Sure and Certain Death By Barbara Nadel, McArthur & Company, 278 pages, $24.95
Sure and Certain Death is the fourth novel in a series that, until now, had somehow escaped me. I say "somehow" because Nadel's Inspector Ikmen books, set in Istanbul, are brilliant examples of the new face of British crime writing.
This series, set in London during the Second World War, and featuring undertaker Francis Hancock, is even better. It combines the deep character development found in the Rennie Airth or Charles Todd novels with Nadel's stellar sense of place and pace.
It's 1941 and the heart of the Blitz. Francis Hancock is in a bombed house when he comes across a scene fresh from hell. It's a dead body so horribly mutilated that it resembles nothing more than a lump of meat. It turns out to be the remains of a local woman, an acquaintance of Hancock's sister Nancy, and there's no question that she was murdered. Two other mutilated corpses turn up, with no other connections that they are all women in their fifties, religious, upright, and with no enemies save the monster who's preying on them.
Nadel's reconstruction of wartime London is spot-on here. It's the small details that work best, the powdered eggs for breakfast, the chilly rooms, marooned in their blackout curtains. Best of all, there's Hancock himself, half-Indian and so an outcast in London.
Race aside, he's half mad from wounds and events he suffered in the 1914-1918 war, a madness the bombs and murders magnify. His family, sisters and his mother, "Duchess," are all beautifully constructed, with dialogue that builds character (Nadel, a former actress, really knows how people speak) and develops the story. The best thing about this novel is that there are four more waiting to be read. Not to be missed.
The Red Door By Charles Todd, HarperCollins, 344 pages, $32.99
The last two books in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series were a bit weak and there was some concern that the characters' eccentricities were overwhelming the plot. That's all gone in this superb book, the 12th and best since Wings of Fire . The mother-son combination that make up Charles Todd seems to be recharged since taking a break with the Bess Crawford novel, published last year, and so, at a point where many series begin to sag, this one is revived.
The red door is a bright spot in an isolated cottage. There, a hopeful wife awaits the return of her husband from the First World War. He's career army, so there have been other long waits, although this one, without letter or visit, has been hard. But the war is over and she knows he'll be there soon.
Two years later, the red door has faded. The husband never came home and the waiting wife is dead, brutally bludgeoned. She was blameless and much respected in the village. There seems to be no possible reason for her murder.
At the same time, Inspector Rutledge faces the strange case of a man who has disappeared from a London hospital. There's no evident reason there, either, but the man's wealthy relatives all seem to be lying.
It is the Todds' cleverness that pull these two disparate tales together. Their talents for character are fully on display in this haunting tale of love and loss.
Tell Tale By Sam Hayes, Headline, 408 pages, $34.99
This is a terrific story, told in three different voices, set in three different times and about a terrible evil. Nina Kennedy is a devoted wife and mother with an exciting career as a makeup artist. Things are going perfectly for Nina, her business growing, her family and friends solidly behind her. But there is a terrible secret in Nina's past, one which has reappeared in her life. Someone is following her, threatening her secure existence.
Nina's story overlaps with that of Frankie Gerrard, working in a fine private school built on the remains of an old orphanage. That takes us to Ava, eight years old and waiting in the orphanage for her father to return and take her home.
The thread of evil that connects Ava, Frankie and Nina is the plot of Tell Tale , and, with a twist at the end that comes as a shock, it's a story that will keep you guessing.
The Good Son By Russel D. McLean, St. Martin's Minotaur, 238 pages, $31.9 9
The Good Son is McLean's debut as a novelist, but he's already known and much praised for his short fiction. This clever, tough, witty book is everything any reader could want in a mystery.
The setting is Dundee, Scotland, and the protagonist is J. McNee, PI. Being a PI in Scotland puts him at an even lower level than his peers in Britain or North America, but it's a living. That means McNee has more personal demons than any one man can carry, and, when he's parachuted into a case where bodies drop like apples in autumn, his personal problems threaten to overwhelm his professional competence. This is a great character study with a wonderful plot and plenty of atmosphere.
Red Snow By Michael Slade, Penguin Canada, 288 pages, $24
Just in time to scare the liver out of people heading for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Michael Slade (a.k.a. Jay Clarke, Vancouver lawyer, with several different co-authors) has a thriller tailored for the slopes.
Whistler is cut off from communication with the outside, while a villain called Mephisto (recurring from previous Slade novels) picks off the members of an elite squad of RCMP. And that's just the beginning. Red snow, indeed.
This one is guaranteed to keep you awake with the lights burning. If you're planning to attend the Olympics, you may want to find some other novel for the trip.