Adrian McKinty’s new novel is an almost perfect feat of thriller engineering, powered by a premise guaranteed to scare any parent witless: our heroine, Rachel, gets a call from a woman who says she’s kidnapped Rachel’s only child, Kylie. If Rachel doesn’t pay a ransom, the caller will kill the girl. Why? The crazed caller’s own son is being held by another family, and his release is dependent on the payment of Kylie’s ransom—and so on and so on down the line. This is the diabolical operating strategy of the entity known as “the Chain.”
McKinty, an Irish writer with a modestly successful Northern Ireland–based detective series, has ventured—quite convincingly—to the northeastern U.S. Rachel seems at first to be an odd choice for the kidnappers, each of whom trolls for the next, most promising link in the chain via social media. (Parents may want to go on a Facebook starvation diet after reading this book.) She’s divorced, a native New Yorker without much money who’s about to begin a job teaching philosophy at a community college, and, most crucially, is a near survivor of breast cancer whose prognosis is still iffy. Once Kylie is taken, Rachel teams up with her former brother-in-law, Pete, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who has the skills to handle the unthinkable situation. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Pete also has a heroin habit, which will eventually require her to step up in ways she couldn’t have predicted.
Though The Chain could have gone off the rails into lurid fright-fest territory, McKinty is a smart and economical writer who steers his plot smoothly over a few credibility speed bumps, and throws in some impressive mathematical theory and nuggets of philosophy to elevate the tone. How do those who’ve been victimized avoid the moral dilemma presented by the Chain? How do they carry on, knowing they’ve enabled the nightmare to continue ad infinitum? Rachel can’t, and as she raggedly but effectively morphs from victim to avenger, the reader will be with her every step of the way.
Laura Lippman calls her new book a newspaper novel—a tribute to the Baltimore Sun, where her father worked in the 1960s through the 90s—but it is many other wonderful things as well. Yes, you can practically smell the newsprint and the liquor on the editors’ breath, but the book is also a slow-burning mystery, a delicate and insightful study of race relations and politics in Baltimore, and an affectionate yet gimlet-eyed look at the city’s Jewish community.
Maddie Morgenstern Schwartz is a beautiful, proto–desperate housewife who, out of the blue, leaves her husband and teenage son. She claims to love both of them but is powerfully convinced she is meant for something bigger than the perfect beef casserole (secret ingredient: Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup) and a second home in Boca. “She was like a car engine, revving, revving, revving, making noise, sending sparks out into the world,” and once she hits the road, she is fearless.
Maddie begins her journey by moving into a dicey Baltimore neighborhood, taking a handsome black cop as a lover, getting her hair ironed, and running up some cute shift dresses on her sewing machine. (Lippman knows her 60s fashion, from Marimekko to Chanel, and how it was used as an expression of class, sexuality, and power. It’s also an important clue.) Though she’s a 37-year-old divorcée without a college degree, Maddie thinks journalism might be a match for her talents. What she lacks in training and experience, she makes up for in chutzpah. She catches a break when she serendipitously discovers the body of a white teenager, whose disappearance has made headlines, earning her a job at a second-tier daily called The Star, opening mail for a consumer-complaint column.
The job is undemanding, and Maddie becomes fixated on the unsolved murder of a black cocktail waitress named Cleo Sherwood, found dead in a fountain in a lake several months after disappearing on New Year’s Eve. No one at the paper gives a damn about the Sherwood story: “Dead Negro woman in a fountain … I wouldn’t even lead the metro section with it,” says one editor. But Maddie disagrees, and recklessly begins peeling away the layers to get at the veins of secrets and lies that run through the case.
Lippman’s authoritative evocation of local political shenanigans, the Star’s shambolic newsroom, and the sleazy nightclub where Cleo worked make a vivid backdrop against which supporting characters drop in to offer their perspectives. Cleo is heard throughout, and her voice suffuses the book with a defiant eeriness that lingers like a Billie Holiday song. Though Lady in the Lake is nominally about who killed Cleo Sherwood, Lippman is working on a broader canvas here. She’s most interested in exploring how Maddie finds herself reflected in Cleo’s image, flaws included, and why both of their fates should matter. The result is an ambitious, genre-expanding novel of unusual richness and depth.
The constant struggle that is life for the hard-bitten, alcoholic Oslo police detective Harry Hole turns tragic in Knife, the 12th entry in Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo’s excellent series. Hole’s adored wife, Rakel, whose unconditional love rescued him from an existential abyss of misery and despair, has been murdered, slashed expertly with a knife. Two months earlier, Rakel had thrown Harry out of their home, for reasons unclear to him, and he had begun lowering himself, rung by rung, back down into the abyss. Now, there being no other obvious suspects, Harry is a person of interest until a neighbor provides an alibi.
Harry has serious doubts, though. He was blackout drunk the night of the murder and doesn’t remember a thing. Is anyone capable of taking a life? Harry knows he is—he’s done it before, in the line of duty. But just about every other important character in Knife also turns out to have explored this question thoroughly, both in theory and in practice—in the context of war, in self-defense, and in vigilante justice … the line can get very blurred.
Nesbo draws the blurriest line with the demonically creepy rapist Svein Finne, who also happens to collect knives. Recently released from prison after Harry helped put him away for 20 years, Finne is definitely not rehabilitated and is already toying with his newest victim. At first, Harry thinks Finne, whose capacity for evil toward women seems limitless, murdered Rakel for revenge. But when the elusive Finne fades away for a bit, others—friends and co-workers from the Oslo Crime Squad familiar from Nesbo’s previous books—begin to surface in Harry’s inquiries.
Fans of the series may find it disconcerting when favorite characters show disturbing new dimensions, but Nesbo has no qualms about messing with readers’ preconceptions. The plot zigzags tensely back and forth as Harry explores his suspects’ motivations, relationships, and skills, never excluding himself from the list. Country-music fans take note: as in any Harry Hole saga, music is its own subplot, and Hank Williams aficionados may find themselves a step ahead in solving the murder.
Readers are going to miss the luminous Rakel, but the life expectancy of Harry’s women can be sadly brief. A happy Harry, surrounded by a picket fence and loving family, was never in the cards that Nesbo so masterfully and unsparingly continues to deal his antihero.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City.