“BAD ACTORS” (Soho Crime, 341 pp., $27.95)Mick Herron’s latest Slough House spy novel has finally arrived.
For those of you not yet immersed in this series, Slough House is “the end of the pier, the flea pit to which Regent’s Park attributes failures”, where “so-called stars of the British Security Service live the aftermath of their professional mistakes.” In “Bad Actors,” the Slough House rapscallions – who once “dreamed of starring in the secret defense of their country,” only to find they barely qualify as extras – manage to squeeze their way into cases where they don’t belong, causing a hash of things before it’s somehow okay.
We can get rid of the plot pretty quickly, because the plot isn’t – at least for me – the main attraction of the book. A member of a government think tank has committed a runner, the former head of MI5 must find her, and the trail returns to a high-ranking official in Regent’s Park. How humiliating! And that’s before the Russians show up.
What drives me to keep reading each new episode is Herron’s absurdist voice, which might degenerate into cheap cynicism but never does. That’s why the residents of Slough House, from Jackson Lamb to Roddy Ho to newcomer Ashley Kahn, cherish pathos despite parody — they may be bitter, but they’re proud of themselves and their work.
Callie Padget was once a newspaper reporter on his way up, seemingly destined for bigger things. Then came the layoff, the move home, the pivot to work in a local bookstore. Heard this story before? Sure, but Alicia Bessette infuses this familiar, cozy mystery setup with a fresh dose of warmth and verve in SMILE BEACH MURDER (Berkley, 352 pp., $27), the first in a new series that I already know I want to read more of.
Callie was born and raised on Cattail Island in Outer Banks, North Carolina. Returning to her hometown, she takes solace in classic Mary Higgins Clark novels (a direct path to my own heart, I admit). When an acquaintance is found dead after falling from the lighthouse — the same way Callie’s mother died years ago — her reporting instincts come to the fore, just as several wasp nests are kicked out.
“Smile Beach Murder” juggles contemporary murders with a level of threat that seems lofty for typical cozy fare. But the numerous Mary Higgins Clark references have a purpose: to remind readers that danger lurks and that women are exceptionally adept at confronting that danger with confidence.
Last year, Lorenzo Carcaterra wrote a memoir, “Three Dreamers,” about the trio of women in his life—grandmother, mother, wife—and their collective and individual importance. Now he’s repurposed his grandmother’s story in the first of a new cozy mystery series, NONNA MARIA AND THE CASE OF THE MISSING BRIDE (Ballantine, 272 pp., $26), fictionalizing her as an amateur detective in perpetual widows weed on the Italian island of Ischia.
The “missing bride” in question is a lifelong islander named Anna, who has become engaged to Andrea Bartoli, whose past life (and marriage) raises more troubling questions than provides credible answers. So smart, sprightly Nonna Maria does what she does best: she gives advice and homemade espresso, then helps the girl disappear. And with the help of the local carabinerHaving personal reasons to suspect Bartoli of malice, Nonna Maria determines the sordid truth while also solving a real murder.
“Nonna Maria and the Case of the Missing Bride” is a departure from Carcaterra’s more common hard-boiled fare. While it’s clear how much of himself and his family history he’s portrayed here (there’s an author avatar popping up to start with), there’s something missing in his soft tone, something I find in any work by Donna Leon or Andrea Camilleri . †
Caite Dolan-Leach is resolutely devoted to her characters, no matter how distasteful, even ridiculous, their actions would be if they took place in the real world. Her daring 2017 debut, ‘Dead Letters’, was about the eternal bond between twin sisters, one alive, one dead. “We Went to the Woods” rearranged the survival story as one about the dangers of trusting someone, especially yourself.
So it was with confidence that I started DARK CIRCLES (Random House, 374 pp., $28), and was richly rewarded. It’s set in a “spiritual refuge” in upstate New York called the House of Light – don’t call it a cult! um, OK, actually you can — where scandal-plagued star Olivia Reed goes at the behest of her manager.
Shortly after arriving, she watches as the police fish the body of a young woman from the nearby lake. Another guest tells her, “There are three other young women within 20 miles of this place who have died in the last five years from an apparent suicide on an equinox or solstice.”
But the twists and turns, while impressive, prove less compelling than Dolan-Leach’s journey and insights along the way. “Is it good enough to find out what happened to them and tell as many people as you want? Is that what they would like?” Olivia wonders. “But why should it matter what they want? The stories told about us are not our own.”
Sarah Weinman’s crime column appears twice a month.