If you’re drawn to tormented detectives such as Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge, Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath, or Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike, all of them scarred by the trauma of war, chances are you’ll embrace British writer Matthew Carr’s Harry Pedro Lawton. A half-Irish, half-Chilean private investigator who saw horrors as a soldier in South Africa’s Boer War, Lawton’s struggles with epilepsy have forced him to switch from police duty in London to private work. He’s big, tough, and skilled, but his illness, poorly understood in 1909, has set him apart.
So he’s game when his old boss recommends him for a job that promises easy money and a trip to Spain: a British scientist and explorer, Dr. Randolph Foulkes, is presumed to have been killed in a bombing in Barcelona, and his widow wants to identify the remains and track down the woman who received £500 from her husband just before he died. What he doesn’t fully grasp when he accepts is that he’s walking into a tinderbox. Barcelona, riven by a number of political factions, is headed for chaos when the government tries to conscript reservists for a colonialist venture in Morocco. An anarchist group calls a general strike, but the leaders lose control of the protest and mayhem descends during a late-summer week that would become known as La Semana Trágica.
An ad hoc chain of interested parties helps Lawton navigate the volatile city, as his pursuit of Foulkes’s mysterious beneficiary leads to a trail of corpses drained of blood and a cabal obsessed with eugenics. Even amid lawlessness and destruction, some crimes are more monstrous than others. Roiling with action, real historical figures, and proto-Nazi villains, Black Sun Rising is as exciting and vibrant as historical crime fiction gets. One caveat: anyone unfamiliar with the bewilderingly complex politics of early-20th-century Barcelona should first read the helpful author’s note at the end of the book to avoid frustrating Wikipedia breaks.
Though it’s nice to think that guts and determination can alter someone’s destiny, sometimes it’s fate that interferes. In Julie Clark’s clever and absorbing The Last Flight, abused wife Claire Cook has finally decided to leave her husband—the golden-boy scion of a New York political family—and their lavish Fifth Avenue prison. However, simply filing for divorce or going to a women’s shelter isn’t an option. To be truly safe she has to disappear, but a last-minute itinerary change by her husband ruins her meticulously planned vanishing act.
Salvation materializes at an airport bar in the form of a young woman named Eva, who boldly proposes they swap tickets and, by extension, identities. Eva will go to Puerto Rico as Claire, and Claire will go to Berkeley as Eva. It’s a measure of their mutual desperation that they both agree to the audacious switch.When Claire arrives at Eva’s oddly anonymous house, she learns that although no one leaves her life behind without good reason, the one Eva gave about needing a fresh start after her husband’s death was a lie. As she tries to gather up a few sparse clues about her enigmatic partner in deception (including a bookshelf heavy on science textbooks), Claire repeatedly encounters an unnerving stranger and realizes that she’s traded one dangerous situation for another. Then an impulsive misstep blows her cover, forcing Claire to use every shred of her ingenuity to outfox the devil she knows and the one she doesn’t. The coincidence that leads to the airport ticket exchange is a bit strained, but Clark makes Claire such an appealing heroine as she morphs from bruised society wife to resourceful survivor that it’s hard not to cheer her on. I don’t mind a contrivance or two if it means one fewer female character laid out on a slab in the morgue.
We’re all familiar by now with the slight nuttiness induced by temporary quarantine. But the permanent isolation of a remote eastern-Icelandic farm in the late 80s—before Amazon, Netflix, or Zoom—could make anyone lose their bearings. So it doesn’t bode well when a powerful snowstorm descends on Erla and Einar Einarsson’s desolate home right before Christmas, leaving no way out.
Two months after the storm, their bodies are discovered in the house, and the case falls to Reykjavík police detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir, who’s trying to regain her bearings after a personal tragedy. While the victims are definitely the Einarssons, an extra coffee cup in the sitting room points Hermannsdóttir toward the existence of a third person, possibly the murderer.
Icelandic writer Ragnar Jónasson’s tightly focused narrative moves back and forth between Hermannsdóttir’s investigation and events in the Einarssons’ house leading up to the murders, inviting readers inside the mind of Erla, a middle-aged Reykjavík native who’s never adapted to the farm’s solitude despite her many years there. You might think a visitor would be a welcome relief, but when a man claiming to be lost appears at their door as the storm hits, she is immediately uneasy about him. Erla’s husband, meanwhile, plays the voluble host, oblivious to her attitude.
The action proceeds pretty much as expected from the intruder-in-a-storm scenario, but Jónasson seeds it with subtle hints that something altogether different lies beneath the surface. Not until Hermannsdóttir makes the connection with a recent, unsolved case to identify the third person does the full picture begin to emerge in all its terrible wrongness. Jónasson plays with our assumptions and keeps us off balance throughout this expertly constructed novel, the third in his series featuring the formidable Detective Inspector Hermannsdóttir.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City