Norwegian writer K. O. Dahl’s fifth entry in his Oslo detective series (and the first to be published in the U.S.) is a bit of an aughts throwback, but well worth catching up with for those partial to Scandinavian police procedurals. In The Fourth Man, Detective Inspector Frank Frølich, otherwise a pretty smart guy, falls under the spell of the raven-haired, sapphire-eyed Elisabeth Faremo, a classic femme fatale. They meet cute during a police raid at a store, where she’s been coolly filching cigarettes amid the bullets and chaos, which intrigues him. One thing leads to another and he ends up in thrall to her, discounting some screamingly obvious danger signals—her brother is a known gangster with ties to a recent murder, she’s a thief and has a full-time female lover … the list goes on. As Frølich’s crusty, un-P.C. boss says prior to suspending the poor sap for his involvement with the relative of a suspect, “There’s something not quite kosher about this bit of skirt.”
Unfazed, Frølich rationalizes everything and starts his own investigation into the murder, taking a hard look at a sketchy, art-loving financier who was once robbed by the brother’s gang. Meanwhile, the pretty bird has flown.
Whether The Fourth Man appeals depends somewhat on the reader’s willingness to accept Frølich’s overmastering attraction to Elisabeth (doable) and the viability of the femme fatale construct today (less doable). While maintaining a stoic, Henning Mankell–esque tone, Dahl does write some wonderful set pieces, however. In one of them, Frølich’s gruff old pro of a boss is sitting alone at home with a whiskey, contemplating the worrying inability of his goldfish to swim straight. He has never considered that he might outlive his only pet, and feels both pathetic (it’s a goldfish) and utterly bereft at once. This cop, who’s seen so much death, still has a tender place in his heart.
There’s so much going on in Sara Paretsky’s latest V. I. Warshawski novel that it could be overwhelming for the neophyte. Take a deep breath: Dead Land pulls together lethal land-use shenanigans in the Chicago parks system, a classically trained pop singer plunged into homelessness, a Chilean mining family with a questionable history, and the fallout from a mass shooting at an outdoor festival. But once the groundwork is done and connections made, the book’s rewards are ample, thanks in large part to Warshawski, the Chicago private investigator whose considerable toughness, empathy, and intellect are tested by a cluster of events that has already cost lives and threatens the safety of at least two people dear to her, not to mention her own.
Warshawski is nominally hired by a journalist friend to locate Lydia Zamir, the homeless singer, who became deranged after her Chilean-American lover was killed four years earlier in a mass shooting in Kansas. As she begins to grasp the reasons for the girl’s disintegration, the P.I.’s passion for truth and justice goes into overdrive and she heads west to the prairie, where she learns that the long-accepted lone-shooter scenario for the murders may not be accurate. After being shot at herself, Warshawski observes in frustration, “the story keeps sprouting new tentacles, like an octopus with an infinite number of legs,” some of which lead back to Chicago and some to Chile.
Warshawski takes a hefty amount of physical punishment in her single-minded quest to turn over all the rocks, and at times you almost wish she’d go home to her dogs, get some sleep, and attend to the boring clients she keeps putting off. But there’s a young woman to rescue, and Warshawski doesn’t put a premium on comfort and safety. Neither does Paretsky, still taking chances and digging deeper into her iconic character in this series’s 20th outing.
If you were to transplant Big Little Lies (the TV series, not Liane Moriarty’s book) from Monterey, California (itself a transplant from the book’s Sydney setting), to Brooklyn’s Park Slope, it would look a bit like Kimberly McCreight’s A Good Marriage. Instead of the Cabrillo Highway and rocky beaches, there are brownstone stoops and tree-lined streets. The moms of Brooklyn Country Day, the school that binds the East Coast group of friends, dress funkier and do some serious giving back if they don’t have careers, but the marriages are just as sour, running on fear, deceit, and the need to keep up a certain kind of appearance at any cost.
The yummiest of the Country Day mummies is found murdered at the bottom of her gazillion-dollar brownstone’s staircase as the book begins, and Zach Grayson, her tech-whiz husband, is the obvious suspect. Stranded at Rikers Island after assaulting an arresting officer, Grayson reaches out to Lizzie Kitsakis, an old college pal and corporate lawyer, and asks her to represent him. She signs on against her better judgment; Grayson may be a rock star in his field, but there’s something off about him. To be fair, that’s the deal with just about every character in the book, including Kitsakis herself, whose marriage is taking on water fast. If her client isn’t guilty, she doesn’t have to look far to discover who might be.
What lifts A Good Marriage above high-level chick-lit status is its legal-thriller aspect, which keeps the story churning urgently along. It’s also quite satisfying when McCreight strips away the hypocrisy of the Park Slope gang to reveal sex parties, online scandal, and shiny, empty lives. The one percent—they’re just like us!
Also Recommended …
Sometimes, like right now, you just want the literary equivalent of popcorn—but excellent popcorn, with real melted butter—which is available in the form of John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Winds. Set in Florida in the aftermath of a hurricane (what a relief to think about another form of natural disaster!), with a bookseller antihero and a very relevant cohort of bad guys, this can be enjoyed without guilt.
Sara Sligar’s Take Me Apart is a psychological mystery about the intersection of mental illness and art, in which a damaged young archivist sets out to organize the papers of a controversial photographer who is thought to have killed herself. Sligar writes beautifully, and knows when to lighten the mood with some sly art-world satire. A notable debut novel.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City