There’s mayhem all over England — spy services after a terrorist, a little old lady who plans her funeral with suspiciously good timing — with a little left over for Paris, where Cara Black once again casts her spell, and Virginia, the setting of a brilliant debut. Charles Finch is on the case, taking the measure of four new summer mysteries.
The Word Is Murder
By Anthony Horowitz
Harper, 400 pp.
★★★½ out of four
On a spring morning, a London woman enters a funeral parlor and arranges her own service. By nightfall, she’s dead. That’s the irresistible setup of this irresistible novel, narrated by "Anthony Horowitz," a fictional version of the creator of the beloved TV series "Foyle’s War." This fairly credulous Horowitz hesitantly agrees to write the murdered woman’s story from the perspective of a detective named Daniel Hawthorne, freelance investigator and ingenious, irascible sod. This is the most reliable pairing in crime fiction, the eccentric genius and the awed bystander to it – Holmes and Watson, Salander and Blomkvist, Poirot and Hastings – and the real Horowitz, lurking backstage, plays it perfectly. His imagination is as crowded and various as a boy’s sea chest, filled with codes, crossed-out patterns, red herrings and pranks; his solution is, though a little melodramatic, at once a blinding surprise and totally fitting. What can’t this supremely versatile writer ("Magpie Murders") do? It might be a while before we find out.
By Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 326 pp.
Mick Herron is a star in England thanks to his raucous, mordant spy novels, a true departure from the melancholy old Graham Greene model. "London Rules" is the fifth set in Slough House, where MI5 leaves its misfits in the doubtful care of Jackson Lamb, a flatulent and contemptuous genius of tradecraft. This time around, Lamb and his crew chase a nasty terrorist group, protect two politicians, and decide if the real threat is coming from inside the agency itself. It’s a lot of plot – often too much – and Herron spreads his sarcasm so evenly among the characters that his book has a paradoxically monotonous brilliance. But he really is funny (“Some while back there’d been three deaths inside Slough House, which even Lamb allowed was pretty high for a mid-week afternoon”) and his cynicism is belied, here and there, by flashes of the mingled tenderness and anger that seem to define Britain’s post-Brexit self-reflections.
By James A. McLaughlin
Ecco, 352 pp.
“Environmentalist fiction” sounds like such a drearily earnest genre. Recently, however, major novelists (Annie Proulx, Richard Powers) have been taking it in exciting new directions. "Bearskin," a powerful and often profound debut of the same caliber by James A. McLaughlin, weaves its story into the eternal, vulnerable mystery of the wild. McLaughlin’s hero, Rice Moore, is the keeper of a Virginia nature preserve, and glad of the privacy – for reasons not wholly his fault, a cartel is after him. Then, though, he starts finding bear carcasses, and is forced out of his solitude to determine whether it’s the mischief of local bikers (there’s a black market trade in the animals’ gallbladders and paws, it emerges) or something scarier. From these basic materials, "Bearskin" constructs a riveting narrative, set within a natural world that, should it vanish, McLaughlin suggests, might take part of us with it.
Murder on the Left Bank
By Cara Black
Soho Crime, 276 pp.
The loveliest part about a long series is that its characters drive the action, rather than the reverse. Cara Black’s 18th novel about Aimee Leduc — head of Leduc Detective, chic Parisian maman, cheerful foil to the uptight Inspector Melac — features one of her strongest mysteries, about a group of murderously corrupt cops chasing the document that will expose them. Aimee has promised her partner she’ll stick to cybersecurity (it’s 1999, and her clients are “nervous about possible Y2K malfunctions”), so naturally, she takes on the case, which proves full of dangerous surprises. But the real joy of "Murder on the Left Bank" is in its familiar cast and its thoughtful, witty, occasionally melancholy evocation of Paris, the city where we keep so many of our most beautiful ideas about what life might mean.
Charles Finch is author of the Charles Lenox mystery series, most recently, The Woman in the Water.