Books Read in 2020: Four-Star Mystery

Last week I was almost out of hairspray - this hair doesn't work without spray, I'm not proud of it but there it is. I mean I was almost out of the good hairspray. I have backup hairspray, which is really just hairspray that I bought by mistake but discovered was too sticky. I usually get the good hairspray at my hair salon but it's closed. I feel really bad for them because they had moved and expanded not long before Covid started, and I'm really hoping they'll be okay. But also I can't get my hairspray. Sometimes I can get it on Amazon, but they didn't have it either. I was going to check the drug store, and then I remembered that I've been better lately at stocking up on stuff before I'm down to the dregs. I had zero memory of buying any, but I looked under the sink in the bathroom where I put the back-up contact solution and deodorant and there was a FULL CAN. This almost makes up for three days later when I ordered CPAP filters and then found that I already had six months' supply under the sink. On the bright side, six months from now when I reorder them again, I will also then find those same supplies. Wait, that's.... not a bright side, except that I guess it's better than running out of supplies, because when I do actually manage to fall asleep then I won't be starving my brain of oxygen - it's a little thing, but a nice thing. And also, when I checked the drugstore my hairspray wasn't there, is my hairspray being discontinued, because that would NOT BE COOL.

 Four-Star Mystery

Conviction by Denise Mina: Synopsis from Goodreads: It’s just a normal morning when Anna's husband announces that he's leaving her for her best friend and taking their two daughters with him. With her safe, comfortable world shattered, Anna distracts herself with someone else's story: a true-crime podcast. That is until she recognises the name of one of the victims and becomes convinced that only she knows what really happened. With nothing left to lose, she throws herself into investigating the case. But little does she know, Anna's past and present lives are about to collide, sending everything she has worked so hard to achieve into freefall.

Four and a half, verging closely on five. I love that with a Denise Mina book I don't know what I'm going to get, but whatever it is will be good. I love that the protagonist is highly, almost proudly, unlikable (with some very good reasons). I love that this is a dark murder mystery crossed with a madcap picaresque romp, intercut with some very affecting moments of insight and connection. At first I kept forgetting that the characters weren't in the same pandemic conditions I am and wondering how they could go to restaurants and cross borders, but eventually I started to forget, which is as big a compliment to this book as anything else I could say. 

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld: Synopsis from Goodreads: After captivating readers in The Child Finder, Naomi—the investigator with an uncanny ability for finding missing children—returns, trading snow-covered woods for dark, gritty streets on the search for her missing sister in a city where young, homeless girls have been going missing and turning up dead. From the highly praised author of The Child Finder and The Enchanted comes The Butterfly Girl, a riveting novel that ripples with truth, exploring the depths of love and sacrifice in the face of a past that cannot be left dead and buried. A year ago, Naomi, the investigator with an uncanny ability for finding missing children, made a promise that she would not take another case until she finds the younger sister who has been missing for years. Naomi has no picture, not even a name. All she has is a vague memory of a strawberry field at night, black dirt under her bare feet as she ran for her life. The search takes her to Portland, Oregon, where scores of homeless children wander the streets like ghosts, searching for money, food, and companionship. The sharp-eyed investigator soon discovers that young girls have been going missing for months, many later found in the dirty waters of the river. Though she does not want to get involved, Naomi is unable to resist the pull of children in need—and the fear she sees in the eyes of a twelve-year old girl named Celia. Running from an abusive stepfather and an addict mother, Celia has nothing but hope in the butterflies—her guides and guardians on the dangerous streets. She sees them all around her, tiny iridescent wisps of hope that soften the edges of this hard world and illuminate a cherished memory from her childhood—the Butterfly Museum, a place where everything is safe and nothing can hurt her. As danger creeps closer, Naomi and Celia find echoes of themselves in one another, forcing them each to consider the question: Can you still be lost even when you’ve been found? But will they find the answer too late? 

Denfeld writes beautifully, and also uses the medium of a very skillful mystery to shine a devastating light on the lives of marginalized people. The outlining of Celia's days on the street reminded me of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  - it's one thing to say "she lived on the streets" or "he lived in a Stalinist work camp", but it's another to walk through the humiliating details of a day where the smallest dignities and comforts are very difficult to come by. I feel a bit like the author's plots have become more accessible with every successive book - The Enchanted was quite a bit more literary and enigmatic. I'm not sure if I'm hoping for another book in this series next, or another standalone. Whichever it is,  I'm in. 

The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sagar: Synopsis from Goodreads: Fifteen years ago, summer camper Emma Davis watched sleepily as her three cabin mates snuck out of their cabin in the dead of night. The last she--and anyone--saw of them was Vivian closing the cabin door behind her, hushing Emma with a finger pressed to her lips. Now a rising star in the NYC art scene, Emma turns her past into paintings.. They catch the attention of Francesca Harris-White, the socialite and wealthy owner of the very same Camp Nightingale--and when Francesca implores Emma to return to the camp as a painting counselor, Emma sees an opportunity to find closure and move on. Yet, it is immediately clear that all is not right at Camp Nightingale. Already haunted by surfacing memories, Emma is suddenly plagued by a security camera pointed directly at her cabin, mounting mistrust from Francesca, and, most disturbing of all, cryptic clues Vivian apparently left behind about the camp's twisted origins. And as history begins to repeat itself and three girls go missing again, Emma must face threats from both man and nature in order to uncover all the buried secrets--including what really happened all those years ago.

I had some pretty big issues with the author's first book, so I hesitated before picking this up. I am a sucker, however, for a good summer camp yarn. One of the books I remember most vividly from when I was ten or so is called Five in a Tent. Even better if there are sinister deaths and disappearances involved - hello, Friday the 13th? Dead of Summer on Netflix? Shut up and take my money. Also, authors deserve a chance to grow and improve. Also, I could get it as a library ebook.
I did indeed find this a vast improvement over Final Girls (which I really, really wanted to love, but didn't). The author captures the fraught dynamic between adolescent girls in close quarters very well, and the mystery is quite satisfying. There are a few details that are a bit too much of a stretch - the fact that Emma takes three girls canoeing over to an island and doesn't tell anyone and then is confused about why her boss is angry is kind of dumb, and I could have used a bit more regular activity between Emma's bouts of running around throwing up and being nervy. The romance is also too much tell and not enough show. Overall, though, a pretty good read that kept me entertained during a couple of flights. 

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager: Synopsis from Goodreads: What was it like? Living in that house.Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a nonfiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity—and skepticism.Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale. But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself—a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.In the latest thriller from New York Times bestseller Riley Sager, a woman returns to the house made famous by her father’s bestselling horror memoir. Is the place really haunted by evil forces, as her father claimed? Or are there more earthbound—and dangerous—secrets hidden within its walls?

Good fun. This has the flavour of an eighties scary movie - old, eminently hauntable house, family secrets, missing memories, cinematic reveals etc. A good main character with a decent head on her shoulders. A couple of twists that feel well earned. 

The Hidden Things by Jamie Mason: Synopsis from Goodreads: A hair-raising, atmospheric thriller from the acclaimed author of the “ripping good” (The New York Times) novel Three Graves Full, inspired by the real-life unsolved theft of a seventeenth-century painting. Twenty-eight seconds. 

In less than half a minute, a home-security camera captures the hidden resolve in fourteen-year-old Carly Liddell as she fends off a vicious attack just inside her own front door. The video of her heroic escape appears online and goes viral. As the view count climbs, the lives of four desperate people will be forever changed by what’s just barely visible in the corner of the shot. Carly’s stepfather is spurred to protect his darkest secret: how a stolen painting—four hundred years old, by a master of the Dutch Golden Age—has come to hang in his suburban foyer. The art dealer, left for dead when the painting vanished, sees a chance to buy back her life. And the double-crossed enforcer renews the hunt to deliver the treasure to his billionaire patrons—even if he has to kill to succeed. But it’s Carly herself, hailed as a social-media hero, whose new perspective gives her the courage to uncover the truth as the secrets and lies tear her family apart.

An incredibly literary thriller. I read a review that called this 'plot-driven' which made me bark with laughter, because it is possibly the most character-driven mystery I have ever read. It came perilously near to edging into farce a couple of times, straining credulity that so many of the people in play here were so very in tune with their own traits, motivations, flaws and conflicts as well as those of every other person they meet. The fact that one of the characters is a young teenager just makes it that much more incredible. But that's okay - better, in my opinion, than dull, two-dimensional characters. Enjoyable and a little different. Also led to a comical moment when I got it from the library at the same time as The Hiding Place (similar title AND cover) and at one point felt like I was holding a book while simultaneously staring at the same book on a table across the room. 

Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson: Synopsis from Goodreads: From the Agatha-award winning author of Quiet Neighbors comes a twisty, fascinating standalone that begs the question: how well can we ever know the people around us?

 When Finn and Paddy decide to move from their home in the city to the small town of Simmerton, it feels like everything has finally fallen into place. Paddy's been made partner at the law firm in town, and Finn has found full-time work as the deacon. Paddy's new boss has even offered them the use of a gate house on his property. Finn feels like this must be a fairy tale. Paddy thinks they've won the lottery. Either way, they agree: it's perfect. But only days after moving into the gate house, Finn begins to have doubts. She keeps hearing strange sounds, and the thicket of trees make her feel claustrophobic rather than safe. When she and Paddy discover the bloody bodies of Paddy's boss and his wife, the fairytale has officially ended. A strange email—supposedly sent from the dead man—makes it clear: this was murder. Paddy and Finn's dream of a new life quickly turns into a nightmare as the plot thickens and the tension grows. With strange neighbors and a haunting setting, Catriona McPherson once again weaves a page-turning tale of suspense. 

This was cool and not at all formulaic. Another character of faith faced with a difficult situation that tests that faith to its limit. The workings of Finn and Paddy's relationship and their relationship with their parents were a great story all on their own. There was one small part that was so incredibly far-fetched I still get mad when I remember it, but that wasn't enough to detract from the overall goodness.

Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley: Synopsis from Goodreads: A chilling debut thriller in the vein of Dexter and The Talented Mr RipleyMartin Reese has a hobby: he digs up murder victims. He buys stolen police files on serial killers, and uses them to find and dig up missing bodies. Calls in the results anonymously, taunting the police for their failure to do their job. Detective Sandra Whittal takes that a little personally. She’s suspicious of the mysterious caller, who she names the Finder. Maybe he’s the one leaving the bodies behind. If not, who’s to say he won’t start soon? As Whittal begins to zero in on the Finder, Martin makes a shocking discovery. It seems someone—someone lethal—is very unhappy about the bodies he’s been digging up. 

Hunted by a cop, hunted by a killer. To escape and keep his family safe, Martin may have to go deeper into the world of murder than he ever imagined.

Maybe three and a half. The first half was really cool and different and interesting. The last half lost me a bit, sort of devolving into a standard ooh-so-edgy murder thing. It was nearly very good and seemed to kind of back down, although it's possible it was just my mood. The initial conceit is enjoyably different, and I did very much enjoy the interplay between the cop and her partner in the alternate chapters. 

The Poet by Michael Connelly: Synopsis from Goodreads: Denver crime-beat reporter Jack McEvoy specializes in violent death. So when his homicide detective brother kills himself, McEvoy copes in the only way he knows how--he decides to write the story. But his research leads him to suspect a serial killer is at work--a devious murderer who's killing cops and leaving a trail of poetic clues. It's the news story of a lifetime, if he can get the story without losing his life.

First read in July 2011. I reread it because a new Connelly book about McEvoy was coming out and then I realized I had missed the second one. I regret rereading it a tiny bit because it was a little better in my memory than it was in reality this time. The mystery was excellent and the writing was pretty good, but the romance and sex was a little cringey. I probably would have gone with 3.5 stars, but I'm leaving it at four and decided to wait for the subsequent books as library ebooks.

Hid From Our Eyes (Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne #9) by Julia Spencer-Fleming: Synopsis from Goodreads: New York Times bestseller Julia Spencer-Fleming returns to her beloved Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series with new crimes that span decades1952. Millers Kill Police Chief Harry McNeil is called to a crime scene where a woman in a party dress has been murdered with no obvious cause of death. 1972. Millers Kill Police Chief Jack Liddle is called to a murder scene of a woman that's very similar to one he worked as a trooper in the 50s. The only difference is this time, they have a suspect. Young Vietnam War veteran Russ van Alstyne found the body while riding his motorcycle and is quickly pegged as the prime focus of the investigation. Present-day. Millers Kill Police Chief Russ van Alstyne gets a 911 call that a young woman has been found dead in a party dress, the same MO as the crime he was accused of in the 70s. The pressure is on for Russ to solve the murder before he's removed from the case. Russ will enlist the help of his police squad and Reverand Clare Fergusson, who is already juggling the tasks of being a new mother to her and Russ's baby and running St. Alban's Church, to finally solve these crimes. 

Readers have waited years for this newest book and Julia Spencer-Fleming delivers with the exquisite skill and craftsmanship that have made her such a success.

I've been a huge fan of this series from book one. I mean, come on, a female very non-traditional priest (and ex-army helicopter pilot) and a very traditional small-town police chief? With instant chemistry? Out of my dreams and into my book. It was a long, long wait between the previous book and this one, and I was so happy to see it finally show up. It's extremely character-driven, and the characters are amazing. Clare's constant struggle to stay true to her faith while helping people in the all-too-real world, and Russ's integrity, compassion and curmudgeonliness are admirable and entertaining. Along with some of the best will-they won't-they suspense ever, the setting and the supporting characters are vivid and well done. This one gives some deep backstory and also deals with some very topical concerns. The mystery is far-fetched, but still works, I think - honestly I might not be the most reliable on that, because unless it was terrible I was going to be okay with it. 

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas: Synopsis from Goodreads: There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook. First there was the car accident—two girls gone after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know why he did it. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they lost. That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But for Monica, it’s not that easy. She just wants to forget. Only, Monica’s world is starting to unravel. There are the letters in her stepdad’s desk, an unearthed, years-old cell phone, a strange new friend at school. . . . Whatever happened five years ago isn’t over. Some people in town know more than they’re saying. And somehow Monica is at the center of it all. There are no more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe. 

This author writes intelligent YA that addresses real issues and has characters that act and talk like teenagers, with outsized mysteries as a connective tissue. I like books where several different plotlines come together, and she does that well. I also like that she shows teen-aged girls that are able to have different kinds and levels of relationships, without defaulting to mean girl or lovesick tropes. 

The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup: Synopsis from Goodreads: The heart-pounding debut from the creator of the hit Scandinavian television show The Killing. If you find one, he’s already found you. A psychopath is terrorizing Copenhagen. His calling card is a “chestnut man”—a handmade doll made of matchsticks and two chestnuts—which he leaves at each bloody crime scene. Examining the dolls, forensics makes a shocking discovery—a fingerprint belonging to a young girl, a government minister’s daughter who had been kidnapped and murdered a year ago. A tragic coincidence—or something more twisted? To save innocent lives, a pair of detectives must put aside their differences to piece together the Chestnut Man’s gruesome clues. Because it’s clear that the madman is on a mission that is far from over. And no one is safe.

I found this on my Kindle with no memory of buying it. It's by the scriptwriter for the Danish tv show The Killing - I've only watched the American version, which was very good. The book was also good - very Scandinavian in setting and tone. I actually looked up whether it rains that much in Copenhagen after reading multiple passages about the the characters' clothing and shoes being soaked through. Apparently it does, which begs the question - wouldn't they get better rain gear and rubber boots? Or is walking around soggy all the time just a good motivator? Whatever, it does definitely evoke a vivid sense of place. The mystery is a good, classic serial killer thriller, with a sinister signature, a mystery stretching into the past and a couple of pretty effective twists. 

The Holdout by Graham Moore: Synopsis from Goodreads: In this twisty tale from Moore (The Sherlockian), the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, young juror Maya Seale is convinced that African American high school teacher Bobby Nock is innocent of killing the wealthy white female student with whom he appears to have been involved and persuades her fellow jurors likewise. Ten years later, a true-crime docuseries reassembles the jurors, and Maya, now a defense attorney, must prove her own innocence when one of them is found dead in Maya's room.

This was a bit uneven in tone, but the ending bumped it up to four stars for me. I always find stories about jury dynamics interesting, and the musings about the strengths and limitations of the justice system are engrossing. The mystery is a little stronger than the characters. Be warned that the book gives away the ending to The Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and possible the Murder of Roger Ackroyd too - some people on Goodreads were incensed about this because those were the very books they were going to read next and now their lives were ruined (yes, I am a tiny bit underwhelmed by complaints about spoilers for books that were published in the early 1900s, I might be wrong, it's happened before).

Missing Person by Sarah Lotz: Synopsis from Goodreads: From acclaimed horror writer Sarah Lotz, hailed by Stephen King as "vastly entertaining," a new novel about a group of amateur detectives infiltrated by the sadistic killer whose case they're investigatingReclusive Irish bookseller Shaun Ryan has always believed that his older brother, Teddy, died in a car accident. It's only on his mother's deathbed that he learns the truth: Teddy, who was gay, fled the Catholic, deeply conservative County Wicklow for New York decades earlier. Shaun finds no sign of him in New York or anywhere else--until he comes across the unsolved murder of a John Doe whose description matches Teddy's. Desperate for information, Shaun tracks down Chris Guzman, a woman who runs a website dedicated to matching missing persons cases with unidentified bodies. Through Chris's site, a group of online cold case fanatics connect Teddy with the notorious "Boy in the Dress" murder, believed to be one of many committed by a serial killer targeting gay men. But who are these cold case fanatics, and how do they know so much about a case that left the police and the FBI stumped? With investigators, amateurs, and one sadistic killer on a collision course, Missing Person is Sarah Lotz at her most thrilling and terrifying.

I read two books by Sarah Lotz this year - I'm not sure why, maybe I read a short story by her? - and they were very different from each other. The other one was fine, but this was a level up. There's a moving novel about family secrets and damage in parallel with a very satisfying mystery. The website means there are great, nuanced characters in several different settings and situations all obsessed with the case for different, compelling reasons. Chris Guzman (the prickly, wheelchair-bound badass who runs the missing persons website) often pops into my head and I have to think for a moment to remember what book she's from - I would be into her getting her own series. 


I can't live without hairspray either. In fact, I cannot even imagine living without hairspray. I'm glad you have a backup can. I know that feeling of yes, I can buy it on Amazon but I don't want to - I've had it several times in this pandemic.

How DO people live without hairspray?
Swistle said…
I added a LOT of these to my library list / Target cart.

I loved the story about realizing you've been buying ahead, checking where it would be---and there it is. That has happened to me a few times, too.
StephLove said…
I am tempted by that cheerleaders book.
Ernie said…
I did a similar thing with deodorant recently. Not that it's hard to come by, but was relieved to find a back up. I don't do much hairspray, but there are a few products my poor, thin head of hair RELIES on to look less poor and thin. Without it, I would not be able to leave the house . . . wait, oh true not as much an issue right now - but still. I swear that for awhile I became VERY attached to a hair care product only to have the lame company eliminate it from the lineup or re-formulate it (aka ruin it) and I was beside myself. Glad you found a bottle.

I laughed that you enjoy a good summer camp yarn. The Stranger at the Gate sounds interesting.

I have a page and a half left in my book and I am waiting for my next book club book to be available at the library. I didn't time my reservation of the next book very well and I'm kicking myself on that.
Swistle said…
I read Conviction on this recommendation and really liked it! I liked all the sentences I kept almost missing, the ones that gave a scenery description that told us something that was left out of the report of the scene we just read, or the ones that were amusing little asides about the current state of a relationship.

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