Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec, Canada. He’s also the creator of the award-winning Web site Deadly Diversions, which features more than 500 reviews and interviews with leading crime-fiction writers. Napier’s own first crime novel, Legacy, is scheduled to appear in the spring of 2017. It will be the first in a series of contemporary Britain-based police procedurals.
• Coffin Road, by Peter May (Quercus):
A middle-aged man washes ashore on Scotland’s Isle of Harris, exhausted and near death. He has no recollection of how he came to be there. Even more remarkably, he does not even know who he is. His first clue as to his identity comes when an elderly woman encounters him on the rocky beach, and addresses him as Mr. Maclean. She helps him to his cottage nearby, where a dog bounds out to meet him, and he calls to it by name, although he has no memory of having encountered that animal before. The man showers, changes his clothes, serendipitously finds a bottle of single malt, and takes stock of his surroundings. Some papers on a kitchen table, including a bill addressed to Neil Maclean. Some books on a shelf. Not particularly enlightening. A map on the wall of the Outer Hebrides. And, curiously, a laptop computer with absolutely nothing on it. Bit by bit the man struggles to reconstruct his world, and learns that there are forces at work that go far beyond the elements of the barren island on which he finds himself. Peter May’s exquisitely layered novel bridges the gap between Scandinavian noir and traditional British crime dramas, drawing on the barren landscape of the Scottish islands for its power, yet fashioning an original narrative that is very much of our time and place. There are uncharted depths here, involving subplots and enigmas galore, to beguile the reader into pressing on. Not least, there is a significant social theme at work, a theme that calls into question mankind’s tenuous relationship with nature.
• The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley,
by Jeremy Massey (Riverhead):
Paddy Buckley is an undertaker with Gallagher’s Funeral Directors, a firm based in Dublin, Ireland. He generally likes his work, but this just isn’t his week. Things have gone from bad to worse, and Paddy is quickly finding himself up a very nasty creek indeed, and lacking the proverbial paddle. It all begins when Paddy receives a late-night summons to collect a body from a local nursing home. By the time Paddy has finished the job, it’s 3 a.m., and he finds himself driving home in a pouring rain, drowsily mulling over the day’s events … when he suddenly hits a man walking through the dark. Paddy jumps from his car ready to help, but it’s clear that the man is already dead. Paddy goes though the deceased’s wallet, trying to determine his identity. His papers reveal him to be one Donal Cullen. Paddy is stunned: he realizes the man is—or was—the brother of Vincent Cullen, Dublin’s most notorious gangster, and not someone known for his compassion. The only things Cullen will be interested in knowing are who killed his brother and how he can best go about exacting a terrible revenge. Paddy drops the wallet and stumbles back to his car. He drives off, hoping to escape detection. The next morning Paddy is back in the office, still coming to grips with the events of the previous day, when his boss, Frank Gallagher, tells him he has a job for him. It seems Vincent Cullen has called: the mobster wants Gallagher’s to handle his brother’s funeral. Frank asks Paddy to go to the man’s home and make the arrangements. Paddy’s nightmare is about to turn a whole lot worse. The Irish are well known for their dark sense of humor, and on a scale of 50 shades of gray, The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley (first published last year in hardcover, but released in paperback in early 2016) has to be reckoned among the darkest.
Author Massey has crafted an original and delightfully wry tale of a hapless but likable person for whom, it seems, nothing can go right.
• The Letter Writer,
by Dan Fesperman (Knopf):
New York City, February 1942: Woodrow Cain, a police detective from North Carolina, arrives with a checkered past, his wife gone, his daughter left behind in the care of his sister, and rumors surrounding his involvement in two deaths back home—one of the deceased being his best friend. But three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, experienced officers are in short supply in the United States, so the NYPD gratefully adds Cain to its payroll. Before long Cain makes the acquaintance of an elderly immigrant named Maximilian Danziger. The man is clearly educated, and speaks several languages. He has carved out a reputation in the Lower East Side as a letter writer—someone able to help other immigrants, those who are illiterate or who have limited language skills, to read as well as to write to their loved ones abroad. More importantly from Cain’s perspective, Danziger can help identify the body of a man found floating in the Hudson River. But Danzinger’s own past is yet to be revealed, and Cain soon finds himself caught up in events that go far beyond a local crime, and involve players both prosperous and powerful. For more than a decade, American journalist and novelist Dan Fesperman has been entertaining readers with finely crafted literary tales bearing a distinct criminal slant. He’s skilled at basing yarns on historical events and figures, and then weaving engrossing tales around them. The characters in The Letter Writer are expertly drawn and compelling, and the plot will hold you in its grip until the final pages.
• Out of Bounds, by Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly Press):
When Edinburgh youth Ross Garvie and his mates steal a car and take it joyriding, they set in motion a train of events that trails back decades. Garvie winds up hospitalized in a coma, and a sample collected by doctors to determine his blood alcohol level turns up a DNA match relating to a rape and murder that occurred more than 20 years ago. At his age, Garvie couldn’t have been the perp … but someone in his family certainly was. That’s enough to interest Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, the head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit. It’s not long before another case lands on her plate. A mentally challenged man, Gabriel Abbot, has been found dead on a path bench, seemingly a routine suicide. It’s hardly a cold case, and wouldn’t normally concern Pirie, except for one thing: 22 years ago, Abbot’s mother was murdered, and although her death had been blamed on the Irish Republican Army, no one was ever identified as her killer. Two apparently unrelated and mysterious deaths in the same family? Pirie doesn’t believe in coincidences, so she decides to look into these killings. Still recovering from the death of her lover and colleague, who was killed in the midst of an investigation only months earlier, Pirie has taken to wandering the largely deserted, early morning streets of Scotland’s capital. There she encounters a group of Syrian refugees huddled around a campfire. They only seek to make use of the skills they brought from their homeland, but immigration rules prevent them from working until their status is settled. Pirie has enough work in front of her already, but because the immigrants’ situation concerns her, she seeks to help these new nocturnal friends. To succeed, Pirie will have to use all of her wits. And before this novel reaches its end, she will find herself on a dark street, utterly alone, stalked by a killer. Out of Bounds is an original, exquisitely layered, and compellingly told tale, revolving around the most engaging protagonist I’ve run across in a very long time. It’s easily among the top half-dozen crime novels I’ve read in the past 10 years, and McDermid’s best work yet.
• Set Free, by Anthony Bidulka
Within minutes of arriving at Menara International Airport, outside the Moroccan city of Marrakech, renowned author Jasper Wills is pistol-whipped into unconsciousness and kidnapped. He awakens to discover that he’s bound and gagged and alone in a darkened room. As he lies in that isolated chamber, contemplating his fate, Jasper tries to make sense of his abduction. Who took him, and why? Is this crime somehow connected to his daughter’s kidnapping years earlier? And where is he being held? Just as he begins puzzling out his location, he is moved, his new prison being located far off in the Atlas Mountains. The weeks pass, and Jasper is visited by a mysterious woman who speaks no English. Then his deprivations are replaced by delicacies: honey, a small tagine consisting of lamb, apricot and
vegetables, and even a tiny serving of couscous. These luxuries defy any sort of rational understanding: Why starve him to the point of extinction, only to reward him with unbelievable delights? What could be his kidnappers’ purpose?
The scene is surreal, and before this story ends, readers will be taken on a Byzantine journey destined to test their own assumptions, their own take on the world. But more—much more—is to come. Poignant, ingeniously plotted, and
exquisitely told, Set Free will keep you on the edge of your seat until you turn the final page. Bidulka is an
accomplished writer, with nearly a dozen well-received novels to his credit; but Set Free is heads and shoulders above the rest. At the risk of jinxing this talented writer, his latest work could very well be his breakout novel. Pass on it at your own risk.