Fans of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø will remember that in his last book, Police, it took ace cop Harry Hole ages (and many pages) to make his first definitive appearance. This time, Harry never shows up at all, as The Son is a standalone thriller with a hero even more conflicted and unlikely than the aforementioned Mr. Hole. Inmate Sonny Lofthus shares his countenance and his charisma with a young Charles Manson (albeit with the “helter-skelter” factor dialed back a few notches), but he displays an innate ability to soothe his fellow prisoners through his “healing hands.” He stays comfortably numb thanks to the heroin that is smuggled in to him regularly, and he is perfectly content to cop to crimes he did not commit in order to keep the flow of drugs uninterrupted. This sits very well with the corrupt prison staff, the police and the crime overlord known as the Twin, all of whom make repeated use of Lofthus’ narcotic-fueled indifference to his incarceration. But then Lofthus receives a piece of news that turns his life upside down, and he does the unthinkable: He escapes from his theoretically escape-proof prison, and sets off in search of truth and justice. Suspenseful, gritty and dark, this is another excellent read from Nesbø.

VILLA VILLAIN
As is the case with the novels of Alexander McCall Smith and Martin Walker, Peter Mayle’s mysteries neatly split the difference between cozies and full-on suspense. In the latest installment in Mayle’s Caper series, The Corsican Caper, sybaritic sleuth Sam Levitt finds himself once again in the service of his billionaire friend Francis Reboul, this time seeking to save Reboul from the unwanted, avaricious attentions of a Russian oligarch bent on acquiring Reboul’s uber-lux coastal villa. It is fair to say that Russian oligarchs are not widely noted for their tact and diplomacy, and Oleg Vronsky quickly bypasses subtle negotiating tactics and opts for something more visceral and devious to achieve his goal. As is often the case with Mayle’s novels, the story takes second place to the milieu: the effervescent descriptions of French wine and food, the beauty of the French countryside and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. This is no bad thing, as his observations are witty, insightful and full of local color. His characters are perhaps a bit overdrawn, but in a good way, reminiscent of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the film To Catch a Thief. Big fun abounds!

A MOTHER RETURNS
Karin Salvalaggio’s gripping debut novel, Bone Dust White, ensnares the reader with its opening sentence, a woman’s cry for help to the 911 operator: “He’s hurt her, she’s bleeding.” But Grace Adams suspects that her pleas are in vain; there is no way help will arrive in time. Outside, a woman lies in the crimson-stained snow, and the man who stabbed her may be lurking close by. Against her better judgment, Grace runs outdoors and gets the surprise of her life: The woman is her mother, whom Grace has not seen nor heard from in 11 years. Detective Macy Greeley is assigned to the case, a case she really wants no part of, due in large measure to her third-trimester pregnancy. But there is more to the story than that: Greeley was one of the detectives assigned to a case of sex trafficking 11 years ago, a case in which Grace’s mother figured prominently, right before her disappearance. This is a gripping tale from start to finish, and a first-rate debut that augurs well for Salvalaggio’s soon-to-be-huge fan base.

TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
When one’s protagonist is 88 years old, it doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for sequels. Fortunately, retired cop Buck Schatz is back for an encore engagement following Daniel Friedman’s debut novel, Don’t Ever Get Old, and he’s as cranky and curmudgeonly as before. In Don’t Ever Look Back, he is recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in his previous adventure, enduring grueling physical therapy and wondering why random fragments of his memory have departed unannounced. While munching on an undercooked egg breakfast at his retirement home, Schatz is approached by an old acquaintance, a one-time criminal mastermind known simply as Elijah. Elijah wants to live out whatever may be left of his natural life, and he wants Schatz to broker a witness-protection deal with the authorities. In return, Elijah promises to hand Schatz the solution to an unsolved crime wave that has annoyed the former detective for decades. It seems pretty straightforward, and then it all goes crossways in the blink of an eye, when kidnappers ambush their car en route to the police station. There is way more action in Don’t Ever Look Back than you would reasonably expect in a book with an octogenarian protagonist, and this is all to the good. As I said in my review of Friedman’s previous book, “It may, in fact, mark the beginning of a new suspense subgenre: Geezer Noir. Long may it live!” I stand by that assertion.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a 7 questions interview with Karin Salvalaggio about Bone Dust White.

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