translated by Miranda France
It’s a truism that a sequel will always be inferior to the original, unless it is the universally acknowledged exception, The Godfather: Part II. Or, if you consider it a sequel rather than a spin-off, the recently concluded, much-lauded Better Call Saul.
The same holds for books. Plenty of readers become so fixated on an original work, like a cherished first crush, that they consider it sacrilege for a writer to revisit it. But I’m glad English writer Lisa Jewell decided to have another go at the characters she introduced in 2019’s The Family Upstairs. There was something hauntingly ambiguous about Henry and Lucy Lamb that invited another look.
The siblings were raised in a cult-like environment by decadent, wealthy parents who fell under the spell of a controlling grifter who coveted their privilege and their Chelsea mansion. Eventually, the adults killed themselves in a suicide pact, but Henry and Lucy escaped from the house of horrors using different identities. They did what they had to to survive.
When The Family Remains begins, Henry, Lucy, and her children are living together in his London apartment. Henry is a successful entrepreneur, while Lucy, after years of near homelessness in France, at last has a stable home for her children. All seems very happily ever after.
But some ghosts won’t stay buried, and when human bones emerge from the mud of the Thames, it’s only a matter of time before the police make the connection to the cult house. And the surviving Lambs.
Though Jewell created a wonderfully immersive, gothic atmosphere in the first book, The Family Remains is rooted in contemporary reality and may be an improvement on its predecessor. It too is told from multiple points of view, but the storylines of Henry’s unhealthy obsession with the cult leader’s magnetic son, the dangerous misogyny of Lucy’s abusive ex-husband, and the police investigation into the muddy bones run parallel in a more disciplined fashion. The pacing is more thriller-esque, and, as always with Jewell, the dark psychology of her characters fascinates.
I’m glad Lisa Jewell decided to have another go at the family she introduced in 2019’s The Family Upstairs.
Argentinian writer Sergio Olguín’s There Are No Happy Loves could be regarded as a successful rebound from an erratic sequel. Since this is his third book featuring the investigative journalist Verónica Rosenthal, it’s technically a series, but Olguín is a literary writer working in the thriller form, so they feel more like stand-alone novels.
Verónica made a vivid impression with her debut appearance, in The Fragility of Bodies, but some of the traits that made her so striking initially began to grate in the follow-up, The Foreign Girls. She gets a pass for her sexual omnivorousness and over-imbibing (which wouldn’t cause comment for a man), but her recklessness, self-involvement, and reliance on her powerful family and sometime boyfriend to get her out of jams undermined her credibility. Watching her careen around in that book didn’t leave me craving more Verónica.
The mood is appropriately subdued at the beginning of There Are No Happy Loves. Depleted by the events of the previous book, Verónica is still working for a magazine based in Buenos Aires, but she’s in a slump, until she gets a call from a man with a crazy story. He was in a fiery car accident with his wife and only child, who were supposedly killed, but he’s convinced his wife faked their deaths and is hiding somewhere with the little girl.
Though the police have dismissed his claim, something about his story clicks with Verónica, and she throws herself into the reporting with her customary take-no-prisoners intensity. The man’s suspicion turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg, as Verónica uncovers an illegal scheme carried out in the name of religion, along with a horrific trafficking operation.
Borrowing from real events, Olguín peels away the layers of respectability that some Argentinians in positions of authority used to hide their ugly agendas while committing terrible crimes without fear of reprisal. If it takes a loose cannon such as Verónica to bring such monsters to light, so be it.
Sergio Olguín’s There Are No Happy Loves could be regarded as a successful rebound from an erratic sequel.
Verónica’s messiness would appall the four women of Killers of a Certain Age, but they definitely would cheer her audacity. Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have retired from their work as assassins for “the Museum,” an independent organization formed after W.W. II by Nazi hunters and like-minded agents that “neutralizes” people whom they’ve determined “need killing”—dictators, sex traffickers, arms dealers, and the like.
The women have set off on a Caribbean cruise to celebrate their retirement, but, somewhere around Nevis, they discover that the Museum has targeted them, though they have no idea why the organization that recruited, trained, and deployed them for 40 years would turn on them.
Though they crack wise with each other like the Golden Girls during the cruise—“Dab a little Metamucil behind each ear and go get him, cougar”—they snap to when the threat appears. They are trained killers who have barely lost a step, which they demonstrate as they slash, shoot, and garrote their way through the ranks of attackers the Museum unleashes on them.
Despite the fact that these ladies can and do kill with their bare hands, Deanna Raybourn lays down a breezy feminist-caper vibe in keeping with their confidence in their prodigious skills. Raybourn strikes the right balance between tart humor about the frustrations of aging—more hot flashes than memory loss, since these women are barely 60—and the dead seriousness of their mission to survive, which takes them from New Orleans to the catacombs of Paris, to the English countryside. Inventive, fast-moving, and funny, Killers of a Certain Age will appeal to other women of a certain age who may feel invisible but know they’ve still got it.
With Killers of a Certain Age, Deanna Raybourn lays down a breezy feminist-caper vibe in keeping with her characters’ confidence.
If John Dickson Carr had stopped with the first book of his Dr. Gideon Fell series, we wouldn’t have Till Death Do Us Part (1944), No. 15 in the series and as ingenious as any. Carr is famous for his locked-room mysteries, in which a murder has been committed in a room or place one can’t get into or out of, and this is a delightful example of his craft.
The victim, a con man posing as a distinguished criminologist, has been poisoned by injection in, yes, a locked room in a cottage in the requisite small English village, during a festive country fair, which Carr (who was from Pennsylvania) evokes charmingly.
The way Carr—via information delivered by the impostor—seems to throw suspicion on a pale, fluttery waif engaged to a playwright while at the same time giving us most of the clues we need to solve the crime ourselves is deliciously sly. It takes the appearance halfway through of the inimitable Dr. Fell, florid-faced, mustached, and enormous, emerging from a motorcar “like a very large genie out of a very small bottle,” to set things right in the end.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City