There are some years when it’s pretty easy to pick out which first-quarter crime, mystery, and thriller novels are destined to become the Big Reads, those books that enjoy extraordinary promotions and generate the most word-of-mouth. Such is not the case heading into the initial three months of 2017. There are so many promising new works by so many familiar or highly touted authors due out in the States this season, that guessing which ones will be remembered fondly even 12 months from now is a crap shoot.
Between now and the end of March, we’ll see fresh fiction by Thomas Perry (The Old Man), Belinda Bauer (The Beautiful Dead), Peter Swanson (Her Every Fear), April Smith (Home Sweet Home), Jørgen Brekke (The Fifth Element), Mick Herron (Spook Street), Kathleen Kent (The Dime), David Mark (Cruel Mercy), Hideo Yokoyama (Six Four), Deborah Crombie (Garden of Lamentations), Mark Billingham (Rush of Blood), Greg Iles (Mississippi Blood), and Dan Chaon (Ill Will), plus a short-story collection from Lyndsay Faye titled The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, marking the debut of small-town Icelandic cop Ari Thór Arason, is due out later this month, while Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Among the Ruins—her sequel to last year’s Barry and Arthur Ellis award-winning The Unquiet Dead—should appear in February. Meanwhile, Ian Rankin’s latest John Rebus outing, Rather Be the Devil, is set to reach bookstores in late January; with Charles Todd’s 19th Inspector Ian Rutledge investigation, Racing the Devil, much anticipated in February, alongside the first American publication of The Crow Trap, Ann Cleeves’ 1999 Vera Stanhope novel. Keep your eyes peeled in March for Lenin’s Roller Coaster, David Downing’s third adventure for World War I-era British spy Jack McColl, as well as Becky Masterman’s A Twist of the Knife (her follow-up to 2013’s Rage Against the Dying) and Adrian McKinty’s new case for Belfast detective Sean Duffy, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. Oh, and there’s a trio of non-fiction volumes coming that should be of particular interest to mystery fans: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation, by Brad Ricca; Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes, by Michael Sims; and Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted, edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger.
With 2017 promising worrisome political upheavals, it’s reassuring to know we will have plenty of opportunities to escape from reality into the pages of fiction. But let’s not stop there. Below, you’ll find seven additional crime novels, all being readied for U.S. release between now and the spring, that I think deserve special attention.
January: Rescues Gone Wrong and Injustices Righted
From Derek B. Miller, the author of Norwegian by Night—one of my favorite crime novels of 2013—comes The Girl in Green, an oft-witty but nonetheless ringing indictment of the West’s manifest failures to impose peace upon the Middle East and a portrait of the damage war can do even to those who survive it. Twenty-two-year-old U.S. Army machine gunner Arwood Hobbes meets more seasoned British journalist Thomas Benton in Iraq in 1991, during the ostensible peace following the first Gulf War, when Benton convinces the naïve but glib soldier to let him enter a Shia village rocked by religious conflict. Benton makes it out again alive, but barely, and he brings with him a fetching, frightened teenage girl in a green dress…only to see a Sunni Baathist colonel shoot her in the back before she can reach safety. Twenty-two years later, Hobbes—having been discharged less than honorably from the military, and becoming an arms broker—thinks he’s spotted that girl again, this time in video footage of an attack on Iraqi refugees in Kurdistan. And he convinces the now 63-year-old Benton, whose personal life and career have soured, to join him in a quixotic attempt at rescuing her once more. Aided by Märta Ström, a highly placed Swedish relief worker with whom Benton once relished a brief affair, the two men head off toward the attack site, their personal demons endangering them as much as the militants they’ll encounter along the way. By focusing on the limits of humanitarian outreach, the nuances of hostage diplomacy, and the complex relationships among his players—all of whom have chosen to live on the sharp edge of violence—author Miller (whose background is in dealing with international peace and security issues) saves The Girl in Green from being merely a sentimental thriller about two aging men in search of redemption. It’s a remarkably deft and insightful second novel.
There’s a wealth of fine Australian crime fiction released every year. Unfortunately, outside of works by a few wordsmiths (Peter Temple, Barry Maitland, Michael Robotham, etc.), Americans don’t see most of them. So we’re fortunate to be welcoming Jane Harper’s The Dry into bookstores. Set in the fictional, drought-ravaged farming community of Kiewarra, northwest of Melbourne, this harrowing yarn builds around a murder-suicide case. Evidence suggests that Luke Hadler turned his gun on himself after first ending the lives of his wife and 6-year-old son. Aaron Falk, though, isn’t convinced. A federal police officer specializing in white-collar crime, Falk grew up in Kiewarra, but, at age 16, he and his father were booted out, subsequent to the suspicious demise of Aaron’s girlfriend. Luke Hadler was Aaron’s best friend in high school, and Luke’s funeral has finally brought him back to town. Despite the hostile reception he receives in Kiewarra, Falk agrees to remain there after Luke’s mother requests his help in unraveling the truth behind her son’s alleged crimes. But by sticking around, Falk also runs the risk that a long-buried secret he shared with Luke will be revealed. The British-born Harper, currently a journalist with Melbourne’s Herald Sun, has created in The Dry a claustrophobic mystery filled with slow-dripping clues and doubts about the reliability of everyone involved—including her protagonist.
February: Of Spies and PIs
On the heels of last year’s Where It Hurts, which introduced John Augustus “Gus” Murphy, a dispirited Suffolk County, New York cop turned house dick/courtesy-van driver at Long Island’s rundown Paragon Hotel, Reed Farrel Coleman returns with What You Break. This time he casts Murphy into the employ of slick energy mogul Micah Spears, who wants our hero to probe the brutal death of his adopted granddaughter, Linh Trang. The question isn’t who killed her, but why, as the presumed perpetrator—a local gang member—refuses to explain his actions. Although reluctant to take on this assignment, Murphy is eventually persuaded by Spears’ offer to endow a youth sports foundation in the name of his son, John Jr., who died unexpectedly on a basketball court. Even then, Murphy is distracted by questions surrounding his friend Slava Podalak, the Paragon’s night bellman, whose association with a fishy hotel guest results in the murder of a Russian mobster. What troubles lurk in Slava’s concealed past, and how might they relate to the tragedy that befell Linh Trang? Coleman’s taste for fully inflated, flawed, and broken characters promises great things ahead for this still-blooming series.
What would a list like this be without at least one tale of espionage? And Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy fills that requirement splendidly. His third book starring Thomas Kell (A Foreign Country, A Colder War), it places the disgraced and disillusioned former MI6 operative in the position of choosing between the opportunity to exact some sweet personal revenge and the necessity of preventing a horrific terrorist attack on British soil. After receiving word from a freelance intelligence agent that one of his adversaries, Russian spy Alexander Minasian, has recently concluded a sexual liaison with German architect Bernhard Riedle, Kell sees a chance—with support from his erstwhile superior—to strike back at the Kremlin for costing him the life of his girlfriend, fellow spy Rachel Wallinger. Kell soon sets about befriending the jilted Riedle, hoping through him to entrap Minasian. However, the stakes in all of this are raised significantly when Minasian tells Kell about an imminent ISIS strike on the UK involving a young Muslim man just returned from Egypt. Abundant in twists and tensions, A Divided Spy takes readers on a literate tour through the tangled thinking of both covert agents responsible for protecting the world from catastrophic upheaval, and true believers set upon more destructive courses.
Way back in the first column I ever wrote for Kirkus, I named Michigan’s Loren D. Estleman as one of my “‘old reliables’—novelists who almost never disappoint.” I began reading Estleman’s fiction during the 1980s, after he’d published Motor City Blue, the opening entry in his series headlined by Detroit private investigator Amos Walker; and while I’ve branched out since to enjoy Estleman’s Western tales, plus his other works of crime fiction, I keep returning to Walker, who may have become a tad more irascible and impatient over time (haven’t we all?), but still satisfies my appetite for classic hard-boiled gumshoes. In his 26th outing, The Lioness Is the Hunter, Walker goes to work for Detroit capitalist Carl Fannon, who’s concerned that the abrupt disappearance of his partner Emil Haas will put their acquisition of the city’s historic Sentinel Building at risk. Yet almost before Walker has begun searching for Haas, the missing man contacts him and asks to meet in the vacant Sentinel. But instead of Haas, the PI finds Fannon’s corpse. Can answers to these perplexing turns be found in Fannon’s recent purchases of rundown Detroit properties? And is there truth to the rumors that Fannon was engineering those deals on behalf of the notorious Charlotte Sing, aka Madame Sing, with whom Walker tangled previously (see 2007’s American Detective)? Diving into a new Amos Walker story is as comforting as trying on old slippers. Just beware of flying bullets.
March: A Modern Massacre and a Bygone Blaze
New York journalist Julia Dahl made a hefty splash with her first novel, Invisible City (2014), which imagined an anxiety-prone young tabloid-newspaper stringer, Rebekah Roberts, tackling the puzzle of a Hasidic Jewish woman whose nude body was pulled from a Brooklyn scrap yard. Her chase after clues led Rebekah into that borough’s insular but influential Hasidic community, a subculture she’d been connected to only vaguely through her long-vanished mother. Invisible City captured a Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel and was followed by Run You Down (2015), in which Rebekah scrutinized the bathtub death of a Hasidic housewife, faced off with neo-Nazi hatemongers, and located a surprisingly large contingent of ultra-Orthodox Jews who’d rejected their religious upbringing. Now, in Conviction, we see our feisty heroine exasperated by her insecure position with the New York Tribune, and looking for a bigger story…one that may have just dropped into her lap, via a note causing Rebekah to re-examine the 1992 slaying of a black family in Brooklyn. The problem is, memories of that bloodshed can be short and unreliable, and even folks who know much about it (such as her ex-cop friend Saul Katz) don’t want to revisit the incident. Worse, Rebekah’s digging has drawn the unwelcome notice of someone with too many secrets, who’d like her and her questions to go away permanently.
I’m an enthusiastic reader of historical mystery and crime fiction, so it may seem unusual that the entire subgenre should be represented among these previews by a single book. That’s just how things worked out. And The Ashes of London, by multiple award-winner Andrew Taylor, is no common yarn. Its plot unfolds in early September, 1666, as the Great Fire of London consumes the medieval core of the English capital. Among those on hand to observe the decimation of St. Paul’s Cathedral is one James Marwood, a beleaguered junior clerk and the son of a Republican who lost everything when Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660. Spotting a boy too close to the flames, Marwood tries to pull him away—realizing in the aftermath that “he” is really a quick-tempered teenage girl, who bites him on the hand for his trouble and then filches his cloak. It turns out, that hellion is Catherine “Cat” Lovett, the daughter of a once-powerful religious extremist, who dreams of becoming an architect and escaping an arranged marriage. What links these two protagonists is not simply their families’ antagonistic relationship with the English throne, but the discovery, in the rubble of St. Paul’s, of a murdered man —stabbed and left with his thumbs laced together. Marwood is soon dragooned into investigating this homicide, as well as later atrocities, while political turmoil threatens to bring down the city as surely as a conflagration. Taylor shows an assiduous researcher’s touch in re-creating ruined London, though his skill at making us care about two characters damaged and adrift among forces beyond their control may be yet more estimable.J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine