There are many reasons why Winter Counts is one of this year’s most significant crime-fiction debuts, but the most potent is its depiction of life on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, where years of neglect and injustice have produced decrepit housing, lousy medical care, substance abuse, nutrition-free food, and generally abysmal everything else for the Lakota people living there. Virgil Wounded Horse operates as a vigilante for hire in this discouraging environment, stepping in to administer hard justice with his fists when the flimsy reservation system fails. An unusually thoughtful tough guy, he’s shaken down to his boots when his young teenage nephew, who lives with him, OD’s during his first encounter with heroin. The boy survives, but a furious Virgil wants to find out who was pushing drugs to kids at the high school, and forges an alliance with a lawyer and a narcotics cop to draw out the dealers and their boss.
Weiden, who spent part of his youth on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, writes with warmth and dry humor about those who live on reservations, torn between leaving to make a better life and remaining with the tribe either out of inertia or a need to stay connected to their fading sacred traditions. A new generation of energized young Native Americans, represented by Virgil’s activist girlfriend and a charismatic young chef with new ideas about old ingredients, runs up against internal corruption and external foes such as the drug dealers and an apathetic federal government. Yet none of this feels screed-like; as Virgil gradually opens himself to visions of his ancestors either in his dreams or through tribal rituals, Winter Counts takes on a plainspoken lyricism that serves as a tender counterpoint to the low-level misery he’s trying to transcend.
It’s deeply unsettling, the possibility that a mother in the throes of postpartum depression might think about harming her baby. Though these impulses are part of a legitimate mental illness, they still carry a stigma for many women, such as tightly wound perfectionist Jess Curtis, a well-off, suburban-London stay-at-home mom who has frightening fantasies about her third baby. Too private and ashamed to seek help, she consults Google rather than a doctor. When her husband comes home one evening to discover their little girl ill in her crib and his wife offering a vague, unsatisfactory explanation, he runs the child to the hospital, where doctors discover a crack in the back of her skull. From that moment on, the situation escalates as the police and social services are called in and Jess’s painstakingly wrought façade of the ideal family begins to crumble.
Her friend Liz Trenchard, a pediatrician at the hospital, tries to reconcile the good mother she’s known for years with the injured baby fighting for survival, but it doesn’t help that Jess’s response to questioning is a stiff upper lip—inappropriate, to say the least, under the circumstances. Trying to penetrate the woman’s defenses to get a straight answer about what really happened that day, Liz realizes how many signals she’s missed about her friend’s mental health.
In Little Disasters, English writer Sarah Vaughan shines a light on the darkest corners of a tormented maternal psyche, but is also sympathetic in her treatment of Jess, who endured childhood trauma and developed rigid strategies to deal with it. This absorbing book reminds us that no matter how hard we try to eliminate risk, we’re all one mistake, one lapse in attention, away from disaster. It’s how we deal with trouble that counts, not the delusion that we can build a fortress high and dense enough to prevent it.
English writer Ruth Ware is often described as the new Agatha Christie—and, yes, the plot of this book borrows from Christie’s And Then There Were None—which makes her sound like some fusty imitator. But actually she is a revitalizer, bringing the genre to a new audience with her modern preoccupations and addictive style.
In One by One, Ware lures the reader into the enviable luxury of an isolated boutique ski chalet in the French Alps, where Snoop, a tech company on the brink of an I.P.O., is having an off-site retreat. When one of Snoop’s co-founders fails to return after a morning of skiing and the threatening weather has turned ferocious, the remaining Snoopers begin to speculate nervously about the fate of their boss. Then an avalanche knocks out power and communications and sends Erin and Danny, the host and chef who run the chalet by themselves, scrambling to maintain a semblance of normality in an increasingly dire atmosphere. Clearly the missing boss, an excellent skier, is never coming back, raising the possibility that there’s a murderer in their midst.
The narration is split between the poised, resourceful Erin and Liz Owens, a former lowly Snoop staffer and minority shareholder whose vote is coveted by two partners with opposing feelings about the I.P.O. Liz seems at first like a quaking mouseburger, ill at ease among the posh, boarding-school types at Snoop, but Ware’s major characters usually have big secrets and Liz and Erin are no exceptions.
Ware may get a little granular for some about the running of the chalet and the inner workings of Snoop (though I happen to share her interest in process). But when the time comes, she gets into gear and pulls off a thrilling pursuit that serves as an extended coda to the revelation of the killer’s identity in this expertly structured novel.
Louise Penny hits the Refresh button on her beloved Inspector Gamache series by moving the action from Gamache’s home, in the tiny Canadian village of Three Pines, to Paris, where both of his adult children now live. (A breather from the Three Pines gang and the schemers at the Sûreté du Québec is not a bad thing.) Visiting the city with his wife to attend the birth of their fourth grandchild also gives Gamache the chance to spend time with Stephen Horowitz, the billionaire financier who’s still sharp and doing business at 93, and who practically raised Gamache after his parents were killed in a car accident. But the reunion turns horrific as they take a stroll after dinner together and Horowitz is deliberately struck down by a van, leaving the old man comatose. A stunned Gamache wants to help with the investigation, and though Paris’s prefect of police, an old friend, gives him leeway to poke around, Gamache can’t help feeling obstructed by the sniffy French cops, who treat him as a Quebecois hick.
As he digs, Gamache finds clues that point to massive corporate malfeasance enabled by corruption in powerful places. The book’s title is part of a quote from The Tempest— “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here”—but the malefactors are hard to recognize in their sleekly businesslike guise. Somehow, Horowitz is involved, and finding out exactly what he was up to takes Gamache all over Paris, giving Penny the chance to train her curious, omnivorous eye on a new place, and Gamache’s wife, Reine-Marie, to blossom as a sleuth. As if jousting with the unscrupulous architects of a potentially catastrophic scenario weren’t taxing enough for the decent and moral Gamache, he’s also compelled to deal with several complicated father-son relationships on the side. If there was any doubt, this book kills it: the man is a saint.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City