Cynical me, I frequently look at lists of new books—crime, mystery, and thriller fiction especially, for obvious reasons—and wonder whether any of those works will be remembered 20, 30, or 50 years from now. Reader’s memories are short and lasting literary merit is damnably hard to predict. But sometimes the odds are favorable.
For instance, 50 years ago, in 1966, the Mystery Writers of America chose five contenders in its best crime novel of the year category: Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart; The Far Side of the Dollar, by Ross Macdonald; The Pale Betrayer, by Dorothy Salisbury Davis; The Perfect Murder, by H.R.F. Keating; and The Quiller Memorandum, by Adam Hall. It was Hall’s Cold War–era spy thriller (originally titled The Berlin Memorandum) that finally walked away with the prize. The point, though, is that most of those titles are still familiar; and even though Stewart’s romantic murder mystery and Davis’ espionage-and-homicide yarn aren’t the titles for which those authors are best remembered, they’re still available as print or e-books.
Who knows if the crime novels due for release this spring will be equally fortunate. But the fact that there are so many of them increases the probabilities. While I cannot list every one of those works here, you will find below a baker’s dozen of the new entries in this genre that I especially look forward to getting my hands on between now and the end of May. If any of these are still in print half a century from now, I’ll feel pretty smug—should I be alive enough to feel anything at all.
March: Stealing Corpses and Concealing a Grim Past
If Humphrey Bogart, Mark Twain, and Lizzie Borden can all serve as “celebrity sleuths” in modern mystery novels, then why not journalist-turned-poet Walt Whitman? In Speakers of the Dead, first-time Georgia novelist J. Aaron Sanders imagines Whitman brushing up his investigative acumen after his friend Lena Stowe is hanged in 1843 for the poisoning of her husband, with whom she had co-founded the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan. Whitman, a young reporter for the New York Aurora newspaper, is convinced of Lena’s innocence, despite charges that she’d done away with her husband in revenge for his having an affair with Mary Rogers, the “beautiful cigar girl” whose real-life but unsolved slaying in 1841 was a public sensation (and the impetus for Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”). With help from his editor and uncertain inamorato, Henry Saunders, Whitman pursues the case as it leads him into a treacherous world of body snatchers and anti-dissection zealots bent on destroying the Stowes’ school over its use of cadavers.
An even more unexpected historical yarn is Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye, author of the Timothy Wilde trilogy (The Gods of Gotham, etc.). This reimagining of Jane Eyre finds Charlotte Brontë’s romantic heroine cast in the role of a Victorian-era serial killer, who, after deftly eliminating her childhood tormenters, signs on in disguise as the governess for the new owner of her late and spiteful aunt’s former residence, one Charles Thornfield. While trying to learn whether she’s her aunt’s rightful heir, Jane loses her heart to Thornfeld, only to be burdened with the question of whether he can truly love her without being privy to her less-than-savory history. And in Glen Erik Hamilton’s Hard Cold Winter, the twisty, violence-filled sequel to last year’s Past Crimes, Donovan “Van” Shaw—a traumatized and recently discharged Army Ranger, reared in Seattle by a criminally connected grandfather—heads into Washington’s Olympic Mountains, looking for a missing woman, Elana Coll, who’d been a friend of his during their teenage thieving years. By the time he locates her, though, she’s been shot to death, along with a member of one of Seattle’s richest families. As he digs for clues to these murders, Shaw finds himself caught between shady business moguls and Russian mobsters.
April: Scandal in the Stacks and a Family’s Wicked Doings
My first exposure to Washington, D.C., writer Con Lehane came in 2002, when—as “Cornelius Lehane”—he published Beware the Solitary Drinker, his debut novel featuring failed law student, sometime-actor, veteran bartender, and inexpert crime solver Brian McNulty. Now Lehane is back with Murder at the 42nd Street Library, the opening entry in a new series. After writer/scholar James Donnelly is killed by a gunman in an office doorway at the New York Public Library’s flagship building, and the unknown assailant flees, the tongues of resident research librarians start flapping like book leaves in a breeze. But nobody is more curious about this slaying than Ray Ambler, middle-aged curator of the library’s crime-fiction collection. His inquiries soon reveal a rivalry between Donnelly and Maximilian Wagner, a “scandal-mongering sensationalist” at work on a biography of Nelson Yates, a contemporary mystery writer whose papers the library recently acquired under unusual circumstances. As the casualty count climbs, Ambler probes connections between the Donnelly, Wagner, and Yates families as well as the library’s roly-poly head of special collections, Harry Larkins. His commitment to finding out the truth, however, is tempered by his desire to safeguard the innocent, making it increasingly difficult for him to be candid with his homicide detective friend, Mike Cosgrove. Lehane offers a loving, nostalgic portrait of Manhattan, and he even manages to create a supporting role in his tale for grumpy barkeep McNulty.
Considerably darker is The Father. Its byline reads “Anton Svensson,” but that’s merely a pseudonym used by screenwriter Stefan Thunberg and investigative journalist Anders Roslund. The latter, together with Börge Hellström, penned Box 21 and Three Seconds. But The Father—part one of a two-novel series called “Made in Sweden”—is really Thunberg’s story to deliver, based as it is on the history of his own bank-robbing family. The Father’s taught and tragic narrative alternates between the present-day, where we witness three young criminal brothers—Leo, Felix, and Vincent—and their friend Jasper, plan and execute a succession of daring heists; and flashbacks that spotlight the siblings’ wrathful and abusive father, Ivan, who imparted to them all of the hatred and brutality that had poisoned him during the Balkan civil wars. With their futures circumscribed by violence and a troubled Stockholm cop on their tails, the brothers must ultimately confront the parent who shaped (or misshaped) them. A perchance welcome change of pace is available in The Letter Writer, by Dan Fesperman. The protagonist here is Woodrow Cain—or Citizen Cain, as he’s known around New York City’s 14th police precinct—a disgraced ex-North Carolina detective whose efforts to fit in at his new posting are hampered by the corruption, racism, and paternalism surrounding him in 1942. After being called in to resolve the seemingly simple murder of a man found floating in the Hudson River, Cain is quickly drawn into a much more complicated web of mysteries involving German immigrants in a fascist sect, a purportedly patriotic pact between civic and criminal leaders to curb Manhattan’s immigrant woes, and a “crackpot,” Maximilian Danziger, who writes letters for illiterate clients and knows far more about the city’s life than he shares.
Still need more suggestions? Then try The Butcher Bird, S.D. Sykes’ sequel to 2015’s Plague Land (a book I passed over, only to realize later what I was missing). Once again we’re transported back to 1350’s England, where Lord Oswald de Lacy, having sidestepped life as a monk and survived the bubonic plague, must deal with tenants desperate for higher wages (something he’s forbidden by law from providing), while also battling superstitions in order to figure out what happened to a newborn girl found impaled on a thorn bush. A supposedly mad villager claims she was killed by a monstrous bird, but Oswald has his eye on a human agent of malevolence. Or pick up a copy of Panther’s Prey, Shamus Award winner Lachlan Smith’s fourth outing for San Francisco attorney, now public defender, Leo Maxwell. Here he’s tasked with preserving the liberty of Randall Rodriguez, an autistic repeat offender accused of raping an investment banker. Maxwell and his comely co-counsel, Jordan Walker, win an acquittal with an argument based on Rodriguez’s pattern of admitting to misdeeds he didn’t commit…and then promptly sleep together in celebration. Only days later, though, Jordan is found dead in her apartment, along with evidence implicating Leo. After Rodriquez offers his confession to this felony as well, Jordan’s father asks Leo to investigate. But proving Rodriguez’s innocence will only leave Leo as the most likely suspect.
May: The Limits of Justice and Justifying Outrages
Luisa “Lu” Brant is the ambitious central figure in Laura Lippman’s latest standalone, Wilde Lake. She’s recently been elected as the state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland—a position once held by her eminent father—and is looking for a case that will justify voters’ faith in her abilities. She thinks she’s found it in the prosecution of a rather unbalanced transient charged with fatally assaulting a woman in her own residence. However, the trial preparations fetch up distressing recollections of another tragedy, from 1980. That was when her brother, A.J., apparently saved the life of his best friend at the cost of another man’s future. A.J. was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. But as Lu pursues the present-day investigation and its dependence on memories, she wonders whether she knows the truth about her brother’s actions—and whether America’s legal system can even provide the answers she needs. In light of Lippman’s successes with After I’m Gone (2014) and Hush Hush (2015), I’m more than willing to be led into the dicey psychological depths of Wilde Lake. No less promising is Irish novelist Anthony Quinn’s Silence, his third Inspector Celcius Daly mystery (after 2012’s Disappeared and 2013’s Border Angels). This time around, Daly becomes mixed up in the affairs of Father Aloysius Walsh, who devoted his final years to amassing evidence of an extended homicide spree that, during the 1970s, took place along the bog-and-blackthorn-filled border separating the Republic of Ireland from Daly’s homeland, Northern Ireland. So what provoked Father Walsh to speed through a police blockade and off the road to his death? Why, when Daly arrives at the scene, does he find members of Special Branch having preceded him there? And why is the name of Daly’s mother, who perished three decades ago, on the priest’s map of the border land killings?
Steve Hamilton, who has won the Edgar and Shamus awards for his tales of reluctant snoop Alex McKnight, now brings us The Second Life of Nick Mason, a work that follows a long tradition of boosting criminals into headline roles. This book—which was the cause of an infamous publishing contretemps last year, and is the first in a new series—imagines career malefactor Mason, who graduated from pilfering cars in Chicago to safe cracking, being sprung from prison after serving a fraction of his sentence, thanks to the intercession of crime boss and fellow inmate Darius Cole. The downside is that, while his freedom comes with a pricey town house and wheels, plus a lithe and lovely roommate, it also requires that he take on whatever assignments Cole gives him from behind bars, be it troubleshooting, body-guarding, or assassination. Those tasks are guaranteed to play havoc with Mason’s hopes of going straight and building a new life with his ex-wife and daughter.
Speaking of events going haywire…When last we saw Inspector Walter Day, in Alex Grecian’s The Harvest Man (2015), he’d agreed to disappear into the London darkness with Saucy Jack—Jack the Ripper, that is—in order to protect his own small family. Now, in Lost and Gone Forever, it’s a year later, 1891. Day’s whereabouts remain unknown. Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad has had to move on without his perceptive aid, and also without rashly daring Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, who’s started up a private investigations business. Hammersmith’s principal goal has been to find Day, a frustrating task funded by the inspector’s wife, who’s now a popular writer of children’s rhymes. A break in the case is coming, though, thanks in part to the search for a missing department store manager. At the same time, Day is abroad in London once more—only with no memory of who he is or where he belongs. Finally, a bit of lighter fare: Naomi Hirahara’s Sayonara Slam, her sixth novel starring Mas Arai—widower, Hiroshima survivor, and member of a dwindling Los Angeles breed, the Japanese gardener. While waiting at Dodger Stadium for the start of a baseball game that will pit Japanese players against a South Korean team, Mas is on hand for the perplexing death of a loudmouthed sportswriter. He becomes further involved when a young woman who’d known the deceased hires Mas as a translator and pursues an inquiry into players on whom the reporter had incriminating information. Few amateur detectives are as warm-hearted and welcome as the elderly Mas.