“The act of editing, like the act of writing, is so intensive and occasionally so fraught with problems that no matter how pleased I might be with the finished product, I’m always happy to put it behind me. I don’t need to go back.” And yet the editor and occasional detective Susan Ryeland does go back, in this sequel to Anthony Horowitz’s wonderful Magpie Murders (2017), to try to solve another mystery. She’s been running a hotel in Crete—not too successfully—when the parents of a missing young woman track her down. They think that a book Ryeland edited by mystery writer Alan Conway (who was killed in Magpie Murders) contains crucial clues to her disappearance, and beg her to help them find their daughter. Some years earlier, Conway stayed in the couple’s hotel in Suffolk, where a friend of his had been killed. He borrowed liberally from his experience there to write Atticus Pund Takes the Case, which the parents believe points the finger in some coded literary fashion at the friend’s killer, who may have taken their daughter.
Ryeland agrees to help and returns to England. As she revisits the book, which she’s completely forgotten, we get to read it with her—Horowitz has written an entire book within a book. If you’re game to troll for clues, a little knowledge of astrology, opera, and Shakespeare will help, along with a knack for wordplay, anagrams, and spotting Easter eggs (little messages to the astute reader).
In Moonflower Murders, Horowitz has taken a conventional British mystery story, turned it inside out, and rearranged the puzzle pieces to reveal a multifaceted entertainment partly about the act of its own creation. It’s a tribute to Horowitz’s light touch that this mischievous tour de force captivates without ever taking itself too seriously.
The frequency with which Tabitha Hardy tells people to fuck off in House of Correction would make for a great drinking game. The world has been cruel to this antisocial heroine, and when she’s not punching her way through it, she’s chopping wood or swimming in the frigid Atlantic to channel her furious energy.
Hardy grew up a misfit in the small coastal English village of Okeham, a victim of sexual abuse whose parents both died relatively young. This didn’t bode well for a happy adulthood, but she managed to get away from Okeham and, after some heavy-duty psycho-medical intervention, function reasonably well. Then, somewhat inexplicably, she buys a dilapidated house in Okeham, returning to the scene of her youthful misery.
The frequency with which Tabitha Hardy tells people to fuck off in House of Correction would make for a great drinking game.
A few weeks into her time there, Hardy sees her fragile equanimity shattered when she finds Stuart Rees, a pillar of the community, stabbed to death in her shed. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Hardy, who’s arrested and hauled off to prison. Unable to remember what happened that day and overwhelmed by the system that has suddenly engulfed her, she slowly pulls herself together, fires her cautious lawyer, and decides to act as her own defense, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the law. But she’s smart and motivated, so she plunges ahead with the assistance of a savvy former cellmate, determined to find the holes in the prosecution’s case, and, for her own sanity, the real killer of Stuart Rees.
Hardy’s mental instability allows the husband-and-wife team known as Nicci French leeway for some not entirely credible behavior and situations. But that aside, this is a skillful and powerfully written blending of genres: an unsparing look at prison life, an unruly courtroom drama, a well-plotted murder mystery, and, most of all, a raw portrait of an angry, damaged woman whose complete disregard for being liked serves her very well indeed.
The days when Inspector John Rebus was fueled by cigarettes, whiskey, and a 24-7 obsession with work, much to the detriment of his family life, are gone. C.O.P.D. has forced Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s iconic detective, now retired from the Edinburgh police, to move to a garden apartment (no stairs to contend with) and contemplate his ungovernable book and record collections when his daughter calls to say that her partner, Keith, an amateur historian, is missing. When Rebus learns of Keith’s obsession with an old World War II internment camp near their home on the coast of Scotland, he heads for the Highlands, where he finds Keith, his head bashed in, lying in a decrepit building that once housed both longtime resident “aliens” and, later, actual German soldiers. Being Rebus, he unofficially attaches himself to the local police’s search for the killer.
At the same time, Rebus’s former partner, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke, is investigating the high-profile murder of a flashy young Saudi playboy. Clarke asks Rebus to do some discreet sleuthing while he’s in the north, as the dead Saudi’s ambitious friends, particularly the daughter of the wealthy landowner Lord Strathy, have big plans to turn a portion of her father’s vast holdings, which include the internment camp and its surrounding area, into a swanky hotel and golf course. Softened a bit by age but with his cop’s instincts intact, Rebus finally gets the chance to pay off some of the emotional debt he’s incurred with his family, while Clarke and D.I. Malcolm Fox (subject of another Rankin series) do the heavy lifting in Edinburgh. With A Song for the Dark Times, Rankin takes an absorbing look at the damage done by greed for land and the fact that, with or without fairways, its history can never be erased.
Fair warning: this is something of a guilty pleasure, but since the dreaded spooky season is upon us, a book about modern-day witch hunting seems like an appropriate indulgence. The Witch Hunter begins with a horror-movie jolt when the wife of famous Finnish thriller writer Roger Koponen is found dead in a wealthy suburb of Helsinki, posed grotesquely in a black evening dress at the dining table in their seaside house. This is a new level of strangeness for the Helsinki police, who aren’t quite quick enough to realize that worse things are about to happen—fast. Chief Inspector Erne Mikson assigns Sergeant Jessica Niemi, who was first on the scene, to lead the case, which is perhaps not the best idea, since aspects of it resonate uncomfortably for her. Niemi has secrets to protect, gradually revealed in flashbacks, that require mental and physical reserves of strength she lacks. Her team works full-out to prevent a series of crimes that seem to be inspired by incidents from Koponen’s books, and since his subject is the persecution of witches, Inquisition-style, it gets pretty grim. Despite their considerable efforts, the police are always one step behind the perpetrators, a frustrating situation which doesn’t raise red flags until it’s too late.
Though this sounds like standard Nordic-noir serial-killer material, Finnish writer Max Seeck brings urgent pacing, distinctive characters (the haunted Niemi and seriously ill Mikson being the most vivid), a sardonic sense of humor, and a kind of lurid excitement to the proceedings that are hard to resist—at least until some schlocky gothic shenanigans kick in toward the end. But if you’re looking for a high-calorie scare for your treat bag this Halloween, The Witch Hunter should do the trick.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL