Summer books: Mysteries

  • Article by: CAROLE E. BARROWMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 4, 2012 - 9:58 AM

Murder and secrets abound, from the American Midwest to Dublin and beyond.

I'm not sure why Minnesota, a place known for nice, has so many writers and readers attracted to the dark and the deadly, but I'm happy to encourage the madness with some great summer mysteries.

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 432 pages, $25)

Gillian Flynn's barbed and brilliant "Gone Girl" has two deceitful, disturbing, irresistible narrators and a plot that twists so many times you'll be dizzy. This "catastrophically romantic" story about Nick and Amy is a "fairy tale reverse transformation" that reminded me of Patricia Highsmith in its psychological suspense and Kate Atkinson in its insanely clever plotting. Unemployed and close to broke, Nick and Amy move from Manhattan to Hannibal, Mo. (birthplace of Mark Twain), where Nick grew up and where Amy, who used to be "overdressed in ... flashy little frocks" eating "food bites" as "decorative and unsubstantial" as she was, is suddenly "complimenting women ... on pickle slices wrapped in cream cheese wrapped in salami." At times our narrators' social commentary evokes Twain in their cynical slagging of everything from Manhattan hipsters to Midwest morality. But it's their decaying marriage, "the endless small surrenders" of it, and Amy's violent abduction that drive the killer plot.

"The Skeleton Box" by Bryan Gruley (Touchstone, 336 pages, $25)

The Bingo Night burglar has folks panicked in Starvation Lake, a northern Michigan town, home to the Pine County Pilot, "circulation 3,876 and falling," and hockey-playing reporter Gus Carpenter. When Gus' mom's dearest friend is killed during one of the break-ins, Gus gets involved in investigating the who, the what and the why of the burglaries. Up until Mrs. B's death, the burglar has never taken anything, only rifling through belongings and ransacking files. Turns out the answers to Gus' questions have something to do with the contents of a lockbox belonging to his mom, the murder of a nun years ago, and long-held secrets among Starvation Lake women. Uncovering this conspiracy is made more difficult because of Gus' mom's dementia and the fact that she can no longer "remember what she wasn't supposed to remember." This is the third book in Gruley's outstanding series and the characters have become friends: neighbors on the lake, including the members of the Midnight Hours Hockey league; Soupy, who's older than Gus "but sometimes feels like his little brother," and his not completely ex-girlfriend Darlene. Most of all I appreciate Gus' struggles to work in a profession that has value, but, like many things in Gus' world (and ours), may not be fully understood until it's gone.

Gruley will be at Once Upon a Crime Bookstore at noon July 7.

"Curse of the Jade Lily" by David Housewright (Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99)

Like his author, Rushmore McKenzie is a St. Paul native, and as his name implies, he's rock solid and quite remarkable. The insurance company that made McKenzie a millionaire has been keeping an eye on him and so, it seems, have art thieves who've stolen the Jade Lily, a chunk of a gem worth millions, from a Minneapolis art museum. The thieves (artnappers) are holding the Jade Lily for ransom, expecting McKenzie to be the go-between. To me, Housewright has always been one of Minnesota's gems in the genre, a writer whose books may be lighter in tone than John Sandford's, but are just as suspenseful and satisfying. When a body is found in the snow near "Wedding Hill" in Theodore Wirth Park, McKenzie can no longer ignore being dragged into the investigation, one that gets him in trouble with the U.S. State Department and the shaky Bosnian government. "The evil that men do lives after them," thinks McKenzie when bodies begin piling up. "The good is oft interred with their bones." A critical decision made, McKenzie adds, "Screw that. Bury the evil too." And he does.

Housewright will be at Once Upon a Crime Bookstore at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

"Death in a Wine Dark Sea" by Lisa King (The Permanent Press, 352 pages, $29.95, June 15)

Living in San Francisco, Jean Applequist, Lisa King's protagonist, is "all urges and appetites with no sense of restraint." Jean is clever and curious, has a healthy sex drive and a body with "a distraction factor" that she's not afraid to use. She doesn't believe in monogamy, which is great for us because this mystery, like Jean, is "some serious fun with no strings attached." The story begins at the wedding of Jean's best friend, Diane, to Martin on a luxurious yacht cruising San Francisco Bay. When someone pushes Martin overboard, it takes all of Jean's compassion to throw him a life preserver. Martin is "cold and callous," having amassed his fortune on the blackmailed backs of others. Jean loves her friend and, with the help of Zeppo, Martin's assistant, Jean investigates, promising to keep Martin's past from the police. Jean writes for a wine magazine and I enjoyed the details about wines and champagnes that add to its kick.

"Broken Harbor" by Tana French (Viking, 464 pages, $27.99, July 24)

Tana French describes "Broken Harbor," her latest thriller set in Dublin, as a "chain-linked" book, because a secondary character from an earlier novel becomes "the narrator of the next." This is the world according to Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy. He has his murder squad's highest solve rate, earning him the lead in a triple family murder near the seaside at Broken Harbor. Scorcher's narration is commanding and compelling, cynical and honest, and it'll keep you riveted to this book. Murder is "a unique crime," says Scorcher, "the only one that makes us ask why. Robbery, rape, fraud, drug dealing, all the filthy litany ... come with their filthy explanations built in. ... Murder needs an answer." Despite Scorcher's intellectual swagger, the answers don't come easily. Is the brutal murder of the Spain family the result of "social deviance" or just plain evil? Broken Harbor also seethes with tragic childhood memories for Scorcher and his sisters -- Dina, who is "as crazy as a bag of cats," and Geri, a surrogate mum to all. The novel is a complex psychological procedural, following Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, through their investigation, each step punctuated with Scorcher's teachable moments like "Nothing can trip you up like compassion." Ironically, Scorcher breaks his rules with Dina, who "can't be filed and organized" like his cases, and whose broken mind is the result of another tragic night in Broken Harbor.

"The Lost Ones" by Ace Atkins (Putnam, 325 pages, $25.95)

My favorite cool cowboy, Quinn Colson, introduced in last year's terrific "The Ranger," returns in "The Lost Ones" with his guns drawn. The setting is "Miss-ippi," outlaw country, where Varner's Quick Mart smells of "old grease and dead crickets," a "black woman named Peaches" makes the best pecan pie, and children and guns are traded like moonshine. Quinn is the new sheriff in town. With his deputy, Lillie Virgil (who could watch my back anytime), he gets seduced into an FBI drug sting that hits close to his farm. Atkins' story is stark and suspenseful, his sense of place spot-on. Quinn has a quick wit, a strong code of honor and radiant sex appeal, but more important he understands the distinction between law and order.

Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at carolebarrowman.com.

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