What We Are Reading
January 1, 2018

The Shadow DistrictArnaldur Indridason
The Shadow District (Minotaur 2017, Iceland 2013) introduces Konrád, a retired police detective in Reykjavík, Iceland. Bored with retirement, Konrád convinces his former colleague to let him help out with the investigation of the death of Stefán Thórdarson, a 90-year-old man found smothered in his bed. Newspaper cuttings in his room describe the 1994 murder of a young woman found strangled behind the National Theater. Konrád remembers the case since his con-man father had assisted with a séance for the murdered girl’s parents. A parallel narration from 70 years earlier documents that murder investigation. In 1944, Iceland was on the brink of terminating the union with Denmark and becoming an independent republic. Affairs between Icelandic women and British and American servicemen were so common that a committee was set up to deal with the scandalous Situation. The Icelandic-American courting couple who discovered the body in the Shadow District are interviewed by Flóvent, an Icelandic policeman, and Thorson, the bilingual son of Icelandic immigrants to Canada working on behalf of the American military police. Flóvent and Thorson identify the murdered woman as Rósamunda, and think there might be a connection with the death of another woman in the countryside. Both young women said they had been attacked by huldufólk, mythological hidden creatures. As Konrád searches through crumbling records for more information about the old deaths, he begins to wonder if the wrong man was arrested for Rósamunda’s murder all those years ago, and struggles to connect the past to the recent murder of the old man. The plight of young women in wartime, striving to find their way in a world where they have little power over their own destiny, provides a striking background in this effective series opener.

Are You Sleeping?Kathleen Barber
Are You Sleeping (Gallery Books August 2017) begins in 2015 when Poppy Parnell, a podcast journalist, launches the first episode of “Reconsidered: The Chuck Buhrman Murder.” Back in 2002 Chuck Buhrman, a college professor married to Erin with 14-year-old twin daughters Lanie and Josie, was shot and killed late one night in their Elm Park, Illinois, home. Erin was staying with a friend recovering from oral surgery, and Lanie discovered her father’s body. At first both girls insisted they had been sleeping, but later Lanie said she saw Warren Cave, a troubled teen living next door, fleeing through the woods. Warren was arrested, convicted, and is serving a life sentence. Erin had a breakdown, left her daughters with their aunt, and joined a cult. Entering public school for the first time after being homeschooled by their mother, Lanie went off the rails, betrayed Josie, and the twins haven’t spoken for many years. Warren’s mother Melanie, who had been having an affair with Chuck, swears her son is innocent and convinced Poppy to look into the case. In 2015, Josie is working in a bookstore and living in New York City with Caleb, an Australian currently on an overseas assignment. Josie legally changed her last name right after high school, and doesn’t want to think about the past, but can’t help listening to the first podcast episode, and then the next, until she is totally consumed with fear that Warren may actually be innocent. But if Lanie lied, who did kill their father? The sudden death of Josie’s mother sends her back to Illinois, and when Caleb returns Josie has a new problem. How can she tell the partner she has been living with for years that she needs to go to the funeral of the mother she told him died long ago, and that she has a twin sister she never mentioned. This intense debut psychological thriller examines the long-lasting effect of violent death on the victim’s family.

Murder at the House of Rooster HappinessDavid Casarett
Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness (Redhook 2016) introduces Ladarat Patalang, the nurse ethicist at Sriphat Hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Detective Wiriyai Mookja, an acquaintance of her cousin Siriwan, visits the hospital to ask for her help. Two days earlier a young woman brought her dead husband to the hospital emergency room, where he was quickly pronounced dead from heart failure and the body released back to the wife. The strange thing is that the police officer thought he recognized the woman, who once brought another dead husband to another hospital. Wiriyai asks Ladarat to quietly consult the hospital records, and she concludes that would be the ethical thing to do. The records don’t tell them much: no tests were done and the dead man’s name was Zhang Wei, a common Chinese name. Ladarat wonders how the body was released so quickly, and discovers the woman brought her marriage certificate with her to the hospital, surely a strange thing to grab on the way out the door with a dying husband. The arrival of an American couple attacked by an elephant claims Ladarat’s attention. After studying medical ethics for a year in Chicago, her English is excellent, and the director asks her to break the news to the American’s parents that his coma is probably permanent. When the medical records clerk discovers eight other incidents where a dead man named Zhang Wei was brought to different hospitals by his wife, Ladarat is glad for a distraction from the grieving and angry Americans and decides she can use her training to serve as an ethical detective. Frequent translations of the invariable Thai smile that can have many meanings, descriptions of the food the not-a-cook Ladarat picks up on her way home, and the contrasting Thai and American views of medical treatment add both local color and depth to this engaging debut mystery, the first in the Ethical Chiang Mai Detective Agency series.

HackedRay Daniel
Hacked (Midnight Ink 2017) finds white-hat hacker Aloysius Tucker helping his cousin Adriana and her wife Catherine care for Maria, their 10-year-old orphaned niece. Someone has hacked Maria’s Facebook account, sending lesbian porn to all her Facebook friends, whose parents are horrified. Adriana just wants help dealing with the Facebook account, but Tucker is determined to track down the Internet bully and get an apology for Maria. He quickly identifies the culprit as Peter, the older brother of one of Maria’s classmates, discovering along the way that Maria is dealing with her grief over the recent murders of her parents by doing a little bullying of her own. Tucker consults his FBI friends, but when he mentions Peter’s name, they warn him away. Tucker is struggling to control his own anger after the murder of Maria’s parents, and begins to stalk Peter online. When Peter is decapitated shortly after Tucker threatens to cut off his head in a chat room, Tucker becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation. But that’s not Tucker’s biggest problem. The flame war he started online has exploded, a hacker army is out to destroy his digital reputation, and a bounty hunter is out to kill him in the real world. Even his Twitter followers are abandoning him. Tucker’s home address is made public, and protesters gather outside his house, one armed with handcuffs and determined to make a citizen’s arrest. Tucker’s usual good humor begins to fail under the strain of too much alcohol and his inability to control his rage, but he is determined to use every one of his hacker skills to bring down whoever is trying to ruin his life. This intense fourth in the series highlights the consequences of online bullying and the snowballing nature of online outrage.

The Marsh King’s DaughterKaren Dionne
The Marsh King’s Daughter (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2017) is the story of Helena Pelletier, who lived with her parents in an isolated cabin surrounded by a marshy swamp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Despite his occasional brutality, Helena idolized her father, who taught her to hunt and fish and told amazing Ojibwe stories. Their cabin had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and Helena’s self-effacing and withdrawn mother spent most of her time on household chores. Until she was 12, Helena didn’t know that her mother was kidnapped as a 14-year-old by her father, and that she was born two years after the abduction. The eventual escape of Helena and her mother caused an international news sensation. Fifteen years later, Helena is married with two young daughters, living on the land she inherited from her father’s parents. Her husband knows nothing of her past, which Helena left behind when she changed her name at the age of 18. The struggle to adapt to the modern world after 12 years living in the wilderness was difficult, and Helena still carries a knife and hunts when she can. The news that her father has killed two guards and escaped from prison sends Helena into a panic. The man known as the Marsh King is an expert survivalist, and Helena doubts that the police can capture him before he finds her family. Hopefully the training she received from her father will be good enough to beat the Marsh King at his own game. Flashbacks fill in the details of Helena’s surprisingly happy childhood as she searches for the man she is sure is hunting for her and her daughters. This intense thriller is mesmerizing.

The Western StarCraig Johnson
The Western Star (Viking 2017) finds Sherriff Walt Longmire reminiscing about an excursion on the Western Star steam train with the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association many years ago. A newly minted deputy just back from Vietnam, Walt was traveling with his new boss Lucian Connolly, 24 other veteran sheriffs, a copy of Murder on the Orient Express, and his trusty Colt .45. Sheriff Marv Leeland, the current president of the Association, befriends Walt, asking for his help with a secret investigation. Leeland suspects that a group of sheriffs on the train is running a vigilante group, killing dangerous suspects who escaped justice. When the train stops for water, Walt is hit over the head and left for dead beside the tracks. Waking up after the train leaves, Walt manages to rejoin the train only to find himself a suspect in the murder of Leeland. Interspersed sections set in present day find Lucian and Walt in Cheyenne to attend the parole hearing of the most dangerous man they ever arrested. For years Walt and Lucian’s testimony at the hearings have kept the serial killer in jail serving his life sentence, but his lawyers have filed for compassionate release after a cancer diagnosis. The two timelines converge in a cliff-hanger ending in this cleverly plotted 13th in the series.

BonfireKrysten Ritter
Bonfire (Crown 2017) features Abby Williams, an environmental lawyer based in Chicago, returning to her hometown of Barrens, Indiana, for the first time in ten years to investigate Optimal Plastics, whose chemicals may be damaging crops and causing rashes and other illnesses. Abby was bullied in high school by Kaycee Mitchell, her childhood best friend, and Kaycee’s gang of popular girls. When they were seniors, Kaycee had a mysterious illness that caused her to faint, quickly spreading through her girl gang. The other girls, including Misha, confessed that it was a prank, but Abby witnessed Kaycee coughing up blood and now wonders if that was the first case of Optimal Plastics pollution-caused illness. The rest of Abby’s team is focussed on soil and water tests, and gathering statements from individuals reluctant to speak against the company providing most of the town’s jobs. Optimal has bought up most of the town, may control the police force, and is currently financing the construction of a new community center. Abby tries to track down Kaycee, but Mischa, now the high school vice principal, says she hasn’t heard from Kaycee since she left town right after graduation. While talking to Mischa, Abby notices a row of pictures in the halls: 16 beautiful girls and 2 handsome boys who have been nominated for the Optimal Star Scholarship, another tentacle into the school system. When a high school girl tries to commit suicide, Abby suspects that The Game, targeting girls on the fringes of the in-crowd, is still feeding off the weaknesses of vulnerable girls. Abby fights against slipping back into the victim mentality that ruined her high school years, determined to find justice for Kaycee and others who endured social shaming as well as those suffering debilitating illnesses. This intense debut thriller explores the far-reaching damage of bullying and abuse.

White BodiesJane Robins
White Bodies (Touchstone 2017) is the story of twin sisters Tilda and Callie. Tilda has always been the twin everyone noticed — beautiful and outgoing — while unassuming Callie faded into the background. Tilda is now a successful actress recognized everywhere she goes and Callie works in a bookstore. Callie has always watched over her sister, and Tilda’s new relationship with wealthy Felix concerns her since it looks like he has taken over her life. Felix has moved into Tilda’s flat, convinced her to stop working because no parts are good enough for her, and continually straightens the kitchen, even wrapping the clean dishes in cling film. More concerning are the syringes Callie finds buried in the bathroom trash and the bruises on Tilda’s arms. Callie adds all these facts to the dossier she maintains about her sister, and searches online, discovering the webside She joins the site and spends hours every night reading the posts, eventually making two online friends: Belle, a nurse who is concerned about her best friend married to a domineering and potentially violent man, and Scarlett, who is trapped in a relationship with an abusive control freak. As Callie’s concerns grow, she increases her surveillance of Tilda and Felix, sneaking into their flat to search for evidence and reading Tilda’s hidden diary, sharing everything with Belle and Scarlett. Though the site requires fictitious screen names and anonymity, Belle offers to meet in real life to share Scarlett’s brilliant idea about using the plot of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to safely remove the dangerous men from each other’s lives. This intense debut novel of psychological suspense probes the fine line between love and obsession.

The Devil’s Wedding RighVidar Sundstøl
The Devil’s Wedding Ring (University of Minnesota Press 2017, Norwegian 2015) begins when private investigator Max Fjellanger returns home from Florida for the funeral of Knut Abrahamsen, his former police colleague. Max and Knut haven’t been in contact for over three decades, but Max is sure Knut would never have committed suicide, and fears his death is connected in some way to the disappearance on Midsummer Eve 1985 of Peter Schram, a young folklore researcher working in the village of Eidsborg in the Telemark region. At the time, Max and Knut suspected the local sheriff Jørgen Homme was obstructing the investigation, but the two young officers were too worried about keeping their jobs to challenge him. Exactly 30 years later Cecilie Wiborg, a student researching the old, pagan rituals associated with the 13th-century Eidsborg stave church, also disappears on Midsummer Eve. Max is sure there is a connection between the two disappearances and Knut’s death, and begins to research the history of the wooden statue of Saint Nikuls from the 13th-century stave church with the help of Tirill Vesterli, a university librarian and single mother who loves crime novels and leaps at the chance to help with a real-life investigation. Max tries to discourage Tirill when they discover that a religious cult with a sinister Midsummer Eve ritual may still be operating in Eidsborg, perhaps with the support of Jon Homme, the current sheriff and son of Max’s old nemesis. As Midsummer Eve draws near, Tirill sends her young son away, but is as committed as Max to figuring out the truth. This intense thriller leaves open the possibility of a sequel.

YesterdayFelicia Yap
Yesterday (Mulholland Books 2017) is set in an alternate Cambridge, England, populated by Monos (who remember only the last 24 hours) and Duos (with a 48-hour memory). Full memory exists until the age of 23, after that everyone relies on their iDiary to move facts into long-term memory, learning important items by reading their diaries every morning. Claire Evans (Mono) and Mark (Duo) are one of the few mixed marriages, though the favorable tax benefits are in progress in hopes of increasing the Duo birthrate. Mark is a novelist hoping to be elected as the next MP for Cambridgeshire, campaigning on his understanding of the Mono perspective. Claire suffers from feelings of inferiority caused by daily reminders that her husband’s memory is twice as long as hers, and takes daily pills to combat her depression. DCI Hans Richardson has been assigned the investigation into the death of a woman found floating in the River Cam close to the Evans mansion. Hans is a Mono posing as a Duo, knowing that if his Mono class is known he will lose his job. Since cases are often solved by links between minor observations not important enough to record in his diary, Hans pushes himself to solve every case in 24 hours, earning the best record in his department. The dead woman is identified as Sophia Ayling, and the autopsy reveals a head trauma. Since she is the victim of a violent death Hans is granted access to her iDiary and learns that she was having a torrid affair with Mark, making him the prime suspect. In her diary Sophia claims to have regained full memory after an accident in college, resulting in a lengthy commitment to a mental institution. Told from all four perspectives, this inventive debut crime novel examines the seductive possibility of revising one’s own past.


2017 Reviews

Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers.