Many of my favorite mysteries begin with a jarring impossibility, where the hero is confronted with events that contradict everything the hero (and by extension, the reader) knows is logically possible. The hero’s journey is to set the world back on its foundations by uncovering the truth behind seemingly impossible situations. John Dickson Carr was legendary at plots like these. Fredric Brown did it a few times, both in his mysteries and his science fiction. Some of my other favorites end with everything the reader has been led to believe—up to that point—shown to be wrong. Christie did this famously, as did Carr. Margaret Millar wrote a novel (A Stranger in My Grave, 1960) in which the entire story radically changes in the book’s final words.
Today it’s rare to find a book that accomplishes this kind of paradigm-shift plotting. A few of the titles that we look at this month use science-fiction elements to accomplish it, others use logic and misdirection. We’ll look at new works by Harlan Coben, Craig Johnson, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, and other notable writers, all of which demonstrate that classic “impossible crime” plots and contemporary tastes are not incompatible.
Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants, Del Rey, $26.00. A twelve-year-old girl falls through a hole in the ground and lands on a giant glowing metal hand. Seventeen years later, she is a highly trained physicist working on a team to crack the code of the ancient relic. The top-secret team is composed of brilliant minds working in close quarters where personalities are bound to clash. This debut novel by a Québecois linguist is told entirely in interviews and journal entries. Through a unique epistolary format, Neuvel’s story explodes into an epic technological thriller. The story and its telling are original, although some of the soliloquies may remind readers of Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Blake Crouch, Dark Matter, Crown, $26.99. Jason Dessen is happy with his life. He loves his wife and teenage son, and enjoys his job as a college physics instructor. On his way home from having a drink with an old friend, Jason is abducted by a man in a Geisha mask. He wakes up in a different world, a parallel Earth on which he never married his college sweetheart and never had a son, but where he became a brilliantly successful quantum physicist. Trapped in a world where he doesn’t belong, Jason fights against a startling adversary in an Escheresque race to get home. For a story with a five-dimensional plot line, the characters are disappointingly flat. But Crouch tells the story from Jason’s point of view with raw, honest emotion, and the story itself is mind-bendingly clever.
Karen Hall, Dark Debts, Simon & Schuster, $26.00. Described variously as Southern Gothic and as a “theological thriller,” Dark Debts, like many of the titles in this month’s column, defies labels. A cynical Jesuit priest is exiled to Georgia for bucking authority. In Los Angeles, a successful novelist robs a convenience store and kills the clerk before jumping from a hotel window to his own death. His former girlfriend, not believing he could have committed these acts, travels to Georgia where she meets his former-outlaw brother. As their paths cross with that of the priest, the story morphs into a tale of demonic possession and exorcism. Hall approaches her characters and their theologies—or lack thereof—thoughtfully, through engaging debates among the characters. This book is an extensive revis-ion of Hall’s 1996 book of the same title. A producer and screenwriter whose credits include The Good Wife, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, and Judging Amy, this is her only novel to date.
Harlan Coben, Fool Me Once, Dutton, $28.00. Maya Stern had been a special-ops pilot in the Middle East until a fatal miscalculation led to her honorable discharge. Back in the States, two weeks after her husband is murdered before her eyes, her husband’s face appears on a nanny-cam video, recorded after his death. Maya is convinced that she is either the victim of a hoax, or hallucinating as a result of post-traumatic stress. Coben has employed this theme in several previous novels, but manages to put a fresh spin on it each time. Coben knows how to use sleight of hand to tell a tense and thrilling story with a satisfying twist.
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, The Plague of Thieves Affair, Forge, $25.99. In 1896 San Francisco, John Quincannon is investigating the theft of a formula from a brewery when he finds the body of the assistant brewmaster behind two locked doors. Meanwhile, Sabina Carpenter is providing security for an exhibit of antique reticules (ladies’ handbags) when a bag that once belonged to Marie Antoinette is stolen under impossible conditions. The plotting is great fun, even if the solutions are obvious to those familiar with impossible crimes. Pronzini and Muller have also been busy with individual projects. Pronzini’s Zigzag (Forge, $24.99) packages two Nameless Detective novellas and two short stories (both of which originally appeared in EQMM) into one volume, and Someone Always Knows (Grand Central Publishing, $26.00) is Muller’s thirty-second novel in the groundbreaking Sharon McCone P.I. series.
Timothy Hallinan, King Maybe, Soho Crime, $25.95. Junior Bender is a Los Angeles burglar with a conscience who always finds himself working for the wrong people. In his fifth caper, he steals and then counterfeits a rare stamp. There are few things he hates more than climbing ropes, but he finds himself hanging by several. I was having difficulty keeping track of the plot until I realized that there wasn’t one. Nevertheless, Hallinan has a proven track record for pleasing readers. His prose style is smart and spritely, filled with wry humor, but neither the humor nor the story left me completely satisfied.
Avram Noble Ludwig, Shooting the Sphinx, Forge, $26.99. When a Hollywood movie director travels to Egypt with the goal of filming aerial footage of the Sphinx, he finds himself in a Kafkaesque roller-coaster ride through bureaucratic hoops and corrupt red tape. The story is drawn directly from actual incidents that the author experienced while getting footage for two films in the Middle East. Despite a plot line that is more a series of escapades than a unified story, the writing is engaging and entertaining, the setting fascinating, and the storytelling ultimately satisfying.
Craig Johnson, The Highwayman, Viking. $20.00. Wyoming patrolwoman Rosey Wayman is a good cop, but Walt Longmire is concerned about her sanity. She is showing signs of psychosis, including her claims that she’s receiving regular radio dispatches from a legendary Arapaho patrolman who died decades earlier. Johnson uses ghost stories, Native American legends and rituals, and his natural gift for storytelling in this touching, atmospheric police story. The Longmire television series now in its fifth season, author Craig Johnson keeps the books coming. His eleventh Longmire novel, Dry Bones (Viking, $16.00) is newly out in paperback, and his next book, An Obvious Fact, will be published in September.