Winter Grave by Helene Tursten

If you’re looking for an alternative to the hard-drinking, self-lacerating, morose detectives who dominate Scandinavian noir, Swedish cop Embla Nyström might be your girl. She was the Nordic light-welterweight boxing champion, won’t even touch coffee, hunts wild boar, and doesn’t turn inward much, though she’s had a difficult past. She is also an excellent detective who’s returning to work after a head injury that ended her boxing career.

Nyström’s skills are tested immediately when she, as part of a violent-crimes unit in Gothenberg, is called to the small harbor town of Strömstad to assist in solving a cluster of awful crimes that take place over the Christmas holidays. The local police department is overwhelmed, unable to discover any useful evidence and increasingly afraid that time has run out for two missing children. Swedish writer Helene Tursten expertly if somewhat matter-of-factly (though that may be due to the translation) sets up a tense situation that keeps Nyström and her colleagues chasing leads in punishing winter weather and struggling to connect the dots.

If you’re looking for an alternative to the morose detectives of Scandinavian noir, Embla Nyström is your girl.

If this sounds a shade too dark, the book’s tone is not. The Strömstad police, while hardly Keystone Kops, leaven the mood with their quirks and steady-as-she-goes Swedish practicality. And Nyström, who has a healthy appetite for sex, juices things up when she throws out the ethics rule book and hooks up with Mr. Wrong. Totally inappropriate, but perversely refreshing.

How the Dead Speak by Val McDermid
Robson Green plays Tony Hill in the TV series Wire in the Blood.

Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, dramatized in the British TV show Wire in the Blood, began in 1995. How the Dead Speak is the 11th book featuring Hill, the tormented criminal psychologist, and Jordan, the former head of an all-star major-incident unit. The pair have teamed up on especially gnarly cases and over the years developed an intense personal relationship. But in this installment, they’re separated and out of the action: Hill is in prison for manslaughter, while Jordan has been cut loose from policing with a severe case of PTSD.

Taking focus in this go-round are ace interviewer Paula McIntyre and other re-assembled members of Jordan’s old unit, along with some newcomers. They’re investigating the discovery of two sets of remains found buried on the grounds of a shut-down convent/children’s home in northern England. For the reader, there’s not much mystery about who’s responsible. How the Dead Speak is much more about the investigative process, forensics, and the unit’s thorny internal politics and personalities than it is about suspense.

Still, McDermid circles back to Hill and Jordan like a border collie, herding them back into the story just when they stray too far from the flock. While her descriptions of Hill’s adjustment to prison life and Jordan’s struggle with PTSD are interesting enough, they’re not integral to the plot. A pro bono investigation by Jordan eventually coincides with the convent case, but it feels a bit forced. Perhaps this book is a winding down of the Hill-Jordan franchise. McDermid works at such a high level—her last mystery, Broken Ground, was a master class in cold-case mystery writing—that anything less can be a slight disappointment. Wherever she decides to take these characters, the trip has been rewarding.

Just Watch Me by Jeff Lindsay
Heist-ready: diamonds are a thief’s best friend.

When I think of jewel heists, suave thieves in black turtlenecks come to mind, along with cool gadgets, mind-bending logistics, fabulous loot, and umbrella drinks in paradise at the end of the job. Murder and mayhem don’t usually ensue in this genre, unless things go terribly wrong and it’s the only way out. So the prospect of a new heist novel, Just Watch Me, seemed like the perfect escape in these anxious times.

Or not. Author Jeff Lindsay is the creator of the vigilante serial killer Dexter, so there’s no way his new super-thief character was going to be another Danny Ocean. Riley Wolfe might look dashing and occasionally sport a Savile Row suit, but he’s also a sociopathic killer whose elaborate schemes hinge on murder. Which can sour the fun.

There’s no way Jeff Lindsay’s new super-thief character was going to be another Danny Ocean.

The book begins with one of Wolfe’s blockbuster jobs, the theft of a brand-new $50 million statue in Chicago at the moment of its unveiling. Afterward, Wolfe is brooding, restless. How can he top that? He opens an airline magazine and there it is—the Daryayeh-E-Noor, one of Iran’s crown jewels, headed for exhibition at the Eberhardt Museum in Manhattan. Among other things, Wolfe’s plan involves assuming multiple identities, wooing and marrying an Eberhardt, lots of rooftop parkour, commissioning a replica of the jewel, and killing a few people. It’s fiendishly complicated and quite a breezy, engaging read, but you have to wonder: was all this work really necessary? Some less-fancy thieves stole priceless jewelry from the Dresden Royal Palace last month by reportedly knocking out the alarm with a nearby electrical fire, breaking open the case, and grabbing the grisbi. Pretty mundane compared to the twisted performance art of Riley Wolfe, and the Dresden crew likely wore hoodies. But at least the body count on their job was zero.

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