Probably because it marks the start of the summertime leisure reading season, June is becoming an important point on the calendar for ardent promoters of mystery and thriller fiction. Several U.S. publishers of genre works from around the world have conspired to publicize it as International Crime Fiction Month, while Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association touts June as National Crime Reading Month, with UK authors making special appearances at libraries and bookshops across their island nation.
Celebrating this fertile field of fiction, though, doesn’t require a substantial organizational endeavor. It simply demands you pay attention to the abundance of books available and dip into those surprising, suspenseful, and sometimes disturbing tales as time allows. If you’re looking for something new, there are plenty of crime novels due out over the next three sunnier months, by authors as diverse as David Swinson (The Second Girl), Susie Steiner (Missing, Presumed), Parker Bilal (City of Jackals), James Runcie (Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation), Emelie Schepp (Marked for Life), Robert Wilson (Stealing People), Lisa Brackman (Go-Between), Michael Gregorio (Think Wolf), Tricia Fields (Midnight Crossing), Duane Swierczynski (Revolver), John Connolly (A Time of Torment), Ann Holt (Dead Joker), and Joseph Finder (Guilty Minds). While all of those volumes will undoubtedly find fans upon their release, the following 20 have already caught my eye.
June: Arms Runners and a Disarming Country Doc
Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy’s initial historical grabber, Serpent in the Cold (2015), somehow escaped my radar. The same won’t happen with its equally Boston-based sequel, We Were Kings. After the icy, desolate winter that back-dropped Serpent, we’re offered here the skin-peeling heat wave of 1954, when “currents of lightning sparked and raced” across the sky without inciting rain, and Scollay Square—a once-vibrant urban quarter, fallen on seedy times—was being razed in a racket to make room for today’s Government Center. Tipped off that a ship bearing contraband intended for Irish Republican Army partisans will land at the Charlestown docks, local police lock down the harbor, only to turn up an empty vessel and an unidentified body tarred and feathered, perhaps left behind as a warning to other prospective IRA “rats.” Homicide detective Owen Mackey, worried about Beantown turning into a conduit for Ireland-bound armaments, asks his widowed cousin, Cal O’Brien—a former cop, now heading a private security outfit—to infiltrate the Irish community, see what can be learned. O’Brien, in turn, recruits his ex-heroin addict friend, piano player Dante Cooper, and together they dig among the city’s clubs, funeral parlors, and underworld dives until they expose a terrorist scheme of no small import….From the East Coast we leap to Los Angeles, the backdrop for Charcoal Joe, Walter Mosley’s 14th Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins novel. It’s still 1968 (as it has been for this series’ last two energetic entries, Little Green and Rose Gold), but Easy has switched to running the WRENS-L Detective Agency, its moniker mingling his initials with those of two talented associates. Having cut down on his vices (sex definitely not included), he’s ready to ask his girlfriend, Bonnie Shay, for her hand in marriage. Instead, he’s distracted by a case brought to him by his ever-dangerous cohort, Mouse Alexander. An elderly malefactor, Rufus “Charcoal Joe” Tyler, wants Easy to uncover evidence that will win 22-year-old black physicist Seymour Brathwaite release from charges that he killed a couple of crooks at a beach house. Working with too little information and around too many gunmen, Easy soon finds himself chasing up missing loot, fending off lustful ladies, and confronting racism at every blind turn. Mosley’s trenchant observations on life and his sparkling prose lend this series serious literary weight.
Two children reared in the same place, under similar circumstances, can still turn out to be dramatically different adults. That’s the simplest message in Michael Harvey’s powerful and poignant new novel, Brighton. The plot revolves around Kevin Pearce and Bobby Scales, who grew up together during the 1970s in Boston’s often rough, sometimes altogether discouraging Brighton neighborhood. What Bobby lacked in the way of parents and privilege, he more than made up for with a “quiet, pitiless gaze” that helped him survive his youth, and a talent for baseball that made him the envy of other adolescents, including Kevin. Meanwhile, Kevin was an altar boy with an abusive father and frightened mother, plus a couple of sisters (the elder of whom was prone to sadistic misdeeds) and a beloved grandmother, who operated a cab company and hired Bobby as one of her hacks. Then in 1975, the grandmother lost her life during a robbery, and Kevin—gun in hand—went looking for the alleged black perpetrator, Curtis Jordan. It was Bobby, however, who finally exacted revenge, telling Kevin to flee the scene. Now skip ahead 27 years, to 2002. Kevin has become a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Boston Globe, living on Beacon Hill with a highly photogenic, ambitious prosecutor, whose probe of an undercover policewoman’s murder reveals evidence linking the brutal homicide that landed Kevin his Pulitzer to Curtis Jordan’s long-ago execution. Sensing that Bobby—now a feared bookie—might be in danger, and their shared secret on the verge of exposure, Kevin returns to his old neighborhood, hoping to protect his boyhood pal. That’s the other message in this haunting yarn, that loyalty matters, but it can often come at a high cost. Chicago journalist Harvey (The Governor’s Wife, The Fifth Floor) grew up in Brighton and paints it here with a fine brush soaked in blood and angst.
On the heels of her popular domestic-intrigue debut novel, last year’s Concrete Angel, Patricia Abbott delivers the periodically gruesome Shot in Detroit, featuring Violet Hart, an ambitious and casually promiscuous loner who, at age 39, is still struggling to find her artistic niche as a photographer. Frustrated in her pursuit of inspiration among the homeless and break-of-day debauchees on Belle Isle, a once-fashionable park on the Detroit River, Violet takes a job from her “terribly handsome” lover, mortician Bill Fontenel, to shoot a young man’s corpse for his family. The results are well-received, and lead Violet to build a portfolio focusing on black men who’ve recently perished in the Motor City. Soon she begins to wonder, though, whether she’s celebrating the lives of her subjects, or exploiting them. And when her search for additional corpses pulls Violet into the center of a police investigation, she fears her obsession with the deceased might have gone a fraction overboard….James Sallis (author of the Lew Griffin detective novels, as well as Others of My Kind and Salt River) doesn’t compose long novels, but their emotional resonance is long-lasting. Willnot tells of a small “sneeze of a town” suddenly besieged by mysteries, from a mass grave site and an elusive AWOL sniper to an extraordinarily perspicacious 12-year-old and an FBI agent with an uncertain future. Lamar Hale, a former coma patient, son of a pulp science-fiction writer, and Willnot’s versatile physician/conscience, strives to resolve these puzzles, even as he tends to his hamlet’s ailing and lost souls. Whether he can do it all before violence reaches his own doorstep is what ultimately lends this novel drama. Sallis’ supple prose is buttressed by witty dialogue and thoughtful characterizations….More earnest is The Far Empty, a tale rooted in the oft-treacherous borderlands separating Texas from Mexico—“this godforsaken place where there’s more blood in the ground than water,” to quote author and real-life Drug Enforcement Administration agent J. Todd Scott. When skeletal remains are unearthed near the fictional U.S. town of Murfee, domineering local sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross dismisses it as another “river killing,” the victim likely an undocumented Mexican laborer or drug runner. But his new deputy, ex-football star Chris Cherry, happy for a diversion from his souring marriage and hungry to tackle a significant offense, won’t let the matter drop so easily. In the meantime, Ross’ 17-year-old son, Caleb, fears the body in the desert might be that of his mother, who disappeared 13 months ago, and he wants to catch whoever took her life. Could it be that their mutual quarry is none other than the arrogant Sheriff Ross? Scott’s narrative seems rather protracted on occasion—and it’s notably short of levity—but this first-time novelist’s familiarity with his setting and its habitués shines through on every page.
July: Roadway Accidents and Athletic Rivalries
Statistics show that since 2010, more than 1,700 people have perished in Great Britain every year as a result of car accidents. But Another One Goes Tonight, the 16th installment in Peter Lovesey’s dependable Peter Diamond series, has the cantankerous murder squad chief from Bath being dispatched to probe a single incident: a collision that left the constable dead behind the wheel, and his passenger seriously injured and unable to fully describe the disaster. Diamond thinks this duty is beneath him; yet his boss, Georgina Dallymore, hopes to forestall any talk of police negligence. It’s only once he reaches the incident scene that our hefty hero discovers (and saves) another casualty, an elderly tricyclist named Ivor Pellegrini. While all of this looks like mere bad luck, it might be something else entirely. Diamond’s suspicions are raised by the fact that the old man—left on life support by the crash—was transporting human ashes. Pellegrini was a recognized eccentric and the backbone of a local railway society, and several other members of that group have recently passed away due to what may only ostensibly have been natural causes. Which raises the question, who would want to knock off a bunch of harmless senior citizens, and why? Lovesey’s police procedurals blend quirky players, misdirection, and profuse bureaucratic snafus for maximum reader satisfaction….Keeping a pledge I made to myself two years ago—to revisit authors whose oeuvres I haven’t dipped into in a coon’s age—I gladly await receipt of A Grave Concern, Susanna Gregory’s 22nd whodunit featuring Matthew Bartholomew, a 14th-century healer and teacher at Michaelhouse College in Cambridge, England. The chancellor of Cambridge University has been slain, and it falls to Gregory’s forensic sleuth to identify the party responsible. At the same time, the physician’s Benedictine monk friend, Brother Michael, strives to advance a chancellor-replacement competition that somebody appears ready to manipulate—through further homicides, if necessary. Gregory (a pseudonym used by academic and former coroner’s officer Elizabeth Cruwys) offers a grim verisimilitude in her stories, portraying the medieval era’s crude medical practices and superstitions as equally disastrous for public health care.
Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-winning daughter of the aforementioned Patricia, returns to the angst-fraught world of adolescent girls in You Will Know Me, a thriller about championship athletics and parents who invest a bit too much in making their offspring famous. Devon Knox is a 15-year-old gymnastics prodigy, the child of Katie and Eric Knox, who is being assiduously groomed for a future spot in the Olympic Games. Meanwhile, she’s the prime attraction at BelStars gym, given only the best equipment by her mother and father and the finest training by coach Teddy Belfour, and inviting the most jealous glances from parents of teens less adroit at defying gravity. When, just prior to an Olympics qualifying competition, misfortune hits the gym community—Belfour’s tumbling-coach niece, Hailey, loses her boyfriend, Ryan, in a hit-and-run accident—Katie determines to protect Devon from the aftermath and keep her focused on her body-wrenching routines. That’s no easy task, however, as Hailey turns hostile toward Devon, rumors fly of Eric’s improprieties, and the Knoxes’ charming science-nerd son, Drew, shares his memories of odd nighttime doings. Even Katie is soon drawn to the flame of Ryan’s tragedy, and in the process learns things about her family and neighbors that she’d have been content not to know. Abbott rarely fails to stun with her character building and psychological surprises, and in You Will Know Me—inspired in part by a viral video—she hits those marks splendidly….Knox is coincidentally also the protagonist’s surname in Dr. Knox, a story that pits a well-meaning inner-city physician/sleuth against Russian mobsters and corporate bruisers, and is the latest book by Peter Spiegelman, who’s been off the radar ever since Thick As Thieves (2011). Reared amid privileged New Englanders, Adam Knox eventually escaped to work for an NGO in war-ravaged central Africa, and now operates a storefront clinic near Los Angeles’ Skid Row. In addition, he and sidekick Ben Sutter, a former Special Forces soldier and gun-for-hire, make profitable “house calls” on celebrated or criminal patients who aren’t in the market for standard health care. Then one day, an abused Romanian prostitute named Elena brings a small boy, Alex, into the clinic—and abandons him there. Leery of dropping Alex into the muddle of child protective services, Knox goes hunting for Elena, only to land squarely in the sights of some ruthless folk, such as conservative billionaire Harris Bray, who will do anything to find Elena first. Dr. Knox is the promising start to a series of full-tilt urban noirs.
August: Suspect Assaults and Dubious Loyalties
Laura McHugh follows up her dread-drenched debut suspense, The Weight of Blood (2014), with Arrowood, a creepy-old-house mystery claiming gothic aspirations. Twenty-something Arden Arrowood ditches her master’s degree program out west when she learns she’s inherited her family’s historic manse on the Mississippi River in southern Iowa. This turn of events offers hope of a better future, but it also leaves Arden to wrestle with disconcerting questions. In 1994, while then 8-year-old Arden was supposed to be watching her infant twin sisters, the girls vanished from that very home’s front yard; her strongest memory is of a yellow car hurtling down the road. Now, with her clan long broken asunder and the best suspect in the toddlers’ abduction freed for lack of evidence, and with support from her former neighbor and best friend, Ben Ferris—now a local dentist—Arden tries to figure out what really happened that harrowing summer…. British-born Canadian novelist Peter Robinson hasn’t shied from tackling serious or uncomfortable topics in his crime tales, and so we’re given not just one, but two rape cases, half a century apart, in When the Music’s Over, his dramatic 23rd outing for Yorkshire cop Alan Banks. Still getting used to his promotion to detective superintendent, the wine- and jazz-loving Banks takes on a definitively cold case involving poet Linda Palmer, who has come forward to accuse an old-hand entertainer, Danny Caxton, of sexually assaulting her back in 1967, when she was a teenager. Caxton, now 85 years old and reckoned something of a national treasure, denies the charge, but Palmer—knowing other UK celebrities have been prosecuted for similar outrages in recent years—thinks her grievance worth pursuing. As more women pile on incriminations against Caxton, Banks must search out evidence of scandal that’s not only elusive, but may be impossible to locate. He could certainly use assistance from his trusted colleague and sometime-girlfriend, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot. However, she’s too busy investigating the tragedy of 14-year-old Mimosa Moffat, who looks to have been drugged and violated, before being booted from a moving van and then beaten to death. Systemic child-sex exploitation, tense relations between white Brits and Pakistani Muslims, and the power of celebrity all come under scrutiny here.
Still need more reading suggestions for August? Then try Michael Koryta’s Rise the Dark, which finds private investigator Mark Novak (Last Words, 2015) hunting his wife’s suspected murderer in Montana….Or how about Mark Pryor’s The Paris Librarian, about ex-FBI profiler Hugo Marston in the fabled City of Light, endeavoring to solve the poisoning of a library director?...Another choice would be Charles Todd’s The Shattered Tree, which compels World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford to question the identity of a patient—a reported French officer who lashes out at her in German, before going missing….There’s more humor to be found in Bill Crider’s Survivors Will Be Shot Again, the 23rd novel featuring Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes, who here investigates a string of burglaries and the spread of cannabis crops….Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning has Armand Gamache, a former inspector with the Sûreté du Québec, signing on as commander of the Sûreté Academy, where he hopes to teach cadet trainees the high cost of police corruption—a point brought home by the slaying of the academy’s manifestly bent second-in-command….J. Robert Janes’ latest standalone, The Little Parachute, is a World War II espionage yarn about an alleged French Resistance fighter and the boy she’s trying to protect—a child who literally fell out of the sky….Julia Keller’s fifth Bell Elkins tale, Sorrow Road, has the West Virginia prosecuting attorney checking into peculiar deaths at an Alzheimer’s care facility, while Polish fictionist Zygmunt Miloszewski’s Rage sends his renowned prosecutor, Teodor Szacki, to the typically tranquil town of Olsztyn, where the chemically stripped bones of a man—recently deceased—have been found at a construction site.
Propitious choices, all. Now if I can only find enough free hours to read them.