“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersAfter finishing Magpie Murders, it may be a while before I want to read a straight-up whodunit. Anthony Horowitz’s novel puts a fiendishly clever postmodern spin on the traditional mystery format; as a theater fan, I was reminded of musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Urinetown, which play with well-worn tropes while also building on them.

The brief opening chapter of Magpie introduces us to Susan Ryeland, an editor at Cloverleaf Books, whose marquee author is the mega-best-selling crime writer Alan Conway. His latest Atticus Pünd mystery, Susan tells us, “changed my life… as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board.”

Then the reader is given a couple hundred pages of Magpie Murders, the book-within-a-book, which is a rather traditional English village mystery featuring Pünd in the Hercule Poirot role of genius detective. However, the last pages of the book are missing. Susan’s quest to find them requires her to solve a “real-life” murder mystery, but unfortunately, she doesn’t possess Pünd’s considerable deductive powers, so she has to muddle along the best she can.

Along the way, there are some hilariously pointed observations about whodunits, like this one: “It’s strange when you think about it,” Susan muses. “There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.”

Magpie Murders is about 500 pages long, but thanks to its structure and Horowitz’s breezy writing style, it flies by. In the end, both mysteries are solved in a most satisfying manner, making this book doubly delightful.

“Ten Dead Comedians” by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead ComediansWhen I first read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None many years ago, I was amazed at how audacious a book published in 1939 could be. (That’s not even taking into consideration the whodunit’s original title, which is not so much audacious as just plain offensive.) On Christie’s island, there were no good guys, no Marple or Poirot… and no survivors.

Writing a contemporary riff on one of Christie’s most famous novels is also a pretty bold move. Fred Van Lente populates his island with stand-up comics, ranging from wannabes and has-beens to huge stars. They have all been summoned by Dustin Walker, an enormously successful comedian who starred in a blockbuster movie called “Help! I Married A Cat” and its many sequels. Ever since the failure of “Help! I Married A Cat: The New Litter” in 2009, Walker has been laying low, but now he’s plotting a comeback, and everyone wants in.

Anyone who follows the comedy scene will have no trouble matching Van Lente’s fictional stand-ups to their real-life counterparts: Billy the Contractor, a Larry the Cable Guy type whose catchphrase is “Fix ‘er up!”; Janet Kahn, an aging insult comic with a yen for plastic surgery a la Joan Rivers; Zoe Schwartz, a foul-mouthed comedian in the Sarah Silverman/Amy Schumer vein; and Oliver Rees, whose act seems to be a sort of hybrid of Gallagher, Carrot Top and the Blue Man Group. It’s plausible that a down-on-his-luck comic like Steve Gordon, reduced to teaching improv at corporate team-building events, would be willing to hightail it to Walker’s island, but would a high-maintenance celeb like Janet really show up sans entourage, even if she does see it as an opportunity to recover from her latest face lift?

If you can suspend your disbelief, this is a fun, quick read, though the solution (while clever) shows just how difficult it is to go toe-to-toe with Dame Agatha, even after almost 80 years.

Note: Ten Dead Comedians will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Quirk Books (via NetGalley) for the review copy.

“Endgame” by Bill Pronzini

Endgame by Bill PronziniIn 2001, it looked like Bill Pronzini was putting a stop to his long-running Nameless Detective mysteries with book #27, Bleeders, which strongly implied that his sleuth was retiring. However, just a year later, Nameless was back in a rebooted version of the series; this time around, he had acquired a first name (Bill) and two associates (computer-savvy Tamara and brooding widower Jake). The new formula continued over the course of another dozen or so books, as Bill’s first-person chapters were interspersed with third-person accounts of the other detectives’ cases.

Bill always claimed that he wanted to cut down on his workload at the agency, but he simply couldn’t resist getting drawn back into cases. This time, however, I fear that he truly has retired; I suspected it when I saw the title of the new Nameless book, and Pronzini seems to go out of his way to tie up all the loose ends in his recurring characters’ lives. So perhaps this really and truly is the end of the road for this series. If that’s the case, I’ll be sad, because it’s one of my all-time favorites, but at least it’s ending on a high note.

Pronzini presents us with two “impossible” mysteries: a locked-room puzzle with a man found dead in a closed-up cabin, and the disappearance of an agoraphobic novelist. Jake Runyon heads to the Sierras to investigate the death of Philip Dennison, whose young widow is convinced he was cheating on her, while Bill tackles the case of Alice Cahill. Her husband James swears that Alice never left the house, and that she would not have gone voluntarily. Everyone seems to suspect James of foul play, so he needs Bill to find her and prove his innocence.

“If Runyon or Chavez or anybody else had handled the Cahill investigation, its ultimate outcome might have been different,” states Bill on the first page of Endgame. “One thing for sure: it would not have worked out in the same way, with the same consequences, if I hadn’t been the one to take it on.”

Those consequences don’t become clear until the very end of the book, and by that point, Nameless fans may find themselves getting a bit choked up at the prospect of the beloved series coming to a permanent close. And yet Pronzini, now in his mid-70s, doesn’t appear to be slowing down—Endgame is the second novel he’s published this year, following stand-alone thriller The Violated—so if we’re lucky, maybe Nameless will turn up in the occasional novella or short story. In any event, the Nameless Detective will forever be remembered as one of the true titans in the annals of private-eye fiction.

“Rubbernecker” by Belinda Bauer

RubberneckerHave you ever been bored out of your skull by some acclaimed prestige-TV series, wondered what all the fuss is about, and been assured that you just have to keep watching, because it gets really good around episode eight? My response is usually to change the channel, and in the case of Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker, it’s very likely I would have given up on the book about a quarter of the way in were it not for the fact that I was reading it for my book group. I hate going to group when I haven’t read the whole book; it makes me feel like a slacker. So I persevered, and ultimately, I’m very glad I did.

Rubbernecker has an absolutely genius concept, but it doesn’t really become clear until about halfway through the book. Before that, we get chapters told from several points of view. There’s Patrick, who has Asperger’s and has been fascinated with death ever since his father was struck by a car and killed right in front of him; Patrick has enrolled in medical school, not because he wants to become a doctor, but because he wants to dissect a cadaver in order to learn more about death. We also meet Patrick’s mom, who doesn’t understand and frankly doesn’t much like her only child. Then there’s Sam, who has awakened in a coma ward after being gravely injured in an accident—he is now suffering from locked-in syndrome, so he is able to think clearly but can’t communicate. He believes he has witnessed the murder of one of his fellow patients, but has no way of letting anyone know. Tracy, a nurse on Sam’s ward, is obsessed with trying to seduce the husband of another coma patient, somewhat to the detriment of the rest of her charges.

How do all of these stories intersect? I don’t want to spoil the surprise, because once the reader figures out what’s going on, it’s extremely satisfying to see how everything clicks into place. But getting there can be a bit of a chore. The book can also be rather gruesome, since we are dealing with cadavers and the murder of helpless patients. Still, by the time I got into the second half of Rubbernecker, I realized I was in the capable hands of a diabolically clever author, and all of that set-up did indeed serve a purpose. This book isn’t for everybody, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read something a little different, and is willing to stick with it.

“A Midsummer’s Equation” by Keigo Higashino

A Midsummer's EquationA few weeks ago, my book group read All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, and it reminded me that I had been meaning to check out some more mysteries translated from the Japanese. If you look at any list of the “best ever” crime novels from Japan, one name is certain to appear again and again: Keigo Higashino. The prolific author won acclaim for his Edgar Award-nominated The Devotion of Suspect X, which is almost Agatha Christie-like in its ridiculously clever plotting. If you’ve never read a Japanese mystery, start with Suspect X.

A Midsummer’s Equation features a character who first appeared in Suspect X, a brilliant physicist named Yukawa. While many of Yukawa’s statements and actions seem cryptic at first, he is, of course, a genius who has a knack for solving crimes by using his amazing powers of deduction. In Equation, Yukawa turns up in the sleepy seaside town of Hari Cove, whose resorts and businesses seem to be on an endless downhill slide as tourists have opted to go elsewhere. The cove has been proposed as a site for offshore underwater drilling that could provide valuable resources. A series of hearings about the proposal’s pros and cons is being held in the town, and Yukawa is on the scene to participate in the talks.

He winds up staying at an inn housing only two other guests. One is a retired police detective who is also attending the hearings. The other is a non-paying guest: Kyohei, the nephew of the inn’s owners, is spending the summer. When the retired detective is found dead, at first it looks like an accident, but it soon becomes clear that he was murdered. The police investigating the crime can’t figure out what he was doing in Hari Cove in the first place, since not even his wife knew he was there, and he appeared to have no prior interest in environmental issues.

Yukawa’s interactions with Kyohei are delightful, as he teaches the young boy about science and math (with a few life lessons thrown in for good measure). The physicist is a fascinating character, one who is as knowledgeable about the human heart as he is about equations and theorems. My only quibble is that I wish I’d begun jotting down a “who’s who” when I started reading the book, as there are two teams of detectives (one from Tokyo and one local), and I found myself getting the names mixed up from time to time. No matter where a book takes place, be it Tokyo or Topeka, there are two little extras I always appreciate whenever they are included: maps, and lists of characters.

“The Dry” by Jane Harper

The Dry by Jane Harper“It’s the lack of water here. Makes the whole town crazy.”

So says a character in The Dry, Jane Harper’s mystery set during a seemingly never-ending drought in a remote Australian town. Melbourne federal agent Aaron Falk has stayed away from Kiewarra, where he grew up, for many years, but he is persuaded to come back by the father of his childhood best friend, Luke. It appears that Luke killed his wife and young son in a murder-suicide, and the grieving dad demands Falk’s presence at the funeral.

Of course, Falk soon begins to realize that the small town is a cauldron of secrets, and not everyone is glad to see him again—most residents recall the long-ago death of a 16-year-old girl, and the fact that many in Kiewarra believed Falk to be responsible. He did have an alibi, provided by Luke. But the girl’s outraged father ran the teenaged Falk and his dad (Falk’s mother had died in childbirth) out of town. The man is still alive, and while he appears to be suffering some age-related memory loss, he has not forgotten Falk.

Believing there’s more to the deaths of Luke and his family than meets the eye, Falk begins to investigate, aided by the town’s policeman, Raco. One of the best things about The Dry is that Raco is not the ignorant, territorial small-town local cop too often seen in mysteries; he eagerly accepts Falk’s help, teaming up with him to hunt for clues, and he’s a smart and ambitious officer hoping to use his time in Kiewarra as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

The Dry really makes you feel the searing heat of southern Australia, a place where the rushing river of Falk’s youth is now completely gone, and the arid land has driven people to commit desperate acts. And don’t just take my word for it; producer and actress Reese Witherspoon, who famously bought the movie rights to Gone Girl before it became a mega-best seller, has made The Dry her latest acquisition.

“The Cutaway” by Christina Kovac

The CutawayI never thought I’d be spending Inauguration Day reading a book set in Washington, D.C. However, The Cutaway is more of a novel that happens to be set in Washington than it is a “Washington novel.” There is a brief scene set during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but otherwise, it’s safe to pick up even if you’re suffering from political overload.

The Cutaway tells the story of Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer investigating the disappearance of Evelyn Carney, a young attorney working at a prestigious D.C. law firm. Evelyn had been dining with her husband, who had recently returned from a lengthy military deployment, when she abruptly stormed out—and vanished. Virginia feels that the lawyer’s mysterious disappearance from affluent Georgetown will make a killer story, and decides to pursue it.

Complicating matters for Virginia is her station’s new news director, who seems to have it out for her, and is intent on slashing the budget, possibly breaking up Virginia’s loyal team of behind-the-scenes and on-air talent. There’s also the fact that Virginia has a rocky romantic history with the new commander of Criminal Investigations, who is actively involved in the missing-persons case.

Christina Kovac herself has a long history in TV news, so she brings an insider’s perspective to her first novel. There are also some very nicely written passages about Virginia’s fraught relationship with her dying father. However, Kovac does fall into the trap of sending her heroine into a deserted and dangerous place to search for clues—anyone who has read a zillion mysteries, as I have, will be tempted to shout “NOOOO!” at that point in the book. There are a couple other places where I felt I was a step ahead of Virginia (particularly one involving a bugged cell phone), but Kovac’s strengths as a prose stylist and plotter are enough to outweigh the rookie missteps.

Note: The Cutaway will be published on March 21, 2017. Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the review copy.