In Sue Grafton’s latest alphabet thriller, V Is For Vengeance, two black eyes and a broken nose make a decidedly unhappy birthday for eternally 30-something PI Kinsey Millhone. She’s not going down without a fight, though. As she succinctly puts it: “For the record, I’d like to say I am a big fan of forgiveness as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.” And that’s just what she’s done throughout the 22 books (and counting) in the series, all of which take place over a six-year period in the mid-1980s. Thus, Millhone is denied the use of modern contrivances such as the Internet to aid in her sleuthing; indeed, she spends an inordinate amount of time at the library scrolling through microfiche in search of arcane and incriminating evidence. This is intensely appealing to technophobes and Luddites, among whose number I often count myself; it is a delight to see a plucky and resourceful character at work without the myriad benefits of the Information Age at her beck and call. Formulaic? Perhaps a bit, but it is a formula that works better than just about any other in modern suspense fiction. No need to read the books in alphabetical order, by the way, but it is a fair bet that your first won’t be your last.
A SPINE-TINGLING CRASH
I reviewed Dana Haynes’ Crashers on my blog in 2010, writing, “This is a book for adrenaline junkies; it grabs you by the frontal lobes right at the outset, and doesn’t let go until the last page.” No need for modification of that judgment with Haynes’ sequel, Breaking Point. This time out, the intrepid National Transportation Safety Board airplane crash investigators not only investigate a perplexing (bordering on impossible) accident, but they are actually aboard the plane when it goes down. Amidst the wreckage are a handful of survivors, and one enigmatic fellow who appears—seemingly out of nowhere—to help out. One by one, he attends to the needs of the victims, in each case determining how much they recall of the crash. And heaven help them if they remember too much! If you are on the queasy side, you might find the immediate post-crash chapters a bit off-putting, as they are pretty graphic in terms of forensic details (not gratuitously so, but there isn’t any sugarcoating either). That said, Breaking Point is a compelling page-turner, with “cinema adaptation” written all over it.
A PERSONAL INVESTIGATION
The life of San Francisco PI Sharon McCone is nothing if not dramatic: She is still recovering from a bullet wound to the head that had once reduced her to communicating solely with eye blinks (chronicled in 2009’s Locked In); interactions with her large dysfunctional family are fraught with angst; and the building from which she conducts her investigation firm is about to go under the wrecking ball. Then, McCone receives a cryptic email from her estranged half-brother, Darcy Blackhawk, at the beginning of City of Whispers. Worried, she tries to track him down, but the more she seeks him out, the more she uncovers tenuous links between Darcy and the suspicious death of a young heiress a couple of years back. McCone knows her half-brother to be a substance abuser and an opportunistic thief, but she can’t imagine that he would have been party to a murder . . . or would he? The narrative shifts perspective among several of the main players, including the drug-addled Darcy, lending the novel an overview not always possible when writing strictly in the first person. Marcia Muller, a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, is up to the task. And hey, if you like this story, there are 28 additional McCone novels in this long-running series!
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
This month’s Top Pick in Mystery kudos go to British author Susan Hill, whose The Betrayal of Trust is number six in the series featuring enigmatic Brit-cop Simon Serrailler. If you like your crime fiction with strong overtones of serious literature, look no further than Hill, whose work rivals that of such notables as Louise Penny, Reginald Hill and John Harvey. Some suspense novels are demonstrably character-driven and some are plot-driven, while others are atmospheric and haunting. Hill manages to combine all of those elements seamlessly, not favoring one over the other, all the while imbuing her narrative with a social conscience rarely displayed in genre fiction. In this story, Serrailler must investigate a very cold case, in which freak rains and the attendant flooding have exposed the remains of not one, but two young women, both apparently the victims of blunt force trauma. In some form or fashion, this may have a tie-in with a newly opened local hospice. Is the physician in charge on the up-and-up, or is there something darker at play? As I wrote of Hill in a review of The Various Haunts of Men (2007): “Fans of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell can rest easy, knowing that those authors’ tradition of fine storytelling will move forward at least one more generation.” I stand by that 100 percent.