Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian papers as well as in Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence, January Magazine, the Montreal Review of Books, and the Ottawa Review of Books. In addition, Napier maintains an award-winning crime-fiction site called Deadly Diversions.
• The Girl Who Wasn’t There, by Frederick von Schirach (Little, Brown Canada):
An original and profoundly disturbing novel, The Girl Who Wasn’t There is a layered puzzle mystery set in Germany. The story moves through decades of a man’s life, from his difficult childhood to his career as a successful photographic artist, until he is charged with a horrific crime. In his early years, Sebastian von Eschburg endures an almost total lack of affection within his family, culminating in his father’s suicide. His mother is scarcely more attentive to the boy than her husband had been, and sends him away to boarding school so that she might sell the family home and possessions, and take a lover who openly despises him. Life there is scarcely better for Sebastian, and when he is diagnosed as suffering from hallucinations, he learns to become even more circumspect around others. On leaving school, Sebastian apprentices with a well-known photographer, easily moving into a world of ephemeral images that allows him to express his fantasies, and through them he gains fame and, even more importantly, the approval of others. But when Sebastian is accused of a brutal crime, and evidence is discovered in the boot of his car, he finds himself arrested for murder. He withdraws once more within himself, and ultimately confesses to the crime, though the body is nowhere to be found. The ending of von Schirach’s novel contains an unexpected and shocking twist that will force readers to examine their most basic assumptions about the nature of guilt, and of truth itself.
• Half the World Away, by Cath Staincliffe
(Constable & Robinson UK):
One of the most accomplished of today’s British crime writers, Cath Staincliffe’s standalones never disappoint. In her latest, a graduating student named Lori Maddox decides to spend her gap year in Asia, photographing her travels and posting her adventures on a blog site. She’s very level-headed, so her parents do not worry unduly. At first things go well, and Lori writes that she’s gone to China with a newfound friend, and has secured a job teaching English to locals. But when her posts cease, her parents become concerned. After several weeks of silence, her mother and her mother’s ex-husband (Lori’s father) set out on their own to track down their daughter. Their journey is a harrowing and cautionary tale, as they find themselves in a closed society, unable to speak the language and ill-equipped to deal with either ordinary strangers or the authorities, who seem more concerned about preserving China’s image as a safe tourist destination than helping them to locate their offspring. Staincliffe effectively portrays the challenges confronting every parent: when to let go of one’s children, and what to do when things begin to go wrong. A superbly crafted suspense yarn that will leave readers satisfied, yet profoundly disturbed.
• The Hesitation Cut, by Giles Blunt (Random House Canada):
Canadian author Giles Blunt’s series of John Cardinal crime novels ranks among the best ever set down on paper. But his latest work is a one-off, and it’s a winner. Brother William is quietly tending a monastery library in upstate New York when a young poet named Lauren Wolfe arrives to do some research. As she works at a library table he observes cut marks on her wrists, clear signs of a suicide attempt. Captivated by her beauty and intelligence, William becomes concerned for her future, and when Lauren finishes her research and leaves the monastery he abandons his vocation to follow her to New York City. It’s not long before William assumes a new identity--or rather, his former one, which he’d given up 10 years before--and becomes Peter. He takes a job in a bookstore to sustain himself, and tracks Lauren down. He even manages to move into her apartment building. Peter’s only aim is to protect Lauren from harm. It turns out that she could use the help: she is in a toxic relationship with a controlling (and out-of-control) man who threatens to drag her, once again, into his own dark and very twisted lifestyle. But it’s a dangerous game that Peter has chosen to play, and before it has ended he will find himself in jeopardy. Blunt’s evocative and insightful take on obsession and its consequences will remain with you long after you finish this book.
• The Hunter of the Dark, by Donato Carrisi (Abacus UK):
Italian writer Donato Carrisi is well-known to European readers, having garnered prizes for his bestselling 2012 novel, The Whisperer, as well as for The Lost Girls of Rome and The Vanished Ones. In The Hunter of the Dark, Carrisi enters what at first glance appears to be Dan Brown territory, to produce a tale melding ancient secret societies with contemporary crimes. But don’t let that put you off; persevere and you will be rewarded with a literate and plausible story of twisted lives, innocent victims, and dark secrets long harbored by those within the Church of Rome. At the end of an otherwise typical day, the many visitors to Vatican City are quietly moved to the exits with no explanation given. The Swiss Guards secure all the entrances, and the phone lines to the outside world, including the mobile signal, are all severed. The staff members, both lay and ecclesiastical, are invited to return to their homes. Left almost alone in the Papal grounds, a priest named Marcus, together
with his mentor, Clemente, make their way to a small wooded area, where they view the remains of a nun: she’s been stripped of her clothing and murdered, her arms and legs severed from her body. The Vatican authorities have taken
charge: the Italian police have no jurisdiction within the grounds, and it has been decided that there will be no forensic examination, no autopsy, no recording of fingerprints, and no DNA evidence gathered. Instead, it will be
left to Clemente and Marcus to solve the crime themselves and end the evil that has penetrated their sacrosanct realm. Clemente explains that “There is a place in which the world of light meets the world of darkness.” Marcus is told that he has a gift, the ability to recognize the signs of evil. He is, Clemente says, a penitenziere, a hunter of the dark, and his task is to discover the perpetrator of the nun’s heinous slaying, and prevent him from killing again. Marcus will not be able to fulfill both parts of that mission, however, and he’ll have his work cut out for him just trying to avoid becoming another of the victims. A superbly crafted and layered exploration of the roots of psychosis, wrapped around a fine suspense tale.
• Open Season, by Peter Kirby
Over the short space of three novels Montreal author Peter Kirby has established himself as a serious contender in the Canadian literary world, and someone to be watched. Each of his books raises a disturbing social issue and treats it intelligently and with compassion, while carefully balancing the need for convincing characters and structured suspense. Kirby’s latest work, Open Season, focuses on the plight of illegal immigrants in Canada, vulnerable people in search of a better life, yet who all too often find themselves at the mercy of callous thugs who hold them captive and force them into the sex trade. A South American journalist is working to expose the racket when she disappears and her lawyer’s office is ransacked. It falls to Montreal police detective Luc Vanier and his partner, Sergeant Sylvie Sainte-Jacques to solve her kidnapping and rescue the imprisoned women. The plot lines are seamlessly interwoven, the settings convincing, the action builds to a compelling climax, and Kirby even finds time to turn the spotlight on the federal authorities who are supposed to be applying a compassionate policy toward refugees. Open Season combines a penetrating and intelligent look at an important social issue with a carefully crafted and entertaining crime plot.