In The Law of Innocence, published way back in November of 2020, Michael Connelly gave a nod to the coronavirus pandemic in an epilogue that had Mickey Haller—“the Lincoln lawyer”—heading into quarantine with his family. By the standards of book publishing, which has long lead times, such nimbleness was noteworthy, and I wondered when we might see crime fiction deal directly with the pandemic.
This summer, at least two writers, Louise Penny and Peter Heller, have taken on the subject with powerful results. Their books are set in the very near future; in Penny’s version, the virus has been pretty much eradicated by the vaccine, while in Heller’s it continues to mutate, though society has figured out how to work around it. Both writers are concerned with the pandemic’s potentially dystopian implications for the most vulnerable and least privileged, or, as Penny puts it, the sting in the long tail of the virus.
In The Madness of Crowds, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache’s commitment to his job at the Québec Sûreté is challenged when he’s asked to provide security for a lecture by a controversial statistics professor who has a modest proposal inspired by the pandemic’s major toll on the sick and elderly: Wouldn’t it make economic sense on this crowded, overtaxed planet to finish what the virus started? To just … cull the weakest among us? It’s repugnant, but the relentlessly logical Dr. Abigail Robinson, who promises that “all will be well” if her plan is implemented, has gained some traction with an exhausted Canadian populace. The small college gym where she will speak is likely to be a tinderbox.
The stakes grow when Robinson is attacked at the podium, and someone close to her is murdered. Though it galls him as the grandfather of a child with Down syndrome for whom all would certainly not be well in Robinson’s Shangri-la, Gamache checks his outrage and conducts the investigation in his customary incisive and wide-ranging style, always considering the less obvious scenarios.
Penny has never shied away from big themes, and here she uses the thorny issues of free speech and state-sanctioned euthanasia to create a dilemma for Gamache that never loosens its grip on the reader. There was something chilling about the public’s initial ho-hum attitude to the disproportionate deaths of the sick and elderly. Had the virus targeted healthy children rather than old people in nursing homes, would the response have been different? Penny, whose husband suffered from dementia in his final years, must have pondered that question as she wrote this.
The low-level pandemic situation sneaks up on you intermittently in The Guide, which takes place in Colorado at a boutique fly-fishing resort for the ultra-wealthy, who now favor remote regions for their recreation. Kingfisher Lodge also provides what seems like a safe change of scene for Jack, an Ivy League–educated ranch kid and outdoorsman who has signed on as a guide.
He’s assigned to Alison K. (no last names at this resort, please), a famous Southern rock singer with zero celebrity attitude and solid fishing skills. Guide and client are a good match and are soon in sync with their suspicions that, despite its gorgeous trout streams and haute rustic amenities, something is seriously off about the resort.
The other clients sometimes look like the walking dead and don’t seem to be getting in much fishing. The estate adjacent to the lodge has posted a no-trespassing sign that reads, Don’t Get Shot, and the next resort down is guarded by frightening dogs. Jack is spooked enough that he begins doing reconnaissance to find out what goes on behind their fences.
All the while, Heller flicks out clues and coronavirus references like so many looping lines into a river, but it’s unclear if they’re leading anywhere or just explaining the state of things. When the full extent of the evil that’s invaded the mountain paradise is finally revealed, it’s a devastating indictment of the lengths to which people of extraordinary means will go to protect themselves. As exciting and, frankly, over the top as the action sequence that serves as the story’s climax is, it shouldn’t obscure the simple, sensorial beauty of Heller’s writing about the natural world, which is the true soul of the book.
If you’re not familiar with Allen Eskens, this is a fine time to make his acquaintance. Eskens has proved to be an assured navigator of plot and mood in his six previous novels, creating his own brand of Minnesota noir. The ease of his storytelling and genuineness of his characters never disappoint. In The Stolen Hours, he convincingly animates the tenacious but injured spirit of aspiring young prosecutor Lila Nash as well as the warped brain space of Gavin Spencer, a meticulous serial killer whose job as a second-rate event photographer enables him to scout out his victims.
While clerking for a prosecutor in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Lila is drawn to the case of a young woman who barely survived being drugged and thrown into the Mississippi River. Something about the assault chimes with Lila, and, with the help of Niki Vang, a detective who recognizes the M.O. from earlier unsolved murders, she connects the victim to Spencer. But there’s not enough hard evidence to nail him, so it’s up to Lila and Niki to find the flaw in the plans of a man whose mushy lisp is his only distinguishing characteristic.
The biggest thrill for Spencer doesn’t seem to lie in the act of killing but in outfoxing law enforcement by anticipating their every move. He thinks he’s the grand master of blindfolded murder chess, dismissing Lila as an unworthy adversary. She’s had some bad luck in her young life, but she’s worked fiercely to rise above it, and she’s certainly no fool. As at least one other narcissistic jerk discovers, you underestimate her at your own risk.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City