A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny
The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks
The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz
Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

There is no giant literary bow that ties these books together, but any one of them would make a killer gift for your favorite mystery-lover. It’s hard to go wrong with top work from two big names, a fascinating fictional reimagining of an infamous crime, or a sparkling procedural from the 1930s.

Louise Penny’s fans are legion and loyal, and though this is her 18th Chief Inspector Armand Gamache outing, she pours on the intensity in this challenging entry that requires—and rewards—her readers’ close attention.

The title makes it sound quaint, giving it the whiff of a treasure spotted in a flea market. There is a find, but it’s a grotesque one, forcing Gamache to confront an enemy he thought he had vanquished.

Once again, Penny returns to the tiny, inviting Canadian village of Three Pines, but the safety net it offers begins to shred early on as a brother and sister who were involved in one of Gamache’s most disturbing old cases show up on his home turf. Gamache had served as a mentor to the girl, who was convicted of a terrible crime as a teenager and has worked hard to rehabilitate herself, but he is convinced her brother is evil, and their presence in the town is unsettling.

Meanwhile, an old letter is found, revealing the existence of a hidden room in one of the village’s buildings, and with the help of some friends, the owner decides to break open the brick wall that leads to it. What they find there unleashes demons from the past more dangerous than the creepy siblings but somehow connected to them.

Three Pines, a snowy version of Eden, often comes under attack from the outside world. In this series, there’s always a viper in the nest, leading to a contest between good and evil that this time becomes epic. A World of Curiosities can be a harrowing read, despite the occasional reassurance that “Ça va bien aller.” All will be well. As Penny’s readers know, it might be, but only until the next time.

Betty Gow could have used some reassurance after taking on the job that would change her life. The pretty, dark-eyed, young Scottish immigrant would never be hired as a nanny to the most famous baby in the world today. The 2022 version of Betty wouldn’t have gotten past the background checks, the educational requirements, the Internet searches.

Though this is her 18th Chief Inspector Gamache outing, Louise Penny pours on the intensity.

But the world was different in 1931, when the capable Betty impressed Charles Lindbergh’s family with her self-possession and enough right answers to their questions to land the job as nanny to the infant Charlie. She bonded with the sweet-natured child with the cloud of white curls, and got on well enough with the Lindbergh parents, who were seldom around.

But as everyone knows, her position went from dream job to nightmare in March of 1932 when her charge was kidnapped and later found dead. “The crime of the century,” as reporters dubbed it, threw suspicion on Betty and the rest of the household staff, some sketchy local characters, and even Charles Lindbergh himself, who once hid the baby in a closet as a kind of prank.

What must it have been like for this young woman, far from home and family and caught up in events she couldn’t control, to be considered a suspect and judged by a tabloid-obsessed public? To tell the story from Betty’s point of view, Mariah Fredericks has combined research and a novelist’s imagination to produce an unusually sophisticated and moving piece of historical fiction. She plays down the sensational aspects of the case while laying a foundation of doubt about the security of the New Jersey house, the often absent parents, and the gossipy staff. Trouble never seems far off.

Though never sentimental, Fredericks writes with such tenderness about the baby that we feel the horror of his fate all over again. (Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted of the murder and eventually executed.) You’d think this tale would be stripped to its bones by now, but Fredericks has found something new in it, with Gow as its spine. Tough Scot that she was, she stood her ground, never allowing the mob to destroy her.

While Fredericks must have done tons of research to channel the interior life of Betty Gow, Anthony Horowitz probably has an easier time with his Anthony Horowitz–Daniel Hawthorne meta-mysteries, in which the main character is his alter ego and some material comes directly from real life.

His new novel gives him the chance to revisit his love of the theater, which enthralled him as a young man and led him to write a “comedy/thriller” called Mindgame, which was produced in the West End in 2000. It ran for only a couple of months, but he clearly wasn’t ready to close the book on that experience, because Mindgame, a rare blip in Horowitz’s illustrious C.V., is great material.

Mariah Fredericks tells the Charlie Lindbergh story from the nanny’s point of view.

I’m inclined to like just about anything that happens backstage, which in this case is at the Vaudeville Theatre, where the play is beginning its West End run after a moderately successful tour. The opening-night performance goes well, but at an impromptu after-party, a cast member reads out a vicious review by the fearsome Harriet Throsby of The Sunday Times, and, hours later, the critic is murdered. The evidence is stacked against poor Anthony, and he’s arrested and released. Temporarily. He’s got a few days to prove he’s innocent, so off he goes with private detective and muse Daniel Hawthorne to find out who really killed Throsby.

It’s a clever switch-up to take Anthony out of his usual Watsonian sidekick role and make him the prime suspect. We know he’s no murderer, and, faced with a toxic victim such as Harriet Throsby, we can shift our emotional energy to the race to exonerate him.

Horowitz endows the play’s cast with more generous and layered characterizations than you might expect, and the way the dreary backstage setup contrasts with the onstage glamour feels taken straight from life. Since this book reviewer is nothing like those mean theater critics, I’m happy to say The Twist of a Knife is consistently, delightfully entertaining, with Horowitz’s own theatrical experience providing just the right amount of bittersweet bite.

In a clever switch-up, Anthony Horowitz takes himself out of his usual Watsonian sidekick role and makes himself the prime suspect.

Another mystery writer who sometimes relied on her background in theater is Ngaio Marsh, one of the so-called Queens of Crime from the golden age of detective fiction. Marsh was also an actress and director, and she used her insider knowledge to set several of her Roderick Alleyn books in the theatrical world.

Enter a Murderer is a fast-paced procedural from 1935 told largely in dialogue form. Its snappy repartee involves a fair amount of anachronistic slang, so an Urban Dictionary from the 30s would come in handy, old sausage. A glittering West End theater is the backdrop for this tight and lively story about the opening night of a crime drama in which the actor playing the villain is shot to death onstage.

Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard, suave with a dash of arrogance, happens to be in the audience when the shocking incident occurs. He deduces that it was murder when he learns that the dummy cartridges usually used to load the revolver were switched for real ones. Everyone’s a suspect, from the shell-shocked props manager to the eerily poised leading lady.

Murder mysteries have turned increasingly psychological and introspective over the years, so this jaunty whodunit is a refreshing change. As in The Twist of a Knife, the victim was a highly unpleasant person, so we don’t much care whether justice is served—the satisfaction lies in putting the puzzle together.

Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City