During my many years as a magazine editor, and more recently in my role as books critic, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to live completely in the present. These jobs have required that I focus on the not-too-distant future, that I map out news and features coverage weeks or even months in advance. So my perception of time can get a bit wonky; I have been known to write the wrong dates on memoranda and invoices, forgetting that real time hasn’t yet caught up with my forward thinking.
Although there are still books in my to-be-read pile that were published earlier in 2016, most of my free hours over the last couple of months have been spent digesting crime, mystery, and thriller fiction that won’t even be released until later this year. I just finished a novel, for instance, that’s set to reach stores in mid-December. Is it any wonder that I already feel an urgent need to hunt down Christmas presents for friends?
Of course I’ll never get around to enjoying all of the new books I would like to read between now and New Year’s Day, 2017. And no wonder: over the next four months, we can anticipate a veritable landslide of new novels, including those from established authors such as Timothy Hallinan (Fields Where They Lay), Karin Slaughter (The Kept Woman), James R. Benn (Blue Madonna), Sophie Hannah (Closed Casket), Bruce DeSilva (The Dread Line), Ann Cleeves (The Moth Catcher), and Linwood Barclay (The Twenty-Three). Others are due out from writers still endeavoring to gain a solid foothold on the market, people such as Allen Eskins (The Heavens May Fall), Rob Hart (South Village), Ed Lin (Incensed), Ann Parker (What Gold Buys), Domenic Stansberry (TheWhite Devil), and Will Thomas (Hell Bay). Then, there are short-story collections that deserve attention, such as Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger; The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, by the late P.D. James; and Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli.
I don’t have hours or space enough to remark on all of these, but below I have chosen 10 forthcoming works in this genre that I think deserve your notice. These will become available during September and October. Expect my next column to be devoted to books scheduled for publication in November and December…when I will really be worried about buying holiday gifts!
September: Victorian Villains and Sunshine State Scammers
After composing two somewhat lighter novels as “Elaine di Rollo,” the writer now styling herself “E.S. Thomson” delivers Beloved Poison, a darker mid-19th-century yarn that makes ample use of her expertise in the history of medicine. The setting is a ramshackle and slowly collapsing London infirmary, St. Saviour’s, that’s expected to be demolished in favor of a new railway bridge. There we’re introduced to Jem Flockhart, an androgynous apothecary with a prominent birthmark, who was born a girl but reared as a boy. From her position as an outsider (a favorite breed of protagonist in mystery fiction), Jem sees clearly the failings of her associates, from the back-stabbing doctors who employ dubious medical practices to the patients struggling to survive each day amid the hospital’s conquering filth. Everyone in the infirmary, it seems, has secrets—a few of which will inevitably be loosed by the murder of handsome but promiscuous Dr. Bain, whose planned next conquest might’ve been his boss’ winsome daughter. What hand struck Bain down—and how might his demise relate to the discovery—in the graveyard behind St. Saviour’s, of tiny coffins bearing bloodstained remains? An elaborately detailed and enthralling whodunit, with a sequel—Dark Asylum—already scheduled for release in the UK next year.
It turns out that Girl Waits with Gun (2015), California horticulture expert Amy Stewart’s boisterous initial foray into fiction writing, didn’t bring an end to her interest in Constance Kopp, the real-life first female deputy sheriff in Bergen County, New Jersey. The imposing Kopp returns in Lady Cop Makes Trouble, which finds her being called out, in 1915, to a hospital to translate for a German-speaking prisoner, Herman von Matthesius, a supposedly infirm con man. Whatever sense of triumph our heroine felt in being trusted with such duty soon evaporates, as the inmate escapes her custody. Determined to prove her worth once again, and fearing her error might cost her resolute boss, Sheriff Robert Heath, both his job and his freedom, Constance—cheered on by her sisters, Norma and Fleurette—sets out to recapture von Matthesius. That task will lead her into the eccentric warrens of New York City, and involve her in a peculiar homicide. Kopp’s success in showing up her male colleagues remains most entertaining.
Atlanta, Georgia, may have come to be known as “The City Too Busy to Hate,” but there was ample ethnic animus to go around there during the early 20th century. That metropolis’ race riot of September 1906, which resulted in the deaths of at least two dozen African Americans (and perhaps many more), plus its designation as the “Imperial City”—the nerve center of a rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan—during the 1920s and again in the ’40s left Atlanta besmirched as a breeding ground for bigotry, though efforts were slowly being made to overcome such moral failings. In Darktown, Atlanta author Thomas Mullen’s fourth novel (after The Revisionists, 2011), we find the local police department having finally succumbed to political pressure, and in 1948, engaging eight “Negro officers” to patrol the city’s “colored neighborhoods.” “They were not detectives, only beat cops,” Mullen explains. “They had no squad cars and were forbidden from entering the white headquarters. Their job was to enforce peace and arrest those observed to have broken the laws, but they could not conduct investigations.” That last restriction causes problems for a pair of those black lawmen, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, after they witness a Buick collide with a lamppost. The intoxicated white driver arrogantly refuses to cooperate with the coppers’ requests for his identification or other information, and instead steers off into the night beside a bruised young black woman wearing a canary-yellow dress. When that passenger, Lily Ellsworth, is subsequently found murdered in a garbage-strewn lot, Boggs and Smith want to learn how she got there, especially since they fear she was done in by white cops. However, they must probe on the sly, lest they incite hostility from the force’s “real” members, one of whom—a corrupt and violent white supremacist named Lionel Dunlow—is prepared to do anything necessary to rid the department of its latest hires. As Boggs and Smith pursue the case, unearthing a shady cabal of ex-policemen and endangering Lily’s family, they find an unexpected ally in Dunlow’s more open-minded partner, Officer Denny Rakestraw (“Rake”), and link the murder to a white congressman who’s considered a supporter of Atlanta’s black community. While the Kirkus review of Darktown knocked Mullen for presenting stock and predictable characters, I found the players here more satisfyingly nuanced—notably Boggs and Smith, whose backgrounds leave them responding differently to their segregated status; and even Dunlow, who in his own way is a victim of the South’s malignant prejudice. I just hope Mullen’s sequel—already finished—will hinge on an offense less conventional than a girl’s slaying, maybe one rooted in the rich novelties of African-American society.
One can only marvel at Carl Hiaasen’s consistent ability to turn outlandish plot ingredients into bewitching fiction. His latest novel, Razor Girl, begins when Tinseltown talent agent Lane Coolman, wheeling his rental car from Miami, Florida, to Key West—where he’s planning to tighten the reins on Buck Nance, the unpredictable star of a redneck reality-TV series called Bayou Brethren—is rear-ended by pretty young Merry Mansfield, whose attention to the roadway had apparently wavered while she gave herself a bikini shave in the driver’s seat of a Firebird. Turns out, Merry is a serial crash-scam perpetrator, and she and her partner kidnap Coolman, having mistaken him for a beach-repair contractor whose bamboozling behavior has put him on the wrong side of a local criminal bigwig. Without Coolman’s guidance, Nance manages to launch into a racist public rant that inspires a psychotic would-be apprentice and leaves the TV star a suspect in a front-page homicide. Meanwhile, disgraced sheriff Andrew Yancy (from Bad Monkey) thinks he can restore his reputation by solving the aforementioned murder—with a bit of help from the Razor Girl herself, scheming Merry. Hiaasen’s humor makes his sardonic observations about modern society go down easy.
More serious in tone is Chris Holm’s Red Right Hand, which brings back Michael Hendricks, the “hit-man-killing hit man” to whom we were introduced in last year’s briskly related The Killing Kind. This story fairly leaps from the blocks, as a tourist filming his family at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge also captures the moment when a tugboat, heavy with explosives, rams that graceful landmark, causing severe damage. Going through the footage later, FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson spots Frank Segreti, who, seven years before, had fed the feds evidence against a cabal of American crime families known as the Council—only to be blown up for his efforts. Or so everyone believed. Thompson now wants Segreti brought in alive. But with the Council cognizant of his resurrection, and gunning for him, and with the agent’s superiors insisting she concentrate instead on a previously unknown terrorist group claiming responsibility for the bridge attack, she must turn for assistance to an unlikely ally, Hendricks, who bears his own grudge against the Council. The Killing Kind earned a stack of plaudits, but Red Right Hand (not to be confused with Joel Townsley Rogers’ better-known 1945 mystery of the same name) is the rare second entry in a series that actually rivals its predecessor.
October: Irish Deceptions and Catskills Clashes
When we last saw Detective Antoinette Conway of Dublin, Ireland’s Murder Squad—in Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of my favorite novels from 2014—she was investigating the premature demise of a wealthy teenage boy on the grounds of an elite boarding school for girls. Now the brash, abrasive, and often-harassed sleuth (the Squad’s sole female comrade) is back in The Trespasser, this time looking into the bloody expiry of 26-year-old Aislinn Murray, a well-kept blonde who’s been found in her well-appointed apartment next to a dining table well-set for a romantic repast. The simple solution is this homicide resulted from a lovers’ squabble, and the person responsible was Rory Fallon, the boyfriend Aislinn was set to meet that evening. Conway, though, isn’t convinced, particularly after a longer-practiced detective insists that Rory be charged and the case settled. Yes, Conway figures she and her now-partner, Stephen Moran, can break Rory under questioning (believe me, you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of her grilling). Yet Rory insists another party is behind this crime, probably someone else won over by the deceased’s talents for seduction—skills Aislinn has not always possessed, and that show her as less squeaky-perfect than she appeared. Conway and Moran eventually try looking for answers in other directions, but face enough resistance from their fellow detectives that Conway (whose paranoia has been hard-won) starts to wonder whether this case represents an escalation of plans to drive her from the Squad.
Holidays are supposed to be relaxing, but that’s not the case in James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy. During the summer of 2012, a deep-pocketed New York banker named Charlie invites his out-of-work chef cousin, Matthew—with whom he was once close—to join him and his wife, Chloe, at their Catskills vacation abode. Because Matthew could use some time away, and wouldn’t mind at all collecting a subletting fee for his Brooklyn apartment; and because he’s also inordinately fond of Chloe, he takes up the offer. However, with the passage of each overheated day, longstanding tensions between the cousins intensify, as do Matthew’s misgivings about Chloe’s loyalty. The arrival of another guest ultimately causes the simmering passions and resentments to boil over, and The Fall Guy becomes a suspenseful tale rife with moral conflicts.
Don’t be intimidated (not overmuch, anyway) by the 730-page heft of By Gaslight, Canadian poet Steven Price’s second novel. There’s nothing tedious about this historical thriller. Price combines elegant, evocative writing with an impellent plot rolling out in 1885. Central to this yarn are two quite different men: William Pinkerton, the real-life elder son of legendary U.S. national detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton; and fictional gentleman-thief Adam Foole. Both are on the trail of a “vicious and lovely” young female grifter named Charlotte Reckitt—Pinkerton because he thinks she can lead him on to Edward Shade, a mythologized miscreant who’d managed to elude his father; and Foole, because he still loves her, even a decade after their parting. Evidence of Charlotte’s apparent demise fails to stymie either man; in fact, the two form an uneasy alliance, hoping to flush out Charlotte and Shade, and in the process they discover they’re more connected by past events than they had understood. Price’s sweeping yarn bounces readers from fetid, fog-clogged London streets to Civil War battlefields, with stops at opium dens, South African diamond mines, and the cramped lanes of Great Scotland Yard in between. An all-consuming adventure with romantic undertones.
Finally, let me mention two other works worthy of attention: Martin Cruz Smith’s The Girl from Venice, a standalone World War II-era novel about an Italian fishermen who, after pulling a young Jewish woman from a lagoon, must go to great (and dangerous) lengths to protect her from Nazi Germany’s vicious SS; and Coffin Road, which returns us to author Peter May’s familiar story setting in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (the backdrop for The Blackhouse and its two sequels), where a man washes up on a beach, his memory completely gone, and soon afterward comes to believe that he’s a killer.