Any number of mysteries from the Frozen North have graced the Whodunit column, but M.J. McGrath’s fiction debut, White Heat, marks a first: a tale of murder and betrayal set in Canada’s remote Ellesmere Island. Plucky protagonist Edie Kiglatuk, half Inuit and half CFA (“comes from away”), runs a respected Arctic adventure company; it’s widely known that nobody does a better job of guiding tenderfoot tourists into the icy outback. When a difficult client is shot to death on Edie’s watch, police sergeant Derek Palliser launches an investigation. Palliser is initially somewhat doubtful that a crime has even been committed; all in all, an accident seems more likely. But when a second tourist goes missing in the rough country and a local boy inexplicably commits suicide, even the reluctant Palliser has to admit that there is more going on than meets the eye. Author McGrath’s sense of location is spot on; her characters are believable, sympathetic and complex. No surprise for an author of her caliber: In an earlier incarnation (as Melanie McGrath) she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best British writer under 35.  

All career criminals must imagine the “dream gig”—the job that will set them up for life, freeing them from the night sweats, the potential betrayals and the myriad opportunities for something to go awry in their “best-laid plans.” This is just the sort of mission envisioned by an elite group of dark-side pros in Peter Spiegelman’s genre-defining heist novel, Thick as Thieves. The leader, Carr, tenuously holds his position by appointment rather than acclaim; the crew’s popular previous chief was killed in South America when their last job went pear-shaped. Carr is convinced that the killing was a setup, and he is worried that his own neck is on the block in similar fashion with this latest operation. That said, Carr is a seasoned pro, and one doesn’t arrive at his level of expertise without having a well-developed sense of self-preservation. He will need it, as everybody (and I mean everybody) is working an angle, and each one could well prove deadly for Carr. Thick as Thieves is a superbly crafted tale, pulsing with tension, twisty as a corkscrew and positively demanding to be read in one sitting.

I have always been a sucker for stories that feature a disgraced cop, the tortured soul who has turned to private investigation (licit or otherwise) as a means of redemption. Case in point: Theo Tate, the tormented lead character in Paul Cleave’s New Zealand thriller, Collecting Cooper. On the day of his release from jail, Tate is confronted by an unlikely supplicant: the father of the girl he injured in the DUI incident that precipitated his incarceration. Now the girl has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and the police are unwilling to look into the matter. “You owe me,” her father says, compellingly. So once again, this time without gun or badge, Tate finds himself on the investigative trail. He fears that the girl is dead, but that is not the case, at least not yet: Emma Green is the latest addition to a mental patient’s growing collection—a bizarre assortment of serial-killer memorabilia that now includes not only weapons and ephemera, but also a real-live serial killer and his potential victim. After a bit of strained-to-the-limit coincidence at the outset, Collecting Cooper roars on at breakneck speed, pitting not two, but three deadly adversaries against an inexorably ticking clock.

Every now and then, a suspense novel comes along that transcends the genre: Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow ; Ross King’s Ex-Libris?; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, to name a few. And now Reginald Hill’s latest offering, The Woodcutter. Wolf Hadda is a self-made man, dedicated to enjoying the life of the landed gentry. All that is about to change: He will be arrested for pedophilia, with enough proof to put him away for many years. The thing is, the evidence is bogus; he has been set up by the people he trusted most—his wife, his lawyer and his partner. After years of protesting his innocence to no avail, he changes tack: He invents a history of his “disease,” convincing his prison psychiatrist that although he was once an offender, he is now cured and should be re-integrated into society. And then the revenge begins, on an epic scale. One by one his enemies fall, each in a manner appropriate to his sins. In every case, Hadda has an airtight alibi, but the coincidences are not going unnoticed, especially by the psychiatrist, who is beginning to suspect she’s been played. The Woodcutter is superb on every level: a rich fable with overtones of Greek mythology, multidimensional characters, sly humor and a very satisfying ending. This is absolutely the “don’t miss” book of the month—perhaps even the year!

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