The hallmark of a promising series is that each episode can stand on its own and readers can start with any book. It’s too early to say if this will hold true for Johanna Mo’s Island Murders cycle, only two books strong, but THE SHADOW LILY (Penguin Books, 418 pp., paper, $16.99) is a solid police procedure that invited me to the sparsely populated Baltic island of Öland, where the nights are pitch dark and villages “sometimes consisted of no more than a few houses”. Like the first book in the series, ‘The Night Singer’, it has been expertly translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies.
Jenny Alströhm returns to Öland after a weekend away to find that her husband, Thomas, and 14-month-old son are missing. She tells the detectives assigned to the case, Hanna Duncker and Erik Lindgren, “I just wanted to be alone for a few days. Things have been so intense since Hugo was born… I’ve barely slept through the night in over a year.’ What at first looks like a marital quarrel quickly becomes complicated: Thomas is involved in a local bootlegging gang and it turns out he has an embittered grown daughter that Jenny never knew about.
Hanna’s own history – her father was a convicted murderer – runs through flashbacks about the missing father and son. And when the terrible, twisted truth is finally revealed, it comes as a surprise.
Rita Todacheene, the spiky, complex protagonist introduced in Ramona Emerson’s haunting series opener, SHUTTER (Soho Crime, 300 pp., $25.95), has a secret. The reason her work as a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque Police Department is so good, so detailed, so creepy? She has a channel to the dead, who show her and tell her things that no one else would know about their lives and violent deaths. Sometimes the photos of Rita’s crime scene are so good they help detectives solve cases.
Opening her mind to ghosts, however, does take its toll on Rita. They appear without warning, “waiting in line, staring at the neon sign outside my psyche,” as she puts it. The constant presence of ghosts leads to isolation and depression; sometimes she is ostracized by her Navajo community. Her latest photographic subject, an alleged suicide that the remaining ghost furiously insists she didn’t take her life, forces Rita to investigate beyond professional boundaries.
Wherever she is, whatever she does, the ghosts never leave her: “I felt the chill of their misfortune seep into my bones. They would bleed me out.”
Chuck Hogan is writing crime novels again, and that’s something to cheer about. His latest solo effort, “Devils in Exile”, appeared in 2010; since then he has written several screenplays, co-authored a vampire trilogy with Guillermo del Toro, and worked on the television adaptation of this trilogy. GANGLAND (Grand Central, 352 pp., $28) is very consistent with Hogan’s previous output. It is now also my favorite of his novels.
Set in the 1970s, the novel revolves around real-life Chicago mob capo Tony Accardo, who becomes enraged after the burglary of his suburban mansion and the still-unsolved murder of Sam Giancana. Around both mysteries revolves the fictional character Nicky Passero, a loyal Accardo soldier who has shaped his life on a foundation of secrets. Passero finds himself in a tighter position as Accardo demands that he track down the perpetrators of the break-in before the police do.
Hogan makes a masterful portrait of men in turmoil, of loyalties forged and broken, and of tried and tested loyalty. “Gangland” is also, like the best mafia books and movies, an exploration of masculinity at its most poisonous and pernicious.
Few crime novels have astonished me as THE DEAL GOES DOWN (Melville House, 280 pp., $27.99)in which Larry Beinhart (of ‘Wag the Dog’ fame) brings back private detective Tony Cassella, last seen in 1991’s ‘Foreign Exchange’. Beinhart himself is a supporting character in the new novel, where he takes part in the action. catalyzes – action that, it must be said, makes little sense.
Here’s my attempt at summarizing the plot: Cassella – living alone in the Catskill Mountains, his family dead or estranged – meets a woman on a train who begs him to help her find someone to kill her husband. Her lender, a “trial finance” expert who will pay for the murder in exchange for some of the deceased husband’s belongings, intervenes to soften the deal. She’s the kind of feminist ball-busting stereotype that certain types of writers like to conjure up (presumptuous and shrill, with a bright pink and black Glock in her handbag). The man ends up dead, but it’s not a murder, not exactly, and then there are more suspicious deaths, international travel, and mutterings about the Deep State.
Beinhart, who once wrote a non-fiction book about writing mysteries, can still deliver sharp sentences, but they never cut through the clutter. When I finally got to the last page exhausted, I wondered: why bring Cassella back? Why does this book exist?
I have no idea.