Be still, my heart. After nine long years in the wilderness, Jackson Brodie is back on the job in BIG SKY (Little, Brown, $28). Kate Atkinson’s no-nonsense private detective will do whatever it takes, lawful or otherwise, to bring his idiosyncratic brand of justice to wounded crime victims. Two sisters from Poland are Brodie’s kind of people. Lured from their home in Gdansk with offers of work in London, Nadja and Katya are about to be forced into the sex trade by heartless con men hiding behind the imposing but bogus facade of Anderson Price Associates, a nonexistent employment service. Hold onto that plot thread because Atkinson makes child’s play of spinning multiple story lines; it will eventually tie into several more.
Before Brodie can do battle with the sleazy Anderson Price outfit, he has to convince Penny Trotter that he’s turned up sufficient evidence her husband is cheating on her. The detective wonders whether his client takes masochistic pleasure in the humiliation. “Or did she have an endgame that she wasn’t sharing?” Excellent question; hold onto that one too, and let’s move deeper into the thickets of this wondrously complicated plot.
What’s a mystery without a murder? Atkinson introduces that tantalizing element when Vince Ives’s virago of a wife, Wendy, is beaten to death with a golf club. That brings Vince and all his golfing friends and their spouses into the story, every last one of them examined in depth with equal parts wit and compassion. When suicidal thoughts bring Vince to the edge of a cliff, he explains himself succinctly to Brodie, his rescuer: “I’ve lived a very little life.” And when Brodie seems a bit full of himself, he’s smartly reminded that “there’s nothing heroic about a lone wolf. … A lone wolf is just lonely.”
Atkinson is writing about major crimes and strong themes here, but it’s the voices of her characters that make you clutch your heart: people like Crystal, an abused woman who prefers “quiet men with low opinions of themselves,” and Bunny, a drag queen dreaming of a triumphant stage appearance. As for Barclay Jack, a variety show comic, he’s singing the song of a sad but beautiful death.
There’s actually a term in Japanese — “honkaku,” meaning “authentic” or “orthodox” — for diabolical puzzle mysteries. Soji Shimada’s MURDER IN THE CROOKED HOUSE (Pushkin, paper, $14.95), meticulously, if a bit stiffly, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, is one of those locked-room head-bangers that invite — “taunt” is more like it — the reader to decipher the clues and solve a murder along with an all-seeing detective. (Reader, I tried, I really tried; but I don’t use the term “head-banger” lightly.)
The novel is set in a grand, if bizarrely constructed, mansion at Christmas as a blizzard rages outside. We’re at the home of Kozaburo Hamamoto, a captain of industry with a macabre sense of humor. Watching his guests flail about the sloping floors of his tilted house provides constant entertainment for the lord of the manor, who collects precious dolls like the life-size puppet found in pieces outside in the snow. Who would destroy such a pretty thing, the guests wonder — just as they later wonder who would destroy one of their number.
Trust the Victorians to come up with ingenious ways to kill. In Laura Purcell’s uncanny Gothic mystery, THE POISON THREAD (Penguin, paper, $16), a 13-year-old seamstress named Ruth Butterham is put on trial for plying her sewing skills to murder her mistress. Impossible, you say? How else to explain why a bride wearing a pair of Ruth’s embroidered gloves weeps in despair throughout the wedding service? Or why an infant suffering from “the strangling angel,” as diphtheria was then known, dies peacefully while wearing a cap fashioned by Ruth? Considering the poor girl’s wretched life — she’s made to sleep in the cellar and do her sewing in the attic; she’s tossed down the coal chute — it seems only fair that she should have the power to channel her rage into her creations. (“My labor, my stitches, my blood.”) Call it magical thinking, but it’s satisfying to believe that exploited children like Ruth have found the weapons they need to survive.
If you want to sample the black humor of summer resort relationships, have breakfast at the local diner of a pretty coastal town like Littleport, Me., the setting for Megan Miranda’s THE LAST HOUSE GUEST (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). Dizzying plot twists and multiple surprise endings are this author’s stock in trade, but she warms them up by establishing the close friendship between Sadie Loman, of the real-estate-owning Lomans, and Avery Greer, a rebellious townie. These teenagers are inseparable — until Sadie is found dead on the beach on the night of an end-of-season party. Her death is thought to be suicide, but Avery is having none of it, and she’ll turn Littleport upside down to prove it was murder.
There’s not enough vicious, two-faced coffee-shop camaraderie for my savage taste, but Miranda treats the girls’ lopsided friendship with warmth and sensitivity, while leaving the door open on how genuine it actually was. And, oh boy, does she ever know how to write a twisty-turny ending (or two, or more).
Marilyn Stasio has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.
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