The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

In its heyday, the Lamb family mansion in London was the scene of glamorous dinner parties and the setting for a music video featuring a pop band cavorting incongruously amid moose heads, crossed swords, and mahogany thrones. But when Libby Jones, a cheerful, conscientious young kitchen saleswoman with no known connection to the family, learns that she’s inherited it, she finds herself the new owner of a once grand, now abandoned building with a sinister past.

Twenty-five years earlier, three people in black robes were found dead of poisoning at the posh Chelsea address, arranged on the floor like cult members fulfilling a suicide pact. In a bedroom upstairs, police found a healthy baby wailing away, who was subsequently adopted and never told about her mysterious origins, which included two teenage siblings who had vanished. This is too much for Libby to process on her own, so she enlists the help of a reporter who once worked on the story to try to crack its secrets.

The Family Upstairs is divided among Libby’s point of view and those of the two missing Lamb children, Henry and Lucy. Henry’s narrative chronicles the family’s pathetic surrender to mind control by a sociopathic grifter, while Lucy, nearly homeless in the South of France, describes her present-day efforts to return to England (difficult without passports or identification) with her children and dog. “The baby is 25,” says the message on her phone; time to come home.

Lisa Jewell is adept at creating complex, multifaceted narratives that allow her morally challenged, emotionally damaged characters to spin their actions in ways that almost justify them. She’s like Tana French in this respect, though her tone is lighter. The Family Upstairs is an absorbing portrait of a superficially enviable family whose hollow core makes them easy pickings for a predator. It’s hard to look away from their slow-motion downfall.

The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara
A film still from The Bishop’s Bedroom (La Stanza Del Vescovo), 1977.

The inverna, the tramontana, the montive—there are many winds blowing on Italy’s Lake Maggiore, but it’s an ill one that sends the footloose gentleman sailor of this 1976 novel (translated now for the first time into English) by Piero Chiara, on a course that leads to the fashionable port town of Oggebbio. There, he meets Signor Orimbelli, the owner (actually, the husband of the owner) of an imposing lakeside villa. The two men, both fresh from different adventures during World War II and still restless, embark on a series of nautical dalliances with women whom the unnamed narrator—we’ll call him the Sailor—has collected on his travels. It’s all very up-for-anything, postwar dolce vita, even when it dawns on the Sailor that Orimbelli is poaching his girlfriends. Despite there always being someone extra for him, he has to have them both. “The flesh is weak,” he explains to his host. The squat, balding Orimbelli is an unlikely Lothario, which may be the secret to his success. The girls come and go from the boat, mostly without recriminations.

Once the duo returns to the villa, Orimbelli ramps up his omnivorous domination game by turning his attentions to his lovely, widowed sister-in-law, who lives with him and his wife. The Sailor has genuinely fallen for her, so for that and other reasons, Orimbelli concocts a cruel scheme that leads to tragedy.

At times, the contemporary reader may find herself wishing for a mighty tramontana to blow these men away. Orimbelli’s offhand references to his women as “leftovers” and prime cuts of veal are tough to read past now. But if you’re patient, you’ll fall under the book’s pleasurable, slightly sinister spell and find satisfaction when Chiara reveals what he’s had up his sleeve the whole time.

The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon

The year is 1962, but the enemy in The Accomplice committed his crimes during World War II. The world thinks that Otto Schramm, a notorious doctor at Auschwitz who performed unspeakable experiments on Jews, died in a car accident in Buenos Aires a few years before. But one day in Hamburg, Nazi hunter and Auschwitz survivor Max Weill is convinced he sees Schramm on the street—they went to medical school together and Schramm sent Weill’s son to the gas chamber, so Weill would never forget the man’s walk or his knife-like cheekbones. The sighting gives the old man a heart attack, and Weill begs his nephew Aaron Wiley, a desk-bound C.I.A. agent, to do what he cannot: capture Schramm and send him to Germany to stand trial. Finding it impossible to disappoint his uncle, Wiley flies to Buenos Aires, where Schramm has indeed been living under another identity, and begins the hunt with a German reporter, the C.I.A. station chief in Argentina, and an Israeli agent.

Wiley’s first instinct is to get close to Schramm’s daughter, who’s also in Buenos Aires. As must happen in a spy novel, Wiley gets too close to Hanna—a cool Hitchcock blonde who knows her father’s a monster, but feels a filial obligation to keep him safe. A cagey, cat-and-mouse romance develops, which fortunately never strains credulity, along with an inchoate sense between them that something must be done about Hanna’s father.

It’s exhilarating to watch Wiley’s transformation from desk jockey to field agent, thinking fast on his feet, improvising when things go wrong, jazzed by the pursuit. Joseph Kanon is a master of the kind of intelligent plotting and realistic, hyper-tense but low-tech action scenes that propel The Accomplice toward its starkly powerful climax. This is Cold War–era spy fiction at its best, no Russians necessary.

Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City