THE TAKEN By Inger Ash Wolfe, McClelland & Stewart, 415 pages, $32.99
Who is Inger Ash Wolfe, billed as the "nom de plume of a major North American writer"? After the superb debut novel The Calling, guesses ranged from John Irving to Alice Munro. The Taken is a slightly weaker novel, but it's still the work of a major talent and the question of "who is" should be irrelevant. This book cements Police Chief Hazel Micallef, of Port Dundas, Ont., into Canadian and North American crime fiction. She is strong, witty and smart, and Wolfe has developed her and her family and co-workers into a superb series.
Micallef is at the home of her ex-husband and his new wife, recovering from spine surgery and an ever-so-slight dependency on prescription painkillers. She and her mother are forced to share a small basement apartment and rely on the very visible kindness of her successor, Glynnis. She is also coming to another birthday, 62. Retirement is approaching and police forces are amalgamating.
When a body is fished up, literally, by a couple of tourists, Hazel drags herself into the office. The "body" turns out to be fake, but the discovery mirrors the first part of a serial mystery in the local newspaper. Just folks having fun? Then a stream comes onto the police computer. A man, unrecognizable to anyone, is strapped onto a chair in a bare room. Hazel is about to enter the world of online torture and terror. Just who would do this to anyone, and why, becomes a grim game as the police find themselves outwitted by a master criminal who slices chunks of his victim in real time and sends them to the police.
Wolfe is a master at atmosphere and setting, capturing perfectly the glory of small-town Ontario in May. And Micallef is a marvellous creation, vigorous but flawed. The plot is a bit Byzantine, and readers may, at times, find themselves reading backward to uncover the convolutions, but no matter. This second Hazel Micallef novel is highly satisfying, and it doesn't matter who Inger Ash Wolfe is, so long as she/he keeps writing.
BOX 21 By Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 393 pages, $32.50
There's a lot of buzz about this debut novel by a Swedish television presenter (Roslund) and an ex-criminal (Hellström). It was a hot bestseller in Europe and, in its North American incarnation, deserves all the attention it gets. This is a tough, smart, cleverly plotted and superbly written tale of crooked cops, human trafficking and revenge.
Lydia and Alena are a couple of pretty young women who left their native Lithuania for what they thought were good jobs in Sweden. Instead, they've ended up as sex slaves in a Stockholm brothel, forced into lives that gag readers as they're described. Then one day, salvation comes. They are freed from the brothel and their perverse pimp, and are presented with an opportunity to give back a bit of the misery they've been forced to endure.
Roslund and Hellström build the characters beautifully and work the storyline slowly. Detective Ewert Grens has his own reasons for wanting Jochum Lang, a notorious mob enforcer, back behind bars. A desperate addict, Hilding Oldéus, sees Jochum as his protector. Each character has a back story, and those histories lead them to a confrontation as Alena and Lydia try to expose not only the sordid lives they've been forced to lead, but the corrupt police who protected their pimp. This terrific thriller deserves all the praise it's going to get. Roslund and Hellström are writers to watch.
WINTER OF SECRETS By Vicki Delany, Poisoned Pen, 274 pages, $24.95
The first trill of the Muzak version of Silver Bells hit me the day after Halloween. Yes, it must be Christmas, time of good cheer. Also the perfect time for murder. Get the whole gang down at the table and kill off that nasty in-law or that tiresome uncle. Agatha Christie coined the phrase "A Christie for Christmas" for her little holiday murders. Vicki Delany is right in that lovely tradition with her delightful Christmas murder set in the picturesque (and very rich) winter resort of Trafalgar, B.C.
Fans who haven't already discovered this charming series can look for the first two books set in Trafalgar and featuring the very clever Constable Molly Evans and her homicide counterpart, Sergeant John Winters. Molly is on fender-bender duty when she's called to the scene of a tragic accident. Two young men, both from wealthy families, are dead, apparently of drowning. But only one died in the accident. The other was already dead. So why was a lad on a ski holiday driving around with a corpse in the car?
This terrific little confection will satisfy the most demanding fans of the cottage-cozy genre, and makes a great gift.
A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE By Malla Nunn, Simon & Schuster, 374 pages, $19.99
This is a dazzling debut from Nunn, born in Swaziland and reared in Australia. The compelling setting is South Africa in 1952, just as the white-only National Party has taken power. Nunn is very clever at using the spectacular landscape as the backdrop for very ugly people and actions.
Emmanuel Cooper is a homicide detective, half English and half Afrikaner. He's also a veteran of the late war, recently divorced and headed into the all-Boer bush to investigate the death of a powerful police captain. As soon as he arrives at the tiny village of Jacob's Rest, it's clear that those who know what happened aren't about to reveal secrets to the police. Least of all to the white man from Jo'burg.
Nunn uses the plot as a way to show how apartheid warped the fabric of South African society, as police thugs hunt for hidden communists and the most personal of acts become political dynamite.
GRINDER By Mike Knowles, ECW, 178 pages, $24.95
This is the second outing for Knowles - the first was Darwin's Nightmare - and his antihero, Wilson, is back, gone from his haunts in Hamilton and safely in hiding in B.C. He promised his old boss to get off the grid, and he has kept that promise. But then a man comes hunting for him - a man with a gun and a woman in the trunk of his car.
Knowles is working hard to take Wilson into the world of characters like Lee Child's Jack Reacher. He hasn't made it there yet, but there's hope. He's a good atmospheric writer and he has the lingo down, but it takes more than 178 pages to get into the kind of tough guy he's building. Book three may be the breakout.
THE MORNING SHOW MURDERS By Al Roker and Dick Lochte, Delacorte, 312 pages, $32
I don't know anything about Al Roker except that he used to be very fat and he's on a morning television show. What I do know is that any celebrity who wants a great co-writer for his pet project seemingly cannot go wrong with Dick Lochte, the man who made Christopher Darden a hit.
As befits the formerly fat, Roker's plot is all about food. A celebrity chef on a morning television show has a dead man on his hands, poisoned with coq au vin from his celebrity restaurant. To add to the mix, his cute 'n' perky co-host is engaged in hardball contract negotiations, and there are network sharks aplenty circling his show.
All that could make for a good tight plot. Lochte and Roker get a bit afield with Mossad agents and a side plot about a hot international situation in Afghanistan, but there are plenty of giggles and snarky insider bites at the morning news (fans will recognize everyone), and it all works nicely by the end.