Somewhere in the hinterlands, flanked by hard-boiled detective fiction on one side and cloying cozies on the other, exists a brand of mystery offering up the plot devices of, say, an Agatha Christie, but lacking the violence of, say, a Mickey Spillane. The authors eschew the cuteness of talking cats, sleuthing priests or nosy B&B proprietors, crafting instead a canny group of protagonists who survive primarily by their wits. Peter Mayle slots neatly into this category with his latest foray into the world of suspense, The Marseille Caper. Rarely has the tone of a novel been better set with a first sentence: “Shock has a chilling effect, particularly when it takes the form of an unexpected meeting with a man from whom you have recently stolen three million dollars’ worth of wine.” Now, unrepentant insurance investigator/wine thief Sam Levitt faces the daunting proposition of having to work in some unsavory capacity for the very individual he so recently ripped off. Hijinks ensue (big time!), all set against the atmospheric backdrop of Mayle’s beloved Provence. Engaging and entertaining from its opening sentence, The Marseille Caper is do-not-miss fun!
DANGER AND DECEPTION
Imagine a Zen koan-spouting Sam Spade, transported magically across time and space to the modern-day China/North Korea border—a setting easily rivaling Depression-era San Francisco in terms of noir. Then, you will begin to get an idea of what’s in store in James Church’s latest Inspector O adventure, A Drop of Chinese Blood. Until now, O has plied his trade—espionage—in his native North Korea. This time out, O is in a nearby Chinese border town, the guest of his nephew Bing, a minor Chinese functionary deeply embroiled in the politics of the region. The introduction of the beautiful and dangerous Madame Fang into Bing’s life threatens the status quo, and her subsequent abrupt disappearance gives every indication of upending his apple cart completely. Reluctantly, the ostensibly retired Inspector O agrees to intercede on behalf of his hapless nephew—or is he acting in his own interests entirely? The Mysterious East is never mysterious-er than in Church’s novels, and his latest raises a rarely opened window on the inscrutable and hopelessly intertwined relationships of two of Asia’s most closed societies.
Plucky half-Inuit, half-CFA (“comes from away”) Edie Kiglatuk returns to the printed page in M.J. McGrath’s second Arctic thriller, The Boy in the Snow. Far afield from her native Ellesmere Island, Edie is on assignment in Alaska, serving as support staff for a dogsled team running in the fabled Iditarod race. She is a believer in the “old ways,” and when she is confronted by a bear on a remote stretch of snowy road she takes it as an omen; within minutes she stumbles upon the body of a frozen infant, decked out in silken wraps and ensconced in a tiny coffin. She reports her findings to the police, naturally, but early on she gets the distinct impression that the fundamentalist Christian officer assigned to the case would like nothing more than to railroad a certain contentious religious cult member for the crime. Easily the equal of its predecessor (2011’s White Heat), The Boy in the Snow is a tautly plotted, truly satisfying suspense novel. One small caveat: It helps to read these books in order, as there are a number of references to earlier events.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
One thing I really look forward to at this gig is killer (so to speak) debut novels. It’s a rare debut indeed that gets named Top Pick in Mystery, but that’s the case with David Mark’s suspenseful police procedural, The Dark Winter. The book offers up an exceptionally unusual premise: A killer seems to be targeting sole survivors of various tragedies, killing them in the way they “should have” died the first time around. A young African genocide escapee is brutally stabbed in her church; an elderly man who survived the sinking of a trawler many years ago is forcibly jettisoned from the deck of a supertanker—and these are but the beginning. Early on, Scottish cop Aector (pronounced like “Hector” with an opening phlegmy cough supplanting the “H”) McAvoy thinks he has uncovered the common thread, but there is precious little hard evidence to support his theory. Meanwhile, events both at home and at the station hint at a distinctly checkered past for our hero, leaving both his superiors and the reader wondering if he has the capability to stand up against such a formidable opponent. English critics have compared David Mark to the likes of Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. My prediction: It will not be long until new voices in the genre are hailed as the “next David Mark.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a 7 questions interview with David Mark for The Dark Winter.