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The 10 Best Crime Novels of 2020
By Marilyn Stasio
- Published Dec. 4, 2020 Updated Dec. 6, 2020
No fluffy bunny scenes in THE RABBIT HUNTER (Knopf, 512 pp., $27.95) , just a sanguinary psycho-killer suspense story by Lars Kepler, a popular Swedish husband-and-wife writing team. There is, indeed, the sweet voice of a child chanting a nursery rhyme before each death. (“Ten little rabbits, all dressed in white / Tried to get to heaven on the end of a kite.”) But that’s more a grace note than a plot point in a story that hops from sophisticated political terrorism to graphic gore.
Susan Furlong’s SHATTERED JUSTICE (Kensington, 293 pp., $26) is set in the remote Tennessee town of Bone Gap, where you’ll find armed militia encampments pitched in the woods and male strippers doing the grind at local bars. The discovery of a body in a playground brings out Brynn Callahan, a sheriff’s deputy, and her dog, Wilco, both veterans of the wars in the Middle East. In this sober series, a severed tongue, accompanied by a warning to “Speak no evil,” passes for down-home humor.
The local lawman in John McMahon’s folksy police procedural THE EVIL MEN DO (Putnam, 330 pp., $27) thinks that Mason Falls, Ga., is heaven on earth. When rapacious land-grabbers threaten to ruin it, murder ensues. The story of real-estate moguls running amok is sadly familiar, but it’s well told by McMahon, who writes with narrative flair and has the wit to name a biker bar “Motor Mouth.”
Agatha Christie figures prominently in Kate Weinberg’s clever campus mystery, THE TRUANTS (Putnam, 311 pp., $26) , which features a student with a passion for the “Queen of Crime” and an obsession with a like-minded teacher. “How would you feel if I told you I’d killed someone?” is typical of the academic chitchat in this smart debut mystery.
How well do you really know your friends? Sophie Hannah, who can twist a conventional plot until it screams for mercy, puts an existential spin on the domestic-suspense novel with PERFECT LITTLE CHILDREN (Morrow / HarperCollins, 329 pp., $27.99). The suburban mom who narrates the story has her hands full with her own family. But she can’t help noticing strange things about her neighbors. Why haven’t the children grown? And has anyone seen their third kid lately? Brace yourself for the ending.
In Jessica Barry’s DON’T TURN AROUND (HarperCollins, 320 pp., $27.99), Cait Monaghan is a Lyft driver who volunteers at an abortion clinic and delivers battered women to shelters. Barry captures both the excitement and the danger of being on the run when threats from internet trolls send her on a 300-mile road drive from Albuquerque to Lubbock. A jolly road trip it is not.
Here we are, in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, wondering who killed a crabby old recluse — and for what? In HARD CASH VALLEY (Minotaur, 204 pp., $26.99), Brian Panowich’s Georgia lawman Dane Kirby works the case — and the very model of a Southern noir hero he is, too. For a novel with plenty of manly violence, the characters — all tough talk and scarred souls — are drawn with unusual depth and subtlety. The plot is complex without being tricky (just follow the money) and the writing is something special.
Caitlin Mullen’s spellbinding debut mystery, PLEASE SEE US (Gallery, 341 pp., $26.99), gives voice to seven prostitutes whose abused bodies were dumped in the marshes of Atlantic City. Mullen gives these victims the courtesy of rich histories and sympathetic understanding. By refusing to link these murders and raise the alarm of a serial killer in their midst, the tourist-pandering city robs them of the last comfort and dignity left to them — their kinship as women.
A master forger’s failing eyesight has forced him into retirement in Bradford Morrow’s lovely literary mystery, THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER (Mysterious Press, 269 pp., $26 ). But how can this gifted artisan resist having a go at “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” Edgar Allan Poe’s first book, so rare it’s known as a Black Tulip? He passes the pen to his daughter, who joins him in creating a perfect literary forgery.
In John Woods’s beautifully plotted LADY CHEVY (Pegasus Crime, 296 pp., $25.95) , the descriptions of fracking will set your hair on fire. His 18-year-old heroine is a smart girl who knows she must get out of her poisoned environment if she stands a chance of having a life. Unfortunately, a fellow misfit talks her into protesting the environmental damage by committing an act of industrial terrorism that leaves a man dead.
In addition to these 10, some of my favorite writers — Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Donna Leon, Charles Todd, Louise Penny, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Joe Lansdale and Michael Connelly — had new books this year. I also want to make special mention of Samantha Norman , the daughter of Ariana Franklin and the author of “Death and the Maiden,” which brings to a satisfying conclusion her mother’s superb series of medieval mysteries.
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of a mystery writer. She is Louise Penny, not Perry. The article also misstated the title of a novel by John McMahon. It is “The Evil Men Do,” not “The Evil That Men Do.”
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Marilyn Stasio has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.
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A poignant and lyrical novel that asks what is worth sacrificing for peace—and provides some answers. Full review >
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Best Crime Fiction
Don't Know Tough
In Denton, Arkansas, the fate of the high school football team rests on the shoulders of Billy Lowe, a volatile but talented running back. Billy comes from an extremely troubled home: a trailer park where he is terrorized by his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Billy takes out his anger on the field, but when his savagery crosses a line, he faces suspension. Without Billy Lowe, the Denton Pirates can kiss their playoff bid goodbye. But the head coach, Trent Powers, who just moved from California with his wife and two children for this job, has more than just his paycheck riding on Billy’s bad behavior. As a born-again Christian, Trent feels a divine calling to save Billy—save him from his circumstances, and save his soul. Then Billy’s abuser is found murdered in the Lowe family trailer, and all evidence points toward Billy. Now nothing can stop an explosive chain of violence that could tear the whole town apart on the eve of the playoffs.
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Portrait of a Thief
Grace d. li.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents' American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago. His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they've cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down. Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they've dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
It’s 1999 and Samantha has danced for years at the Lovely Lady strip club. She’s not used to mixing work and friendship—after all, between her jealous boyfriend and his young daughter, she has enough on her plate. But the newest dancer is so clueless that Samantha feels compelled to help her learn the hustle and drama of the club: how to sweet-talk the boss, fit in with the other women, and make good money. One night, when the new girl needs a ride home, Samantha agrees to drive: a simple decision that turns deadly. Georgia, another dancer drawn into the ensuing murder and missing person investigation, gathers information for Holly, a grieving detective determined to solve the case. Georgia just wants to help, but her involvement makes her a target. As Holly and Georgia round up their suspects, the story’s point of view shifts between dancers, detectives, children, club patrons—and the killer. Drawing on her experience as a former dancer, Marie Rutkoski immerses us in the captivating world of the club, which comes alive with complicated people trying their best to protect themselves and those they love.
The Lost Kings
Jeanie’s whole world is turned upside down. Not only has she lost her beloved brother, but with no family left in Washington, she is ripped from everything she knows, including Maddox, the boy she could be learning to love. Twenty years later, Jeanie is in England. She keeps her demons at bay by drinking too much, sleeping with a married man, and speaking to a therapist she doesn’t respect. But her old life catches up to her when Maddox reappears, claiming to have tracked down her dad. Stunned, Jeanie must decide whether to continue running from her past or to confront her father and finally find out what really happened that night, where her brother is, and why she was the one left behind.
by Chuck Hogan
In the late 1970s, The Outfit has the entire city of Chicago in its hands. Tony Accardo is its fearless leader. Nicky Passero is his loyal soldier, though no one knows he has a direct line in to the boss of bosses. When the Christmas gift Accardo got for his wife, an inscribed bracelet with gold and diamond inlay, is stolen along with other items in a jewelry heist, Nicky is charged with tracking down and returning all of the items—by whatever means necessary. Forced into an impossible situation, Nicky must find a way to carry out Accardo's increasingly unhinged instructions and survive the battle for control of Chicago. What Accardo doesn't know: Nicky has a secret which has made his life impossible and has put him in the pocket of the FBI.
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Anywhere You Run
Wanda m. morris.
It’s the summer of 1964 and three innocent men are brutally murdered for trying to help Black Mississippians secure the right to vote. Against this backdrop, twenty-one year old Violet Richards finds herself in more trouble than she’s ever been in her life. Suffering a brutal attack of her own, she kills the man responsible. But with the color of Violet’s skin, there is no way she can escape Jim Crow justice in Jackson, Mississippi. Before anyone can find the body or finger her as the killer, she decides to run. With the help of her white beau, Violet escapes. But desperation and fear leads her to hide out in the small rural town of Chillicothe, Georgia, unaware that danger may be closer than she thinks.
Back in Jackson, Marigold, Violet’s older sister, has dreams of attending law school. Working for the Mississippi Summer Project, she has been trying to use her smarts to further the cause of the Black vote. But Marigold is in a different kind of trouble: she’s pregnant and unmarried. After news of the murder brings the police to her door, Marigold sees no choice but to flee Jackson too. She heads North seeking the promise of a better life and no more segregation. But has she made a terrible choice that threatens her life and that of her unborn child?
Best in a series.
At first, the death of millionaire businessman Charles Parsons seems like a straightforward suicide. There’s no sign of forced entry or struggle in his lavish New Jersey mansion—just a single gunshot wound from his own weapon. But days later, a different story emerges. Computer techs pick up a voice recording that incriminates Parsons’ adoptive daughter, Ann, who duly confesses and pleads guilty. Erin McCabe has little interest in reviewing such a slam-dunk case—even after she has a mysterious meeting with one of the investigating detectives, who reveals that Ann, like Erin, is a trans woman. Yet despite their misgivings, Erin and her law partner, Duane Swisher, ultimately can’t ignore the pieces that don’t fit. As their investigation deepens, Erin and Swish convince Ann to withdraw her guilty plea. But Ann clearly knows more than she’s willing to share, even if it means a life sentence. Who is she protecting, and why? Fighting against time and a prosecutor hell-bent on notching another conviction, the two work tirelessly—Erin inside the courtroom, Swish in the field—to clear Ann’s name. But despite Parsons’ former associates’ determination to keep his—and their own—illegal activities buried, a horrifying truth emerges—a web of human exploitation, unchecked greed, and murder. Soon, a quest to see justice served becomes a desperate struggle to survive . . .
Everyone’s favorite sleuth—Vera Kelly—is back and put to the test as she searches for her missing girlfriend.
It’s spring 1971 and Vera Kelly and her girlfriend, Max, leave their cozy Brooklyn apartment for an emergency visit to Max's estranged family in Los Angeles. Max’s parents are divorcing—her father is already engaged to a much younger woman and under the sway of an occultist charlatan; her mother has left their estate in a hurry with no indication of return. Max, who hasn’t seen her family since they threw her out at the age of twenty-one, prepares for the trip with equal parts dread and anger.
Upon arriving, Vera is shocked by the size and extravagance of the Comstock estate—the sprawling, manicured landscape; expansive and ornate buildings; and garages full of luxury cars reveal a privileged upbringing that, up until this point, Max had only hinted at—while Max attempts to navigate her father, who is hostile and controlling, and the occultist, St. James, who is charming but appears to be siphoning family money. Tensions boil over at dinner when Max threatens to alert her mother—and her mother’s lawyers—to St. James and her father’s plans using marital assets. The next morning, when Vera wakes up, Max is gone.
Secrets Typed in Blood
New York City, 1947: For years, Holly Quick has made a good living off of murder, filling up the pages of pulp detective magazines with gruesome tales of revenge. Now someone is bringing her stories to life and leaving a trail of blood-soaked bodies behind. With the threat of another murder looming, and reluctant to go to the police, Holly turns to the best crime-solving duo in or out of the pulps, Willowjean “Will” Parker and her boss, famed detective Lillian Pentecost. The pair are handed the seemingly-impossible task of investigating three murders at once without tipping off the cops or the press that the crimes are connected. A tall order made even more difficult by the fact that Will is already signed up to spend her daylight hours undercover as a guileless secretary in the hopes of digging up a lead on an old adversary, Dr. Olivia Waterhouse. But even if Will is stuck in pencil skirts and sensible shoes, she’s not about to let her boss have all the fun. Soon she’s diving into an underground world of people obsessed with murder and the men and women who commit them. Can the killer be found in the Black Museum Club, run by a philanthropist whose collection of grim murder memorabilia may not be enough to satisfy his lust for the homicidal? Or is it Holly Quick’s pair of editors, who read about murder all day, but clearly aren’t telling the full story?
Notes on an Execution
Danya kukafka, best overall.
Ansel Packer is scheduled to die in twelve hours. He knows what he’s done, and now awaits execution, the same chilling fate he forced on those girls, years ago. But Ansel doesn’t want to die; he wants to be celebrated, understood.
Through a kaleidoscope of women—a mother, a sister, a homicide detective—we learn the story of Ansel’s life. We meet his mother, Lavender, a seventeen-year-old girl pushed to desperation; Hazel, twin sister to Ansel’s wife, inseparable since birth, forced to watch helplessly as her sister’s relationship threatens to devour them all; and finally, Saffy, the detective hot on his trail, who has devoted herself to bringing bad men to justice but struggles to see her own life clearly. As the clock ticks down, these three women sift through the choices that culminate in tragedy, exploring the rippling fissures that such destruction inevitably leaves in its wake.
Blending breathtaking suspense with astonishing empathy, Notes on an Execution presents a chilling portrait of womanhood as it simultaneously unravels the familiar narrative of the American serial killer, interrogating our system of justice and our cultural obsession with crime stories, asking readers to consider the false promise of looking for meaning in the psyches of violent men.
by Adrian McKinty
After moving from a small country town to Seattle, Heather Baxter marries Tom, a widowed doctor with a young son and teenage daughter. A working vacation overseas seems like the perfect way to bring the new family together, but once they’re deep in the Australian outback, the jet-lagged and exhausted kids are so over their new mom. When they discover remote Dutch Island, off-limits to outside visitors, the family talks their way onto the ferry, taking a chance on an adventure far from the reach of iPhones and Instagram. But as soon as they set foot on the island, which is run by a tightly knit clan of locals, everything feels wrong. Then a shocking accident propels the Baxters from an unsettling situation into an absolute nightmare. When Heather and the kids are separated from Tom, they are forced to escape alone, seconds ahead of their pursuers. Now it’s up to Heather to save herself and the kids, even though they don’t trust her, the harsh bushland is filled with danger, and the locals want her dead. Heather has been underestimated her entire life, but she knows that only she can bring her family home again and become the mother the children desperately need, even if it means doing the unthinkable to keep them all alive.
The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Hayward and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and with an experimental treatment costing a tremendous sum, their castmates rally to raise the money to give her a chance at survival. But not everybody is convinced of the experimental treatment’s efficacy—nor of the good intentions of those involved. As tension grows within the community, things come to a shocking head at the explosive dress rehearsal. The next day, a dead body is found, and soon, an arrest is made. In the run-up to the trial, two young lawyers sift through the material—emails, messages, letters—with a growing suspicion that the killer may be hiding in plain sight. The evidence is all there, between the lines, waiting to be uncovered.
J. m. lee; an seon jae (translator).
Lee Hanjo is an artist at the peak of his fame, envied and celebrated. Then, on his forty-third birthday, he awakens to find that his devoted wife has disappeared, leaving behind a soon-to-be-published novel she’d secretly written about the sordid past and questionable morality of an artist with a trajectory similar to Hanjo’s. It’s clear to him that his life is about to shatter and the demons from his past will come out. But why did his wife do it? Why now?
The book forces Hanjo to reflect on a summer from his youth when a deadly lie irreversibly and tragically determined the fates of two families.
From master storyteller J. M. Lee, one of Korea’s most renowned authors, comes an unforgettable novel of hidden truths, denials, and their inevitable repercussions. Everyone still left standing from that terrible summer so long ago must finally reckon with the deceptions that started it all and, twist after shocking twist, reap both the suffering and the vindication that comes with revenge.
The Other Side of Night
The Other Side of Night begins with a man named David Asha writing about his biggest regret: his sudden separation from his son, Elliot. In his grief, David tells a story. Next, we step into the life of Harriet Kealty, a police officer trying to clear her name after a lapse of judgment. She discovers a curious inscription in a secondhand book—a plea: Help me, he’s trying to kill me . Who wrote this note? Who is “he”? This note leads Harri to David Asha, who was last seen stepping off a cliff. Police suspect he couldn’t cope after his wife’s sudden death. Still, why would this man jump and leave behind his young son? Quickly, Harri’s attention zeroes in on a person she knows all too well. Ben Elmys: once the love of her life. A surrogate father to Elliot Asha and trusted friend to the Ashas. Ben may also be a murderer.
Though she may be a murderer, Ruby is not a sociopath. She is an animal-loving therapist with a thriving practice. She’s felt empathy and sympathy. She’s had long-lasting friendships and relationships, and has a husband, Jason, whom she adores. But the homicide detectives at Miami Beach PD are not convinced of her happy marriage. When we meet Ruby, she is in a police interrogation room, being accused of Jason’s murder. Which, ironically, is one murder that she did not commit, though a scandal-obsessed public believes differently. As she undergoes questioning, Ruby’s mind races back to all the details of her life that led her to this exact moment, and to the three dead bodies in her wake. Because though she may not have killed her husband, Ruby certainly isn’t innocent.
The Murder Rule
First Rule: Make them like you.
Second Rule: Make them need you.
Third Rule: Make them pay.
They think I’m a young, idealistic law student, that I’m passionate about reforming a corrupt and brutal system.
They think I’m working hard to impress them.
They think I’m here to save an innocent man on death row.
They're wrong. I’m going to bury him.
Notable Mysteries & Thrillers
By elizabeth hand.
On a whim, Grady Kendall applies to work as a live-in caretaker for a luxury property in Hawaiʻi, as far from his small-town Maine life as he can imagine. Within days he's flying out to an estate on remote Hokuloa Road, where he quickly uncovers a dark side to the island’s idyllic reputation: it has long been a place where people vanish without a trace. When a young woman from his flight becomes the next to disappear, Grady is determined—and soon desperate—to figure out what's happened to Jessie, and to all those staring out of the island’s “missing" posters. But working with Raina, Jessie’s fiercely protective best friend, to uncover the truth is anything but easy, and with an inexplicable and sinister presence stalking his every step, Grady can only hope he'll find the answer before it's too late.
The Bangalore Detectives Club
When clever, headstrong Kaveri moves to Bangalore to marry handsome young doctor Ramu, she's resigned herself to a quiet life. But that all changes the night of the party at the Century Club, where she escapes to the garden for some peace and quiet—and instead spots an uninvited guest in the shadows. Half an hour later, the party turns into a murder scene. When a vulnerable woman is connected to the crime, Kaveri becomes determined to save her and launches a private investigation to find the killer, tracing his steps from an illustrious brothel to an Englishman's mansion. She soon finds that sleuthing in a sari isn't as hard as it seems when you have a talent for mathematics, a head for logic, and a doctor for a husband . . . And she's going to need them all as the case leads her deeper into a hotbed of danger, sedition, and intrigue in Bangalore's darkest alleyways.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Carlota Moreau: A young woman growing up on a distant and luxuriant estate, safe from the conflict and strife of the Yucatán peninsula. The only daughter of a researcher who is either a genius or a madman. Montgomery Laughton: A melancholic overseer with a tragic past and a propensity for alcohol. An outcast who assists Dr. Moreau with his experiments, which are financed by the Lizaldes, owners of magnificent haciendas and plentiful coffers. The hybrids: The fruits of the doctor’s labor, destined to blindly obey their creator and remain in the shadows. A motley group of part human, part animal monstrosities. All of them live in a perfectly balanced and static world, which is jolted by the abrupt arrival of Eduardo Lizalde, the charming and careless son of Dr. Moreau’s patron, who will unwittingly begin a dangerous chain reaction. For Moreau keeps secrets, Carlota has questions, and, in the sweltering heat of the jungle, passions may ignite.
Cassandra Williams is twelve; her little brother, Wayne, is seven. One day, when they’re alone together, there is an accident and Wayne is lost forever. His body is never recovered. The missing boy cleaves the family with doubt. Their father leaves, starts another family elsewhere. But their mother can’t give up hope and launches an organization dedicated to missing children. As C grows older, she sees her brother everywhere: in bistros, airplane aisles, subway cars. Here is her brother’s face, the light in his eyes, the way he seems to recognize her, too. But it can’t be, of course. Or can it? Then one day, in another accident, C meets a man both mysterious and familiar, a man who is also searching for someone and for his own place in the world. His name is Wayne.
The protagonist of Percival Everett’s puckish new novel is a brilliant professor of mathematics who goes by Wala Kitu. (Wala, he explains, means “nothing” in Tagalog, and Kitu is Swahili for “nothing.”) He is an expert on nothing. That is to say, he is an expert, and his area of study is nothing, and he does nothing about it. This makes him the perfect partner for the aspiring villain John Sill, who wants to break into Fort Knox to steal, well, not gold bars but a shoebox containing nothing. Once he controls nothing he’ll proceed with a dastardly plan to turn a Massachusetts town into nothing. Or so he thinks. With the help of the brainy and brainwashed astrophysicist-turned-henchwoman Eigen Vector, our professor tries to foil the villain while remaining in his employ. In the process, Wala Kitu learns that Sill’s desire to become a literal Bond villain originated in some real all-American villainy related to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. As Sill says, “Professor, think of it this way. This country has never given anything to us and it never will. We have given everything to it. I think it’s time we gave nothing back.”
The Old Woman with the Knife
The kinetic story of a sixty-five-year-old female assassin who faces an unexpected threat in the twilight of her career—this is an international bestseller and the English language debut from an award-winning South Korean author At sixty-five, Hornclaw is beginning to slow down. She lives modestly in a small apartment, with only her aging dog, a rescue named Deadweight, to keep her company. There are expectations for people her age—that she'll retire and live out the rest of her days quietly. But Hornclaw is not like other people. She is an assassin. Double-crossers, corporate enemies, cheating spouses—for the past four decades, Hornclaw has killed them all with ruthless efficiency, and the less she's known about her targets, the better. But now, nearing the end of her career, she has just slipped up. An injury leads her to an unexpected connection with a doctor and his family. But emotions, for an assassin, are a dangerous proposition. As Hornclaw's world closes in, this final chapter in her career may also mark her own bloody end.
Our Missing Hearts
Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. His mother Margaret, a Chinese American poet, left the family when he was nine years old without a trace. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, his family's life has been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic. Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
1980, PASS CHRISTIAN, MISSISSIPPI: It is three in the morning when Bobby Western zips the jacket of his wet suit and plunges from the Coast Guard tender into darkness. His dive light illuminates the sunken jet, nine bodies still buckled in their seats, hair floating, eyes devoid of speculation. Missing from the crash site are the pilot’s flight bag, the plane’s black box, and the tenth passenger. But how? A collateral witness to machinations that can only bring him harm, Western is shadowed in body and spirit—by men with badges; by the ghost of his father, inventor of the bomb that melted glass and flesh in Hiroshima; and by his sister, the love and ruin of his soul.
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Review: Anthony Horowitz's Magpie Murders Is Catnip for Classic Mystery Lovers
“Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery,” asks Susan Ryeland, the narrator of British author Anthony Horowitz’s new novel, Magpie Murders , “and what is it that attracts us — the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?”
If anyone should be able to answer these questions, it’s Susan. As an editor at a publishing house, she works with the massively successful Alan Conway, a writer of Agatha Christie -style whodunits. Magpie Murders is one mystery novel wrapped in another: we the readers peruse Alan’s latest manuscript alongside his editor, while another crime plays out in Susan’s life. Evidence mounts that finding the guilty party in the book will shed light on the case in real life.
Horowitz has spent a long career thinking up suspense stories in the vein of the genre’s greats. In addition to creating the popular British detective shows Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War , he has written screenplays for the Poirot TV series, a James Bond novel commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate and a number of successful YA thrillers. Much like his character Alan, he is both prolific and a bona fide student of the golden age of detective fiction — and his knowledge shines through in this book, which is catnip for classic mystery lovers. As a Christie disciple, he is near equal to his master.
The novel within the novel, also titled Magpie Murders , has all the fixings of a murder in the English countryside, with a fussy detective, a daft sidekick, a meddling busybody, a peculiar vicar and a bombastic aristocrat. In addition to referencing Christie mysteries like 4:50 From Paddington, Horowitz name-drops his own oeuvre: “I thought it sounded too much like Midsomer Murders ,” says one character of the manuscript’s title. In fact, the plot of the book bears a certain resemblance to the 1997 pilot of Midsomer Murders , which is itself based on the 1987 Caroline Graham novel The Killings at Badger’s Drift — a kind of in-joke for Horowitz fans. But even as Horowitz pays homage to the greats and teases his own ego, he manages to skewer our obsession with homicide. “I don’t understand it,” says one character. “All these murders on TV — you’d think people would have better things to do with their time.” The combination of reverence and irreverence makes the book irresistible for those of us with mixed emotions about our crime-fiction addiction.
Speaking of mixed emotions, the novel arrives in the U.S. at an interesting time for Horowitz. He recently got in hot water for saying he’d been warned off writing black characters as a white author. And he previously drew ire for calling black actor Idris Elba “ too street ” to play James Bond, for which he apologized. On the other hand, his own 007 novel introduced a gay best friend for the spy, and many of his stories, including Magpie Murders , feature gay narratives. With one foot in the present and one in the past, his public persona is perhaps a bit like his fiction.
But back to the story. As Susan digs into Alan’s personal life, she learns that he’s been inventing his own in-jokes in his novel plotting: hidden anagrams, thematic character names and other rhetorical devices to keep the writing process interesting for himself. It turns out the master of mystery isn’t as smitten with the genre as his readers. But the readers get the last laugh as these games lead to the ultimate twist.
With its elegant yet playful plotting, Magpie Murders is the thinking mystery fan’s ideal summer thriller.
This appears in the June 26, 2017 issue of TIME.
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Mysteries: ‘The Diamond Eye’ by Kate Quinn
The true story of a female red army sniper is the basis for a taut world war ii thriller..
Kate Quinn has excelled in previous novels at transforming real-life historical biography into page-turning fiction. With “The Diamond Eye,” she works her magic with the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a young woman who earned fame during World War II as a Red Army sniper credited with the deaths of over 300 Nazi soldiers.
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In 'the maid,' a devoted hotel cleaning lady is a prime murder suspect.
The Maid by Nita Prose Ballantine Books hide caption
Devotees of cozy mysteries, rejoice: Nita Prose's debut, The Maid, satisfies on every level — from place to plot to protagonist.
In a fancy urban hotel, a guest lies dead, and the main suspect is Molly Gray, a member of the cleaning staff whose devotion to her work is matched only by her love for her deceased grandmother.
Let the locked-room hijinks begin!
The above storyline would be enough for a solid read, but Prose dials up the tension by creating a realistically different heroine. Molly Gray is neurodivergent, and may even have Autism spectrum disorder, not that Molly uses either of those terms. She tells us how she copes with the world. "I like things simple and neat," says Molly, who cleans "twenty-plus rooms" at the Regency Grand, "a five-star boutique hotel."
"Never in my life did I think I'd hold such a lofty position in a grand hotel," she says, also sharing that without Gran, "It's as though all the color has been drained from the apartment we shared." Work remains a respite, a place where Molly has responsibilities and a routine. "I love cleaning, I love my maid's trolley, and I love my uniform." Prose makes a wise choice in Molly's first-person narration, allowing readers to enter Molly's world, where a well-stocked maid's trolley is "a portable sanitation miracle." You'll nod at Molly's observations about the proper order in which to tackle a suite ("from top to bottom") and using different cloths for sink and toilet.
Molly knows that she sees things differently. "The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it's as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I'm always playing for the first time," she says. All of this information about Molly is important to have before the actual murder, because Molly's "trouble with social situations" will both complicate matters, and result in her eventual triumph.
A word about the location of the Regency Grand before we proceed. Nita Prose is vice president and editorial director at Simon & Schuster Canada (one reason why her mastery of voice and plot is so assured; she's clearly an excellent editor). We're never explicitly told that The Maid takes place in Toronto; understanding its author's Canadian background will help readers understand why Molly's Gran is decidedly British in tastes and diction, but no one ever questions those things.
One of the reasons Molly loves her job so much is that it allows her to bypass her social miscommunications and "blend in." Even the day after her beloved Gran dies, she heads into work. But nine months later, on one of Molly's shifts, she finds a Mr. Black "very dead in his bed."
Everything that happens next will occur because Molly follows her strict rules and does not clean the Blacks' bathroom, as Mrs. Black (Giselle) was taking a shower. Remember: Molly does not pick up on cues easily. The fact that Giselle Black hopped in the shower just after Molly arrived, and before Molly discovered Mr. Black dead, doesn't register. "I did not allow her behavior to interfere with the task at hand," says Molly.
While some readers may guess who the killer is immediately, it doesn't really matter, as the book is more about Molly — who does not. There are other things happening around Molly that she misses, too, including a crime ring that relies on an undocumented immigrant's fears of deportation. Molly takes things at face value, which costs her something. However, taking things at face value is also one of Molly's strengths, and it ultimately allows her to help authorities catch a killer and a kingpin. So what if her idea of haute cuisine is a Tour of Italy platter from The Olive Garden? Molly takes her pleasures at face value, too, and knows that something cheese-y isn't always cheesy.
The delight of reading The Maid lies partly in watching a hectic cast of characters unravel (take special pleasure in watching Rodney Stiles, the hotel head bartender on whom Molly has a crush) as the crime is properly solved. It also lies in seeing Molly learn that thinking differently does not equal giving up friendship or high standards. What begins as a sprightly murder mystery turns into a meaningful, and at times even delicate, portrait of growth.
The Maid will start your 2022 reading off right. Here's hoping Molly Gray, the smart and affecting hotel maid, appears in a new book soon.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven .
This article was published more than 2 years ago
Agatha Christie fans, take note: Anthony Horowitz has a clever new twist on the classic whodunit
A few years ago, Anthony Horowitz brought out a superb Sherlock Holmes pastiche called “ The House of Silk .” That phrase could easily serve as the design label for anything written by Horowitz himself. His recent books — especially the metafictional mysteries “ The Word Is Murder ” and “ Magpie Murders ” — are as elegant and richly patterned as a Hermès scarf. Certainly, anyone seeking a few evenings’ respite from the emotional roller-coaster of last week’s election need look no further than his latest, “ Moonflower Murders .”
To begin with, you’ll get two books for the price of one. Quite literally.
In what one might call the frame novel, Susan Ryeland — the now-retired book editor who first appeared in “Magpie Murders”— has been living for two years in Crete with her lover-fiance, Andreas, where they manage the family-run, slightly down-at-the-heels Polydorus Hotel. While Susan frequently refers back to her earlier career in publishing, Horowitz carefully avoids having her reveal too much about the circumstances surrounding the death of her best-selling author, the difficult and unlikable Alan Conway, creator of the Hercule Poirot-like, German Jewish detective Atticus Pünd.
One morning, a well-to-do couple named Lawrence and Pauline Treherne unexpectedly show up at the Polydorus, practically begging for Susan’s help. Eight years prior, there had been a horrible murder at Branlow Hall, the ritzy Suffolk hotel they own. On the eve of their daughter Cecily’s lavish wedding, a handyman named Stefan Codrescu bludgeoned a guest named Frank Parris to death. The young Romanian had eventually confessed and was given a 25-year sentence.
Locked-room masterpieces from Japan
Cecily, however, never believed in Stefan’s guilt.
And now, all this time later, something has happened. Cecily recently telephoned her parents to say she had discovered the identity of the actual murderer by reading Alan Conway’s third mystery, “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case.” Shortly after her call, the young wife and mother went for a walk and hasn’t been seen since. Is Cecily still alive? Is she in hiding? Unfortunately, she never revealed what she’d learned from Conway’s novel.
The Trehernes offer Susan 10,000 pounds to help them locate their daughter. As the longtime editor of the Atticus Pünd novels, she knows them better than anyone else now alive. Would she spend some time at Branlow Hall, interview its personnel, and then reread “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” to see if she can spot what Cecily saw in the book? Susan agrees, partly because she’s unsure about her future with Andreas.
The action now moves to Suffolk and London.
Susan knows that after the Parris murder, Alan Conway spent some time questioning the Trehernes, their daughters Lisa and Cecily, the latter’s husband, Aiden, and the Branlow staff. Did he then turn “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case” into a kind of roman a clef? Conway delighted in anagrams, wordplay and subtle verbal clues that few readers would notice. As Susan tells us, “he could have spelled out the name of the killer in the chapter headings.” So after interviewing everyone even faintly connected to Branlow Hall, including some old friends in London, Susan finally settles down with the novel that led to Cecily’s disappearance.
At which point, on what would have been Page 229 of “Moonflower Murders,” the reader comes upon the cover of the 2016 Orion paperback edition of “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case.” There follows an author-biography of Alan Conway, a list of the eight other books in the Atticus Pünd series, a dedication page — “For Frank and Leo: in remembrance” — and a dozen quotes and blurbs about the book, such as this one from thriller writer Lee Child: “A famous actress is strangled and who’s the suspect? Everyone! The latest Atticus Pünd is a real blast.”
Review: Anthony Horowitz’s ‘The House of Silk’
The next 224 pages reprint Conway’s entire novel, a classic country-house whodunit, featuring a half dozen suspects who slightly recall people we have met at Branlow Hall. But is it significant that they are all assigned the last names of detective story authors, as most readers, including Susan, will notice? Whatever the case, one eagerly follows Pünd’s investigations to their final, astonishing conclusion, while simultaneously puzzling over possible clues to the death of Frank Parris and the disappearance of Cecily Treherne.
If all this sounds dizzyingly postmodern, it is and it isn’t. Horowitz’s plotting certainly rivals that of Ruth Rendell’s notoriously complex Barbara Vine mysteries, yet his prose moves along as briskly as that of Dick Francis at his best. Moreover, the whole metafictional twistiness of his current work — “The Word Is Murder” includes Anthony Horowitz himself as a major character — actually carries on from the gamelike nature of Golden Age whodunitry.
For instance, in the 1929 classic “ The Poisoned Chocolates Case ,” Anthony Berkeley proffers six different solutions to the same crime. In John Dickson Carr’s “ The Three Coffins ,” Dr. Gideon Fell comes right out and admits that he is only a character in a novel. Not least, exactly 100 years ago Agatha Christie brought out “ The Mysterious Affair at Styles ,” the first demonstration of its author’s breathtaking narrative sleight-of-hand.
In his latest books, Horowitz — long admired for creating the television series “ Foyle’s War ” and “Midsomer Murders,” as well as the Alex Rider spy thrillers for young people — showcases a cleverness and finesse that even Dame Agatha might envy. “Moonflower Murders” resembles a super Mobius strip, interlacing multiple degrees and levels of fictiveness. Susan’s story, for instance, seems “realer” than Alan Conway’s novel, though both were created by Horowitz, who draws on his own life for certain plot details. But I should say no more about what happens. Just bear in mind that the ultimate motives for homicide often go way back into the past, even to childhood. To quote that apt, and haunting, line from the Irish poet George Russell: “In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.”
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
By Anthony Horowitz
HarperCollins. 608 pp. $28.99
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The Best Mystery Novels of 2021 Our crime fiction columnist picks the books that wowed her this year. Weegee, via Getty Images 103 By Sarah Weinman Published Dec. 7, 2021 Updated Dec. 9,...
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47 books, 47 adventures: Here's something to read for every creature you know. Scroll to begin. Adolfo Redaño. New thrillers to make your heart race. (Sharks not included.)
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These twenty New York Times Bestsellers run the gambut from heart-pounding legal thrillers to mysteries seeped in intrigue and secrets waiting to be unearthed. Whether you're looking for a quick binge or an in-depth look at the darker side of complex family dynamics, you're sure to find something to devour. Deadly Cross by James Patterson
by David Baldacci What fun! This is a winner from a pro. FULL REVIEW > get a copy bookshelf FEB. 15, 2022 THRILLER & SUSPENSE DIABLO MESA by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child Down-to-earth action tackles an otherworldly mystery in this devilishly plausible yarn. FULL REVIEW > get a copy bookshelf FEB. 1, 2022 FICTION THE CHRISTIE AFFAIR
2. The Furrows. Namwali Serpell. ) novel about the eternal bonds of family and the mysteries of love and loss. The Furrows. Add to cart. We know what book you should read next. Sign up for news about books, authors, and more from Penguin Random House. global.penguinrandomhouse.com.
JULY 6, 2021 FICTION RAZORBLADE TEARS by S.A. Cosby Violence and love go hand in hand in this tale of two rough men seeking vengeance for their murdered sons. FULL REVIEW > get a copy bookshelf MARCH 1, 2021 MYSTERY & DETECTIVE INFINITE by Brian Freeman This cockeyed, suspenseful exploration of roads not taken is a dizzying delight. FULL REVIEW >
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probe a murder mystery in their quiet suburb. adjust levels for death, by Kent Clear. 9 14 (Delacorte, $20.) At the funeral of a music pro-15ducer, the chief of a secret counter-terrorism team has to protect a sultry pop star who's marked for murder. cracked like teeth, by Dexter Eagan. (Morrow, 1 1 $25.95.) A memoir of petty crime, drunken ...
It turns out the master of mystery isn't as smitten with the genre as his readers. But the readers get the last laugh as these games lead to the ultimate twist. With its elegant yet playful ...
Kate Quinn has excelled in previous novels at transforming real-life historical biography into page-turning fiction. With "The Diamond Eye," she works her magic with the true story of Lyudmila ...
Devotees of cozy mysteries, rejoice: Nita Prose's debut, The Maid, satisfies on every level — from place to plot to protagonist. In a fancy urban hotel, a guest lies dead, and the main suspect ...
His recent books — especially the metafictional mysteries " The Word Is Murder " and " Magpie Murders " — are as elegant and richly patterned as a Hermès scarf. Certainly, anyone ...