More Better Deals by Joe R. Lansdale

More Better Deals is Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale’s down-and-dirty riff on Double Indemnity, a provocative new variation on James M. Cain’s noir classic. Lansdale reimagines the Walter Neff character as Ed Edwards, the son of a Black father and white mother whose skin is light enough to “pass” in segregated 60s East Texas, where he sells used cars instead of insurance. Saddled with an alcoholic mother but blessed with a promising younger sister, he’s eager to ditch the sleazy used-car racket and find a more lucrative shortcut to success, whatever that might involve. After Ed pays married blonde bombshell Nancy Craig a visit to repossess her red Cadillac (sexual-metaphor alert!) for the dealership, the two start an affair, and Nancy proposes that they kill her husband for the life-insurance payout and live wealthily ever after. This sounds doable to Ed, whose moral compass is only slightly sounder than Nancy’s broken one.

A provocative new variation on James M. Cain’s noir classic.

By giving Ed a potentially ruinous personal secret, Lansdale makes his twisted ambition more understandable. We’re kind of with him, or at least not with Nancy, whose first meeting with Ed summons up images of both an alligator and a shark. The wisecracking dialogue—“You look like someone mixed you up with the right ingredients, handsome” is Nancy’s come-on to Ed—pushes the art of the double entendre right to the edge of parody. And though we know this shifty alliance isn’t going to end well, Lansdale’s ingenuity in devising more better ways for Nancy and Ed to be bad makes for an enjoyably cynical cruise down the back roads to perdition.

The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi

Alex Pavesi takes a formalist approach to the classic murder mystery in TheEighth Detective, treating the genre as if it were a math problem. Using different permutations in the universe of detective-suspect-victim-murderer possibilities, Pavesi offers seven stories within a story in which he manipulates his characters—skewed versions of familiar types from the Golden Age—to demonstrate how the different variations can work. One plot might feature six suspects who all took part in a killing, while another could involve a detective and several suspects with the detective as the murderer.

The Eighth Detective’s framing device posits that the story collection was published years ago as The White Murders by Grant McAllister, a reclusive writer and former math professor who lives alone on a Mediterranean island, where he is collaborating with an enigmatic young editor on a reissue of the book. Or at least thinks he is. The process itself becomes a mystery: the editor begins to find discrepancies in the stories that McAllister can’t explain, blaming his age and faulty memory. But as she works through them, it becomes clear that the editor is methodically building a case of her own.

Pavesi has obviously studied his Agatha Christie: one story is inspired by Murder on the Orient Express and another is modeled more explicitly on And Then There Were None, with an extra macabre twist at the end. Despite their conventional settings, the stories are usually malevolent, and there’s something both surreal and otherworldly about the way some characters are described as aggregations of geometric shapes, colors are rendered unnatural (black wine, anyone?), and frequent references to hell and its creatures pop up. Mystery geeks will admire the cleverness and structural elegance of these puzzles, but others may have trouble warming up to the whole enterprise. The mind gets a workout here, but the emotions remain disengaged, which may be just how Pavesi wants it.

The Finisher by Peter Lovesey
For the victim in The Finisher, by Peter Lovesey, a half-marathon turns nightmarish.

Is there a mystery writer who combines craft, humor, and sense of place more deftly than Peter Lovesey? The English master celebrates his 50th year in the business with the publication of a new Peter Diamond novel and the reissue this October of his first mystery, Wobble to Death, on the unlikely subject of Victorian-era racewalking.

Appropriately enough, Lovesey returns to the running theme for The Finisher, his 19th Diamond installment. Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is a throwback who’s remained middle-aged throughout the series and deals with annoying technological advances like cell phones and computers by keeping them turned off, relying instead on his instincts, experience, and large personality. To soften Diamond’s old-school copper persona, Lovesey has given him a tragic past and a cat, and often places him in less-than-heroic situations. The series’s other main character is Diamond’s home territory of Bath, its Roman history, breathtaking architecture, and subterranean secrets layered inventively into every book.

A mystery writer who combines craft, humor, and sense of place.

The Finisher finds Diamond pulling crowd-control duty at a half-marathon when he spots a familiar face on the course—a creep he put away years earlier for slicing up a woman’s face—harassing a female runner. The sighting sets off alarms for Diamond, which get louder when he discovers the woman never finished the race. He heads off on what colleagues dismiss as a wild-goose chase that ends with him on crutches and more questions than answers. Other forces periodically tug the reader off Diamond’s hunt into a subplot with wide-ranging social and criminal implications.

Lovesey has stayed enviably fresh throughout his decades-long mystery-writing marathon and once again breaks the tape in fine form. If you’re new to the series, do yourself a favor and check out the rest of his backlist, where other medal winners abound.

The Silence of the White City by Eva García Sáenz, translated by Nick Caistor
Eva García Sáenz’s new novel is set in the medieval Spanish city of Vitoria.

Oh great, I thought as I glanced at The Silence of the White Cityanother serial-killer novel. Was it possible I’d reached the saturation point with this genre? It turns out that it would have been a big mistake to skip this Spanish best-seller from 2016, ostensibly about a distinctive series of murders in Spain’s Basque Country but actually an enthralling, full-bodied epic about how the past is always present in Vitoria, the city where the crimes take place.

A bewitching storyteller, Eva García Sáenz immerses us in the atmosphere and traditions of Vitoria, a thriving, cosmopolitan municipality that nonetheless remains baked in its medieval origins. Twenty years earlier, the populace was stunned by a series of ritualistic murders involving four sets of two young people, their bodies found arranged in sweetly innocent tableaux. Eventually one of the community’s brightest lights, an archaeologist, was arrested for the crimes by his twin brother, a policeman, and imprisoned. On the eve of his release, in 2016, murders using the same methodology start up, sending Inspector Unai López de Ayala and his partner off on a mission to prevent the grim pattern from repeating. Is the killer a copycat or the same person? If the latter, was the wrong man convicted? Certain elements keep recurring in the investigation—twins, redheads, bees, religious and historic sites—but their significance remains just out of reach for Ayala, a profiler who is the book’s primary narrator and a deeply appealing character. As the killer’s toll rises, his unrelenting precision stands in pitiless contrast to the two detectives’ determined but sometimes distracted efforts to stop him.

You’ll want to race through The Silence of the White City, but it’s best to slow down and savor the full effect of the volatile, intoxicating universe Sáenz has created. This is the first novel of the White City trilogy to be translated into English—the second can’t come fast enough.

Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City