Mysteries wrapped in enigmas
The best mysteries, these days, go beyond mind puzzles and character studies to remote, unique locales and to a spectrum of lifestyles. This month we visit Hawaii, Alaska, England, and Southern California. Nowhere do we find plain settings or run-of-the-mill personalities.
Dana Stabenow's ninth Kate Shugak book, Hunter's Moon, pits boardroom treachery against the elements and occupants of Alaska's wilderness. Alaska regulates those who lead tourists to big game. Shugak is a resourceful 34-year-old native Aleut with a Class A Assistant guide's license and a dislike of cellular phones. For the first time in years, she finds herself close to romantic commitment, with former fellow Anchorage D.A. investigator and, now, fellow guide Jack Morgan. Kate and Jack help staff a hunting lodge leased by the nine-man, one-woman management team of a German software company. The firm's executive retreat, perhaps in response to international rumors of financial misdeeds, turns into an intramural range war with two accidental deaths and an abundance of motives and suspects. To survive the battle - especially after Jack is injured - Kate must summon deep survival instincts and backcountry knowledge, and use the wilderness as her best ally.
Perfect for fans of historical mysteries, Search the Dark, by Charles Todd, is a fine surprise for those accustomed to current-day plots. World War I changed everyone in England, throwing into turmoil the lives of surviving soldiers and those who awaited their return. Political and financial power changed the least. Even outside sophisticated London, power struggles and battles of jealousy and revenge lead to murder. The battered body of a young woman is found in a field. A distraught veteran is arrested. Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge, who also suffers post-war trauma, senses that the hurried case closure indicates a flawed investigation. Trespassing on local jurisdiction, charmed by a female suspect, Rutledge must travel village to country village to coax information from reluctant and conniving citizens. Then another body is found. Assisted by the voice in his head, words of a comrade who failed to return from war, Rutledge must unravel unspoken rules of social hierarchy and decipher clues from gossip. There are plenty of suspects; perhaps the wrong man sits in jail. Shell shock is real in the hunter and the hunted. Suspense holds to the final page.
Marcia Muller's 20th Sharon McCone mystery, A Walk Through the Fire is as fresh as any Muller effort. McCone is summoned to Hawaii where friend Glenna Stanleigh's film-in-progress is suffering mishaps aimed at shutting down production. This film, like previous Stanleigh documentaries intended to fight prejudice, is based on an unpublished manuscript on Hawaiian culture written by a wealthy man who vanished in 1992. McCone and longtime lover Hy Ripinsky arrive in Hawaii to a familial civil war and threat of terrorist action by a group inspired more by drugs than native rights. An attempted murder, a witnessed murder, and a bizarre suicide change the nature of McCone's investigation. Her attraction to a local helicopter pilot (and friend of the missing author) strains her relationship with Ripinsky. A web of financial treachery, greed, and grandiose plans must be untangled to dodge danger and survive.
In Heartbreaker, Robert Ferrigno's fifth mystery, there is no honor among thieves. Only distrust and layers of triple-cross. Ferrigno's characters inhabit the edges; night stars are the spilled milk of the Milky Way. In this high-octane interplay of scammers and the wealthy in sad tuxedos, separate agendas weave a tangle of lies, greed, violence, and misused intelligence. Contract hits, public taunts, and jokes in the face of death prove that Ferrigno's disaffected characters could be Elmore Leonard's. They spout the bizarre dialogue of Robert Crais's blase low-lifes; the most evil possess the twisted minds of James Ellroy's noir felons. This one works.
Tom Corcoran is the Florida-based author of The Mango Opera (St. Martin's) and the forthcoming Gumbo Limbo.