2021 Reviews
March 1, 2021

AmnestyAravind Adiga
Amnesty (Scribner 2020) takes place over the course of a long and stressful day in the life of Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, known as Danny, an illegal immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney, Australia. Fleeing danger faced by the Tamils in Sri Lanka and entering Australia with a student visa, Danny was denied refugee status and has lived the past three years in the storeroom of a grocery store, giving the store owner half his earnings to keep his secret. Traveling the city with a Turbo Model E portable vacuum cleaner strapped to his back like an astronaut’s jet-booster, Danny exudes the confidence of someone with legal papers, mimicking the posture of young Australian men and bravely wearing shorts in public. On this fateful morning he is cleaning the flat of Daryl the Lawyer, House Number Four, when a policeman in the hall asks if he noticed anything in the flat across the street. Knowing that flat belongs to former client Radha Thomas, House Number Five on his phone, Danny checks the news and discovers her murdered body wrapped in a red jacket has been found at a creek . Danny is sure the jacket belongs to another client Doctor Prakash (House Number Six), who was having an affair with Radha. Danny impulsively dials House Number Six, but hangs up without leaving a message. But Prakash has caller ID and calls Danny back, offering a large amount to come clean his flat one last time before he leaves for South Africa that evening. Radha and Prakash met at Gamblers Anonymous after she lost her job. Their affair was tumultuous; they gambled, fought, and had noisy sex while Danny waited outside. Danny was fond of Radha, who tipped well and often bought him a meal, but didn’t care for Prakash, who drank far too much and seethed with violence. But Danny knows that calling Crime Stoppers will reveal his illegal status and result in immediate deportation. He moves aimlessly around the city throughout the day, fighting with his conscience and making excuses to Prakash, who calls constantly. This sensitive thriller explores the impossible decisions illegal immigrants face every day, and the intense longing to belong to a community.

Murder Goes To MarketDaisy Bateman
Murder Goes to Market (Seventh Street Books 2020) introduces Claudia Simcoe, a computer programmer who has left San Francisco to open a farm-to-table market in the small Northern California coastal town of San Elmo Bay. Almost all of the stalls in the market feature local food items (Dancing Cow Cheese Company, Pak Family Pickles) but Claudia rented the final stall to artisan Lori Roth. An anonymous printout from a wholesale importer’s website reveals that Lori’s Hand Made Creations are really made in overseas factories. Waiting until the other vendors have left for the day, Claudia notifies Lori that she has violated the terms of her lease, and gives her three days to pack up and vacate her space. The next morning Claudia discovers Lori strangled with a cheese wire in the marketplace, a gigantic jar of kosher dills smashed in the aisle. Police Chief Bill Lennox, who has no experience with homicides and little tolerance for outsiders, quickly decides Claudia is his prime suspect and closes the marketplace indefinitely. Officer Derek Chambers, a handsome young transplant from the Northeast, is sympathetic to Claudia’s predicament — the marketplace hasn’t been open long and both Claudia and the vendors have taken a financial risk. Evidence found under the body further implicates Claudia and she begins her own investigation, sure that Chief Lennox’s experience with traffic stops and beach parking break-ins hasn’t prepared him to catch a killer. Claudia searches through Lori’s boxes before turning them over to the police, discovering a mysterious list with women’s names and incomprehensible notes like “young 5k cousin cancer Philly.” Uniquely prepared by her background in the tech industry, Claudia begins researching Lori’s past, searching for a motive that has nothing to do with Claudia or the marketplace. This very funny debut and series opener is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery.

No Bad DeedHeather Chavez
No Bad Deed (William Morrow 2020) begins when veterinarian Cassie Larkin is driving home in the rain late one night in Santa Rosa, California, and spots a man and woman fighting on the side of the road. She calls 911 but doesn’t follow the directions to stay in her car, heading over the embankment to protect the woman. The man standing over the woman’s unconscious body tells Cassie that if she lets the woman die he will let her live, but she throws rocks at him until he scrambles up the bank, stealing her car with her purse containing her address and the names of her husband Sam and children Leo and Audrey. Detective Ray Rico shows her some pictures, and Cassie is able to identify Carver Sweet, though she doesn’t understand when he asks if the number 3 means anything to her. The next day Cassie works late again and Sam takes six-year-old Audrey trick-or-treating. When they don’t return on time, Cassie walks through the neighborhood, finding Audrey with two women she doesn’t know, who tell her Sam asked them to watch Audrey for a few minutes and never returned. The next day Sam’s car disappears from their driveway, and Cassie gets a text saying he is sorry. On the nightstand by their bed she finds an origami dog and unfolds it do discover the numeral 2. After checking the hospitals and talking to Sam’s friends Cassie receives more texts from Sam’s phone, but she isn’t sure they are really from her husband. The texts report that he has been injured, and admit an affair. Cassie reports Sam missing to Officer Marisol Torres, but the texts indicate Sam left voluntarily. Cassie suspects he has been kidnapped by Carver Sweet because she saved the young woman’s life. Footage from a neighbor’s security camera reveals a large man who resembles Sweet driving Sam’s car away in the middle of the night. Cassie takes a copy to Detective Rico, who tells her they found a rock in Carver’s car painted with the numeral 3. More threats to her family cause Cassie to ignore Rico’s advice to leave the investigation to the professionals, putting her own life in danger as she tries to protect her family. This debut psychological thriller is frightening.

The Lions of Fifth AvenueFiona Davis
The Lions of Fifth Avenue (Dutton 2020) begins in 1913 New York City. Laura Lyons and her husband Jack, the superintendent of the New York Public Library, live in a seven-room apartment on the second floor of the library with their children Harry (11) and Pearl (7). Only two years old, the Library still feels brand new. The director approved Laura writing an article about their unusual living arrangements, including details about their nightly stomp and shout in the deserted building and the children’s devotion to the two lions at the Fifth Avenue entrance: named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after two of the library founders. Fiona dreams of being more than a wife and mother, and earns a scholarship to the Columbia Journalism School. She is disappointed when the 24 male students are assigned to cover politics while she and the other three women are sent to report on an announcement that the Women’s Hotel is no longer serving butter to hotel guests. While returning late from another insignificant assignment, Laura meets Dr. Amelia Potter, who invites her to the Heterodoxy Club, a radical group of women who speak freely about birth control and women’s rights. Laura is fascinated by this group of women and begins spending more time away from her family until a crisis occurs in the Library: a first edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and then a rare copy of Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe go missing. In 1993 the lions are now known as Patience and Fortitude. Laura’s granddaughter Sadie Donavan has just been appointed the interim curator of the Berg Collection, the library’s rare book collection which also includes ephemera like Charles Dickens’s letter opener made from the paw of his favorite cat. Sadie hasn’t shared her relationship with famous essayist and writer Laura Lyons, but leaps at the chance to research her life and work for an upcoming exhibit displaying the Berg Collection treasures, hoping to find something that survived the destruction of all Laura’s private papers and manuscripts after her death. While pulling other items to write the descriptions for the catalog, Sadie discovers that the final volume of Virginia Woolf diaries is missing from the box in the locked security cage. Sadie’s 87-year-old mother Pearl never talked much about her parents, and her memory is fading fast. Right before her death Pearl muttered something her six-year-old granddaughter heard as a “tambourine” stolen by her father Jack. Fearing that the news that her grandfather was a book thief will increase the suspicion that she is now stealing rare books herself, Fiona throws herself into researching her family, hoping that discovering the truth will clear her own name. Alternating sections from Laura and Sadie’s perspectives present two unique women struggling to find their place in the world while still protecting their families.

The Last ExitMichael Kaufman
The Last Exit (Crooked Lane Books 2021) is set in a near-future world devastated by climate change, rampant unemployment, and the inequalities caused by longevity treatments providing eternal life to the ultra-rich. Jen B. Lu is a 38-year-old Washington DC Elder Abuse Unit agent, supported by Chandler, her top-secret experimental 2-year-old synthetic implant. An epidemic of rapid onset spongiform encephalitis (ROSE) is killing 16% of people in their 50s and 60s. The fatal disease can be prevented only by a modified longevity treatment, including sterilization, available to childless adults only if their parents choose to “Exit” at age 65. Jen and Chandler are called to a domestic violence situation involving two parents and their two early-40s sons. Olive Ortega has attacked their neighbor, a low-level criminal, with a hammer for taking their life savings and not delivering an illegal copy of the modified treatment called Eden, which would have allowed the whole family to survive. Jen’s boyfriend Zach and his parents are struggling with making their own decision now that Raffi and Leah are six months away from age 65. Though they would prefer not to Exit, they are willing to end their lives to protect their son, who is increasingly reluctant to accept their sacrifice. Eden sounds wonderful to Zach. Within a week two people die suddenly after aging 50 years overnight, both victims of Eden. Jen wonders if Big Pharma, a consortium making trillions of dollars on the legal treatment, has salted the streets with a doctored version of Eden to prevent competition. Jen is warned by Captain Brooks not to continue asking questions about Eden, but she is beginning to doubt her own decision about signing Exit papers for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Chandler is unable to tell anything but the truth when questioned, so Jen begins to turn him off more of the time, leaving him to speculate about the missing gaps in time and why dangerous people are threatening Jen. This series opener is engagingly narrated from the perspectives of both Jen and Chandler, an odd-couple partnership for the ages.

Under PressureRobert Pobi
Under Pressure (Minotaur Books 2020) begins when an explosion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City kills 702 people: everyone attending a private gala for tech company Horizon Dynamics plus pedestrians outside the building. The FBI mobilizes its entire team, but the amount of data about the victims is overwhelming. Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, knows that Dr. Lucas Page, an astrophysicist, university professor, and former FBI agent injured on duty, is the only person who can help identify patterns in the data in a timely fashion. Lucas is reluctant, and his wife and children worry about the danger, but he feels compelled to help protect his city. Within a day CNN receives a letter from the bomber taking credit for the destruction and calling for a revolution against technology, but Lucas is convinced the letter was written by an algorithm fed the Unabomber’s manifesto. The Machine Bomber catches the interest of the disenfranchised, who begin lighting bonfires to burn their cell phones, while starting Facebook and Twitter groups to spread their message against technology. Lucas is sure The Machine Bomber is a distraction from the real power behind the bombing, and begins tracing the financial network of the Hockney brothers of Horizon Dynamics. The next bombing destroys one of the two New York City internet hubs, and then a seemingly random group of young men. Lucas has no social skills and alienates most everyone he meets, but his unique spatial awareness that that automatically converts a scene into numerical values gives him the power to recreate the geometry of a blast site or other crime scene and pinpoint information others often miss. The adrenaline rush of the investigation is addictive, and Lucas can’t remove himself from the hunt even when his life is threatened. This excellent second in the series featuring the brilliant scientist with no patience for fools includes flashes of humor and witty social commentary.

These WomenIvy Pochoda
These Women (Ecco 2020), set in the West Adams neighborhood of South Los Angeles, is narrated from the perspective of five women living unstable and dangerous lives. Dorian runs the fish shack, and has spent the last 13 years serving the scraps left over at the end of the night to the women on the stroll. Fifteen years earlier 13 young women were found dead in the surrounding alleys, their throats slit and plastic bags placed over their heads. The police identified them as prostitutes, and no one much cared that someone was killing “these women” that cluttered up the corners. Dorian’s daughter Leila was the final victim in the series. Dorian tried to tell the police that Leila wasn’t a street walker, but since she was killed the same way no one listened. Julianna, known on the street as Jujubee, was the child Leila was babysitting the night she was killed returning home. Now a “dancer” at the Fast Rabbit club, Julianna avoids Dorian and her grief. Julianna documents her life with a series of selfies and surreptitious pictures of her friends. Marella Colwin, the daughter of Julianna’s neighbors, is a performance artist recently returned home after years away at school. Her mother Anneke rarely leaves the house, and Marella has never forgiven her for shipping her off to boarding school as a child. Ophelia (Feelia) has a 15-year old vivid scar running across her neck, an attempted murder that convinced her to give up the game. Dorian goes to the police station with a box of 31 dead hummingbirds that have been left outside the fish shack and her apartment, and the desk sergeant sends her talk with vice cop Esmeralda (Essie) Perry as a joke. For the first time someone really listens to Dorian’s story about her daughter, and her theory that the killer stopped because his final victim was not the prostitute he thought she was. Essie is a small Hispanic woman in a male-dominated profession, and understands only too well what it is like to be sidelined and ignored. The new murder of Kathy, a street-walker found with her throat slit and a plastic bag over her head, convinces Essie that the killer has returned, and she begins searching for patterns in the earlier killings and Kathy’s murder, soon followed by a second. This evocative thriller, a finalist for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Mystery, gives a voice to the desperate women society would like to pretend do not exist.

Thunder BayDouglas Skelton
Thunder Bay (Arcade Crimewise 2020, UK 2019) introduces Rebecca Connolly, an investigative reporter for the Highland Chronicle, in Inverness, Scotland. She receives a call from freelance photographer Chaz Wymark about news happening on Storim, an island off Scotland’s west coast. Fifteen years ago Mhairi Sinclair was beaten to death, and her live-in boyfriend Roddie Drummond was tried for murder. He was acquitted on a Not Proven verdict, the third option in Scotland, and released. Roddie’s mother died a few days earlier, and rumors are that he will be returning to Storim for the funeral, the first time since Mhairi’s death. Storim is a relatively small island with an area of 400 square miles and a population of 3,000, and the insular community is largely convinced that Roddie was guilty. Rebecca’s father was born and raised on Storim but she knows nothing about the island. He left after finishing high school, never returned, and refused to say anything about his life there to either his wife or daughter. Rebecca’s editor refuses to authorize a trip to Storim for budgetary reasons, but she jumps at the chance for a potentially big story plus the chance to learn about her father’s past. Calling in sick, she takes the ferry to Storim along with Roddie and retired Detective Sergeant William Sawyer, who arrested Roddie and never wavered in his certainty that Roddie was guilty. Rebecca begins asking questions of Mhairi’s friends and relatives, trying to find the truth about that fateful night. Mhairi’s last words were “Thunder Bay,” a secluded spot where Mhairi, her brother Ray, and friends played together as children and hung out as teenagers. A recovered drug addict, Donnie is now barely making a living running whale watching tours while Henry, who inherited his father’s title and castle, is organizing a community meeting to explain his plan to transform the estate into a whiskey distillery and luxury hunting hotel. When Donnie interrupts the presentation to object to the plan, insisting only Lord Henry will profit while the islanders will be evicted from their homes, Henry’s Russian investors suggest that both Donnie and “the mainland reporter” need to be silenced. This compelling series opener explores the power of secrets in a closed community determined to protect their own.

Take Me ApartSara Sligar
Take Me Apart (MDC 2020) begins when Kate Aitken is hired by Theo Brand to archive his mother’s personal effects. Miranda Brand was a renowned photographer who shot herself at the height of her fame, 24 years earlier when Theo was eleven. Kate worked as a journalist in New York until a career-ending collapse, and is grateful for the job across the country in the tiny beach town of Callinas in Northern California, where everyone is still speculating about what really happened the day Miranda died. Many believe that Theo, though only a child, had a hand in his mother’s death. Arriving at the beach house on a hill, Kate meets Theo and his young children Jemima and Oscar. On the phone Theo has warned Kate that his mother was a pack rat and her papers were “kind of a mess,” but she is horrified to find Theo has moved everything he found in the house into one room. Huge piles of negative files, prints, cardboard boxes, notebooks, letters, piles of paper, random receipts, and rubbish cover the entire floor. Theo hasn’t been in the house for 24 years, when he and his father moved out after Miranda’s death, and he has no interest in his mothers effects, only in a catalog of the contents so he can sell the collection. She spends most of every day sorting through the disorder, seeing little of the distant Theo but becoming friends with his children. Fascinated by the brilliant and larger-than-life Miranda, Kate defies Theo’s orders to stay out of the rest of the house, and begins exploring the upstairs rooms and the attic whenever he leaves with the children. She discovers Miranda’s diary, learning she was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis after Theo’s birth. Miranda was subjected to electroshock therapy authorized by her husband Jake, and emerged from the hospital with a regimin of medications that inhibited her creativity, transforming the once vibrant artist into a mere husk of herself. As the days pass, Kate finds herself becoming closer to Theo than may be sensible considering her own fragile state of mind. The interspersed sections with letters, news clippings, and the diary bring Miranda to life, and Kate begins interviewing people who corresponded with Miranda, trying to determine if the suicide was really a murder. This intense debut novel of psychological suspense explores the the effects of marriage and motherhood on the artistic personality.

Catherine HouseElisabeth Thomas
Catherine House (Custom House 2020) begins when Ines Murillo arrives at Catherine House, a crumbling castle behind a formidable iron gate in rural Pennsylvania. Catherine House isn’t exactly a college, instead a selective postsecondary school featuring experimental liberal arts study and a controversial research and development institute for plasm, the radical new materials science. Students must pass a rigorous interview process, and then commit to three full years without leaving the school, taking classes during the summer semesters as well. Room, board, clothing, and school supplies are provided, but students must leave all personal possessions behind. Ines, who was an excellent student until a traumatic experience in her senior year, is grateful for the opportunity, but finds it difficult to transform herself from a party girl dependent on pills and alcohol back into a dedicated student. Her roommate Baby Pearce is the complete opposite: nose down in a book at all times and terrified of breaking the rules. Not having anything to leave behind, Ines isn’t bothered by the isolation, Catherine House is the closest to a home she has ever had. Ines discovers that many of the other students also have families and pasts they aren’t eager to return to for a variety of reasons. By the end of the first year Ines and her friends are required to chose a major. Baby knew from the first day that she wanted to concentrate on New Materials Plasm Studies, but Ines is still finding it hard to focus on classes, eventually choosing History of Art and writing over 50 pages describing an off-white canvas by Agnes Martin. Ines notices that the New Materials students form their own group in the dining hall, all three years sitting together rather than grouping by years like the rest of the students. She becomes obsessed by the New Materials wing, especially the locked lab in a hallway wallpapered with umbrellas. She asks questions about plasm study, but no one is able to explain exactly what the mysterious substance is or what it can do. Threatened with expulsion if she doesn’t pass her courses, Ines reluctantly begins to study, continuing to explore the vast buildings. She watches the New Materials students, suspecting their course of study is far different than hers, and remembering news stories featuring parents claiming Catherine House had kidnapped their children, who did not return home after the stipulated three years. This intense debut thriller exploring depression and the longing to belong is a finalist for the 2020 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Winter CountsDavid Heska Wanbli Weiden
Winter Counts (Ecco 2020) introduces Virgil Wounded Horse, the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Federal investigators have jurisdiction over felony crimes on reservations, yet often decline to prosecute. When tribal members feel that justice has been denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, they turn to Virgil. After administering a beating to the gym teacher at the local school who molested his students, Virgil returns home to learn that tribal councilman Ben Short Bear is eager to talk with him. Ben explains that the recent death of a high school senior was the result of an overdose of heroin supplied by Rick Crow. Virgil knows Rick is a liar, thief, and sells weed, but is surprised that he has moved into hard drugs. Ben is frustrated since even if convicted by the tribal court the most they can sentence Rick to is one year, and the feds aren’t interested in anything short of murder. Virgil is reluctant, but the offer of five thousand dollars to stop Rick from smuggling heroin onto the reservation is more than he makes in a year, money he would love to save for his 14-year old nephew Nathan’s college fund. The next day Nathan nearly dies from his first shot of heroin, a dangerous free sample mixed with fentanyl. While waiting for Nathan to wake up in the hospital, Virgil talks to his ex-girlfriend Marie Short Bear, Ben’s daughter who also dated Rick Crow briefly. Marie believes the only way to stop drugs and gangs on the reservation is to teach children the values and traditions of the Lakota way, but offers to help Virgil track Rick down in Denver to deal with the immediate problem. Since breaking up with Marie, Virgil has given up drinking, and the two tentatively begin a new relationship. Virgil is even willing to try Marie’s new food enthusiasm inspired by casino guest chef Lack Strombow, leader of the new indigi-cultural food movement to fight diabetes by eliminating flour, dairy, and sugar with the motto “Put down your frybread.” The trip to Denver exposes Virgil and Marie to a scary drug cartel, which intensifies their determination to protect their people from heroin. This powerful debut thriller, a finalist for the 2020 Lefty and Edgar Awards for Best Debut Mystery, leaves open the possibility of a sequel featuring the complex Virgil Wounded Horse.

The TruantsKate Weinberg
The Truants (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2020, UK 2019) begins when 19-year-old Jess Walker arrives at college in East Anglia to study under Dr. Lorna Clay, author of The Truants, a book of essays with the premise that a hedonistic life is necessary for artistic brilliance. Jess is crushed to discover that she has been waitlisted for the course she set her heart on, and then thrilled to find she has been moved into Lorna’s other course on Agatha Christie along with her friend Georgie, a lush aristocrat who always has pills and alcohol to share. At the first seminar Jess is mesmerized by Lorna. Searching desperately for something clever to attract her notice, Jess brings up the time Agatha went missing after learning her husband was having an affair, leaving behind her crashed Morris Cowley, headlights still burning, fur coat in the back seat. When she reappeared eleven days later, Agatha claimed to have no memory of the missing days, and that time remained a mystery. Jess remembers running away as a child, speculating that Agatha just wanted her husband’s attention. All the boys are attracted to Georgie, but she falls for visiting-fellow Alec, a South African journalist on campus while writing a book. Though she knows Alec is off limits as Georgie’s boyfriend, Jess is attracted to him as well, despite her own growing friendship with Nick, a second-year geology student. The four spend all their free time together until Alex decides it might be time to return to Johannesburg to pick up his coverage the story of a massacre of miners. As the semester continues, all the students compete for the honor of becoming Lorna’s favorite student, which is Georgie at first, but then Lorna starts to favor Jess, both inside and outside of class. Several people warn Jess not to trust Lorna, but she is increasingly dependent on her attention, especially when betrayals and jealousies shatter the relationships between the four students. A death that seems accidental sparks Jess’s suspicions, and she examines the circumstances through the lens of her studies of Agatha Christie. This character-driven debut thriller examines the power of infatuation and the despair of betrayal.

February 1, 2021

What You Don’t SeeTracy Clark
What You Don’t See (Kensington 2020) begins when Chicago private investigator Cass Raines is asked by her former police partner Ben Mickerson to join him in a bodyguard job for Vonda Allen, the wealthy owner of a glossy magazine aimed at upwardly mobile Blacks, who has received several death threats along with flowers. Worried about damage to her brand, Allen is adamant that the police can’t be involved, but her assistant Kaye Chandler insisted she be protected. Cass is dubious about working for the controlling prima donna, but the single letter Chandler copied before shredding convinces her that Allen may be in danger. Allen says she has no idea who could have written the letters, and instructs them to provide her with unobtrusive protection, not investigate, but neither Cass nor Ben are capable of sitting quietly outside her door in the John Hancock building. The first day they witness Allen belittle both Chandler and young office assistant Kendrick, and overhear an argument between Allen and writer Philip Hewitt, who calls Allen a psychopathic bitch. Hewitt says the new show she is about to launch was completely his idea, which she refuses to acknowledge. Receptionist Linda Sewell explains that she reported Vonda Allen for unfair business practices, was fired, and then rehired after a pricy law firm took on her case. She came back only for the health insurance needed for her special needs son, but admits no one hates Allen more than she does. Early the next morning they do bodyguard duty while Allen visits the gym, arriving at her office to find the police waiting to ask questions about Philip Hewitt, who has been killed by a single shot through the head. Allen tells the detective she knows nothing that can help them, and Ben and Cass are bound by their NDA to say nothing about the death threats to Allen. At a book signing that evening Cass encounters the public Allen persona for the first time: polished, sparkling, and charming, the antithesis of the cruel bully behind the scenes. Ben is critically wounded by a fan carrying flowers, who escapes while Cass is trying to save Ben’s life. Sure that the solution lies in Allen’s past, Cass summons all her resources to find the truth. This compelling third in the excellent series featuring the engaging private detective is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Mystery.

LakewoodMegan Giddings
Lakewood (Amistad 2020) is the story of Lena Johnson, a Black college student whose grandmother is dying of cancer. Lena’s mother has been ill her whole life with a mysterious ailment that defies diagnosis, so her grandmother took over much of Lena’s upbringing. After her grandmother’s funeral, Lena discovers a mound of unpaid bills and begins interviewing for jobs to pay for her mother’s home health care. An unsolicited letter arrives in the mail with an invitation from the Lakewood Project to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. Lena applies and is offered a five-day pre-screening by a representative of the Great Lakes Shipping Company. She is searched, obligated to surrender her phone, required to sign a nondisclosure agreement with a $50,000 violation penalty, asked a series of strange questions about morality and race, presented with a group of random phrases to memorize, and given a series of injections and pills that make her sick. But the check for $3,000 on the final day is more that she could make working all summer. Offered a contract for employment, Lena hesitates when reading the new nondisclosure agreement threatening potential jail time and up to a million dollars in damages and the insurance policy listing payout amounts for sustained brain damage and neurocognitive issues, but the generous salary and complete health insurance for her mother and herself make the offer irresistible. There is a security gate outside the Great Lakes Shipping Company building in rural Michigan, where the Lakewood Project is housed, and Lena is provided with a cover story as a company employee along with the other five research subjects. Each day Lena is given a sheet with talking points for communicating with her mother and friends (your headset pinches, you are receiving training in Microsoft Excel). Each day the research subjects, all but one non-white, are given a new set of random phrases to memorize and undergo a new series of questions and pills or shots while being constantly watched by a group of observers, who are all white. The subjects have no idea what the experiments are about. Some are startling, like eyedrops that change Lena’s eye color to blue, and many are painful. This debut thriller explores the physical and emotional toll on research subjects and the lengths people will go to provide necessities like health insurance for those they love.

The Butchers BlessingRuth Gilligan
The Butchers’ Blessing (Tin House Books 2020) begins in 2018 when photographer Ronan Monks is preparing for a retrospective show and decides it is finally time to display The Butcher: a photograph he took 22 years earlier in rural Ireland of the body of a man hanging from a meat hook through his feet. Back in January 1996, 12-year-old Úna and her beautiful emerald-eyed mother Grá are preparing a farewell feast for her father Cúch, who travels around Ireland for 11 months of the year with seven other men: the Butchers. According to ancient Irish custom, the eight Butchers must be present at every traditional cattle slaughter, preventing a fatal curse by laying hands on the beast as it passes from this life to the next. The Butchers live in pairs around the countryside so that their wives can support each other during the eleven months alone, but Grá tells her husband she is not sure she can bear the loneliness another year. Rumors of mad cow disease are circulating, adding to Grá’s feelings of uncertainty. This year Úna’s parents decided to stop homeschooling and sent her to secondary school, and Úna was unprepared for the bullying. Raised to believe the Butchers played an integral role in Irish history, she is hurt and angry to be mocked as the Butcher’s daughter. She secretly begins trapping mice, determined to learn the skills of the Butchers in order to join her father’s band when the oldest man retires. During the summer young photographer Ronan Monks sees Grá bathing in the lake, and enlists her help finding spots to capture for his project on the borderlands. Grá’s older sister Lena ran away to marry a non-believer when Grá was 16, and the two sisters haven’t seen each other since. On a dairy farm in the next county Lena is recuperating from chemotherapy to halt the progress of her brain tumor while her husband Fionn McCready begins cattle smuggling on the borderlands to raise money for more treatment. She reminisces about the importance of the Butchers in her early life, and Fionn arranges for the Butchers to visit and slaughter a cow, changing their lives and the life of their son, Davey, a misfit hoping to do well on his exams and escape to university in Dublin. Narrated from the perspectives of Grá, Úna, Fionn, and Davey, this atmospheric debut thriller explores the importance of tradition, the weight of family expectations, and how far people are willing to go to achieve their personal desires.

Moonflower MurdersAnthony Horowitz
Moonflower Murders (Harper 2020) finds former London book editor Susan Ryeland running the Polydorus, a small hotel on Crete, with her partner Andreas Patikis. Lawrence and Pauline Treherne arrive explaining their lawyer suggested Susan might be able to help them. Eight years ago Frank Parris was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his room at Branlow Hall, their hotel in Suffolk, on the eve of their daughter Cecily’s wedding to Aiden MacNeil. Stefan Codrescu, a young Romanian maintenance man working for the hotel, was charged and convicted with circumstantial evidence. Lawrence and Pauline are semi-retired, passing the work of running the hotel on to Cecily, Aiden, and their older daughter Lisa. Two days ago Cecily called Lawrence in their home in the South of France, insisting that Stefan was innocent, the proof in a book she had just mailed: Atticus Pünd Takes the Case by Alan Conway, who stayed at the hotel six weeks after the murder. Susan, who edited Conway’s series before his death, vaguely remembers that the murder mystery was set in a hotel, but in 1953 Devon rather than current day Suffolk. Lawrence and Pauline have read the book, but though nearly all the characters are based on people Conway met at Branlow Hall (Moonflower Hotel in his book) they can’t spot any proof of Stefan’s innocence. Cecily disappeared from the hotel grounds shortly after the phone call. They offer Susan ten thousand pounds to come stay at Branlow Hall, re-read the book, and hopefully find the clue and their missing daughter. The Polydorus needs new wiring and plumbing, so Susan agrees and is given a roomy suite in the Moonflower wing of Branlow Hall. She observes the interactions at the hotel and asks questions of everyone, putting off reading the book by her distasteful former client as long as possible. Inserted in the center of Susan’s investigation is the entire novel in question: Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, featuring half Greek, half-German private detective Atticus Pünd and the murder of Hollywood actress Melissa James, who has bought a Regency house and the Moonflower Hotel. After re-reading the novel, Susan still doesn’t have a clue what Cecily saw in the book, considering herself completely unqualified to solve the mystery that Atticus Pünd would have found a simple task. But Susan is determined to figure out what the devious Conway hid in the book, and continues to ask uncomfortable questions. This clever homage to classic British crime fiction is the second featuring the tenacious editor who can’t stop until all dangling ends are resolved.

The Last Story of Mina LeeNancy Jooyoun Kim
The Last Story of Mina Lee (Park Row 2020) begins in 2014 when 26-year-old Margot Lee arrives at her mother’s apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, to find her mother Mina dead. Raised by her single mother in the tiny apartment, Margot never knew anything about her father or her mother’s life before she came to America illegally. By the time Margot was in high school the two often argued. Margot was ashamed of her mother, who never completely mastered English and worked seven-day weeks in her small clothing store until it was destroyed in the riots, then renting a swap meet space. Margot considered herself completely American, never became fluent in Korean, and resented spending after-school hours and weekends working in her mother’s shop. Margot hoped to be an artist, but ended up in an administrative role in Seattle, missing the constant Los Angeles sun and growing further apart from her mother. Mina’s landlord tells Margot he occasionally saw a boyfriend earlier in the year, and overheard arguing the last night he saw Mina, but retracts his statement when the police question him, worried about too much attention to the run-down apartment building. Interspersed sections from Mina’s perspective in 1987 tell the story of her first year in America, barely surviving by stocking shelves in a Korean grocery store. The illegal Mexican immigrants she works with are kind to her, as is Mr. Kim, who manages the front of the store for owner Mr. Park, whose close scrutiny makes Mina uncomfortable. Mina bonds with another Korean woman in the boarding house she lives in that first year, sharing the Korean food they cook in the shared kitchen and stories of their pasts. Mina was a Korean war orphan whose husband and young daughter were killed in an automobile accident in Seoul. While cleaning her mother’s apartment, Margot discovers a photo of her mother’s first family she knew nothing about, and tries to locate Mr. Kim, who she suspects might be her father, the mysterious boyfriend the landlord mentioned, and perhaps her mother’s killer. This evocative debut novel explores personal identity, the things that bind families together and tear them apart, and the overwhelming need to belong.

Murder at the Mena HouseErica Ruth Neubauer
Murder at the Mena House (Kensington 2020) introduces Jane Wunderly, an American widow in her early 30s, staying with her wealthy Aunt Millie in 1926 at the Mena House in Cairo. At the hotel bar Jane meets some British hotel guests: Colonel Justice Stainton traveling with his beautiful flirtatious daughter Anna, handsome Mr. Redvers who looks far too dangerous to be a banker, and young golf fanatic Lillian Hughes traveling with her friend Marie Collins who serves as caddy. While Jane is talking with Redvers, Anna Stainton deliberately spills a drink on Jane’s blouse, forcing her to return to her room to change. The following night Anna appears in a scandalous gauze dress before vanishing into the garden with a young man in a pinstripe suit. In the morning Jane meets the Colonel and a hotel staff member hurrying up the corridor. The Colonel explains that Anna didn’t come down to breakfast and he hasn’t been able to locate her. Worried that she may be in a compromising position, he asks Jane to use the staff key to enter her bedroom and check to see if she is there. The room is quite dark until Jane opens the bedroom curtains to discover Anna’s dead body splayed across the bed, still wearing the scarlet gown from the night before, the silver beading matted with blood. While searching Anna’s room the police discover Jane’s scarab brooch, which went missing the first night. After hearing about the spilled drink, the unpleasant Inspector Hamadi suspects that Jane killed Anna in a fit of jealous rage. While not golfing with Lillian or drinking far too much, Aunt Millie tries matchmaking and encourages Jane to spend time with Redvers. Amon Khanum Samara also pays Jane attention, but she doesn’t trust the smarmy womanizer. American newlyweds Deanna and Charlie Parks are much more agreeable companions, though Jane wonders how the vaudeville performers can afford to stay in the exclusive Mena House. With the help of Redvers, Jane sets out to discover the truth about Anna’s murder. This enjoyable romantic traditional mystery starring the intrepid young widow with a troubled past is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery.

Zero ZoneScott O’Connor
Zero Zone (Counterpoint 2020) is set in the late 1970s. Jess Shephard is a Los Angeles artist who creates immersive exhibits of color and space. As a child she almost drowned in the ocean, and has been searching ever since for euphoria she felt in that transformative space of bubbles of light and swirling sand that created a vast underwater room. Her unique projects attract critical notice and many people return over and over to relive the intense sensory experience. In 1977 a photographer friend travels to Northern New Mexico, returning with pictures of an old army base where the atomic bomb was tested, next to land owned by a rancher and a hiking trail through the desolate land. Fascinated by the stark landscape, Jess visits the rancher who shows her a wispy shimmering of light caused by lingering radiation in the air. He gives Jess permission to build a small concrete room with rectangular openings to frame the changing light from sunrise through sunset. She calls the structure “Zero Zone.” In the summer of 1977, bullied 16-year-old Isabel Serrano runs away from home with a friend to Las Vegas. They lose all their money gambling, and casino cocktail waitress Martha Reed takes pity on Izzy, giving her a place to stay after her friend leaves with a stranger. Grieving the death of her sister, Martha is ready for a change, and decides they should hike the trail through the New Mexico desert her sister read about in a New Age magazine but wasn’t able to complete before dying of cancer. Charismatic Tanner Helm, covered with growths all over his body, meets rootless Danny Aquado in county jail. After they are released, Tanner convinces Danny to join him on the desert hike he read about in Modern Pilgrimages, hoping for a life-changing experience. The four are surprised to find the Zero Zone structure, but when Izzy sees a vision of light, Tanner is convinced she has found a passage into another world and barricades the door. Interspersed sections from Light + Space, an unreleased documentary film made after Zero Zone was shut down, reveal Jess’s breakdown after the extreme reaction to her art, which resulted in a death. Two years later those who survived Zero Zone are released, and Jess is forced to confront her her fear that the violence may continue and her nagging guilt that she was somehow responsible for the events that occurred in a place of her making. This haunting thriller explores the desperate loneliness of those living in the margins of society and the power of art to transform reality.

InterferenceBrad Parks
Interference (Thomas & Mercer 2020) begins when Brigid Bronik gets a call that her husband Matt has just been has been rushed to the hospital after a seizure in his lab at Dartmouth College Department of Physics and Astronomy. When Brigid arrives at the hospital, Matt is given fluids and norepinephrine but is still thrashing, and the doctors have no idea what caused his seizure. Brigid began losing her hearing a decade earlier and struggles to understand the doctors even with the help of her hearing aids and lip reading. They have ruled out a heart attack or stroke, but can’t do an MRI to check for a brain tumor until Matt can be safely sedated. Luckily her sister Aimee steps in to care for their nine-year-old son Morgan so Brigid can sit by Matt’s bedside as he gradually comes out of his coma. All the tests come back negative: no tumor or brain damage, no botulism or any other common poisoning, no cause of any kind for his collapse except perhaps stress. Everyone hopes it was a one-time event and Matt returns to work, cautioned to take it easy. Two weeks later Matt tells Brigid he has received an amazing job offer from Sean Plottner, a multi-billionaire Dartmouth alumni who believes Matt is close to a world-changing breakthrough in his field of quantum mechanics: a million dollars a year to work for Plottner Investments. The salary is unbelievable, but Matt worries the job will increase his stress, and is uncomfortable moving away from the open exchange of ideas in academia to total control of his work by a business. The next day Matt has another seizure, this time coming back to consciousness after 12 hours. Again the tests turn up nothing, and the doctor asks about two similarities of time and place: the same time of day in Matt’s lab. Matt explains that his work is top secret since some of his funding comes from the Department of Defense, but explains he has been working with viruses, specifically trying to alter the common tobacco mosaic virus at the quantum level with a microscopic laser, a guaranteed Nobel prize for anyone who succeeds. Matt chose the tobacco mosaic virus because it doesn’t infect humans, but admits no one knows how a virus mutated at the quantum level will change. A few weeks later Matt is kidnapped from the lab. Brigid and her sister, a forensic accountant, work with the police while Plottner mounts his own search, offering to pay the ransom if Brigid signs a work contract on Matt’s behalf. Brigid doesn’t trust Plottner, but there are plenty of other suspects: rival researchers at Dartmouth, the Chinese government, and the Department of Defense. This science-infused character-driven thriller is riveting.

Mrs. Mohr Goes MissingMaryla Szymiczkowa
Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (Mariner Books 2020, Polish 2015) is set in 1893 Cracow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the bored wife of Ignacy, a medical professor. Having done all she can to advance her husband’s career, Zofia has entered the cut-throat arena of charitable fund-raising, competing against other society women to acquire titled patronage. When her cook Franciszka asks for the morning off to visit her grandmother at Helcel House, a retirement house run by nuns, Zofia escorts her in hopes of obtaining prizes for a raffle to benefit scrofulous children from the needlework and other crafts produced by the charity cases living in the lower floor dormitories. They find Helcel House in an uproar, the nuns and staff dashing about madly in search of a missing resident: Mrs. Mohr, the wealthy widow of a high court judge living on the top floor. Three days later Zofia returns to finalize her raffle plan and discovers no sign has been found of the missing Mrs. Mohr, a puzzle since she could barely walk. Impatient with the inefficient search, Zofia sets herself up in an empty room with the help of Sister Alojza and begins to interview the staff and top floor residents. She meets Countess Matylda Zeleńska de Zielonka, the most distinguished resident, and convinces her to sponsor the raffle to benefit scrofulous children while asking about her missing neighbor. Discovering the watchman didn’t search the trunks in the attic, Zofia discovers Mrs. Mohr’s body, still rosy-cheeked. The doctor decides she fainted and then died of exposure, and no one is willing to grapple with the fact that the invalid could not have ascended the attic steps by herself. Determined to figure out the true cause of death, Zofia arranges a dinner party with Ignacy’s toxicologist colleague, and establishes only cyanide would result in flushed cheeks. “In which Zofia Turbotyńska shows no interest in the digestive tract of the salamander, lurks in a gateway, and brings up topics at table that a woman of propriet should not discuss while eating catfish.” The watchman is arrested for the murder. Zofia is sure he is innocent, but the police don’t pay any attention to a woman whose only experience with crime is catching a housemaid who surreptitiously helped herself to the sugar bowl. The witty chapter summaries add to the fun in this clever and funny debut mystery written by Polish partners Jacek Dehnel, novelist and poet, and Pietr Tarczyński, historian and translator.

Skin DeepSung J. Woo
Skin Deep (Agora Books 2020) introduces Siobhan O’Brien, a Korean-American adoptee, whose boss has just died, leaving her his New York City private investigation agency. As she is debating selling the agency, Josie Sykes, the younger sister of an old friend, calls asking for help finding her adopted daughter Penelope Hae Jun Sykes, who has vanished. Josie reported Penny’s disappearance to the police, but since she is 18 and there was no sign of kidnap or struggle the police didn’t do much more than take a report. Though Josie and Penny had been very close, talking every day when she started college, Penny asked her mother to give her some space a month earlier. After phone calls, texts, and emails weren’t returned, Josie visited Llewellyn College, tracking Penny down at a safe house for students needing emotional support. A green-haired student supported Penny while she read from a card telling her mother she felt manipulated and needed time alone. Two weeks later the dean called to report Penny had taken a leave of absence. Siobhan has spent most of her life explaining her name to strangers and understands that Penny may be working out her own issues, but agrees to visit the small college in upstate New York and ask some questions. She finds Llewellyn in the midst of a crisis: male students have been admitted for the first time in the college’s 200 year history, and The Womyn of Llewellyn, a small but very vocal group, are angry and feel betrayed by the “manvasion.” President Vera Wheeler, a former fashion model, insists the change was necessary to address financial shortfalls. Siobhan attends a meeting of The Womyn of Llewellyn and locates the green-haired student, Sister Faith, who agrees to help with the search for Penny, who may be at the Krishna Center for Yoga and Wellness, if Siobhan investigates the mysterious new Travers Hall, being constructed behind a guarded security fence. This series opener featuring the endearing novice PI is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery.

January 1, 2021

The Opium PrinceJasmine Aimaq
The Opium Prince (Soho Crime 2020) begins when Afghan-born American diplomat Daniel Abdullah Sajadi and his American wife Rebecca are driving near Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 1970s. A young Kochi girl named Telaya runs in front of their car and dies in Daniel’s arms. They take the body of the child to the small gathering of goatskin tents near the road. The villagers call upon Taj Maleki, a well-dressed man carrying a revolver, who takes them to the police. Since Telaya is part of a nomad tribe not recognized by the law, Daniel is given a minimal fine, but placed in the debt of the powerful opium khan. Daniel, the son of an Afghan war hero and an American mother, has been posted to Kabul to head the American opium poppy eradication efforts. Taj’s fields are slated to be sprayed with Agent Ruby, a new herbicide promoted as not as harmful as Agent Orange, and replanted with corn and wheat. Taj attempts to blackmail Daniel into switching the destruction to a neighboring poppy field. Interspersed chapters reveal Taj’s backstory from his early childhood with a single mother, life on the streets after she dies, and work in the poppy fields along with the nomadic tribe and the poorest of the poor. Daniel is haunted by visions of Telaya and Rebecca sinks back into the depression following a miscarriage the year before. Daniel’s childhood friend Laila, a pro-communist doctor, helps care for Rebecca. Meanwhile, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is growing in power and preparing for the coup d’état that will become known as the Saur Revolution. This intense debut thriller explores the complex relationship between politics and criminals through the eyes of two tormented men trying to make sense of their place in the world.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple LineDeepa Anappara
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Random House 2020) is narrated by nine-year-old Jai, who lives with his parents and older sister in the Mumbai slum area known as the Bhoot Bazaar, at the very end of the Purple metro line next to the rubbish dump. Jai is a fan of reality police shows, so when his classmate Bahadur goes missing and the police don’t seem to be taking his disappearance seriously despite the gift of Bahadur’s mother’s only gold chain, he decides to start his own investigation. Fearing the police will demolish their settlement of tin-roofed shacks as troublemakers if Bahadur’s mother keeps visiting the police station, Jai enlists his friend Pari, who gets the best grades in their class, and his Muslim friend Faiz to help him create lists of people to interview and places to visit. Modeling himself on Byomkesh Bakshi and Sherlock Holmes, Jai imagines himself the leader though Pari’s wide reading gives her a perspective he lacks and Faiz’s job at the bazaar is perfect for gathering useful gossip. When the second boy goes missing, they decide to widen their search. Faiz believes the stories about soul-snatching djinns, and refuses to accompany Jai and Pari to the city on the Purple Line to investigate the possibility that Bahadur really did run away from home. At the Mumbai station they are offered candy by a woman, but rescued by the leader of a gang of street children who explains the sweets will put them to sleep so her boss can kidnap them. The street children don’t recognize the picture of Bahadur but tell them about the spirit of a man who protects them, advising them to look for a similar spirit in their own neighborhood who might help protect them from whoever is snatching children fron the Bhoot Bazaar. Interspersed chapters from the perspectives of the disappearing children juxtapose the cheerful optimism of Jai and his friends, which wavers as the disappearances continue and the Hindu majority begins to suspect that the someone from the Muslim minority may be the culprit. This moving fiction debut by an Indian journalist, based on real disappearances of poor children from metropolitan India, gives a voice to the victims rather than the perpetrators.

Nine ElmsRobert Bryndza
Nine Elms (Thomas & Mercer 2019) introduces Kate Marshall, a detective constable in London. In 1993, Kate was assigned to Operation Hemlock, working the third murder by the “Nine Elms Cannibal,” a name coined by the press because the killer chewed off pieces of his victims. No progress was made on the the third murder either, and after eight months Kate was reassigned to the drug squad. A call from Detective Chief Inspector Peter Conway, Kate’s secret lover and former boss, takes her to the scene of the fourth murder. When Conway drops her back home after an exhausting night, she finds his thermos and keys inside her bag. The keys are tied with a distinctive knot called the monkey’s fist, the same knot found securing the rope around each of the Nine Elms Cannibal’s victims. When Conway returns for his keys, she barely escapes becoming his next victim, instead knocking him out with a lamp. Fifteen years later Kate is an alcoholic university lecturer in criminology on the coast of Devon, when she gets an email from the parents of Caitlyn Murray, a 16-year-old girl who went missing in 1990. They recently met with Megan, one of Caitlyn’s schoolmates who emigrated to Australia a few weeks before Caitlyn went missing, and now believe Caitlyn was Conway’s first victim. Megan didn’t know anything about Caitlyn’s disappearance until she returned to England, and immediately told the Murrays that Caitlyn had been secretly dating a policeman. Conway was stationed in Manchester at the time, and Megan thinks the man she saw Caitlyn with might have been Conway. Kate is just about to write back saying she can’t help when the local pathologist calls her to the morgue to ask her opinion about the body of a young woman found strangled with bite marks. Kate recognizes the distinctive monkey’s fist knot, and panics. Has Conway somehow escaped from prison or is there a copycat killer on the loose? With the help of her research assistant Tristan Harper, Kate sets out to catch the killer and perhaps regain her self-worth in this frightening series opener.

The Constant RabbitJasper Fforde
The Constant Rabbit (Viking 2020) is set in alternative 2022 England, 55 years after the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event that transformed a few rabbits, foxes, and weasels. There are now 1.2 million human-sized Rabbits, and fear is spreading that the Rabbits will soon out-populate humans even though there is no evidence the Rabbits are exceeding the litter per Rabbit guidelines. As the Rabbit population increased, public opinion shifted from finding the Beatrix Potter clad Rabbits amusing to threatening. Laws were passed denying Rabbits human status, though Foxes were granted British citizenship since the Home Secretary liked “the cut of their jib.” Peter Knox lives with his adult daughter Pippa in the small village of Much Hemlock, and works for the Western Region Rabbit Compliance Taskforce. Though officially working in Accounting, Peter is a Spotter, one of the few humans able to distinguish between individual Rabbits. The only person Peter ever told about his real job was his wife, who left him soon after. Much Hemlock is a conservative village, with the dubious distinction of having convicted and burned more witches than any other English town in history. Currently in competition for the coveted Spick & Span Award for the best-kept village, Peter’s neighbors are horrified when the house next door is rented by a Rabbit family: Major Clifford and Constance Rabbit and their two grown children. At college Peter became friends with a Rabbit named Connie before it became illegal for Rabbits to attend, and he is startled and pleased to discover his new neighbor is his old friend. Unfortunately Peter was partially responsible for the death of her previous husband, pressured by his colleagues to rubber stamp a false identification when the wrong Rabbit was arrested. Peter’s boss, the extremely scary Senior Group Leader Ffoxe, forces Peter to spy upon his new neighbors, convinced Constance is a leader in the Rabbit Underground opposing the new plan of Rehoming all Rabbits to a fenced colony in Wales. Though Peter and Pippa begin their acquaintance with the Rabbits as “harmlessly indifferent,” the rapidly increasing prejudice against Rabbits — their frontal incisors are classed as a deadly weapon, making it a crime to be a Rabbit in possession of teeth — force them to examine their own preconceptions and choose a side. This satirical thriller is clever, funny, and a very disturbing commentary on human distrust and fear of those who are different.

Dear ChildRomy Hausmann
Dear Child (Flatiron Books 2020, Germany 2019) begins when 13-year-old Hannah travels with her mother in the ambulance after Mama was struck by a car. At the hospital Hannah answers most questions with word-for-word quotations from the “thick book that knows all the answers.” She says her mother’s name is Lena but doesn’t know her last name, says her Papa has no telephone, and when asked her address whispers “Nobody must find us.” Hannah defines “hit and run” but says the man driving the car was nice, gave Hannah his coat, and arranged for the ambulance. She explains that it wasn’t his fault, that “My Mama sometimes does silly things by accident. She wanted to kill Papa by accident.” Fourteen years ago a 23-year-old student named Lena Beck disappeared in Munich. Lena’s father Matthias Beck comes to the hospital hoping the woman is his missing daughter, but though she is also blond and has the same distinctive scar, the woman in a coma is not Lena. When she wakes up, the woman gives her name as Jasmin Grass, missing for four months. The police locate the remote windowless cabin in the woods near the German-Czech border, finding Hannah’s 11-year-old brother Jonathan, the chains that constrained Jasmin, and the body of a man. Neither Hannah nor Jonathan have ever been out of the cabin, though Hannah whispers stories of traveling with Mama to Paris and other exotic locales, and find the stimulation of normal life overwhelming. Released from the hospital, Jasmin cowers in her small apartment, too frightened leave. Chapters from the perspectives of Hannah, Jasmin, and Matthias gradually fill in the truth about what happened in the isolated cabin in the woods in this chilling debut thriller.

This Is My AmericaKim Johnson
This is My America (Random House 2020) is the story of 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont and her family. Seven years earlier Tracy’s father James was convicted of the murders of Mark and Cathy Davidson, a white couple working with Black business partners James Beaumont and Jackson Ridges to build a new housing development in Houston. When the police came to arrest Jackson, he resisted and was killed, his son Quincy hit by a stray bullet. Mrs. and Mrs. Evans hired Tracy’s mother as bookkeeper and online sales manager for their antique store after the conviction, and Tracy became friends with their son Dean, though his mother makes it clear with every look that she disapproves of her son’s friendship with a Black girl. Faithfully every week for seven years, Tracy writes a letter to Innocence X, a legal firm representing wrongfully convicted people on death row, begging them to take on the case of her father, now only 275 days away from execution. Tracy has collected boxes of evidence about the case, including statements from witnesses who swear her father was somewhere else at the time of the murders. Tracy’s older brother Jamal is a senior, a star on the track team. Her younger sister Corinne wasn’t born when their father was convicted, and knows him only from their weekly prison visits. Tracy organizes monthly "Know Your Rights" workshops and writes a weekly column for her school newsletter highlighting racial injustice, sure she will become editor next year and hopefully qualify for an early college internship. Current editor Angela Herron, a popular blonde, tells Tracy she has an exposé idea for her next column and arranges a meeting for early the next morning. That night Angela is murdered and Jamal’s letterman jacket is found next to her body. Jamal runs before the police arrive to arrest him, sure that he will be framed for the murder just as his father was. The backlash is immediate: Tracy is removed from the school paper and once again an outcast at school, losing all her white friends except Dean. Reluctantly shifting her focus from her father to Jamal, Tracy begins her own investigation, searching for the exposé Angela was working on that may be a motive for her murder. This debut young adult thriller is a powerful exploration of systemic racism and police brutality.

ThreeD.A. Mishani
Three (Europa Editions 2020, Israel 2018) begins when Orna, a middle-aged Tel Aviv woman with a young son, decides it’s time to move past her divorce and begin dating again. Through an online dating site for divorced singles she meets Gil, divorced with two teenage daughters. Gil seems nice enough, but Orna isn’t swept away. But she is grateful for the distraction from her grief about her ex-husband leaving her for another woman. They continue seeing each other every few weeks throughout the spring and then begin talking on the phone every few days. She finally tells her friend Sophie about her sort-of relationship with Gil, admitting they haven’t yet had sex or even kissed. Sophie searches for Gil online, but can’t find anything, not even a Facebook account. Orna and Gil begin meeting once a week or so for sex at a small hotel. Orna doesn’t want Gil to meet her son Eran yet, and she is nervous about meeting in his flat since his daughters often drop by unannounced. Eventually she asks her mother to babysit so they can go away for a weekend in Jerusalem, which is a bit awkward. Three days later she and Eran meet Gil outside a movie, accompanied by his daughters and a woman who introduces herself as his wife. Orna realizes Gil has been lying to her, but doesn’t care enough to end the affair, which provides some escape from loneliness. This tense psychological suspense novel explores the vulnerability of those whose lovelife has collapsed, leaving them forlorn, desolate, and ripe for exploitation.

A Royal AffairAllison Montclair
A Royal Affair (Minotaur Books 2020) begins in 1946 London, when Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, proprietors of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, are visited by Gwen’s cousin Lady Matheson, who works for the Queen. A blackmail note has arrived at the palace, hinting at a scandal in the family of Greek Prince Phillip, suitor to Princess Elizabeth. Since they are in the business of arranging marriages and vetting potential mates, Iris and Gwen are experienced at working quietly behind the scenes and take the job, though they don’t believe Lady Matheson is telling them the whole truth. It seems that Phillip’s mother Princess Alice left something behind in Corfu in 1922, when the family fled the Greek Revolution aboard the HMS Calypso with the help of King George and Sir Gerald Francis Talbot, a naval attaché working with British Intelligence. Iris and Gwen discover that Talbot returned to the Corfu villa several years later when it was leased to Princess Alice’s brother Dickie Mountbatten, presumably retrieving whatever Princess Alice left behind, but can’t figure out who has the mysterious item now. In this top-secret investigation Gwen’s connections to the titled and wealthy are just as important as Iris’s past service with the War Department and current relationship with Archie Spelling, a London gangster. Witty banter balances the ever-present reality of people trying to put the horror and sorrow of war behind them in the engaging second in the series.

Long Bright RiverLiz Moore
Long Bright River (Riverhead Books 2020) is set in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, the center of the city’s deaths by drug overdose. Mickey Fitzpatrick grew up in the neighborhood and is now a beat cop, all too familiar with the users and dealers and addicts selling their bodies on the street. Her sister Kacey is one of them. Raised by their grandmother Gee after their mother died of an overdose when Kacey was a baby, the two girls were very close throughout their childhood until Kacey fell in with a bad crowd and was thrown out of the house at the age of 16. Mickey thrived in the free afterschool program run by the Police Athletic League, learning to play chess and befriended by Officer Simon Cleare, who encouraged her to join the force when Gee refused to sign the applications for college scholarships, sure that the colleges would only humiliate a poor child. Truman Dawes, Mickey’s mentor and partner for 10 years is out on medical leave, and her new partner Eddie Lafferty drives her crazy with his constant monologue and evident disdain for the Kensington residents. Called to the discovery of a body of a young woman, Mickey panics, fearing it might be Kacey, but the skinny young woman is not her sister. Lafferty assumes an overdose, but Mickey spots the small pink dots that signify strangulation. Though they haven’t spoken in years, Mickey begins searching for her sister on the streets, back alleys, and flop houses, learning that no one has seen Kacey for weeks. As more women are killed, Mickey convinces Truman to help her search for Kacey, endangering first her job by changing out of her uniform during work shifts, and then the safely of her young son when she attracts the interest of the killer. This powerful thriller exposes the dark reality of living with addiction, the ease of preying on addicts by those in power, and the flip sides of love and hate that bind families together and push them apart.

Home Before DarkRiley Sager
Home Before Dark (Dutton 2020) begins when Maggie Holt discovers she has inherited Baneberry Hall, a Victorian mansion in the woods of Vermont, from her father, along with the warning “It’s not safe there. Not for you.” Twenty-five years earlier, when Maggie was five, her parents Ewan and Jess bought the deteriorating mansion the town believed was haunted at a cut-rate price since the previous owner smothered his daughter before killing himself. The Holts lived there only 20 days before fleeing in the middle of the night, taking only the clothes on their back and never returning. Ewan wrote a memoir called House of Horrors describing the family’s frightening ordeal, which became a best-seller. Now 30, Maggie restores old houses and doesn’t believe a word of her father’s book, especially the parts describing her own experiences with three ghosts only she could see: a girl with no name, Miss Pennyface — a woman with pennies covering her eyes, and Mister Shadow — a terrifying man who warned Maggie they would all die in Baneberry Hall. Three years later Maggie’s parents divorced, and neither would ever discuss the experience or House of Horrors, referred to only as the “Book.” Accepting the keys to Baneberry Hall, Maggie travels to Vermont, planning to restore and sell the mansion built by William Garson, who sold it after his 16-year-old daughter Indigo’s suicide 1889. As Maggie explores the house she barely remembers, interspersed chapters from House of Horrors describe those fateful 20 days from her early childhood. Though she has spent the last 25 years not talking about the Book, Maggie finds herself questioning the residents of the village and reluctantly talking to the reporter from the Bartleby Gazette who first broke the story, hoping to separate the truth about her past from fiction. She is surprised to discover that some things from the Book actually happened, and horrified to find herself reliving some she was sure were fabricated, like the record player blasting the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” at precisely 4:54 in the morning. This creepy supernatural thriller is riveting.


Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers, some were discovered in Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon Book Bags, and many were checked out from our local public library. Our thanks to all who support our passion for reading!

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