Five excellent new thrillers and mysteries take us back to the pre-COVID-19 era

  • "Still Life," "The Darkest Evening" and "A Song for the Dark Times"

    "Still Life," "The Darkest Evening" and "A Song for the Dark Times"

 
 
Posted10/10/2020 7:28 AM

Five excellent new mysteries and thrillers out this autumn all take place in "normal" times. Though in one -- Val McDermid's "Still Life," set this past February -- a character mentions "this virus thing in China" she's heard about. It's a sign. This time next year, mystery fans wanting relief from pandemic stories might have to reread Wilkie Collins.

"The Darkest Evening: A Vera Stanhope Novel" by Ann Cleeves

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Large and shabby" Northumberland Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope in Ann Cleeves's novels, as well as in the long-running British TV series, is the type of English eccentric who more often appears in crime fiction as an offbeat character, even a suspect, instead of a brainy solver of crimes. In this creepily flavorsome tale of a young mother bludgeoned to death in a blizzard, Stanhope examines a manor house full of distant members of "her own strange family," the lot of them "fraught, anxious and not at all at ease with themselves." The entire village of Kirkhill, in fact, is a place where wholesale DNA testing might uncover a panoply of rude surprises.

"And Now She's Gone" by Rachel Howzell Hall

It's a feat to keep high humor and crushing sorrow in plausible equilibrium in a mystery novel, and few writers are as adept at it as Rachel Howzell Hall. In "And Now She's Gone," the author of four stand-alones plus four Elouise Norton Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective novels, introduces Black private investigator Grayson Sykes. She's hired to track down a missing woman intent on not being found by her jerk boyfriend. Sykes can sympathize; a decade earlier she escaped a violent abuser who is now stalking her again. Growing up, Sykes dreamed of being "the Negro Nancy Drew." Insecure on her first big case, she's buoyed by an understanding boss, Ketel One, peach cobbler and, when possible, good sex.

"Still Life: A Karen Pirie Novel" by Val McDermid

In the sixth Karen Pirie police procedural, the restless, sometimes craftily insubordinate head of Edinburgh's Historic Cases Unit faces two thorny situations. The body of a man dragged from the sea by a lobster boat is identified as the brother of a government official missing for 10 years. At the same time, a decaying corpse turns up in a camper parked in a garage. Scottish politics and art forgery figure in one case and stolen IDs in both. Pirie eventually prevails, even though clues are hard to come by. She laments at one point that it's "like doing a jigsaw when the dog's eaten half the sky."

"Interference" by Brad Parks

To be pleasurably bamboozled, try this nifty scientific thriller by a onetime Washington Post reporter who writes prizewinning novels over breakfast at a Virginia Hardee's. Matt Bronik is a Dartmouth College professor working on a virus of great interest to both the Pentagon and the Chinese government, because quantum physics and its biological component make up "the new space race." Hearing-impaired librarian Brigid Bronik frantically joins the chase when her sweet, wisecracking researcher husband is abducted for reasons far more complicated than it first seems. Professorial competition is also a factor in a narrative enlivened by pithy quotes from Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, among others who'd love to figure out "the shape of the universe."

"A Song for the Dark Times: An Inspector Rebus Novel" by Ian Rankin

John Rebus is crankier than ever, with plenty to be cranky about, in this remarkably fresh 24th outing for the Police Scotland detective inspector. Instead of a badge, the now-retired Rebus carries an inhaler for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and his high-mileage Saab is wheezing, too. When he travels up north to help clear his alienated daughter, suspected of killing her husband, a local constable tells Rebus he looks "more like a tramp than an ex-cop." Meanwhile, in Edinburgh a minor Saudi prince has had his throat slit. The incidents are connected, and the ailing pensioner wearily takes on sorting it out because "it's all I seem to be good for."

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