If a magical incantation were to switch all the place names in Benjamin Black’s suspenseful new novel, Holy Orders, from Dublin and Inishowen to Barcelona or Avignon, and swap the surnames from Flynne and O’Connell to Schwartz or Yamazaki, you’d still know within 20 pages that you were reading a novel set in Ireland. It is something about the brooding tone, the competing influences of the church and the bottle, the relentless bad weather and the pervasive atmosphere of despair. Whatever the secret, Holy Orders has it in spades. Early on, a long-standing character from the Quirke series is killed off, his battered body discovered in a Dublin canal by a trysting couple. Medical examiner Quirke is summoned to the scene, and he realizes with a start, “I know this person.” His investigation quickly lands him in conflict with the organization that, behind the scenes, essentially runs 1950s Ireland: the Catholic Church. Quirke and the Church have had an ongoing adversarial relationship since his youth, much of which was spent in a priest-run orphanage. This latest case will do nothing but add fuel to that particular fire in ways neither he nor the reader will anticipate. Troubling and thought-provoking on many levels, Holy Orders is one of those rare mysteries that truly transcends the genre.

While we are on the subject of “troubling and thought-provoking,” those words would apply equally well to Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex, a peculiar tale of a kidnapping that is anything but what it appears to be. The title character, Alex Prévost, is snatched, seemingly at random, from a Parisian side street. Her abductor trusses her up, dumps her into the back of a nondescript tradesman’s van and spirits her away to an abandoned warehouse. Well, not entirely abandoned: There are rats—a multitude of hungry, red-eyed rats. And with each hour that passes, the rats grow hungrier and bolder. Investigating the crime is Camille Verhoeven, a police inspector whose diminutive stature belies his oversize investigator’s brain. But even a brilliant investigator needs clues. Early on, there isn’t the slightest indication of the identity of the abductee, and there is only the word of a witness to suggest that the crime even took place at all. And then, inexplicably, the clues that do appear suggest that the kidnapped woman is not entirely the hapless victim she first seemed; indeed, she may be quite the predator in her own right—or not. And that is the beauty of Alex: You don’t really know until the jarring conclusion. Lemaitre’s American debut is clever, deliciously twisted and truly not to be missed.

By now everyone has heard of the ubiquitous Nigerian Internet scams in which a mark is emailed by someone claiming to have access to a fortune he (or occasionally she) needs assistance in retrieving. The mark is offered a huge chunk of change for his help in what promises to be a simple banking transaction; needless to say, the huge chunk of change actually moves out of the mark’s bank account, not into it. The name for this scam, 419, serves as the title of Will Ferguson’s riveting global tale of one woman’s revenge on the scammers who precipitated her father’s financial ruin and suicide. What sets 419 apart from the typical sting novel is that it is told from the perspectives of all the players: the family of the mark; the police investigating the suicide; the Nigerian Internet wizards who troll chatrooms and blogs in search of likely marks; and the wealthy Lagos crime bosses who take a big piece of every ill-gotten dollar funneled through their city. Surprisingly, the reader is led relentlessly toward a certain sympathy for each of the factions involved, a testament to Ferguson’s prodigious skills as a storyteller. Oh, and follow the money—where it ends up is beyond startling!

Louise Penny’s 2012 novel The Beautiful Mystery ended as something of a cliffhanger, with Sûreté du Québec Chief Inspector Armand Gamache left to preside over a seriously gutted homicide department, and his right-hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, left to battle addiction demons on his own. There will be some resolution to these issues and more in Penny’s latest Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In, but not necessarily in the way you might think—or for that matter, in the way you might hope! Gamache’s investigation into a murder will take him once again to the small, snow-covered Québec village of Three Pines, where the last remaining member of a once-famous family of quintuplets planned to visit before someone broke into her Montreal home and clubbed her to death. This would be a worthy plotline in and of itself, but it quickly becomes subsumed in something larger, with repercussions that will be felt all the way up the Provincial hierarchy and beyond. Ambitiously plotted, sensitively staffed and beautifully written, How the Light Gets In handily elevates Penny’s already lofty bar.

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