Loved Big Love? Transfixed by the Elizabeth Smart saga? Distraught when the dueling NXIVM documentaries wrapped up? Then you might want to fill the void with Black Widows, a highly entertaining mystery that takes on polygamy and cults run by creepy, grandiose, controlling, sexually voracious men—prairie-dress, poufed-bangs division.
British journalist Cate Quinn’s novel is narrated by the three sister-wives of an alternately charming and depressive survivalist named Blake Nelson. Though she’s kept it secret, first wife Rachel grew up in a horrific cult headed by the Prophet, presumably inspired by real-life monster Warren Jeffs, who claimed up to 70 wives as the head of an extremist Mormon spin-off sect. Ironically, the rehabilitated Rachel has ended up in a less authoritarian but still illegal mini-cult.
The youngest wife is Emily, a spacey lapsed Catholic who sneaks forbidden viewings of Cagney & Lacey, and the newest addition is Tina from Las Vegas, a former prostitute and meth-head who got clean with counseling from her future husband. The women don’t have much in common besides their irritation with one another—the group marriage is hardly the utopian setup they were promised—but when Blake is found murdered near their remote ranch in the Utah desert, suspicion falls on everyone, including the sister-wives, who form a fitful bond as they keep a nervous eye on the police and try to track down the real killer.
The tone of Black Widows is candid and darkly comic, like a girlfriend spilling secrets after one too many shots of tequila. As the wives discover hidden reserves of strength, their tentative awakening to each other and the outside world gratifyingly upends their victimhood. And if you have an appetite for details about garden-variety Mormonism, such as blood atonement, end-of-days prepping, and sacred underwear, look no further.
The people of Evelyn Bay, a coastal community on the Australian island of Tasmania, are as fit as only those who swim daily laps in the ocean and make their living diving to shipwrecks can be, but their troubled minds could also use some attention. Physical therapist Kieran Elliott, who grew up there, is visiting his parents from Sydney with his girlfriend, Mia, and their new baby when a young seasonal waitress is found murdered on the beach.
The death of Bronte Laidler is a shock to the system of the outwardly easygoing vacation town, stirring up grim memories and striking a special chord with Kieran, who nearly drowned in the “storm of the century” 12 years earlier. Others didn’t make it, including a local teenage girl whose body was never found, and he still suffers from survivor’s guilt.
Kieran feels Bronte’s parents deserve closure the hamstrung police department can’t provide, so to get to the truth, he and Mia start re-examining their own pasts and quietly asking their friends questions that should have been posed years ago. In the process, the sporty Aussies haul their tiny baby up cliffs and down to the beach in situations that would alarm even the more outdoorsy among us.
The concept of The Survivors is familiar—small-town secrets dragged to the surface by a crime—but what sets Jane Harper apart is her masterful evocation of unforgiving Australian landscapes and how they shape the lives of their inhabitants. She wrote powerfully about the harshness of the sun-scorched outback in her breakthrough debut novel, The Dry. Though the ocean is more inviting in The Survivors, it effectively hides all manner of sins and proves every bit as lethal.
It’s March of 1878, and Charles Lenox, the subject of Charles Finch’s Victorian-era series and by this time “the preeminent detective in all of England,” finds himself in Edith Wharton territory. He has sailed to America at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who feels Lenox’s presence in London would be inconvenient during a Scotland Yard corruption trial the detective helped bring about.
So off he goes on a manufactured tour, getting no farther than Connecticut when he’s summoned by millionaire William Schermerhorn IV to Newport, Rhode Island, to look into the death of a young debutante. By virtue of her supreme beauty, the girl was poised to trade up from her family’s place in the middle tier to the pinnacle of society until she was found after a ball with a fatal blow to her head at the bottom of a cliff. Schermerhorn doesn’t trust the local constabulary to get it right and worries that his own son, who was courting the girl, might be a suspect.
Arriving in Newport, Lenox is discreetly gobsmacked by the opulence of the Gilded Age Newport “cottages,” enormous mansions by the sea owned by some of America’s wealthiest. As an aristocrat, he blends in with the people he’s questioning, but his investigative technique of absorbing the geography around the crime scene takes him everywhere from Mrs. Astor’s ballroom to the local fishermen’s taverns and boardinghouses, where there’s also much to learn.
The novelty of bringing Lenox to America works well for this series, hitherto focused on England. Using actual historical figures as characters, Finch does justice to the nouveau dazzle of Newport, and writes with Wharton-worthy acuteness about the horse-trading of marriageable young women. The reader can only wonder at the mind-boggling waste of money as well as of a young life.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City