Re-inventing the Paris-based TV series Call My Agent! as Ten Percent and moving it to London didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world, but, alas, its je ne sais quoi got lost in translation and the bubbles went flat. Sometimes the flavor and soul of a place are fundamental to a work’s existence, and so it is with this month’s group of crime novels.
In Philip Miller’s The Goldenacre, an unshakable fog of Scottish melancholy weighs on Thomas Tallis, a former curator for a London gallery who has left his job and his family under a cloud and now works as a provenance inspector for the government. He’s in Edinburgh to determine the authenticity of a Charles Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece that belongs to a noble family who want to donate it to a museum for a considerable tax advantage. But what Tallis thought would be a quick formality turns into a trial, as the family and their transcendently beautiful painting prove to be elusive.
Meanwhile, the police and Shona Sandison, a bulldog of a reporter for a failing newspaper, are investigating the high-profile murders of a locally famous artist and a well-liked Edinburgh councilman. Though the reporter knows nothing about art, she’s the only one who sees a connection between the murders and the painting. Tallis is a dead man walking from the start, so it’s up to Shona, who’s got problems of her own but is tough as nails, to spark the action with her sharp-elbowed energy.
Though the plot is driven by murderous art fraud, Miller is also interested in the effects of familial love—how Shona’s devotion to her father sustains her, and how the absence of his family diminishes Tallis. This is not usually a feature of tartan noir, which tends to be gritty, realistic, and violent. But like its namesake, The Goldenacre occupies its own unclassifiable space, as much a meditation on beauty and loss as it is crime fiction.
In Philip Miller’s The Goldenacre, an unshakable fog of Scottish melancholy weighs on a former curator for a London gallery who has left his job and his family under a cloud.
While Miller’s Edinburgh hangs over the novel like a stalled weather system, Australian writer Sulari Gentill’s Boston feels intensively researched but a bit artificial, as it should. Gentill, best known for her charming, Sydney-based, historical Rowland Sinclair series, is trying a different approach on a different continent with The Woman in the Library.
The structure is a little tricky. The book begins with a letter from would-be novelist and colleague Leo Johnson to successful Australian mystery writer Hannah Tigone, offering to be an early reader for her next novel. Its heroine is Australian writer Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, who is on a literary fellowship in Boston and happens to be seated at a table at the Boston Public Library with three other people when they hear a terrible scream. They soon learn that the cry came from a student as she was being murdered. An odd bond results from this coincidental gathering: “And so we go to the Map Room to found a friendship, and I have my first coffee with a killer,” writes Freddie, neatly narrowing the field of suspects.
Romances flare up among the four, and suspicion shifts from one to the other while Freddie gets to work weaving her new friends into the narrative of her new novel. Each chapter is followed by a letter from Leo, who makes suggestions for appropriate Boston venues, hectors Hannah about incorporating the pandemic, and fixes her Britishisms—i.e., “sweater” instead of “jumper”—before escalating to far more alarming tips.
Gentill’s meta strategy is more challenging than that of, say, Anthony Horowitz, who simply makes the main character a close double of himself, called Tony Horowitz. It’s sometimes hard to separate Hannah from Freddie, but it helps to remember that Hannah is stuck in Australia due to pandemic restrictions, as Gentill herself presumably was. As for Leo, he also exists on several levels, all worrisome. Your beta reader should never be your biggest fan.
Sulari Gentill, best known for her Sydney-based, historical Rowland Sinclair series, is trying a different approach on a different continent with The Woman in the Library.
The Reading Room in the B.P.L. might be Freddie’s idea of Nirvana, but for a young couple looking to escape their ordinary lives in England, a tiny, uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean promises a different kind of utopia.
Deep Water begins in Malaysia with a casual conversation in a bar that leads to an impulsive decision by newly married Jake and Virginie, experienced sailors who have just bought and reconditioned a sailing yacht. Enticed by an old salt’s tale of the unspoiled charms of Amarante, the couple ditch their original plan and set sail for the island, where they join a few other so-called cruisers who live on their boats and spend their days catching fish, exploring, and generally reveling in their freedom.
But into every paradise a sexy serpent must slither, and here that creature takes the form of a suave Brazilian with a fabulous yacht and gorgeous girlfriend who also drops anchor in the bay. When he offers the fruit-deprived Virginie an apple, it’s not hard to see where things are heading.
Most deserted-island stories, from Robinson Crusoe to Castaway, are about people who’ve been marooned, not those who make survival a lifestyle choice. A skilled sailor herself, English journalist Emma Bamford knowledgeably explains the logistics of how to pull it off, then plays out the myriad things that can go wrong, from mechanical issues to illness, to a rocky group dynamic.
We know from page one that our Adam and Eve will fall from tropical grace, but how that happens is never less than compelling. Armchair adventurers may find Deep Water their own idea of heaven.
For a young couple looking to escape their ordinary lives in England, an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean promises a different kind of utopia in Emma Bamford’s Deep Water.
If Bamford’s thriller leaves you craving more deserted-island adventure, there’s always Richard Connell’s 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which takes place on a private isle in the Caribbean, where an insane Russian general has set up his very own theme park of death.
General Zaroff is a jaded lunatic who lures shipwrecked sailors to his château and forces them to become prey while he hunts them. If the captive can elude him for three days, he goes free, but of course that never happens. At least until an actual big-game hunter washes up on Zaroff’s beach and presents the general with his first real challenge.
Though its dialogue may feel dated and the descriptions a bit purple, this popular story hasn’t lost its unstoppable momentum or power to shock. And doesn’t the notion of a power-mad Russian general seem perfect for this moment?
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City