by Bruce TierneyApril 2010
Black is back
Benjamin Black’s debut novel, Christine Falls, was a BookPage mystery of the month , and its sequel, The Silver Swan , proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Black was no one-time sensation. No real surprises there, as Benjamin Black is the pen name of acclaimed Irish novelist John Banville, the 2005 winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction for The Sea. Now Black/Banville is back with the third novel featuring Dublin pathologist Quirke, Elegy for April. Ireland in the 1950s was a buttonedup, deeply conservative place, not the sort of milieu where an outspoken and unconventional female doctor would flourish. So when April disappears under suspicious circumstances, her friend Phoebe cannot help but think that she has met with foul play. Phoebe enlists the help of her father, the aforementioned Quirke, in hopes that his extensive network of official contacts can be of some help in tracing the missing April. Quirke would prefer to have no part of this, but he cannot say no to his daughter; the two have a checkered past, and nowadays Quirke works overtime on the relationship to try to keep it on an even keel. To complicate matters, Quirke is on the tail end of a voluntary incarceration to shed himself of his drinking habit, and he is a bit uneasy in his newfound sobriety. Elegy for April works on a number of levels; it is an insightful look into the workings of dysfunctional families, a thoughtful study of the wide-ranging influence of the Catholic Church in midcentury Ireland and an exploration of the tensions of racial prejudice in a society where lines of hatred have been traditionally drawn more along religious lines. And on top of all that, it is an exceptionally riveting mystery!
Searching through a dark past
There must be something in the waters of Scandinavia that causes suspense authors to flourish. For a comparatively small and unpopulated part of the world, there is an inordinate number of fine mystery writers: Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser, Kjell Eriksson, Peter Høeg, Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indriðason, Asa Larsson, Jo Nesbø—and that’s just scratching the surface. Here’s one to add to the list, and somewhere near the top, at that: K.O. Dahl. In his latest novel, The Last Fix, Katrine Bratterud is a rare success story—an ex-addict made good. She is set to matriculate from rehab; she has a good job, a steady boyfriend. She is attractive and well-spoken—and she is about to die a grisly death. If Katrine’s recent history offers a wealth of clues and complications for the Oslo police force, her more distant past is a virtual koldtbord (this is the Norwegian version of “smorgasbord,” to save you running for your Norwegian/English dictionary) of dark secrets, any one of which might well have a bearing on her untimely demise. Dahl has been a best-selling author in Norway since his debut in 1993; The Last Fix should cement his reputation in the Englishspeaking world as well.
Trouble in the wilderness
Perennial favorite C.J. Box (whose name is even shorter than the already truncated K.O. Dahl’s!) is back with book 10 in the series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, Nowhere to Run. As the novel opens, Pickett is in the last week of his year-long exile to remote Baggs, Wyoming. His final task before returning home to his wife and family is a foray into the mountains to follow up on some unsubstantiated tales of strange goings-on: car break-ins, looted campsites and, in one dramatic case, a butchered elk. Pickett happens upon an unlicensed fisherman, a rangy mountain man with a seriously bad attitude. What he cannot know is that this chance encounter will unleash mayhem the likes of which he has rarely encountered. Pickett is a one-of-a-kind character, an Old West stand-up guy, and Box’s tales of Pickett’s exploits straddle the line between traditional Western (think Louis L’Amour) and thoroughly modern mystery. C.J. Box has won about every award there is to win: the Edgar, the Macavity, the Anthony, the Gumshoe, the Barry—and with good reason. Like Tony Hillerman before him, he has reinvented a genre and made it his own.
Mystery of the month
It’s tough to select a mystery of the month this time around, I can tell you that. Just look at the competition: a deeply atmospheric mystery set in 1950s Ireland; a taut police procedural from the Land of the Midnight Sun; a violent and troubling tale of the New Old West. But somebody has to prevail, and this time, it is veteran author Walter Mosley, with his second installment in the Leonid McGill series, Known to Evil.
McGill is a complex and exceptionally well-drawn character, cut from very different cloth than Mosley’s previous protagonist, L.A. detective Easy Rawlins. He is something of an unlikely hero, actually: short, stocky and middle-aged, with family problems and a bit of a confrontational attitude (likely a product of his years as a boxer and under-the-radar criminal). Now—or for the time being, at least—he is trying to keep on the right side of the law, although he is having a devil of a time getting certain unsavory folks to believe that. As Known to Evil opens, McGill is summoned to a meeting with New York power broker Alphonse Rinaldo, a man with whom McGill had several dealings before his ascent to the straight and narrow; it is not a meeting McGill wants to take, but one does not say no to Alphonse Rinaldo. The assignment seems simple enough: Make contact with a certain young woman and make sure she is OK. The only problem is that when McGill turns up at her apartment, the cops and the coroner are already there, and a beautiful young woman lies dead on the floor; across the room, there’s another body, this one a man with a butcher knife protruding from his torso.
Did Rinaldo know beforehand? Is McGill being set up? And if so, by whom? Good questions, ones McGill will have to answer if he hopes to avoid being implicated in murder most foul. When I reviewed the series debut, The Long Fall (also a mystery of the month), I compared Leonid McGill to Easy Rawlins: “I haven’t chewed on this long enough to say definitively which one I like better.” The jury is still out, but I am leaning more toward McGill with each succeeding installment.