J. Kingston Pierce is the overworked editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.
• Beloved Poison, by E.S. Thomson (Pegasus):
Skeletons—both figurative and genuine—rattle through the pages of this initial historical mystery by Scottish author E.S. “Elaine” Thomson. Protagonist Jem Flockhart has at least one skeleton tucked away deep in her closet: she’s a
young woman with a prominent birthmark (a mask of sorts), passing as a young man in order to continue a generations-stretching family tradition of apothecary service at St. Saviour’s Infirmary, a currently decaying 700-year-old London hospital on the brink of being replaced by a new railway bridge. Then, the first step in preparing St. Saviour’s for demolition is to remove the many layers of bones filling its adjoining churchyard. Finally, there are the featherweight, symbolic skeletons, half a dozen of them, packed into tiny coffins that Jem and junior architect Will Quartermain—sent to supervise the chuchyard’s razing—discover hidden in St. Saviour’s derelict chapel. Who was responsible for fashioning those caskets, and what do they represent? These are only two of the puzzles and twists Thomas offers in this abundantly atmospheric yarn. Soon, a maverick, womanizing physician known for dosing himself with toxins in order to learn more about their affects, is found poisoned; the wife of another physician falls dead, perhaps the victim of a legendary Abbott said to haunt the streets; and Jem’s declining father heads to the gallows for those crimes. Can Jem expose and make sense of St. Saviour’s long-harbored secrets before the small world she has known comes crashing down around her? Jem Flockhart is a thoroughly engaging amateur sleuth, and I’m looking forward to her reappearance next fall in Dark Asylum (Constable UK).
• Better Dead, by Max Allan Collins (Forge):
Chicago-based private eye Nathan Heller is hired in 1953 by Pinkerton sleuth-turned-author Dashiell Hammett (a one-time member of the Communist Party of America, now representing a contingent of concerned literary leftists) “to conduct an eleventh-hour investigation into the alleged crimes of two people who are sitting on Death Row”: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York City couple convicted of conspiring to commit espionage by leaking American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. With assistance from Natalie Ash, a beguiling young Greenwich Village art gallery manager, who was once a neighbor of the Rosenbergs, Heller interviews and re-interviews witnesses to the incarcerated pair’s reputed treachery. Meanwhile, Reds-baiting Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his odious chief counsel, Roy Cohn (later to become Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor), lean on Heller to tell them what he learns about the Rosenbergs, so they can be sure the couple won’t ever again enjoy life outside prison walls. It’s McCarthy, the scheming junior lawmaker from Wisconsin, who links the two halves of this boisterous, history-based novel. In Part II, Heller is approached by real-life pin-up model Bettie Page for help in slipping out from under congressional hearings targeting indecent publications and pornography. But no sooner does the wisecracking shamus accomplish that, than he’s drawn into a more significant case involving a bacteriologist privy to government-condoned experiments using drugs and biological warfare, as well as “radical interrogation techniques.” Author Max Allan Collins—recently named as a 2017 winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award—has now penned 16 Heller novels, and is still going strong.
• By Gaslight, by Steven Price
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux):
As I wrote in my
Kirkus Reviews critique of By Gaslight, this is “the most ambitious, most elegantly crafted book I’ve read all year.” Canadian poet Price combines graceful, evocative writing
with an impellent plot set primarily in London, England, in 1885. Central to his yarn are two quite different men: William Pinkerton, the real-life elder son of legendary U.S. national detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton; and fictional gentleman-thief Adam Foole. Both on the trail of a “vicious and lovely” female grifter and erstwhile actress named Charlotte Reckitt—Pinkerton because he thinks she can lead him to Edward Shade, a mythologized miscreant who had eluded his lately deceased father; and Foole, because he still harbors a passion for Charlotte, even a decade after their parting. Evidence of Charlotte’s demise (she’s said to have leapt from a bridge into the “metallic sinew of the Thames”) fails to dissuade either man from his hunt; in fact, the two form an uneasy alliance, hoping to flush out Charlotte and Shade, and in the process they discover that they’re more connected by past events than they had understood. Price’s sweeping yarn bounces from fetid London thoroughfares to the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War, with stops in between at opium dens, African diamond mines, and crumbling sewer systems beneath the English capital. This is an all-consuming adventure with romantic undertones, establishing a new and very high bar against which other
historical whodunits will be judged.
• Little Sister, by David Hewson (Macmillan UK):
Not to be confused with Raymond Chandler’s better-known 1949 novel, this is the third entry in British author David Hewson’s series featuring Amsterdam police brigadier Pieter Vos and his feisty Frieslander colleague, Laura Bakker. The pair are called upon here to recapture Kim and Mia Timmers, orphaned twin sisters and once-famous singers, who—after being charged with multiple murders as children—spent 10 years in an island-isolated psychiatric institution before being released. The facility’s director had reservations
about turning these two blondes, now in their early 20s, back into Netherlands society, and his prescience seems confirmed when the corpse of the sisters’ male nurse, who was supposed to drive them to a halfway house, is instead found buried on a beach, his car left submerged in a choked watercourse. The sisters, meanwhile, have traveled on to a hideout in Amsterdam, led by an unexplained note they’d received, along with some money. They think they have finally won their freedom, divorced from their former supervision … but in fact, they have only traded one set of restrictions for another, and must now exercise desperation-born ingenuity to escape. Vos, a particularly introspective detective, who makes his home on a dilapidated houseboat with his terrier, Sam, finds his search for the girls leading him to reanalyze the long-ago killings that institutionalized them in the first place. His supervisors aren’t pleased by this direction the case is taking, especially when it leads Vos to question his immediate boss’ links to dubious players involved in the original Timmers slayings. For Vos, though, a little insubordination in a good cause isn’t the worst sin; so with help from Bakker (whose country upbringing—usually an impediment to her fitting in—comes in handy here), he pushes for answers, inciting further violence. Hewson’s credits include the Rome-based Nic Costa series (Carnival for the Dead) and three hefty books based on the popular Danish TV crime drama The Killing. However, it’s his Vos/Bakker novels (the first two of which were 2014’s The House of Dolls and last year’s The Wrong Girl) that I find particularly rewarding. Another entry, Sleep Baby Sleep, is scheduled for UK release next June.
• The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam):
Philip Kerr’s 11th Bernie Gunther novel finds the former Berlin police detective living on the French Riviera in 1956—which sounds more glamorous than it is. Now pushing 60 years old, and having recently bungled a suicide attempt (after his third wife left him to return to the Germany), Gunther is serving under an assumed name as the concierge at the posh Grand Hôtel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, maintaining the lowest profile possible, in order not to attract notice from the French Sûreté. But Kerr’s protagonist does not easily avoid trouble, especially when it comes to him. First, he determines to solve the shooting death of his bridge partner. Soon after that, Gunther is hired by one of the Riviera’s best-known residents, indiscreetly gay spy-turned-wordsmith W. Somerset Maugham, who needs his help in retrieving compromising photographs from a blackmailer. Complicating our hero’s endeavors are not only the involvement of a fetching female journalist determined to compose Maugham’s biography (if she can win entrée to his inner circle through Gunther), but also a onetime Gestapo officer, the remorseless Harold Hennig, against whom our “hero” hopes to take revenge for the wartime demise of a lover in Königsberg. As I opined in my Kirkus review of The Other Side of Silence: “Among several fine authors currently composing crime thrillers set amid and around World War II, Kerr is unquestionably the best.” A 12th Gunther outing, Prussian Blue, is due out in April 2017.