translated by Alexandra Fleming
Wuthering weather, psychological disorders, and questions of parentage bedevil the characters in two new mysteries from England and Sweden. Together, they demonstrate convincingly that what worked for the Brontës still works today, while the more methodical style of a classic 1952 whodunit set in New England shows why it’s considered the granddaddy of the present-day police procedural.
Pelting rain and howling wind greet three women in Gilly Macmillan’s The Long Weekend after they arrive at Northern England’s most depressing renovated barn, which they’ve rented for a getaway weekend with their husbands, who are due later. The King Lear–worthy tempest is a prelude to the nightmare to come, and a note propped up against a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on a kitchen table informs the women that by the time they’ve read it, the author will have killed one of their husbands.
Desperate behavior ensues as the women, each of whom has an issue—alcoholism, PTSD, parental abandonment—try to make sense of this. Is it a hoax? If someone’s husband is dead, whose is it? Why would their friend Edie, whose initial is on the note, do such a thing? Without cell-phone service or access to a car, they’re stuck at Dark Fell Barn with their wildest fears and imaginings.
Meanwhile, back on drier land, the killer has been pursuing a plan—“Directing a piece of theater long distance” is how the twisted manipulator puts it—that Macmillan draws out for the length of the book, disguising the person’s identity in an impressive feat of misdirection. The trail zigzags from suspect to suspect, leaving the reader feeling a bit outplayed before landing on the right one. These poor women go through emotional hell, but there’s some satisfaction in knowing they’re finally facing problems they’ve dodged for too long. And have possibly learned a lesson about booking barns online.
Eleanor, the heroine of Swedish writer Camilla Sten’s The Resting Place, has been in therapy for her particular disorders, face blindness and childhood abuse, since she was a teenager. When we meet her, she’s still processing a bizarre experience. She witnessed the immediate aftermath of her grandmother Vivianne’s murder, but was unable to recognize or describe the killer—a trauma that sent her to the hospital.
The King Lear–worthy tempest is a prelude to the nightmare to come.
So she’s a little shaky leaving Stockholm with her boyfriend to meet a lawyer at the secret mansion in the woods that her grandmother left her in her will. Her acid-tongued aunt Veronika also shows up, and we soon realize why Victoria Eleanor goes by Eleanor—it’s a way out of that V-name sisterhood. As they assess the contents of the mansion, a blizzard starts whipping up in earnest, along with unexplained incidents that escalate ominously. “Stay inside,” you want to yell at the page when Eleanor runs out the door toward frigid trouble with only a coat thrown over her dead mother’s old cocktail dress.
With a once grand, now uninhabited house serving as the dusty crypt of a family’s secrets, The Resting Place shares a gothic vibe with Sten’s last book, The Lost Village, but avoids the supernatural for a more explicitly psychological approach. Human nature, abetted by Mother Nature, proves to be as frightening as any evil spirit.
“Stay inside,” you want to yell at the page when Eleanor runs out the door toward frigid trouble with only a coat thrown over her dead mother’s old cocktail dress.
While we’re on the subject of stormy weather, an aside about The Fell, by Sarah Moss (whose rain-shrouded Summerwater was one of last year’s best in any genre), in which Kate, a restless woman who is quarantining following a coronavirus exposure, sneaks out at dusk during the pandemic to stretch her legs in defiance of Britain’s stringent lockdown laws. In case you were mystified as to why British citizens are so offended by Boris Johnson’s lockdown shenanigans, Moss reminds us that even a solo walk at night by a person under quarantine could incur a prohibitively heavy fine.
Though Kate is an experienced hiker, she has not calculated all the risks of a ramble on the moors, including encroaching rain, fog, and plunging temperatures. A bad fall in the fell changes everything in an instant, and in a delirious conversation with a raven she questions her continued existence.
If there was any doubt whether the pandemic would inspire literature that will endure beyond the crisis, The Fell, a slender but illuminating lightning strike of a book, should put that to rest.
A bad fall in the fell changes everything in an instant.
Nature doesn’t rage and roar quite as much in Hillary Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing (1952), but for a time snow and a river help make life more difficult for the police, who are convinced a missing-persons situation is actually a crime. Last Seen Wearing (great title by Mr. Waugh, who wrote more than 50 novels and died in 2008) is regarded as one of the first true police procedurals and, as such, is worthy of inclusion in the Library of Congress’s wonderful Crime Classics reissue series.
There’s no fancy writing or convoluted plot here, just a relentless search for facts and evidence conducted by a gruff, cigar-chomping police chief and his “college boy” deputy. (Remember when that phrase was pejorative?)
Though both are familiar types, their hard-boiled banter grows on you, as does their commitment to finding out what happened to an 18-year-old freshman who’s disappeared from her all-women’s college in the Northeast. Their investigation is granular and bumpy, with reversals and theories that don’t always pan out.
There’s no fancy writing or convoluted plot here, just a relentless search for facts and evidence.
But contemporary readers might appreciate its old-school shoe-leather-and-common-sense approach as a nice break from the latest technology.
For example, when the district attorney is about to write off the girl as a bridge-jumping suicide, the chief conducts an experiment involving a large block of ice wrapped in a tarp to simulate a body, which he then follows down the river, successfully making the case for murder. It doesn’t get more homemade than that.
And the hard-won discovery that the girl’s suspiciously bland diary contains a code provides a nerdy thrill.
These guys may not be Sherlock Holmes–level savants, but they care, they’re not too egotistical to collaborate, and they never give up. Prepare to be absorbed, remembering that this was written in the early 50s, so the usual caveats regarding dated attitudes and stereotypes apply. But as the ur-text for the countless books and TV series that came after it, Last Seen Wearing merits its place in crime-fiction history.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City