“The Vanishing” by Wendy Webb (Hyperion, 304 pages, $15.99)
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … ”
The opening line of Daphne DuMaurier’s 1938 classic, “Rebecca,” still evokes chills in fans of Gothic fiction. DuMaurier’s opening captures concisely two of the genre’s most suggestive and significant motifs: a narrator recalling a nightmarish time in her life, and a mansion filled with secrets where her nightmare occurs.
“When I awakened that first morning at Havenwood … ”
This opening line of Wendy Webb’s contemporary Gothic thriller, “The Vanishing,” pays homage to DuMaurier’s classic. But Webb infuses her narrator, Julia Bishop, with modern sensibilities, and manipulates the genre’s melodrama skillfully.
Julia’s nightmare begins when her husband kills himself, leaving her implicated in his financial crimes. Julia is orphaned, with “no husband, no money, no friends or family.” With trepidation, she accepts an offer to become a companion to Amaris Sinclair, an “ancient and completely youthful” wealthy recluse, believed to be dead, whose own Gothic novels were best sellers. Sinclair’s books are “frightening Gothic tales about madness and murder and monstrosities,” and Julia’s life becomes such a tale.
But Havenwood is the real center of Webb’s story. A replica of a Scottish estate on the “edge of the Boundary Waters,” it makes Manderley look like a quaint cabin in the woods.
“Lake of Tears” by Mary Logue (Tyrus Books, 224 pages, $24.99)
Fort St. Antoine is “one of the smallest towns” in rural Wisconsin, “but one of the busiest” tourist destinations, because of its proximity to the Twin Cities. The Fort is home to Deputy Sheriff Claire Watkins, one of the most authentic and appealing postmenopausal police detectives in mystery fiction. Claire has more than her fair share to worry about in this book. She’s moved up to the position of sheriff after her colleague’s heart attack, the charred remains of a young woman have been discovered in a Viking long ship following a Burning Boat ritual on the shore of Lake Pepin, and her 18-year-old daughter, Meg, is dating the new deputy in the sheriff’s office. He’s a vet of the war in Afghanistan whose life is an “odd mixture of boredom and fear,” and he quickly becomes one of the suspects in the Burning Boat murder.
Logue is a smart, seasoned writer and this, her ninth book featuring Watkins, is one of the most absorbing in the series. It’s a story “going way back to the war” and “all the wounds” that soldiers bring home.
“Taken by the Wind” by Ellen Hart (Minotaur, 308 pages, $25.99)
Whenever I finish one of acclaimed writer Ellen Hart’s mysteries featuring part-time Minneapolis private investigator and restaurateur Jane Lawless, I’m reminded of one of the reasons I love this genre. A good mystery engages our moral imaginations. Hart always has done this well through the diverse mix of gay and non-gay characters that populate her fictional world and the meaningful contemporary themes they confront.
“Taken by the Wind” is no exception, hooking me from its opening pages, where we meet two teenage cousins, Jack and Gabriel. “Like bloodthirsty mosquitoes to bare arms,” they confront danger in their own back yard.
When the teenagers go missing, one of Jack’s dads asks Jane, an old friend, to investigate. With keen insight, Jane navigates the wide gulf between conservative Christians and their liberal counterparts on gay marriage, divorce and the consequences of Jack and Gabriel’s disappearance on their families and their tight-knit communities. If this makes the novel sound like a sociological text, let me correct that right now. “Taken by the Wind” is an engrossing mystery with captivating characters you should meet.
“Delivering Death” by Julie Kramer (Atria, 304 pages, $24.99)
When someone snail-mails a mouthful of rotting teeth to Minneapolis TV journalist Riley Spartz, she is compelled to investigate despite the complications pursuing the story creates for her with her boss and his race for ratings. Riley struggles to maintain her professional dignity at a news station that’s fast becoming part of the entertainment business. It doesn’t help her investigation that the aforementioned boss believes promoting a mass “stunt wedding” with a celebrity couple at the Mall of America is the better story to pursue.
Even after the teeth are linked to the murder of an FBI snitch and the crimes of an infamous financial con man serving life in a New Jersey prison, Riley gets little respect and minimal airtime. On top of her professional woes, Riley’s “worried she’s slipping from cynical to bitter,” and that she may still have feelings for her ex-lover, who happens to be the head of MOA’s security.
Kramer used to steer WCCO’s investigative unit, and her prose and pacing reflect her insider’s knowledge of TV news and the needs of an audience. Like the others in this series, this is a lively mystery with snappy dialogue and a plot punctuated with enough twists to keep you tuned in until the credits roll.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee. She is at www.carolebarrowman.com.