• Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg *** (of 4)

    It would be a cozy murder mystery from which a lot could be learned about the culture of modern day China, if not for the fact that the female victim was not only sexually assaulted, but also eviscerated and sewn back together. The fact that harvested organs are for sale in China is part of the cultural education of Klingborg’s readers and worth knowing about as are the depths and origins of corruption in Chinese government. Under today’s communist regime, it seems almost anything is tolerated in exchange for so-called stability.

    Inspector Lu Fei stands apart from his peers in wanting to pursue justice and truth over convenience and a successful case file. In between drinks at the local bar in a small (by Chinese standards) backwater city, Lu Fei does what good detectives should do while keeping an open mind and collecting evidence. We observe him rub up against climbers, superior officers, and sycophants who show us rather accurately how Chinese police forces supported by a government sponsored justice system manage crime in China with a heavy hand and only a passing acknowledgement of due process.

    China does not feel like a place where rule of law can be counted upon to spare the falsely accused. Or a Uighur.

  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    This is the second book in the series, meaning it is the second set of murders that need to be solved by the four septuagenarians of the Thursday Murder Club: Joyce, Ron, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth. It is no small feat to present old people with so much grace and humor even though you can just tell that the author periodically has to yell at his characters so they can hear him, wake them up from time to time, even when they insist they are just resting their eyes, and urge them to get to the points of their digression-filled stories.

    The mystery and suspense in Book #2 are even better than they were in the first as are the quibbles and unspoken affections on display amongst the four friends who, enjoying the fortune and suffering the misfortune of having outlived so many of their loved ones, are discovering they are one another’s newfound family. Suffice to say that gossip in the senior center’s dining hall over whether the new, young waitress, Poppy, would look better without her nose-ring is a great opening scene for a book that will involve spies, the mafia, local drug dealers, and more than a little shopping for something for my daughter, who never really tells me anything, but I’ll get this for her, anyway.

  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King ** (of 4)

    The second in the series of mysteries solved by the retired Sherlock Holmes and his young, sharp, eagle-eyed female assistant, no, make that coequal, Mary Russell. The first World War has just ended, the influenza pandemic is receding, shell-shocked soldiers are returning from the front, and British women having recently received access to suffrage but are disappointed that their advancements in the workforce during the war are now in deep recession. Women’s rights are not what they hoped they would be.

    Marjery Childe, a charismatic lay-preacher at the primarily-for-women New Temple of God, holds sway over hundreds of disillusioned women with the oratory skill of a revivalist pulpit banger. Mary Russell, who it turns out is Jewish, finds herself carried along, but suspicious, becoming more so as accidents, some of them mortal, befall Marjery’s disciples.

    So much time is setting the scene that half a book needs to be finished before a crime is clearly in need of investigation and all the while Sherlock is mostly away on vacation removing the most engrossing part of these mysteries: the interplay of Holmes and Russell as they connive and deduce. I would read the next in the series because the characters and writing are so appealing, but it’s going to be awhile, because this book was reaching in so many directions at once it stumbled and tripped into a street puddle on a foggy London night.

  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips ** (of 4)

    Take my review with a grain of salt. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award Finalist and top-10 book of the year for the New York Times. Its incomparable strength is its description of post-Soviet life on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the very far northeast of Russia. In the larger cities – the action takes place in and around Petropavlovsk – there are businesses, traffic, research centers, industry, hustle and hassle. Just beyond the outskirts lie unpaved roads, volcanoes, hot springs, reindeer herds, and indigenous villages caught between the past and present.

    In the opening scene, a pair of schoolgirls are abducted suggesting that subsequent chapters will reveal who took them and where they went. But, subsequent chapters overlap just a whisker, making the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a whodunnit. The protagonists of each chapter are women whose lives are miserable. They are sick, abandoned, abused, overworked, and lonely. I’m told the perpetrator is unveiled at the end in a village a dozen hours north of Petropavlovsk, but I was too depressed to get all the way through.

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.

  • The Dry by Jane Harper *** (of 4)

    The first of Harper’s Australian mysteries in which Detective Aaron Falk is the lead investigator, and Australia’s harsh environment plays a main character. The fictional communityo of Kiawarra is suffering through its second year of devastating drought putting everyone in the small farming town on the edge of despair and rage. Day after day the unrelenting heat has parched grazing lands, dried up rivers, and brought the day of financial reckoning with destitution a little closer. Luke Hadler’s wife and son are inexplicably found shot dead in their home, until Luke is found apparently having committed suicide in the back of his truck a few miles off. Luke is the obvious suspect in a the combined murder-suicide.

    The crackling dryness of brush and tinder feel ready to explode into fire; the personalities of neighbors who have known one another and one another’s parents since pre-school spark with equal veracity. Most notably the conservative bullies and blusterers who have had their way with sheep and with the sheepish since their successful roles as taunters and bruisers in the classroom, remain frightening to any of us who have ever been pushed about. There is something about an Australian farmer in a rural community whose refusal to buckle to authority, and whose bellicosity drowns out other emotions, that feels rather close to home and rather global at the moment. The question of who really killed the Hadlers is plenty engaging, but the atmospherics are what helped put Jane Adams on the world stage as a mystery writer.

  • Lush Life by Richard Price *** (of 4)

    A nearly 15-year-old period piece that still has legs because the characters are so richly drawn and so authentically New York City. The lower east side of the city is being captured in a snapshot mid-gentrification. The neighborhood still has ghosts of its immigrant Jewish community of the early 20th century: collapsing synagogues, hidden Yiddishisms, and grandchildren returning to the neighborhood as 20-something hipsters calling on local bars deep into the dark hours. But there are also immigrant Chinese in walk-up apartments, Arab marketers, Irish cops, Blacks and LatinX living in project housing, drug dealers who seem to cross all the hidden boundaries, and clueless college students.

    In this case, there’s also a mugging that goes bad when a first-time mugger working as an assistant to a slightly older teen pulls a trigger he probably shouldn’t have. But the crime is secondary to the mish-mash of people that make up a New York City neighborhood in transition. If you have any chance to listen to this book on audio, do so. Bobby Cannavale embodies every accent to perfection.

  • Darktown by Thomas Mullen **** (of 4)

    Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers.  Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people.  Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car.  After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot.  Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow.  They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive.  They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men.  They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching.  Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades.  As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education.  The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta.  The audio version of this book is excellent.

  • Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith *** (of 4)

    This is the third in the Cormoran Strike series of murder mysteries written by J.K. Rowling under the Galbraith pseudonym.  In this case, a psychopath murders women, pulls apart their bodies, and as the book opens, he hand delivers a severed leg to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott.  Four potential suspects immediately come to the mind of private detective Strike.  While  Strike and Ellacott investigate four bad men have a motive for wanting to ruin Strike by accosting his assistant, the British police bumble about like Keystone cops. Meanwhile, what was obvious to us in book one, now dawns on Cormoran and Robin: they are in love with one another.  Unfortunately, Robin prepares to get married to her long-time fiancee and Cormoran dallies with a sexy, but not very interesting girlfriend he has picked up on the rebound from his last relationship.  Rowling’s strength lies in her observations.  She lands her protagonists in a town, and I know now, after having been to some of the places described in this book, describes every important storefront and unusual curve in the road with delightful accuracy.  She hears every dog bark, recalls what everyone she met along the way was wearing beneath their overcoat, and reproduces accent and dialogue with impeccability.  For sense of place and character she is a fine read.  This mystery was gruesome, the budding love affair formulaic, and her lengthy descriptions were sometimes tedious.

  • In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)

    An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree.  Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels.  The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers.  Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared.  That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered.  Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity?  Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not.  Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings.  Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.