Lazarus goes about its gory business with the grim resolve and breathless pacing of a slasher movie. There are many people to be dispatched, important victims as well as hapless extras given a few lines of jokey dialogue to indicate their human fallibility, after which their brief time upon the page is abruptly ended by the serial killer Jurek Walter.
Walter, who is Hannibal Lecter–ish in his preternatural intelligence but takes no pleasure from killing, was the super-villain of husband-and-wife duo Lars Kepler’s The Sandman (2018). He was supposedly killed by Swedish police officer Saga Bauer in that book, but, like Rasputin, he managed to survive a constellation of bullet wounds and a near drowning. Now a wrinkled old man with a cheap prosthetic hand, Walter is back to grind the detective Joona Leena, who killed his brother, into the dirt by destroying Linna’s loved ones. The same goes for Bauer, who did, after all, shoot him full of holes.
Walter’s project makes for stressful reading, if that’s what you’re after. The Kepler duo are unmatched in their ability to crank up the tension, murder by murder, to an almost unbearable degree. Eventually it becomes not about who’s going to get it next but how they’ll get it, since it’s pretty clear that escaping Walter and his new accomplice, a hulking man who calls himself the Beaver and wears pearl earrings (yet somehow can’t be caught!), is not in the cards for even the most highly trained opponent. Speaking of whom … our hero, Linna, whose preparation level is such that he’s created an ultra-secure bunker outside of Sweden and trained his daughter like a Navy SEAL in anticipation of Walter’s return, forgets to take his weapon when rushing off to the rescue? “Joona!” you’ll want to scream. “Get your gun!”
Retired for years after a nonpareil career as a killer for hire, the middle-aged but still lethal Michael Schaeffer is dragged back into his old life when someone tries to murder him at his wife’s estate, in England. The prospect of this character’s long-awaited return after nearly a decade’s absence will make the hearts of fans of Thomas Perry’s highly regarded Butcher’s Boy series race a little faster, and Eddie’s Boy is worth the palpitations.
The book moves fluidly back and forth between Schaeffer’s present-day fight for survival as he’s hunted by an ever diminishing but constantly replenished number of thugs and his formative years as an apprentice to Eddie Mastrewski—a neighborhood Pittsburgh butcher by day, hit man by night—who took the young orphan into his home and under his wing, where he honed the boy’s death-dealing skills to perfection. Neither was what you’d call sentimental, but the bond of trust and respect between them was stronger than in many a more traditional father-son relationship.
Schaeffer reflects on Eddie’s tutelage as he bolts from England to Australia and beyond, taking out bad guys along the way to figuring out who’s behind the onslaught. When he learns from a contact in the Justice Department that incarcerated New York Mafia boss Carlo Balacontano is up for parole and that it’s likely to be granted, it all falls into place. For reasons that combined revenge with justice, Schaeffer set up Balacontano for a 1983 murder that put him in prison for years, giving the mobster strong motive for wanting Schaeffer dead.
Perry contrives increasingly dangerous situations for Schaeffer to blast his way out of, but never dwells on the violence. For this consummate professional, murder is strategic and transactional, which allows him to stay cool and improvise, one of his mentor’s most important lessons. The reader can only marvel as the Butcher’s Boy practices his dark art.
We’ve all said and done things we’d like to take back, and this book is a perfect storm of regrets. But it’s hard to unsay certain things, so when a facially disfigured teenage white girl (she suffers from the Elephant Man’s disease) from East London accuses four of her Muslim South Asian high-school classmates of raping her after a party, there’s no going back for anyone. Jodie Wolfe’s rape counselor is former star barrister Zara Kaleel, who’s stepped away from her promising and lucrative but soul-deadening career to find meaningful work at Artemis House, which provides legal and personal assistance to female victims of violence. Zara is her family’s outlier, flouting Islamic law and traditions to blaze her own path As the only Muslim on Jodie’s team—and a glamorous, Westernized one at that—she also incurs hostility from her community. But Zara believes the unfortunate girl is entitled to the support she’s been denied her whole brief, tormented life, and so tries not to get emotionally caught up in the conflict, relying on Valium and inappropriate men to numb her as she stays the course.
British writer Kia Abdullah creates a combustible situation which pits East London’s insular, often victimized Muslim community against racist supporters Zara and Jodie are sickened to be aligned with. Tiny flames of doubt about the veracity of Jodie’s story flicker at the edge of Zara’s mind as she discovers that Jodie has told at least one small lie, and Zara’s trust in her client begins to waver. With social media viciously targeting nearly every player in the trial, something’s due to explode, and the way it does makes for a propulsive read with an unpredictable finale. This would make a terrific limited TV series—it has a charismatic heroine, courtroom dramatics, a complex message, and a far better ending than The Undoing.
When she was a teenager, Embla Nyström’s best friend disappeared after a night spent partying at a club in Gothenburg, Sweden. Embla’s last memory of Lollo—curled up on the floor with three men looming over her—remains traumatic. Fast-forward 14 years, and Embla gets a mysterious phone call from a familiar voice she swears is Lollo’s. This takes on a haunting resonance when Embla, now a detective inspector who hunts and boxes in her spare time, is called to the scene of a murder, where she’s astonished to discover Croatian gang boss Milo Stavic, one of the men she recognizes from the club where Lollo vanished, executed and tucked into bed in a rental cottage. It’s an early chapter in a Mob struggle that escalates with the assassination of one of Stavic’s brothers as Embla and her former boss team up to sort out who’s behind these bold moves.
Though it’s a bit doubtful that a badass like Embla (nicknamed “the pitbull” by her colleagues) would still suffer from nightmares about her flaky girlhood friend, the incident’s connection to the gang war drives the plot, which eventually draws Embla, a handsome cop, and his stalwart police dog into a thrilling extended gun battle near a deserted, snow-covered lake.
With her third book in this series, Swedish writer Helene Tursten again displays her penchant for meticulous detail—makes and models of cars, the finer points of guns and ammunition, home furnishings, even characters’ food preferences. Who doesn’t love smoked moose heart and pickled chanterelles? And in case you’re wondering, Embla drives a borrowed Kia Sportage, which turns out to be a surprisingly plucky vehicle in blizzard conditions.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City