Books Read in 2021: Four-Star Mystery

So we have this to look forward to in Ottawa this week-end. I have no idea how it's actually going to shake out - I mean, I feel like they're not the sharpest knives in the drawer showing up to protest government rules when there's no one in Parliament, but they have big fucking trucks and I have concerns about them blocking emergency vehicles and bringing the downtown to a standstill - mostly because a lot of them have said that's exactly what they want to do. I live solidly in suburbia and the likelihood is that the most it will amount to for me is inconvenience. But I feel a towering rage at the stupidity and selfishness on display here, in the name of some nebulous notion of 'freedom'. And naturally a number of far right players have glommed on to an opportunity for mayhem, and naturally a bunch of Conservative MPs are cheerfully and cluelessly voicing their support anyway, because it might make Justin Trudeau look bad. 

I feel like I should have something lighter to segue into the book part, but I don't. I saw one of my health care providers who has become a friend yesterday and her mother died of Covid last week. She had comorbidities, but they were all managed well, and she was active and fine and would absolutely be alive if not for Covid. And my friend was grateful and sympathetic to the hospital employees who took care of her mother, even though she couldn't see her for the five days she was in the hospital. Contrast that with these happy assholes blazing a path across Canada because they don't want to get vaccinated, or... something. I'm just so angry.

Four-Star Mystery

The Shadow by Melanie Raabe: Synopsis from Goodreads: 'On February 11 you will kill a man called Arthur Grimm. Of your own free will. And for a good reason.' Norah has just moved from Berlin to Vienna in order to leave her old life behind her for good when a homeless woman spits these words at her. Norah is unnerved- many years earlier, something terrible happened to her on February 11. She shrugs this off as a mere coincidence, however, until shortly afterwards she meets a man called Arthur Grimm. Soon Norah begins to have a dreadful suspicion- does she have a good reason to take revenge on Grimm? What really happened in the worst night of her life all those years ago? And can Norah make sure that justice is done without herself committing murder?

This wasn't really at all what I thought it was going to be - in a good way. I thought it was going to be a Sophie Hannah-esque mindfuck where something inexplicable happens and then somehow it's explicable in a really twisted way. Okay, it kind of is that, but not really. I enjoyed the European sensibility and the spare writing style. Norah is an almost proudly unlikable character in some ways, which I always find kind of refreshing. 

The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigen: Synopsis from Goodreads: Warren Botts is a disillusioned Ph.D., taking a break from his lab to teach middle-school science. Gentle, soft-spoken, and lonely, he innocently befriends Amanda, one of his students. But one morning, Amanda is found dead in his backyard, and Warren, shocked, flees the scene. As the small community slowly turns against him, an anonymous narrator, a person of extreme intelligence and emotional detachment, offers insight into events past and present. As the tension builds, we gain an intimate understanding of the power of secrets, illusions, and memories. Nicole Lundrigan uses her prodigious talent to deliciously creepy effect, producing a finely crafted page-turner and a chilling look into the mind of a psychopath.

Reminiscent of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. As an exceedingly bleak logic puzzle, it is brilliant. As a character study, it is amazing. As an extremely disheartening path to losing even more faith in humanity, it is superlative. As a read in February during a global pandemic it was a very poor choice and I had some regrets.

The Less Dead by Denise Mina: Synopsis from Goodreads: Margot is having a thirtysomething crisis: She's burning out at work, a public-health practice; she's just left her longtime boyfriend after discovering he was cheating; and her mother recently died. The only silver lining to her mother's death is that Margot, who was adopted, can finally go looking for her birth mother. 

What she finds is an imcomplete family--the only person left is Nikki, her mother's older sister. Aunt Nikki brings upetting news: Margot's mother is dead, murdered many years ago, one of a series of sex workers killed in Glasgow. The killer--or killers?--has never been found, Aunt Nikki claims. They're still at large... and sending her letters, gloating letters that include the details of the crime. Now Margot must choose: take the side of the world against her dead mother, or investigate her murder and see that justice is done at last. Darkly funny and sharply modern, Denise Mina's latest novel is an indelible, surprisingly moving story of daughters and mothers, blood family and chosen family, and how the search for truth helps one woman to find herself.

Denise Mina is devastatingly accomplished at writing mysteries with an acute sensibility regarding social inequality and injustice, the treatment of the mentally ill, domestic abuse and police corruption. She writes several excellent series, multiple really good stand-alones, and a fictional account of a wild true crime case. She can be penetrating and incisive, but is also often whimsical and humorous. Her talent is incredible. Also, she's Scottish so she probably has a killer accent. 

The Monsters We Make by Kali White: Synopsis from Goodreads: It's August 1984, and paperboy Christopher Stewart has gone missing. Hours later, twelve-year-old Sammy Cox hurries home from his own paper route, red-faced and out of breath, hiding a terrible secret. Crystal, Sammy's seventeen-year-old sister, is worried by the disappearance but she also sees opportunity: the Stewart case has echoes of an earlier unsolved disappearance of another boy, one town over. Crystal senses the makings of an award winning essay, one that could win her a scholarship - and a ticket out of their small Iowa town. Officer Dale Goodkind can't believe his bad luck: another town and another paperboy kidnapping. But this time he vows that it won't go unsolved. As the abductions set in motion an unpredictable chain of violent, devastating events touching each life in unexpected ways, Dale is forced to face his own demons. 

Told through interwoven perspectives--and based on the real-life Des Moines Register paperboy kidnappings in the early 1980's--The Monsters We Make deftly explores the effects of one crime exposing another and the secrets people keep hidden from friends, families, and sometimes, even themselves.

This could have gone in fiction, but I am frequently irritated by the short shrift given to genre fiction, and it is about crime, so...anyway, it was well-written, engaging and really interesting, considering it's a book about a serial killer before serial killers were really understood to be a thing. It's both fascinating and frustrating to see people treating issues like pedophilia, grooming and childhood trauma so ham-fistedly, and enraging seeing the poor abused child try to get help and fail. Crystal was a great character, the budding journalist desperate to pay enough dues to get out of a small town and coming so close so often to putting the pieces together. I don't usually love fictional books based on real events or true crime, or maybe it's more that I just don't reach for them often for whatever reason, but this was excellent.

The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway #1) by Elly Griffiths: Synopsis from Goodreads: Forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway is in her late thirties and lives happily alone with her two cats in a bleak, remote area near Norfolk, land that was sacred to its Iron Age inhabitants—not quite earth, not quite sea. But her routine days of digging up bones and other ancient objects are harshly upended when a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach. Detective Chief Inspector Nelson calls Galloway for help, believing they are the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing a decade ago and whose abductor continues to taunt him with bizarre letters containing references to ritual sacrifice, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Then a second girl goes missing and Nelson receives a new letter—exactly like the ones about Lucy. Is it the same killer or a copycat murderer, linked in some way to the site near Ruth’s remote home? 

I kept going back and forth on how I felt about this, which is likely down to my mood more than the book. I really liked the parts about the marsh and the henge, the archaeological significance and historical importance. I got a little annoyed by the insistence on portraying Ruth as a sad single lady and at the harping about her weight (not saying she shouldn't have been written that way, just that it rubbed me the wrong way). DCI Nelson is a good example of a Standard Issue British cop with a couple of flourishes that work. I sort of guessed the Bad Guy but that didn't really detract from the story. It didn't blow me away, but I will probably check out the next in the series.

The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur #2) by Elly Griffiths: Synopsis from Goodreads: The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should not be suspicious. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing out of the ordinary when Peggy’s caretaker, Natalka, begins to recount Peggy Smith’s passing. But Natalka had a reason to be at the police station: while clearing out Peggy’s flat, she noticed an unusual number of crime novels, all dedicated to Peggy. And each psychological thriller included a mysterious postscript: PS: for PS. When a gunman breaks into the flat to steal a book and its author is found dead shortly thereafter—Detective Kaur begins to think that perhaps there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all. And then things escalate: from an Aberdeen literary festival to the streets of Edinburgh, writers are being targeted. DS Kaur embarks on a road trip across Europe and reckons with how exactly authors can think up such realistic crimes.

This is by the same author as the previous book, but I had NONE of the associated ambivalence. This book made me wonder why EVERY book doesn't have a Ukrainian caregiver, a coffee shop guy and a random senior citizen trying to solve a murder. I would have said I have no use for 'cozies' (murder mysteries where sex and violence are only ever implied, not depicted, and the detectives are usually amateurs, which doesn't entirely work here because there is one actual police officer, but still), and generally my taste runs a bit darker (wait, not that I like reading descriptions of violence, stop looking at me like that), but this kind of thing - a meeting of disparate minds and personalities, events that run the gamut from offbeat to madcap - hit perfectly when I read it. 

The Dry (Aaron Falk #1) by Jane Harper: Synopsis from Goodreads: A small town hides big secrets in this atmospheric, page-turning debut mystery by award-winning author Jane Harper. In the grip of the worst drought in a century, the farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily when three members of a local family are found brutally slain. Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk reluctantly returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, loath to face the townsfolk who turned their backs on him twenty years earlier. But as questions mount, Falk is forced to probe deeper into the deaths of the Hadler family. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret. A secret Falk thought was long buried. A secret Luke's death now threatens to bring to the surface in this small Australian town, as old wounds bleed into new ones.

I can't get enough of Australian mystery series at the moment. This one has been on my radar for a while, finally got it from the library as an ebook. The sense of place and mood is incredible - viscerally atmospheric. You can practically feel the heat and taste the dust and desperation. Fantastic characters and descriptions. It's cinematic (has been made into a movie, in fact) but beautifully written. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Survivors by Jane Harper: Synopsis from Goodreads: Coming home dredges up deeply buried secrets... Kieran Elliott's life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran's parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away.

I borrowed this thinking it was another book in the same series as the previous book, but it's a standalone. I liked it maybe a little bit more even. The very first scene was so vividly described I read it several times - the landscape is almost a character in its own right, strikingly represented throughout. This is a book about relationships, between families and friends, and how misunderstanding and dysfunction therein results in tragic events. 

Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clark: Synopsis from Goodreads: Once a social worker specializing in kids who were the victims of violent crime, Elle Castillo is now the host of a popular true crime podcast that tackles cold cases of missing children in her hometown of the Twin Cities. After two seasons of successfully solving cases, Elle decides to tackle her white whale—The Countdown Killer. Twenty years ago, TCK abruptly stopped after establishing a pattern of taking and ritualistically murdering three girls over seven days, each a year younger than the last. No one’s ever known why—why he stopped with his eleventh victim, a girl of eleven years old, or why he followed the ritual at all.

When a listener phones in with a tip, Elle sets out to interview him, only to discover his dead body. And within days, a child is abducted following the original TCK MO. Unlike the experts in the media and law enforcement who have always spun theories of a guilty suicide, Elle never believed TCK had died, and her investigation was meant to lay that suspicion to rest. But instead, her podcast seems to be kicking up new victims.

Another mystery about a murder podcast. On Goodreads in the questions section for this book, someone asked 'would you recommend it'? and someone else kind of haughtily said no, why would you want to read about sadistic murder and the torment of families? And if you do, there's plenty of true crime out there. So... you're feeling superior for reading about ACTUAL murder rather than fictional? People are funny. I do wonder sometimes about why I've been drawn to books like this since I was quite young. I think it's just part of the desire to understand where violent impulses come from, as well as the whole "pity and fear" catharsis effect. Anyway, this was really good - intricately plotted, gives a good reckoning of the effects of working with this subject matter on the main character, suspenseful and smart. 

The Best Friend (Broden Legal #3) by Adam Mitzner: Synopsis from Goodreads: Back in 1986, Clint Broden was a novice New York defense attorney building a family with his wife, Anne, and impatient for his career to take off. That’s when his defense of his closest friend, Nick Zamora, made headlines. In spite of his lingering suspicions that his soul mate since childhood had a secret, Clint was dedicated to believing Nick hadn’t murdered his new bride. Three decades later, Clint is now the celebrated go-to attorney for the rich and famous. Nick is a lauded literary superstar living his dreams in Los Angeles. Though separated by thirty years and three thousand miles, they’re still bound by one thing—the trial that tested the limits of their friendship. After all these years, the last thing Clint expects is to be pulled back into Nick’s disruptive life. But this time, his motives for getting involved might be different from proving his old friend’s innocence. It could be Clint’s last chance to force a reckoning with the sins of the past.

Three and a half? I admit I thought "this isn't really my kind of thing" a couple times early on in the book, and then I realized I couldn't stop reading and really wanted to know where it was going. The prose is fairly workmanlike, and the narrative - even the trials, which you might think would merit a bit more detail - is brisk to the point of hurried, but it also doesn't get bogged down, it's just more of a beach read than a long courtroom procedural.
The sections from different viewpoints technique works really well here, and the twists feel earned rather than jammed in. There was one event that I thought deserved more attention, until I realized it's addressed in previous books in this series, and then I was grateful that the author didn't rehash it all in case I decided to read the other ones.
Despite the energetic pace, there are a few good moments of insight about marriage, friendships, betrayal, guilt and redemption, and some engaging explanations of parts of the law and the judicial process. The judge in Nick's second trial is an absolute badass and I love her.
This was an enjoyable and diverting pandemic read.

In Bitter Chill (DC Connie Childs #1) by Sarah Ward: Synopsis from Goodreads: In 1978, a small town in Derbyshire, England is traumatised by the kidnapping of two young schoolgirls. One girl, Rachel, is later found unharmed but unable to remember anything except that her abductor was a woman. 

Over thirty years later the mother of the still missing Sophie commits suicide. Superintendent Llewellyn, who was a young constable on the 1978 case, asks DI Francis Sadler and DC Connie Childs to look again at the kidnapping to see if modern police methods can discover something that the original team missed. However, Sadler is convinced that a more recent event triggered Yvonne Jenkins’s suicide. Rachel, with the help of her formidable mother and grandmother, recovered from the kidnapping and has become a family genealogist. She remembers nothing of the abduction and is concerned that, after Yvonne Jenkins’s suicide, the national media will be pursuing her for a story once more. Days later, the discovery of one of her former teachers’ strangled body suggested a chain of events is being unleashed. Rachel and the police must unpick the clues to discover what really happened all those years ago. But in doing so, they discover that the darkest secrets can be the ones closest to you.

I am fascinated by books that examine the effects of years-ago traumatic events on the present, and this was done incredibly well. Rachel's job as a family genealogist connects powerfully to the mystery, and the web of family secrets at the heart of the puzzle. For a debut novel the writing here is remarkably assured. Rachel is such a strong character that I sort of missed that the female Detective Constable was actually the series character - I feel like she comes into her own a bit more in the second book. 

The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor: Synopsis from Goodreads: An unconventional vicar moves to a remote corner of the English countryside, only to discover a community haunted by death and disappearances both past and present--and intent on keeping its dark secrets--in this explosive, unsettling thriller from acclaimed author C. J. Tudor. Welcome to Chapel Croft. Five hundred years ago, eight protestant martyrs were burned at the stake here. Thirty years ago, two teenage girls disappeared without a trace. And two months ago, the vicar of the local parish killed himself. Reverend Jack Brooks, a single parent with a fourteen-year-old daughter and a heavy conscience, arrives in the village hoping to make a fresh start and find some peace. Instead, Jack finds a town mired in secrecy and a strange welcome package: an old exorcism kit and a note quoting scripture. "But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed and hidden that will not be known." The more Jack and her daughter Flo get acquainted with the town and its strange denizens, the deeper they are drawn into their rifts, mysteries, and suspicions. And when Flo is troubled by strange sightings in the old chapel, it becomes apparent that there are ghosts here that refuse to be laid to rest.But uncovering the truth can be deadly in a village where everyone has something to protect, everyone has links with the village's bloody past, and no one trusts an outsider. 

Four books in, C.J. Tudor is a reliably great read for me - although it just now occurred to me to check which gender she was. She generally writes about small, insular communities featuring characters who unwillingly live there or are forced to return. There are hints of supernatural forces, but most destruction stems from bigotry, classism and humanity's worst impulses.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Koralitz: Synopsis from Goodreads: Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he's teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what's left of his self-respect; he hasn't written--let alone published--anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn't need Jake's help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then... he hears the plot. Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker's first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that--a story that absolutely needs to be told. In a few short years, all of Evan Parker's predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says. As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his "sure thing" of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

Hailed as breathtakingly suspenseful, Jean Hanff Korelitz's The Plot is a propulsive read about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it. 

Just to get it out there, if you're thinking that no author would be self-assured enough to first describe a plot as a can't-miss sure thing and then actually go ahead and write the plot? You would be wrong. If you're thinking that there's no way an author could formulate a plot that everyone would agree is a can't-miss sure thing? You would be right. That wasn't what was compelling about the book for me, though. Male writer characters - especially ones with writer's block, or ones that were previously successful and are now washed-up - can be incredibly annoying, but also kind of fascinating. The issue of Jake's guilt and terror of being discovered is also transfixing, in a sort of horrified schadenfreude way. See also: Stephen King's Secret Window Secret Garden.

Every Last Fear by Alex Finlay: Synopsis from Goodreads: They found the bodies on a Tuesday.” So begins this twisty and breathtaking novel that traces the fate of the Pine family, a thriller that will both leave you on the edge of your seat and move you to tears. After a late night of partying, NYU student Matt Pine returns to his dorm room to devastating news: nearly his entire family—his mom, his dad, his little brother and sister—have been found dead from an apparent gas leak while vacationing in Mexico. The local police claim it was an accident, but the FBI and State Department seem far less certain—and they won’t tell Matt why. The tragedy makes headlines everywhere because this isn’t the first time the Pine family has been thrust into the media spotlight. Matt’s older brother, Danny—currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his teenage girlfriend Charlotte—was the subject of a viral true crime documentary suggesting that Danny was wrongfully convicted. Though the country has rallied behind Danny, Matt holds a secret about his brother that he’s never told anyone: the night Charlotte was killed Matt saw something that makes him believe his brother is guilty of the crime. When Matt returns to his small hometown to bury his parents and siblings, he’s faced with a hostile community that was villainized by the documentary, a frenzied media, and memories he’d hoped to leave behind forever. Now, as the deaths in Mexico appear increasingly suspicious and connected to Danny’s case, Matt must unearth the truth behind the crime that sent his brother to prison—putting his own life in peril—and forcing him to confront his every last fear. Told through multiple points-of-view and alternating between past and present, Alex Finlay's Every Last Fear is not only a page-turning thriller, it’s also a poignant story about a family managing heartbreak and tragedy, and living through a fame they never wanted.

Okay, fine, maybe I AM a twisted sicko. I really, really liked this though. Not because of all the death and heartbreak, but because of the retracing of the family's journey which had a lot of redemption involved. They were still dead at the end, but that happens in regular fiction too!


I was fairly disheartened to see that some of Keith’s wacked out anti vax cousins travelled from BC to Ontario along with the whole mass of truckers. I’ve had a lot of arguments with this side of the family over these number of months but for them to align themselves with such a disgusting group is really my limit. I’m not sure how I will ever interact with them in any civilized manner again.

But. Back to the books. I’ve read Jane Harper. Her ability to describe the scenery is like nothing else. I feel like I’ve lived in the Australian outback from The Dry. That was an intense experience.
Suzanne said…
Not me adding nearly all of these to my Goodreads...

A) I feel we are KINDRED SPIRITS in our love for this kind of fiction. B) I don't know that I have ever "met" another Sophie Hannah fan? She is my FAVORITE, and I know you just mentioned her in an aside about another novel, but I just love how she comes up with -- as you said -- totally inexplicable premises and them makes them seem totally reasonable. C) Agree with you 100% about The Plot (the whole time, I was like, "We're never going to HEAR this plot, are we?" and then we did and it didn't in any way live up to the hype, and yet I also really enjoyed the book). Not quite sure why that was a parenthetical but here we are.

Have you read Rock Paper Scissors? I can't recall. I just finished it and thought it had some good twists.
StephLove said…
I'm surprised I hadn't heard of the paperboy murders, as Beth and I lived in Iowa (2 hours from Des Moines) for two years not long after the book takes place (1989-91). We even got the Register.

When I taught a class on horror and we'd talk about why to read/watch this stuff, I used to say the best of it is a meditation on the nature of good and evil and the worst is exploitation. But even so I ended up watching a lot of slasher movies my students were writing research papers on, so I'd know what they were talking about. I thought I'd hate them, but for the most part I really didn't, so maybe something is wrong with me, too.
StephLove said…
BTW, one of my right-wing cousins (I have a few) has been posting in support of the anti-vaxx truckers.

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