I’ve enjoyed the recent mini-boom in locked room mysteries, though I’m starting to wonder if the number of “impossible crime” plots are over. (I will add that any mystery novel comparing itself to “And then there was none” or the movie “Knives Out” must reach an extremely high threshold.)
Fortunately, DEATH AND THE CONJURER (Mysterious Press, 256 pp., $25.95), The debut novel by detective story veteran Tom Mead, avoids all these concerns: it’s a loving tribute to the master of the closed room John Dickson Carr and a highly drawn period piece.
In 1930s London, stern Scotland Yard inspector George Flint noted “a burgeoning subgenre of crime, which had rolled over the city like fog. These were “impossible crimes” – usually high society affairs, where men in locked rooms were killed in unworkable circumstances. The famous psychiatrist Anselm Rees, found with his throat slit in his office, is an example of this. The door is locked from the inside and there are no weapons in the room. Unable to figure out how the murder was committed, Flint turns to an acquaintance, Joseph Spector, a magician he had once viewed “with the caution he reserved for clever tricksters”. But it turns out “the useful part of knowing a magician is learning how tricks are done.”
The locked room mysteries shine best with memorable characters, which were Carr’s greatest weakness – and one of Mead’s strengths.
Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, the Boston-based homicide detective and medical examiner at the heart of Tess Gerritsen’s long-running series, reappear after a year-long absence from LISTEN TO ME (Ballantine, 300 p., $28). The Rizzoli and Isles books are loved by many, myself included; the women’s warm, complicated friendship and superior investigative acumen remain, on their 13th outing, an absolute pleasure to keep readers company.
The case they’re tasked with investigating in “Listen to Me” — the bludgeoning of an ICU nurse with no apparent enemy — offers twists and turns that feel earned and organic. Meanwhile, Rizzoli is also concerned about the constant phone calls from her mother, Angela, who is convinced the new couple on her street is no good, even though her daughter tells her “there’s nothing criminal about it.” want to stay away from the neighborhood detective.”
As the threads come together, Angela emerges as the star of the novel. “I may not be a cop, and I know it’s easy to underestimate me because I’m an older woman and all,” she tells her daughter, but “you inherited those chops from someone’s detective, and I don’t think it was your father.”
Most mysteries and thrillers are based on the basic assumption that the first third of the book represents known facts – before the rug is pulled out from under the reader. In LOOK CLOSER (Putnam, 448 pages, $27)David Ellis’ first solo novel in nearly a decade (after co-writing several with James Patterson), the fun is figuring out which parts of the story – if any – should be trusted.
The book opens on Halloween night, when a wealthy law professor named Simon, holding a cellphone, runs away from the suburban mansion where a woman has just been murdered. Let this scene not be what it seems given, and the reader is soon transported into a dizzying nonlinear tale of family secrets, unsolved murders, financial scams, prenuptial agreements, salacious text messages. and petty revenge.
Although Ellis juggles a large number of plot threads, he does not let them drop; the result is extremely entertaining, not tedious. It helps that nearly every character in the book is the very definition of unreliable. As one of them muses, with more than a hint of menace: “That’s what you do with the people you love. You trust them. You trust them until they prove you wrong. Until they betray you. And then you react like you’re wired to react.
Increasingly extreme summer temperatures call for a palate cleanser, and that’s what you’ll get with Jennifer J. Chow’s DEATH BY BUBBLE TEA (Berkley Prime Crime, 304 pages, paperback, $8.99). It’s the first in a bubbly new series featuring Yale Yee, a recent college graduate who heads into a quarter-life crisis after being fired from her local bookstore. The imminent arrival of his influential cousin based in Hong Kong, Céline, does not help matters: will they get along after 20 years of separation? And why does Yale’s dad insist they run a food stand at a nearby night market?
When a market customer dies after drinking one of their bubble tea concoctions, the cousins become suspicious, especially when it turns out Celine had added potentially deadly gold flakes to the drink because “it needed more sparkle, like those cupcakes with those harmless silver balls on them.
The book incorporates many of the usual mystery narrative tropes (including a detective who might know better about proper police procedures), and the emerging culprit is telegraphed sooner than I would have liked. But Yale and Celine’s growing loyalty to each other, coupled with the warmth of Chow’s prose, adds extra depth, as do tapioca balls nestled in a glass of bubble tea.
Sarah Weinman’s crime column appears twice a month.