Staff Favorites from Our April Newsletter
First-rate Scandinavian crime fiction existed before Stieg Larssen and has dominated reading lists since the various Girl/Tattoo/Hornet’s Nest/Fire books swept the world, but I don’t think anyone has been more consistently brilliant than the amazing Norwegian Nesbo. In addition to writing novels, Nesbo was a world class soccer player, journalist, stockbroker, and songwriter, producing rock music as the lead singer of his own band. His series about Harry Hole, the tough detective who battles organized crime, serial killers, and other assorted monsters, is unsurpassed. His most recent book, while certainly noir in tone, is not quite as dark as much of his other work. In this first person narrative, we are introduced to “Ulf”—not his real name—the central character, after he fled Oslo. He had been recruited as a hit man for a violent drug dealer—by accident. The fearsome criminal, known as the Fisherman, mistakenly believed Ulf had murdered someone and gave him a job as an enforcer. Ulf desperately needed money for his cancer-stricken young daughter and agreed to take the job. When he failed to kill someone he had been instructed to take out, he knew his life was at risk so took a bus to the most remote area of northern Norway, becoming involved with a small, extremely religious community that showed him kindness—none more than a ten-year-old boy and his beautiful mother, who had been raped and forced to marry her brutal rapist. The plotting may not be as tight as in other of Nesbo’s books, as coincidences tend to pile up at a startling rate, but the deft characterization and suspenseful, fast-paced narrative will keep you rapidly turning pages. Signed copies. $23.95
On the surface, physical manifestations of guilt sound like the perfect way to keep our criminal element in check. What if wrongdoers grew horns? What if the theory of the sinister hand was actually applicable? From phrenology to the “evil gene” we as a society are constantly looking to identify those who might wish us harm, preferably before they actually do so. Author Dan Vyleta explores just such concept in his clever new novel, Smoke. Suppose impure thoughts resulted in the expulsion of noxious vapor from our bodies? Like a bundle of twigs, our souls catch the moment a wicked notion flits through our brain. In Smoke this is exactly what happens when the lower-class lies, steals, lusts, and rages. The wealthy and powerful, on the other hand seem mostly immune, thanks to their genetic fortitude. While the smoke is generally harmless, in concentrated doses it can infect those around it with heightened desires. Thus, in order to have an enlightened society we must control our baser urges. Easier said than done, right? Vyleta does more than just present a Swiftian proposal, though. He couples this concept with a complex, highly entertaining mystery that will appeal equally to fans of Dickens, China Miéville, and Umberto Eco. From the hallowed halls of elite boarding schools to brooding Scottish estates to the literal underbelly of London, reading Smoke will take you on a journey through a world that doesn’t actually seem that far-fetched. Speculative-historical-conspiracy-thriller may sound like a mouthful, but thanks to Vyleta, it might become a whole new genre. $28.00.
Oslo, 1968. A hero of the Norwegian Resistance during the Nazi occupation is murdered in his apartment. All the tenants hear the shot and yet no one is seen fleeing the building. Det. Insp. Kolbjorn Kristiansen, nicknamed K2, responds to the call and finds the apartment door locked from the inside and no weapon is found. It's quickly apparent to K2 that one of the tenants must be the murderer. But how could the guilty one leave the apartment, why murder a much admired hero and which of the tenants could it be? The caretaker's wife who sits at the front door, a taxi driver, maybe the married couple with a baby, the middle-aged man dependent on a wheel-chair, the beautiful student or the American diplomat? Of course K2 has his Watson. In this case Patricia, a wheel-chair bound young woman who has made a study of unsolved crimes.
Chapter by chapter each tenant is questioned, secrets are slowly uncovered, and pasts are revealed. If you think Scandinavian crime mysteries are too dark I think you'll find this a delightful surprise. A welcome return to the golden-age locked-room mystery. PB. $14.95.
A tale of obsession, revenge, the Grim Reaper, lust, and real estate mark The Winter Girl as the dark thriller of the moment. Scott and Elise leave their Brooklyn home for Long Island to be with her father as he battles his final illness. It’s the dead of winter, and the weather is as cold as Elise’s father’s heart. A wicked man, his malevolent secrets are but one element cracking the foundation of his daughter’s marriage. Meanwhile, while Elise is at the hospital, Scott develops a strange fascination with the house next door. It seems to have a kind of a hold on him and eventually he breaks in which generates a feeling of exhilaration that he hasn’t had in a very long time. Soon he enlists Elise to prowl the empty house with him; they notice signs of recent occupancy, but who else could be lurking behind this placid suburban facade? Eventually set in motion: a series of events leading to deception, bad decisions, murder, and loss. A page-turner from the darker side. $24.95.
In The Backup Men, two odd twins walk into a bar, and this isn’t the set-up of a joke—it’s the start of another fantastic entry in the adventures of former CIA operative Padilla and his good buddy Mac McCorkle. The twins took a job out of their depth, protect the future king of an oil-rich country from assassination, so they call on Padilla for help. McCorkle tags along, and suddenly they’re all fleeing a pair of professional killers.
It’s a standard cat-and-mouse story, elevated by a couple of things: First, there’s a refreshing clarity to the plot, especially in a genre that often skews toward needless complication. Second, there’s a real hardboiled edge to the prose. McCorkle’s sharp and clever narrative voice wouldn’t feel foreign spilling out of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
It’s a great read—fast, funny, and tense. Ross Thomas is one of those authors who really ought to be better known than he is.
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