Whenever someone asks me for a recommendation of a first-rate Scandinavian mystery author, Norwegian author Karin Fossum is among the first to jump to mind. Her Inspector Sejer novels are finely crafted, and it has been a rare time (if ever) that I have been able to identify the culprit before Fossum was ready for me to know. Her latest standalone, I Can See in the Dark, goes off in an entirely different direction, spinning the first-person tale of a sadistic hospice caregiver, wrongly accused of the murder of a patient under his care. Problem is, he is guilty of another murder that took place around the same time, and he is now faced with the conundrum of how to establish his innocence with respect to one without calling undue police attention to his guilt in the other. Riktor (a great name for a sociopathic caregiver) is well in tune with his inner demons, trotting them out regularly for examination; in the scarier moments, you can almost empathize with him, and that fact alone speaks volumes about Fossum’s talent at drawing in a reader. At 200-odd pages, this is a book that can be polished off in one sitting by a dedicated mystery fan.
PIPE DOWN, AUNTIE
Hospice care (or the lack thereof) segues to Margaret Maron’s Designated Daughters. Summoned to the room of her dying Aunt Rachel, Judge Deborah Knott is surprised to hear the elderly woman recount snippets of stories unheard for a generation or more, especially as she had stopped talking some time before and was expected to make her final journey in silence. Several hours later, however, Aunt Rachel takes said journey not peacefully, but rather with the help of a pillow pressed firmly over her face. Apparently some of her impromptu storytelling threatened to unearth a crime for which there is no statute of limitations, and person(s) unknown will stop at nothing to prevent that from happening. As is typically the case with Maron’s novels, Designated Daughters is character-driven, and the characters are exceptionally well drawn and colorful. Think of the old TV drama “The Waltons,” set in modern times, with Grandma Walton killed off before she can reveal sensitive family secrets.
MOTHER, DID I?
The segue this time is “daughter,” as we move to Elizabeth Little’s clever debut mystery, Dear Daughter. And what a debut it is, featuring a narrator/protagonist with one of the cheekiest voices in recent memory. After 10 years, Janie Jenkins has just been released from prison on a technicality, where she was serving time for a murder she didn’t commit—as far as she can remember. What she does know is that she was covered in her mother’s blood at the crime scene, and that her mother’s fingernails yielded DNA that was a good match for Janie’s. But there were some irregularities to the investigation, enough that a good lawyer could pry her loose from the slammer and allow her to launch the investigation that she hopes will clear her name: “I mean, come on, you didn’t really think I was just going to disappear, did you? . . . That maybe I would find a distant island, a plastic surgeon, a white ceramic half mask and a Punjab lasso? Get real.” Nope; instead she will go to South Dakota, to an isolated little town at the back end of nowhere, wherein lie the beginnings of a story she cannot begin to imagine. This is a killer debut, in every sense of the word!
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
I’m not the first—and I certainly won’t be the last—to compare Charles Cumming’s novels to those of the espionage genre masters: John le Carré; Len Deighton; Alan Furst. In Cumming’s latest, A Colder War, sidelined spy Tom Kell is summoned back into the fray after his friend and co-worker Paul Wallinger, Istanbul branch head of the U.K. spy agency MI6, dies in the mysterious crash of a rented private airplane. Mechanical issue, pilot error, suicide, sabotage? All options are on the table as Kell arrives in the Greek island of Chios, the embarkation point of Wallinger’s fateful final flight. But in short order, evidence mounts that an enemy mole is in place as details surface about a trio of unfortunate events concerning individuals recently recruited by Western intelligence. On another front, a pair of romances add a human dimension to the narrative. The first, featuring Kell and Wallinger’s daughter Rachel, is an intense and problematic affair from the get-go. The second and altogether more poignant involves Kell’s boss, Amanda Levene, now head of MI6. Unbeknown to everyone but a select few, Levene and Wallinger were longtime lovers, and she wants badly to bring his murderer, if indeed there is a murderer, to justice. In my review of the previous Tom Kell novel, A Foreign Country, I wrote, “Extraneous details, character motivations, lush backstory . . . ah, who needs ’em? But if you’re looking for a spy novel par excellence, look no further.” Two years on, I stand by that assertion.