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The Jury Box

 By Steve Steinbock

Crime and detective fiction comes in so many different flavors and varieties that it is impossible to judge it all according to the same criteria. Sometimes when I switch from one book to the next I feel as though I need to change my glasses. This month we have a fine selection of novels, including international thrillers, psychological suspense, cozy whodunits, and several wonderful books that refuse to be categorized.

Nicci French, Waiting for Wednesday, Viking/Pamela Dorman Books, $27.95. Deeply psychological and intricately complex, this novel follows tormented psychotherapist Frieda Klein as her life, once again, is turned upside down. Her lover has moved to New York, a well-meaning friend has dismantled her bathroom, her troubled niece has moved in with her, a conniving colleague is trying to discredit her, and she is being dogged by a psychopathic stalker. Despite being on the outs with the police commissioner, Frieda is drawn into the case of the brutal killing of a housewife with a double life. Unconnected to that case, Frieda finds herself investigating a story that leads her to a string of abductions. Despite the large cast of characters and multiple plot lines, Waiting for Wednesday is a captivating, emotionally rich novel.

Alan Beechey, This Private Plot, Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (TPB). While on a nude midnight jog through a maze in the Cotswalds, children’s writer Oliver Swithin and his detective-sergeant girlfriend run into Oliver’s equally naked aunt and uncle. If the situation weren’t already awkward enough, the unclothed group discover the body of a well-known BBC storyteller hanging from a tree. Thus begins the third Oliver Swithin mystery featuring the sneezing, mentally meandering, Wodehouseian hero. The plot involves blackmail and Shakespeare. Poisoned Pen is also concurrently publishing the first two novels in the series, An Embarrassment of Corpses (1997) and Murdering Ministers (1999). Beechey’s writ- ing is witty, entertaining, and highly recommended.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, Down and Out in Beverly Heels, Montlake Books, $12.95. Beneath its colorful, cozy-styled cover and the cutesy title, this light thriller takes a surprisingly frank look at homelessness. The publisher’s design choices ironically illustrate the book’s central theme: that beneath the glitz and glamor of Hollywood is a stark human reality. Actress Meg Barnes, who once played a crime-solving magician’s assistant on a popular TV mystery series, is living out of the back of her car. Since her husband’s flight after being indicted for real-estate fraud, her property and accounts have all been seized. Still auditioning for work, Meg dodges the questions of her friends and avoids the FBI agent who may suspect her complicity. The only way she can get her life back is to find her fugitive husband and bring him to justice. The author is herself an actress, known for her long run on Dark Shadows and alongside Powers Boothe in Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. She fleshes out her story with a touch of romance and a satisfying conclusion.

Shelly Reuben, The Boys of Sabbath Street, Bernard Street Books, $12.00. Mysteries featuring magicians nearly always find their way into my columns. Like the previous title reviewed here, The Boys of Sabbath Street features a magician’s assistant. Maggie Wakeling is the publicist and right-hand woman to Artemus Ackerman, the semiretired magician and mayor of the town of Calendar. The plot involves a series  of arson fires (a subject the author knows well from her day job as an arson investigator) and the establishment of a magic museum. The magic lore in this book is detailed and accurate, and shows the author’s knowledge of the arcane field of legerdemain. Readers will particularly be drawn by the spritely style of the narrator and her romantic interests.

Jonathan Holt, The Abduction, Harper, $26.99. The underage daughter of a U.S. Army colonel attends a party at an underground Venetian sex club and is abducted and held by a mysterious group of masked captors. When videos of her treatment begin appearing online, Venetian police captain Kat Tapo teams up with U.S. intelligence analyst Holly Boland and the genius webmaster whose virtual world has been exploited by the sadists. The second volume in the Carnivia trilogy, The Abduction is a frightening and in-triguing roller-coaster ride through conspiracies and secret worlds. Also just out in paperback is book one of the trilogy, The Abomination (Harper, $14.99), which introduces readers to the virtual 3-D world of an alternative Venice.

Paul Halter, The Invisible Circle, Locked Room International, $19.99. Originally published in French as Le Cercle Invisible (1996) and rendered into English by John Pugmire, The Invisible Circle is a standalone locked-room thriller set in 1936 England. Seven guests are invited to a castle in Cornwall to reenact the story of King Arthur—complete with round table, a sword in a stone, and the Holy Grail. After the host announces that he will be murdered by one of the guests, he locks himself in a room and seals all the openings with wax. One hour later he is found with the sword through his heart. In the spirit of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, Halter layers his story with impossible deaths, mistaken identities, and devilish plots.

Karin Fossum, I Can See in the Dark, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25.00. Set in Norway, and translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, I Can See in the Dark is the narrative of a nursing-home orderly with a narrow grip on reality. Lonely, tortured, at turns tender and deranged, Riktor is guilty of many crimes. But he pleads his absolute innocence when he’s arrested for the murder of an elderly blind woman who was in his care. Fossum lets readers inside an unstable mind, part Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov and part Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. The story is haunting, twisted, and oddly redemptive.

Parker Bilal, The Ghost Runner, Bloomsbury, $27.00. Like Chandler’s Los Angeles and James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Louisiana, the Egyptian landscape painted by Parker Bilal is lavish, beautiful, and corrupt. The ghosts of his own past are conjured up when private detective Makana, a refugee from Sudan, encounters the badly burned body of a seventeen-year-old girl, an apparent victim of an honor killing. Like Chandler and Burke, Bilal writes in a style that is thoughtful and tragically poetic, all the while evoking an unforgettable setting of Cairo and the oasis village of Siwa. Bilal paints a world in which the mean streets meet a thousand and one nights. 

Henry Chang, Death Money, Soho Crime, $25.00. Chang’s fourth case for NYPD Detective Jack Yu is equal parts police procedural and Chinatown noir. When the body of an Asian man is found floating in the Harlem river, Yu is assigned the case. Never one to follow the rules, Yu uses pretense, pressure, and the help of his unpredictable hard-drinking pal Billy to follow a trail of undocumented—and falsely documented—immigrants, gang rivalry, strip clubs, and fortunetellers. Chang writes in a strong, tight style and shares an insider’s look at Chinese-American culture.

 © 2014 Steve Steinbock

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