island cop caught in a depressive whirlpool brought on by the loss of his family, who now earns what cash he can as the house detective and courtesy van driver for a decrepit hotel. Although he’s reluctant to help a lowlife crook investigate the slaying and torture of his car-thief son, Murphy soon discovers that pretty much everyone—including the local cops and even the young felon’s best friend—is anxious to clam up about the crime, which only feeds Murphy’s determination to bring the real perpetrator to justice.
February: Doomed Airships and Overpriced Underwear
If, a mere month into 2016, you’re already feeling behind in your reading, rest assured such concerns will only worsen as time goes on. February has its own stockpile of enticing entertainments, beginning with Danish author Sara Blaedel’s The Killing Forest. It finds Detective Inspector Louise Rick (The Forgotten Girls, 2015) returning to work at Copenhagen’s Special Search Agency, and promptly being handed the case of a teenage boy who vanished in the woods near a town called Hvalsø. As it turns out, that lad’s father was part of a cult known to engage in ancient religious rites—the same group to which Rick’s late boyfriend, Klaus, once belonged, before he apparently hanged himself years ago. Combining the DI’s present-day probe with a re-examination of Klaus’ passing, Blaedel delivers a grim but powerful procedural involving ritualistic rape and homicide. Less intense is Ariel Lawhon’s Flight of Dreams, which thrusts us back to 1937 and the disastrous last journey of the German Zeppelin Hindenburg. As Max Allan Collins did in The Hindenburg Murders (2000), Lawhon layers the known circumstances of that luxurious airship’s travels with imagined intrigues that supply an alternative explanation for the craft’s fiery collapse in New Jersey.
North Carolina author J.D. Rhoades pays homage to Donald E. Westlake’s madcap caper novels with Ice Chest, about a scheme to abduct a supermodel who’s preparing to appear at a fashion show wearing little more than a $5.5 million, jewel-encrusted bra (“A treasure that might have graced the hooterage of the Queen of Sheba herself”). Throw in a cadre of blundering crooks, the model’s covetous, mob-linked ex-boyfriend and a security chief bent on recovering the lavish lingerie, and there’s no chance that things will turn out quite as anyone expected. Loren D. Estleman’s fictional film archivist/sleuth, Valentino (last seen in 2013’s Alive!), returns in Shoot, which has him trying desperately to retrieve still-shots from a racy early movie made by Dixie Day, who has since gone on to fame as the co-star, with husband Red Montana, of romantic Westerns. If Valentino accomplishes this task, the now-retired Montana will present him with a precious print of the couple’s supposedly long-lost first flick. But if he fails, that movie is bound for the burn pile! Finally, John A. Connell has prepared Spoils of Victory, his sequel to last year’s highly touted historical crime novel, Ruins of War. Again, we’re transported to post-World War II Germany, where former Chicago homicide detective and U.S. Army criminal investigator Mason Collins endeavors to curtail the black market in stolen Nazi riches. It’s an assignment made all the more challenging by murder, conspiracy and the efforts of influential parties to smother Collins’ inquiries in the cradle.
March: Royal Mistreatment and Silenced Quidnuncs
Early 18th-century ne’er-do-well Thomas Hawkins survived the torment of a London debtor’s prison in The Devil in the Marshalsea (one of my favorite novels of 2014), only to be found at the opening of Antonia Hodgson's The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins being led to a hangman’s rope. Jumping slightly backward in time, we learn that since his release from gaol, this “gentleman/rake” had sought to make a go of life with his girlfriend, the proprietor of a risqué bookshop, but had erred in accepting employment with a member of royalty and was implicated in the murder of a seemingly upright neighbor. Will the real architect of that crime be identified before Hawkins swings? Hodgson’s humor and attention to historical detail make this yarn particularly rewarding. Conor Brady’s The Eloquence of the Dead is his follow-up to last year’s captivating A June of Ordinary Murders. Again set in 1887 Dublin, Ireland, this new mystery has Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow trying to figure out who engineered the premature end of pawnbroker—a mission destined to uncover more than a modicum of corruption in high places, send Swallow cantering after clues in the British capital and launch the ravenous wolves of an impatient press upon our hero’s heels. Speaking of the media, Robert Goldsborough imagines the killing of a New York City newspaper gossip columnist in Stop the Presses!, his fourth recent adventure for Rex Stout’s eccentric and famously paired crime solvers, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The local constabulary deems the death a suicide, but Lon Cohen, Wolfe’s “favorite newspaperman,” has already drawn up a list of suspects most likely to have terminated the columnist’s life before he destroyed theirs. Goldsborough revived Stout’s characters in the 2012 prequel, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It’s nice to see that his interest in them is still going strong.