Favorite 2020 Debut Novels
These are our favorite Debut Mystery/Crime/Thriller Novels published in the US in 2020.
Welcome to these 2020 debut authors — long may they write!
[Note: This list is in progress.]

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The Opium PrinceJasmine Aimaq
The Opium Prince (Soho Crime 2020) begins when Afghan-born American diplomat Daniel Abdullah Sajadi and his American wife Rebecca are driving near Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 1970s. A young Kochi girl named Telaya runs in front of their car and dies in Daniel’s arms. They take the body of the child to the small gathering of goatskin tents near the road. The villagers call upon Taj Maleki, a well-dressed man carrying a revolver, who takes them to the police. Since Telaya is part of a nomad tribe not recognized by the law, Daniel is given a minimal fine, but placed in the debt of the powerful opium khan. Daniel, the son of an Afghan war hero and an American mother, has been posted to Kabul to head the American opium poppy eradication efforts. Taj’s fields are slated to be sprayed with Agent Ruby, a new herbicide promoted as not as harmful as Agent Orange, and replanted with corn and wheat. Taj attempts to blackmail Daniel into switching the destruction to a neighboring poppy field. Interspersed chapters reveal Taj’s backstory from his early childhood with a single mother, life on the streets after she dies, and work in the poppy fields along with the nomadic tribe and the poorest of the poor. Daniel is haunted by visions of Telaya and Rebecca sinks back into the depression following a miscarriage the year before. Daniel’s childhood friend Laila, a pro-communist doctor, helps care for Rebecca. Meanwhile, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is growing in power and preparing for the coup d’état that will become known as the Saur Revolution. This intense debut thriller explores the complex relationship between politics and criminals through the eyes of two tormented men trying to make sense of their place in the world.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple LineDeepa Anappara
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Random House 2020) is narrated by nine-year-old Jai, who lives with his parents and older sister in the Mumbai slum area known as the Bhoot Bazaar, at the very end of the Purple metro line next to the rubbish dump. Jai is a fan of reality police shows, so when his classmate Bahadur goes missing and the police don’t seem to be taking his disappearance seriously despite the gift of Bahadur’s mother’s only gold chain, he decides to start his own investigation. Fearing the police will demolish their settlement of tin-roofed shacks as troublemakers if Bahadur’s mother keeps visiting the police station, Jai enlists his friend Pari, who gets the best grades in their class, and his Muslim friend Faiz to help him create lists of people to interview and places to visit. Modeling himself on Byomkesh Bakshi and Sherlock Holmes, Jai imagines himself the leader though Pari’s wide reading gives her a perspective he lacks and Faiz’s job at the bazaar is perfect for gathering useful gossip. When the second boy goes missing, they decide to widen their search. Faiz believes the stories about soul-snatching djinns, and refuses to accompany Jai and Pari to the city on the Purple Line to investigate the possibility that Bahadur really did run away from home. At the Mumbai station they are offered candy by a woman, but rescued by the leader of a gang of street children who explains the sweets will put them to sleep so her boss can kidnap them. The street children don’t recognize the picture of Bahadur but tell them about the spirit of a man who protects them, advising them to look for a similar spirit in their own neighborhood who might help protect them from whoever is snatching children fron the Bhoot Bazaar. Interspersed chapters from the perspectives of the disappearing children juxtapose the cheerful optimism of Jai and his friends, which wavers as the disappearances continue and the Hindu majority begins to suspect that the someone from the Muslim minority may be the culprit. This moving fiction debut by an Indian journalist, based on real disappearances of poor children from metropolitan India, gives a voice to the victims rather than the perpetrators.

FollowersMegan Angelo
Followers (Graydon House 2020) is set in two timelines. In 2015 Orla Cadden writes for the Lady-ish blog, cranking out click-bait teasers about movie stars and fashion trends while dreaming of finishing the novel she has been writing ever since moving to New York City. Orla rents part of her small apartment to Floss Natuzzi, a wannabe movie star. Orla realizes that Floss doesn’t have the talent to succeed as an actress, but does have the potential to be a celebrity and takes over managing her online presence, posing pictures of her food, makeup, and clothing on Instagram and Twitter to maximize followers. Floss becomes a mega star until the technology collapse of 2016. In 2051 Marlow Clipp lives in Constellation, California, a closed-community of government-managed celebrities that live nearly 24 hours a day on camera, competing for the most followers. After the dangers of gazing for hours at a glowing smartphone screen were discovered, permanent wrist devices became the norm, connected directly to the brain. Marlow is sponsored by Hysteryl, an anti-anxiety medication she has been taking for years, and is married to Ellis, who works for Antidote, the company that produces Hysteryl. Antidote has just acquired Liberty Family Planning, the company that manages Constellation’s births. Their marriage has slipped in the ratings, and Ellis suggests that it is time Marlow has a baby, a guaranteed follower boost. Like all other Constellation girls, Marlow’s eggs were siphoned out and frozen when she turned 18. Before the implanting, Marlow has to stop taking Hysteryl. As she is tapered off Marlow notices that she feels differently about just about everything — colors are brighter and life seems more interesting. While she and Ellis are choosing the genetic makeup of their child, Marlow learns that she has no genes from the man she thought was her father. Leaving her device behind, she escapes Constellation and heads for New York to try and discover the truth about her past. Narrated by both Orla and Marlow, this thought-provoking debut thriller explores the dark side of social media.

LakewoodMegan Giddings
Lakewood (Amistad 2020) is the story of Lena Johnson, a Black college student whose grandmother is dying of cancer. Lena’s mother has been ill her whole life with a mysterious ailment that defies diagnosis, so her grandmother took over much of Lena’s upbringing. After her grandmother’s funeral, Lena discovers a mound of unpaid bills and begins interviewing for jobs to pay for her mother’s home health care. An unsolicited letter arrives in the mail with an invitation from the Lakewood Project to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. Lena applies and is offered a five-day pre-screening by a representative of the Great Lakes Shipping Company. She is searched, obligated to surrender her phone, required to sign a nondisclosure agreement with a $50,000 violation penalty, asked a series of strange questions about morality and race, presented with a group of random phrases to memorize, and given a series of injections and pills that make her sick. But the check for $3,000 on the final day is more that she could make working all summer. Offered a contract for employment, Lena hesitates when reading the new nondisclosure agreement threatening potential jail time and up to a million dollars in damages and the insurance policy listing payout amounts for sustained brain damage and neurocognitive issues, but the generous salary and complete health insurance for her mother and herself make the offer irresistible. There is a security gate outside the Great Lakes Shipping Company building in rural Michigan, where the Lakewood Project is housed, and Lena is provided with a cover story as a company employee along with the other five research subjects. Each day Lena is given a sheet with talking points for communicating with her mother and friends (your headset pinches, you are receiving training in Microsoft Excel). Each day the research subjects, all but one non-white, are given a new set of random phrases to memorize and undergo a new series of questions and pills or shots while being constantly watched by a group of observers, who are all white. The subjects have no idea what the experiments are about. Some are startling, like eyedrops that change Lena’s eye color to blue, and many are painful. This debut thriller explores the physical and emotional toll on research subjects and the lengths people will go to provide necessities like health insurance for those they love.

The Butchers BlessingRuth Gilligan
The Butchers’ Blessing (Tin House Books 2020) begins in 2018 when photographer Ronan Monks is preparing for a retrospective show and decides it is finally time to display The Butcher: a photograph he took 22 years earlier in rural Ireland of the body of a man hanging from a meat hook through his feet. Back in January 1996, 12-year-old Úna and her beautiful emerald-eyed mother Grá are preparing a farewell feast for her father Cúch, who travels around Ireland for 11 months of the year with seven other men: the Butchers. According to ancient Irish custom, the eight Butchers must be present at every traditional cattle slaughter, preventing a fatal curse by laying hands on the beast as it passes from this life to the next. The Butchers live in pairs around the countryside so that their wives can support each other during the eleven months alone, but Grá tells her husband she is not sure she can bear the loneliness another year. Rumors of mad cow disease are circulating, adding to Grá’s feelings of uncertainty. This year Úna’s parents decided to stop homeschooling and sent her to secondary school, and Úna was unprepared for the bullying. Raised to believe the Butchers played an integral role in Irish history, she is hurt and angry to be mocked as the Butcher’s daughter. She secretly begins trapping mice, determined to learn the skills of the Butchers in order to join her father’s band when the oldest man retires. During the summer young photographer Ronan Monks sees Grá bathing in the lake, and enlists her help finding spots to capture for his project on the borderlands. Grá’s older sister Lena ran away to marry a non-believer when Grá was 16, and the two sisters haven’t seen each other since. On a dairy farm in the next county Lena is recuperating from chemotherapy to halt the progress of her brain tumor while her husband Fionn McCready begins cattle smuggling on the borderlands to raise money for more treatment. She reminisces about the importance of the Butchers in her early life, and Fionn arranges for the Butchers to visit and slaughter a cow, changing their lives and the life of their son, Davey, a misfit hoping to do well on his exams and escape to university in Dublin. Narrated from the perspectives of Grá, Úna, Fionn, and Davey, this atmospheric debut thriller explores the importance of tradition, the weight of family expectations, and how far people are willing to go to achieve their personal desires.

Someone's ListeningSeraphina Nova Glass
Someone’s Listening (Graydon House 2020) is the story of Dr. Faith Finley, who wakes up in the hospital after a car accident to discover that her husband Liam has vanished. Liam had too much to drink at the book launch for her second book, so Faith was driving the car when they had a head on collision with a truck. Detective John Sterling tells Faith there was no evidence of anyone else in the car. As Faith is recovering from her injuries she learns that Liam withdrew $6,000 the day before the book launch and that the police believe he left of his own will. Liam’s passport is missing, and his credit card was used near O’Hare International Airport the day following the accident. Despite some recent problems, the couple had a happy marriage. Liam was a popular food critic, traveling around the world to review restaurants. A successful clinical psychologist specializing in domestic abuse, Faith wrote a bestseller — Starting Over: Life After Abuse — and hosted a weekly advice spot on talk radio called Someone’s Listening. Seven months after the accident Faith is still unable to cope with her grief and devastating feelings of betrayal. She usually has the willpower to wait until noon to begin drinking, but not to stop once she has started. One morning she decides she can no longer live surrounded by the memories in their house in the suburbs and returns to live in their Chicago condo. There she discovers something that changes everything — Liam’s missing passport with a note reading “Renew before Santiago,” the destination of their next trip. Energized by the hope that Liam didn’t desert her, Faith renews her attempts to crack his computer password, searching for clues on the laptop she never told the police about. Annonymous notes left in her mailbox and under her door consisting of quotes from her own books about escaping abusers cause Faith to suspect she is being stalked herself, but she refuses to succumb to panic and fights to hold on to her sanity. This character-driven debut psychological thriller is well-plotted and compelling.

Dear ChildRomy Hausmann
Dear Child (Flatiron Books 2020, Germany 2019) begins when 13-year-old Hannah travels with her mother in the ambulance after Mama was struck by a car. At the hospital Hannah answers most questions with word-for-word quotations from the “thick book that knows all the answers.” She says her mother’s name is Lena but doesn’t know her last name, says her Papa has no telephone, and when asked her address whispers “Nobody must find us.” Hannah defines “hit and run” but says the man driving the car was nice, gave Hannah his coat, and arranged for the ambulance. She explains that it wasn’t his fault, that “My Mama sometimes does silly things by accident. She wanted to kill Papa by accident.” Fourteen years ago a 23-year-old student named Lena Beck disappeared in Munich. Lena’s father Matthias Beck comes to the hospital hoping the woman is his missing daughter, but though she is also blond and has the same distinctive scar, the woman in a coma is not Lena. When she wakes up, the woman gives her name as Jasmin Grass, missing for four months. The police locate the remote windowless cabin in the woods near the German-Czech border, finding Hannah’s 11-year-old brother Jonathan, the chains that constrained Jasmin, and the body of a man. Neither Hannah nor Jonathan have ever been out of the cabin, though Hannah whispers stories of traveling with Mama to Paris and other exotic locales, and find the stimulation of normal life overwhelming. Released from the hospital, Jasmin cowers in her small apartment, too frightened leave. Chapters from the perspectives of Hannah, Jasmin, and Matthias gradually fill in the truth about what happened in the isolated cabin in the woods in this chilling debut thriller.

SpitfireM.L. Huie
Spitfire (Crooked Lane Books 2020) begins on V-E Day in 1946 London, as former spy Olivia "Livy" Nash is finishing her third drink before noon. Livy tried to attend the ceremony at Buckingham Palace in honor of Lieutenant Commander Peter Scobee, her superior, comrade, and lover in France during the war, but was turned away to protect Peter’s wife. Livy hasn’t recovered from the shock of seeing Peter shot before her eyes after they were betrayed to the Germans in 1944 by Luc, a French national. At the bar Livy is approached by Ian Fleming, Foreign Manager for the Kemsley News Group, who offers her a chance to help break up a network of German agents run by Mephisto, a traveling magician whose real name is Edward Valentine, known to Livy as Luc. Fleming tells Livy that a woman contacted their Paris division, offering to sell the list of Mephisto agents to the girl called Spitfire, the nickname Livy earned during the war because of her daring exploits. Livy has just been fired from her job at the London Evening Press and Journal, editing “The Ladies’ Front” column with helpful hints for making the best of rationing — the chance to get revenge on the man responsible for Peter’s death is irresistible. Heading back to Paris undercover as a journalist as part of Fleming’s espionage unit to fight “the next war,” Livy soon realizes that the city is even more complicated, with danger on every corner from the shifting alliances between the spies from England, Russia, Germany, and America. This rousing debut spy thriller is the first in a series.

This Is My AmericaKim Johnson
This is My America (Random House 2020) is the story of 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont and her family. Seven years earlier Tracy’s father James was convicted of the murders of Mark and Cathy Davidson, a white couple working with Black business partners James Beaumont and Jackson Ridges to build a new housing development in Houston. When the police came to arrest Jackson, he resisted and was killed, his son Quincy hit by a stray bullet. Mrs. and Mrs. Evans hired Tracy’s mother as bookkeeper and online sales manager for their antique store after the conviction, and Tracy became friends with their son Dean, though his mother makes it clear with every look that she disapproves of her son’s friendship with a Black girl. Faithfully every week for seven years, Tracy writes a letter to Innocence X, a legal firm representing wrongfully convicted people on death row, begging them to take on the case of her father, now only 275 days away from execution. Tracy has collected boxes of evidence about the case, including statements from witnesses who swear her father was somewhere else at the time of the murders. Tracy’s older brother Jamal is a senior, a star on the track team. Her younger sister Corinne wasn’t born when their father was convicted, and knows him only from their weekly prison visits. Tracy organizes monthly "Know Your Rights" workshops and writes a weekly column for her school newsletter highlighting racial injustice, sure she will become editor next year and hopefully qualify for an early college internship. Current editor Angela Herron, a popular blonde, tells Tracy she has an exposé idea for her next column and arranges a meeting for early the next morning. That night Angela is murdered and Jamal’s letterman jacket is found next to her body. Jamal runs before the police arrive to arrest him, sure that he will be framed for the murder just as his father was. The backlash is immediate: Tracy is removed from the school paper and once again an outcast at school, losing all her white friends except Dean. Reluctantly shifting her focus from her father to Jamal, Tracy begins her own investigation, searching for the exposé Angela was working on that may be a motive for her murder. This debut young adult thriller is a powerful exploration of systemic racism and police brutality.

A Good ManAni Katz
A Good Man (Penguin Books 2020) is the story of Thomas Martin, a successful Manhattan advertising executive who lives in an elegant Long Island home with his wife Miriam and sixth-grade daughter Ava. Thomas’s childhood wasn’t too happy: his father was a violent alcoholic who dominated his fragile mother and killed himself driving drunk when Thomas was 17, his older sister Evie was 21, and his younger twin sisters were almost eight. The family should have been fine after his death, but Evie jumped to her death a few months later, and the twins, spoiled and coddled by their mother, never completely grew up, becoming strange and secretive as they abandoned school and continued living with their mother in the family house. Now 42, Thomas seems to have the perfect life with his beautiful wife, popular daughter at an exclusive private school, hard at work designing a new ad campaign he knows will be wildly successful. Thomas believes himself a good man, providing for both his own family as well as his mother and sisters, protecting all the "girls" in his life from brutish reality. But his narration reveals cracks in the facade of his life and onslaughts on his fragile ego: his wife isn’t happy in their marriage, his perfect daughter is in trouble at school, his mother is terminally ill, his unworldly younger sisters are unable to fend for themselves though they are now in their 30s, and his matchless ad campaign is a flop. Though usually perceiving himself as the hero in his life story, Thomas is concerned he may have transformed into some sort of monster, and reexamines his life to try and figure out where things began to go drastically wrong. This dark debut psychological thriller is a terrifying examination of toxic masculinity and the seductive lure of self-deception.

The Last Story of Mina LeeNancy Jooyoun Kim
The Last Story of Mina Lee (Park Row 2020) begins in 2014 when 26-year-old Margot Lee arrives at her mother’s apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, to find her mother Mina dead. Raised by her single mother in the tiny apartment, Margot never knew anything about her father or her mother’s life before she came to America illegally. By the time Margot was in high school the two often argued. Margot was ashamed of her mother, who never completely mastered English and worked seven-day weeks in her small clothing store until it was destroyed in the riots, then renting a swap meet space. Margot considered herself completely American, never became fluent in Korean, and resented spending after-school hours and weekends working in her mother’s shop. Margot hoped to be an artist, but ended up in an administrative role in Seattle, missing the constant Los Angeles sun and growing further apart from her mother. Mina’s landlord tells Margot he occasionally saw a boyfriend earlier in the year, and overheard arguing the last night he saw Mina, but retracts his statement when the police question him, worried about too much attention to the run-down apartment building. Interspersed sections from Mina’s perspective in 1987 tell the story of her first year in America, barely surviving by stocking shelves in a Korean grocery store. The illegal Mexican immigrants she works with are kind to her, as is Mr. Kim, who manages the front of the store for owner Mr. Park, whose close scrutiny makes Mina uncomfortable. Mina bonds with another Korean woman in the boarding house she lives in that first year, sharing the Korean food they cook in the shared kitchen and stories of their pasts. Mina was a Korean war orphan whose husband and young daughter were killed in an automobile accident in Seoul. While cleaning her mother’s apartment, Margot discovers a photo of her mother’s first family she knew nothing about, and tries to locate Mr. Kim, who she suspects might be her father, the mysterious boyfriend the landlord mentioned, and perhaps her mother’s killer. This evocative debut novel explores personal identity, the things that bind families together and tear them apart, and the overwhelming need to belong.

FramedS.L. McInnis
Framed (Grand Central Publishing 2020) is the story of Beth Montgomery who lives with her husband Jay in a beautiful bungalow in the Los Angeles hills. Beth studied classical piano at school, but her stage fright and lack of drive made a performance career impossible. So she gives lessions at the Steinberg Academy and shops frugally while Jay lives beyond their means, to him a necessity to establish himself as a Hollywood producer. Throughout their three-year marriage Jay has been a flirt, but it never bothered Beth much until the recent miscarriage that destroyed her hopes of starting a family. The news of a drug deal that went bad, resulting in a quadruple homicide including an undercover LAPD officer, doesn’t attract the notice of Beth and Jay who are busy arguing. An unexpected call from Beth’s freshman roommate Cassie Ogilvy startles her into agreeing to meet for a drink. The two mismatched roommates at the New England Institute of Music in Boston became friends despite their differences — wild flamboyant Cassie and serious shy Beth — occasionally appearing together at clubs when jazz singer Cassie’s regular accompanist flaked out. They haven’t seen each other for 12 years, but Cassie has been searching for Beth occasionally online, finally tracking her down through the Steinberg Academy website. When they meet for drinks Cassie fakes a phone call to a friend who was going to give her a ride to the Monterey Jazz Festival, conning Beth into inviting her, and her heavy suitcase full of drug money, to stay for a few days. Jay has never met any of Beth’s friends, or family since her parents died in a car accident before they met, and is both distrustful of and attracted to sexy Cassie who drinks in the mornings and offers him marijuana. Interspersed chapters over a five-day span from the perspectives of Beth, Cassie, Detective Goode, and barely surviving drug dealer Rick Squires reveal a tangle of lies and deceptions in this twisty and tense debut suspense thriller.

Please See UsCaitlin Mullen
Please See Us (Gallery Books 2020) takes place in a hot Atlantic City summer. The tourists are few and far between, and 16-year-old Clara Voyant is barely scraping by as a tarot-reading psychic. Clara lives with her irresponsible aunt Desmina, who works as a stripper and thinks Clara is old enough to be set up with “dates” in order to help pay the rent. Lily Louten, fleeing her cheating artist boyfriend, has left her dream job in a Soho art gallery to return home and work at a nearly-empty casino spa. The two meet when Clara and Des try to pick up customers at the spa, Clara still reeling from disturbing visions after a reading for a man searching for his runaway high school niece Julie. Clara senses that Lily might listen to her fears and steals her bracelet, hoping that Lily will track her down to get it back. Luis, the deaf and nearly mute custodian at the spa, sees Clara’s theft, but doesn’t tell anyone. Luis has been bullied all his life, and since the death of his protective grandmother he endures regular beatings from locals who enjoy tomenting him while the police do nothing. On the marsh behind the Sunset Motel outside town two Jane Does are carefully arranged. Lily and Clara become tentative allies after Clara describes her visions, which intensify as more women disappear — prostitutes and homeless women who aren’t missed. Chapters from the perspectives of Lily, Clara, and Luis describe the events of the summer in the deteriorating city as they become more concerned about the disappearances which no one else seems to notice. Chapters from the perspectives of women with names before they go missing, and then from the point of view of the Janes, begging for someone to “please see us,” reveal the plight of the “invisible” women valued only for their use to others. This intense and haunting debut thriller focuses on the victims of a serial killer rather than the killer himself.

Murder at the Mena HouseErica Ruth Neubauer
Murder at the Mena House (Kensington 2020) introduces Jane Wunderly, an American widow in her early 30s, staying with her wealthy Aunt Millie in 1926 at the Mena House in Cairo. At the hotel bar Jane meets some British hotel guests: Colonel Justice Stainton traveling with his beautiful flirtatious daughter Anna, handsome Mr. Redvers who looks far too dangerous to be a banker, and young golf fanatic Lillian Hughes traveling with her friend Marie Collins who serves as caddy. While Jane is talking with Redvers, Anna Stainton deliberately spills a drink on Jane’s blouse, forcing her to return to her room to change. The following night Anna appears in a scandalous gauze dress before vanishing into the garden with a young man in a pinstripe suit. In the morning Jane meets the Colonel and a hotel staff member hurrying up the corridor. The Colonel explains that Anna didn’t come down to breakfast and he hasn’t been able to locate her. Worried that she may be in a compromising position, he asks Jane to use the staff key to enter her bedroom and check to see if she is there. The room is quite dark until Jane opens the bedroom curtains to discover Anna’s dead body splayed across the bed, still wearing the scarlet gown from the night before, the silver beading matted with blood. While searching Anna’s room the police discover Jane’s scarab brooch, which went missing the first night. After hearing about the spilled drink, the unpleasant Inspector Hamadi suspects that Jane killed Anna in a fit of jealous rage. While not golfing with Lillian or drinking far too much, Aunt Millie tries matchmaking and encourages Jane to spend time with Redvers. Amon Khanum Samara also pays Jane attention, but she doesn’t trust the smarmy womanizer. American newlyweds Deanna and Charlie Parks are much more agreeable companions, though Jane wonders how the vaudeville performers can afford to stay in the exclusive Mena House. With the help of Redvers, Jane sets out to discover the truth about Anna’s murder. This enjoyable romantic traditional mystery starring the intrepid young widow with a troubled past is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery.

The Eighth DetectiveAlex Pavesi
The Eighth Detective (Henry Holt 2020) is set on a remote island in the Mediterranean where mathematician Grant McAllister has retired. Nearly 30 years earlier Grant applied the laws of mathematics to mystery fiction and wrote seven short stories to illustrate the necessary elements of detective fiction. The seven archtypical detective stories were published in the early 1940s as The White Murders in a small private edition. Editor Julia Hart has been sent to edit the stories for republication and write an introduction summarizing his 1937 research paper “The Permutations of Detective Fiction,” which identified the four necessary ingredients of a murder mystery and the conditions applying to each one. After producing that single volume with seven stories, Grant never published another word, and lives a life of near seclusion. Julia presses him to tell her more about his life, but Grant explains that he was unable to go back to a normal life after serving in North Africa and volunteers very little about his past. Julia asks if the title was a reference to what was known in the press as the White Murder, when Elizabeth White was found strangled on Hamstead Heath in 1940, her murderer never discovered. Grant doesn’t remember reading about Elizabeth White’s murder at the time and believes the title was a coincidence, but has no objection to changing the title. Explaining that his eyesight has deteriorated, Grant asks Julia to read each of the stories aloud on separate days. After each story is read, Grant explains the necessary ingredient he was exploring and they discuss possible edits. Julie points out something that doesn’t make sense in each story — a discrepancy like describing a black cat with its fur darkened by ash — asking if the errors were planted deliberately, perhaps connecting into a puzzle over the arc of the seven stories. Citing the passage of time, Grant has no answers for her questions and seems to have only a hazy recollection of the plots, but mentions the wicked sense of humor he had in those days. This debut mystery is ingeniously plotted, honoring classic murder mysteries.

Line of SightJames Queally
Line of Sight (Polis Books 2020) introduces Russell Avery, a former crime reporter for the Newark Signal-Intelligencer working as a private detective. Capitalizing on his connections with both the police and street sources, most of Avery’s cases are negotiations between light-fingered cops and the drug dealers they steal from, reluctantly saving bent cops from Internal Affairs investigations. Every so often he takes a referral from Social justice activist Keyonna Jackson, whose latest project is the shooting in Woodland Cemetery of Kevin Mathis, a black teenage small-time drug dealer. The police believe Kevin was killed by a rival drug gang, but his father is sure there was another motive. On the phone Kevin left in his room is a video of another young unarmed black man being fatally shot by the police. Fearing the incendiary video will ignite riots, Avery takes the case, discovering that the gang killing motive isn’t likely since Kevin had permission from the local gang to sell Oxy on the street. Avery’s questions put him in conflict with the police department, threatening first his livelihood and then his life. Frank Russomano, a retired detective who had been his best source in Major Crimes, reluctantly agrees to help with the investigation to prevent Kevin’s father from releasing the video. Avery’s ex-girlfriend Dina Colby, a crime reporter determined to expose corruption within the Newark Police Department, and Key, who knows the black community rarely gets an even break, are less sure that suppressing the video until all the facts are in is the right thing to do. This intense debut crime thriller by an award-winning crime reporter is the first in a planned series.

East of HounslowKhurrum Rahman
East of Hounslow (HQ 2020, UK 2017) introduces Javid (Jay) Qasim, a British-born Muslim living in the Hounslow area of London. Jay is a low-level dope dealer doing well for himself and thrilled with his recent purchase of a slightly used BMW. Jay’s father died in a motorcycle accident before he was born. Now close to 30, Jay still lives with his mother and attends prayers just once a week on Fridays. Leaving the mosque, Jay checks to make sure the bag with the money and dope is still in the boot before heading to a diner where his old friend Parvez has been convinced to fight for Muslim rights at a local car park. Hoping to keep Parvez out of trouble, Jay tags along. During the skirmish, his BMW is stolen, along with £7,000 owed to Silas Drakos, his scary supplier who gives him a week to come up with the money. Kingsley Parker of MI5 has been watching Jay for months, looking for a hook to bring down Silas and also convince Jay to go undercover for Counter Terrorism Operations and infiltrate the terrorist group they are sure is operating out of Jay’s mosque. Jay is soon going to prayers every day, and once accepted as a soldier of Muslim is sent along with Parvez far east of Hounslow to Pakistan for training by a mysterious man known as The Teacher, founder and leader of the Ghurfat-al-Mudarris terrorist group. Jay is profoundly unprepared for the blazing heat, but the rigors of the Training Camp are nearly his undoing. He is the only one who can’t load and fire a gun, and can barely drag himself out of bed before dawn each morning to fail yet again on the unbeatable obstacle course. Often laugh-out-loud-funny, this debut thriller explores the seductive lure of belonging to a group of like-minded people with a plausible mission.

Fortune Favors the DeadStephen Spotswood
Fortune Favors the Dead (Doubleday 2020) begins in 1942, when 20-year-old Willowjean “Will” Parker is working night security for McCloskey at a building site in New York City. Will ran away from her abusive father at the age of 15, and has been working with Hart and Halloway’s Traveling Circus and Sideshow for the last five years — cleaning the lion cages, assisting Mysterioso the magician, and learning knife-throwing skills from Valentin Kalishenko, Dancer of Blades and Final Heir of Rasputin. Barely five-feet tall, Will was given a length of lead pipe by McCloskey to subdue intruders and is creeping up on a dark figure when she realizes it is a middle-aged woman. Moving slowly with the aid of a cane, the woman asks Will to call McCloskey, who pulls a gun and is about to shoot Lillian Pentecost when Will fells him with a knife throw. Ms. Pentecost springs Will from jail, and offers her a job. Will’s circus friends convince her to take a chance and she accepts, soon finding herself in a three-story brownstone. Thrilled with her own bedroom and her first-ever shower, Will heads downstairs to a large office filled with bookshelves, a semi-circle of armchairs arranged before a massive desk. Ms. Pentecost admits that she has multiple sclerosis, fortunately progressing slowly, and is finding the physical tasks of the life of a private investigator taxing. She offers Will the job of assistant at a salary that makes Will gasp, and provides training in stenography, bookkeeping, law, target shooting, auto mechanics, and chauffeuring. Three years later they have settled into a routine, attending lectures on just about everything when not investigating cases. Will cuts newspaper clippings on a variety of subjects and keeps an eye on Ms. Pentecost’s health. Siblings Rebecca and Randolph Collins, along with Harrison Wallace, their lawyer and acting CEO of Collins Steelworks, hire Ms. Pentecost to investigate the murder of their mother Abigail, whose murdered body was found inside a locked room during a masked Halloween party. A year ago their father Alistair Collins committed suicide at the desk in that same study. Will, a fan of Black Mask magazine stories, is fascinated by the locked-room mystery, but Ms. Pentecost is dubious about working for the heirs to a multi-million dollar steel company until Will shows her guest list including one of the names she is responsible for clipping: spiritual advisor Ariel Belestrade. Will’s attraction to beautiful wild Rebecca complicates the investigation in this clever debut series-opener introducing a female homage to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
[Note: The term Ms. originated in the 17th century and was revived into mainstream usage in the 20th century.]

FirewatchingRuss Thomas
Firewatching (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2020) introduces Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler, a lone wolf exiled as the sole representative of the South Yorkshire Cold Case Review Unit in Sheffield after hitting a superior officer. One of Tyler’s cases is Gerald Cartwright, a financier who went missing six years earlier after one of his wild parties, assumedly on the run from his creditors. Shortly after Cartwright disappeared, his mansion in the village of Castledene burned, leaving a crumbling hulk. Now 21 and home from university, Cartwright’s son Oscar is having some work done in anticipation of finally being able to sell the dilapidated mansion known as the Old Vicarage. Behind a bricked-in section of the basement a body is discovered with blunt trauma to the head and badly damaged fingernails, presumably from trying to claw himself out of captivity. Tyler uses his familiarity with the cold case to convince DCI Diane Jordan to add him to the murder investigation team led by Detective Inspector Jim Doggett, bringing along Constable Amina Rabbani, a ambitious young Muslim. Unfortunately the prime suspect is Oscar, who picked up Tyler in a bar the previous evening while he was doing some strongly encouraged socializing with the South Yorkshire Police Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Support Network led by his one semi-friend in the department, Sally-Ann from IT. Two elderly spinsters live in the cottage next to the Old Vicarage: Edna Burnside, who is dying of cancer, and Lily Bainbridge, who suffers from dementia. The two met while serving as volunteer firewatchers during the Blitz, and have lived together for most of their lives. They befriended Oscar’s mother Cynthia, who was abused by her husband, and helped her care for the baby she didn’t seem to want. After Cynthia deserted her husband and 10-year-old son, Lily and Edna raised Oscar until he was sent off to boarding school. Tyler suspects that Lily and Edna know something about Gerald’s disappearance, but is unable to break through Edna’s headmistress resolve and Lily’s tenuous grasp on reality. Interspersed blog posts from The Firewatcher describe famous historical fires and bits of information about a string of local fires that fire officer Paul Enfield believes are the work of a serial arsonist. This excellent debut police procedural starring the prickly young detective is highly recommended.

Note: Some of these books were received from publishers and publicists, some were discovered in Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon Book Bags, and many were checked out from our local public library. Our thanks to all who support our passion for reading!

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