I must take issue with the makers of summer reading lists who contend that the ideal books for this time of year are short, light in tone and never, ever intellectually challenging. That’s just insulting. I, for one, don’t turn my brain off every time I check into a vacation hotel or dip my toes into a beach’s sizzling sand. In fact, the books I pack along for sunny holidays are really no different from those I would read during any other week of the year; I just expect to have more hours to sit quietly and relish them.
The next three months will provide plenty of reasons for readers of crime, mystery and thriller works to be thankful for spare hours. After all, we’re looking at a U.S. publishing schedule that includes the release of Megan Abbott’s The Fever (June), Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe (June), Jason Goodwin’s The Baklava Club (June), M.J. McGrath’s The Bone Seeker (July), James Lee Burke’s Wayfaring Stranger (July), Jeri Westerson’s Cup of Blood (July), Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn (August), Linwood Barclay’s No Safe House (August), Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home (August) and…well, if I keep going I’ll wind up with a catalogue rivaling the list of more than 260 titles I compiled recently for The Rap Sheet.
Better that you should find your own pleasurable course through the flood of crime fiction to be unleashed this summer. Below are half a dozen more novels I think worthy of your attention, but let me know if you find other must-reads.
The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson (June):
Londoner Tom Hawkins is an inveterate ne’er-do-well, preferring to take chances and enjoy himself rather than follow a secure, practical path through life. When, in 1727, he is threatened with incarceration for his debts, he acts true to form, gambling an old friend’s small stake in hopes of raising enough money to satisfy his creditors. He wins…only to be mugged soon after and tossed into the Marshalsea, an infamous prison with a capitalist economy that favors cash-bearing inmates. Hawkins winds up bunking with Samuel Fleet, an eccentric gent seen by many in the Marshalsea as the devil incarnate, perhaps responsible for murdering his last roommate. Hawkins wants out, and fast. But his only hope of early release might be to buckle down and solve the recent slaying of another jailbird, Capt. John Roberts, whose attractive wife has been agitating for an investigation, and whose ghost allegedly haunts the prison grounds. While Hodgson could’ve done better, through pacing and language, to reinforce this yarn’s 18th-century setting, she’s generous with historical color and intriguing period horrors.
Those Who Wish Me Dead, by Michael Koryta (June):
Fourteen-year-old Jace Wilson was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming the only witness to a horrific homicide. Although he fled the scene, the killers spotted him. When Jace’s parents refuse to place their son under conventional government protection, he’s sent instead to a survival-training program for troubled teens in the Montana wilderness, operated by Air Force veteran and elite skills instructor Ethan Serbin. Ethan’s wife worries that hiding this boy in their camp will endanger the other participants, but her husband won’t be dissuaded from taking him in. Arriving in Montana under an assumed moniker, Jace proves quite lacking in self-assurance, but he’s a quick study when it comes to backwoods preparation. Which is a fortunate thing, because the two baneful brothers behind the murder Jace observed have managed to track him down, and now it’s up to Ethan, a young fire watcher and of course Jace to make sure he doesn’t wind up in a grave rather than on a witness stand. Koryta’s usual expertise in character development isn’t well displayed here, but this stand-alone follow-up to The Prophet (2012) is abundant with momentum and tension.
City of Devils, by Diana Bretherick (July):
OK, I admit it, I’m a sucker for “celebrity sleuths,” genuine historical figures involuntarily impressed into the service of solving fictional transgressions. Most such characters are amateurs in the world of clue collection, fingerprinting and suspect-grilling. That’s not the case, however, in this debut novel (which won the 2012 Good Housekeeping new novel competition) concocted by a British lecturer in criminal law. It imagines James Murray, a youthful pupil of Dr. Joseph Bell—the same Edinburgh medical school lecturer who inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—arriving in Turin, Italy, in 1887 to study with renowned criminologist Cesare Lombroso. Introductions have barely been made, though, when a disfigured corpse is found with a note on it reading “A Tribute to Lombroso.” Police believe the criminologist knows something about this outrage, and his indifference to defending himself only adds to their suspicions. As Lombroso’s enemies conspire to take him down, Murray, alongside fellow student Salvatore Ottolenghi and a bewitching housekeeper, Sofia, employ the professor’s own theories about forensic science in hopes of saving Turin from further bloodshed. Bretherick can be overly descriptive at points, and some of the detective work here is inept; but Murray’s personal story keeps you engaged.
World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters (July):
Winters leapt boldly into the intersection between speculative fiction and crime fiction with his Edgar Award–winning 2012 novel, The Last Policeman, which imagined a rookie detective in New Hampshire, Hank Palace, still trying to clear his caseload—even as an asteroid threatens to destroy life on Earth within six months. He followed that with Countdown City (2013), and now delivers the final installment in his trilogy, World of Trouble. With a mere two weeks to go before impact, and anarchy reigning, Palace sets off from New England to Ohio in search of his sister, Nico, who may have joined a contingent of radicals hoping to alter the asteroid’s course. His path leads to an abandoned police station, where the clues to untangling a brutal assault might also answer questions about his sibling’s fate. As fascinating as Winters’ imagined societal breakdown can be, it’s his attention to human connections—heartfelt, heroic and lethal—that really make this trilogy worth reading.
City of Ghosts, by Kelli Stanley (August):
It’s the summer of 1940, and escort-turned-gumshoe Miranda Corbie—still reeling from word that her mother, who abandoned her years ago, might be alive and trapped in war-ravaged England—agrees to help a San Francisco socialite retrieve her filched jade necklace. It seems to be a task without risk. Yet no sooner is it done than the haughty client is murdered, and cops figure our heroine for the crime. Meanwhile, Miranda is approached by a State Department acquaintance who wants her to keep tabs on a chemistry professor suspected of dishing secrets to the Nazis. Miranda knows she’s being used (“I’m expendable, and my reputation isn’t exactly Lady Astor. So if I’m caught—I’m caught.”); however, the payoff for this assignment includes passage to Britain, where she can seek her lost parent. Partying with Hitler’s followers, a danger-fraught train excursion and more deaths follow, as Miranda tries to get to the bottom of what may be a wartime scam. Stanley’s protagonist looks like Rita Hayworth and talks like Sam Spade in pumps, but Miranda is nobody’s fool, as she proves time and again.
The Reckoning, by Rennie Airth (August):
Although he’d planned only a trilogy of novels about Scotland Yard inspector John Madden, beginning with 1999’s River of Darkness and concluding with 2009’s underappreciated The Dead of Winter, Airth has suddenly introduced this fourth entry into the series. And a welcome addition it is. Set in 1947, it ropes Madden—who’s currently enjoying retirement with his village-doctor wife in the Surrey countryside—into a case of apparently random killings. The first victim was an unassertive banker, shot in broad daylight. The second was a Scottish physician, executed in like manner and perhaps with the same weapon. As Insp. Billy Styles, Madden’s erstwhile protégé, investigates these homicides and more in their wake, he’s disturbed by a note the banker left behind, unfinished, requesting contact information for Madden. The ex-cop insists he knew neither victim. Despite that, he joins Styles and a rare female detective on the London force, Lily Poole, to determine what ties the killer’s targets together, and whether they can prevent more fatalities to come.