How many parents of exasperating teenagers have wished that their kids were toddlers again? In Sophie Hannah’s Perfect Little Children, someone seems to have gotten that wish. Taking a detour from her son’s soccer game to eyeball an estranged friend’s fancy new house, Beth Leeson is shocked to spot the friend, whom she hadn’t seen in 12 years, getting out of a car with her two children, who look exactly as they did back then. At home, Beth describes the experience to her skeptical family. After her teenage daughter ticks off all the plausible explanations, Beth embarks on a slightly crazed quest for the correct one. It perplexes her family that she is so obsessed with someone she broke off with years ago, but the sheer impossibility of what Beth saw drives her forward. Following a series of disturbing encounters and more creepy sightings, she begins to think her friend is in serious trouble.
Though it may feel at first that we are in The Twilight Zone, Beth’s suburban family life in the fictional English town of Little Holling—she’s an overworked massage therapist and the mother of two teenagers—grounds the book in reality. From the minute mother and daughter start batting their theories around, Hannah, a master plotter who has written three Hercule Poirot novels with permission from the Agatha Christie estate, plays out her narrative honestly. There’s no withheld piece of information, no crucial character who doesn’t appear until the final chapter. Beth’s deductive abilities improve as the book unfolds, but her intuitive grasp of human behavior turns out to be her sharpest tool. She’s had ample opportunity to observe that species of upwardly mobile parent for whom “helicopter” is too weak an adjective and perfection too low a bar. Perfect Little Children is a sharp-edged commentary on how, for such people, love can turn to cruelty, and damage, once inflicted, can never be undone.
Arms dealer Angus Byrne is no one’s idea of a dream client. Private investigator Isaiah Quintabe sizes him up as a “stinking glob of human offal,” but Byrne forces the freelance detective, known as IQ, to work for him by threatening to hurt his girlfriend. The job is to exonerate Byrne’s daughter, Christiana, of the murder of Byrne’s trusted money guy, and the case is a nightmare. Besides being cursed with a hideous father, Christiana has four other personalities, many of them working at cross purposes with their “host,” and IQ can’t ignore the possibility that one of them ordered what looks to him like a hit.
IQ’s neighborhood is impoverished, gang-ridden East Long Beach, California, where he’s a local icon, known for his big brain and equally capacious heart. As he tries to untangle the chaos of Christiana’s fractured psyche and make sense of the murder, he navigates a violent, if familiar, landscape. IQ is caught in the crossfire between a Cambodian gang and a white-supremacist crew—both possibly linked to the murder—as they vie for a big armaments prize. His prodigious intellect will get him only so far, though: a man who packs a potato gun and drives a refurbished Kia is in over his head.
Joe Ide, who grew up in South Central and has written three previous IQ books, creates a jumped-up, streetwise world—the tone owes something to Elmore Leonard—with Quintabe as its moral center. Though Ide depicts the gangs (especially the white-power goons) cartoonishly, the death and destruction they cause is never a joke. Hi Five is overpopulated with secondary characters—Christiana alone accounts for five—but they happen to be very entertaining, and, as is the case with Gloria Simmons, the head of the Ladies of Color Turning Pages book club, provide a corrective to all the shooting and killing. Books can’t stop bullets, but they can make life during wartime more tolerable.
Benjamin Black (the mystery-writing pseudonym of Irish novelist John Banville) offers up a tantalizing bit of alternate history in The Secret Guests: during the Blitz, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are moved for their safety to a remote estate in Ireland, owned by an elderly Irish duke. The plan is not well thought-out, as the Duke of Edenmore is a solitary man whose rundown estate limps along with a basic staff and has nothing to offer the girls but a worthy horse for Elizabeth and numerous opportunities for Margaret to get into trouble. Their supervision, by a female British secret-service agent and an Anglo-Irish police detective, is squishy; the adults are ordered to keep their charges safe, but just about every other need of girls that age, of which there are many, is ignored. A stretch of boredom and minor mishaps ensues, followed by a sudden flare of danger. (It’s hard to believe the servants and local villagers hadn’t been vetted, but this is probably a comment on the secret service’s incompetence—or what happens when the Irish and English try to work together.)
As always, Black is a pleasure to read, particularly his descriptions of the lackadaisically maintained estate, the rough-hewn characters in the princesses’ temporary orbit, and the young royals’ developing personalities. (Margaret is wild and spiky, Elizabeth contained and working hard to be blasé.) The Secret Guests doesn’t race along like a slick spy novel; rather, it takes time to observe the specific ways human weakness and caprice can affect history. Any fan of Black’s Quirke series, featuring the melancholic, eternally ambivalent Dublin pathologist, will not be surprised when, as the book approaches its potentially devastating climax, the main detective is nearly incapacitated by the flu.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City