Every fall, I start to look back more critically at the many books I’ve read over the preceding months, with an eye toward choosing the top-quality crime-fiction releases of that particular year. Although 2020 has—with its pandemic, its lockdowns and social separations, its economic woes, and its destructive deceptions spread by high political officials—been a time we’d prefer to forget, for the most part, it has at least provided diversions in the form of consuming fiction. I won’t promise that all or any of the five crime and mystery novels briefly reviewed below will find a place on my favorites list for 2020, but they are certainly in the mix.
Snow, by John Banville (Hanover Square Press):
Booker Prize-winning Irish author John Banville has, since 2006, divided his output between literary fiction, published under his own name, and atmospheric crime novels carrying the pseudonym Benjamin Black, most of which take place in 1950s Dublin and star a bibulous pathologist named Quirke. Snow, however, muddies such boundaries. A Banville-credited whodunit, it’s ostensibly set in 1957 (though period details are scant) and even includes mention of Quirke’s status (“He’s on his honeymoon!”). But the sleuth in this case is Detective Inspector St. John (“Sinjun”) Strafford, who’s sent to southeastern Ireland under wintry conditions to probe the brutal, sexually suggestive slaying of a popular, if oft-reprimanded, Catholic priest, Father Tom Lawless. That murder occurred during the cleric’s stay at a country estate owned by Colonel Geoffrey Osborne and his family, whose secrets defy Strafford’s scrutiny. No less likely to frustrate a satisfying result are efforts by the Catholic Church to misrepresent Lawless’ demise as accidental. Banville has ridden his Catholic-bashing hobbyhorse to a lather over the years, but he complicates things nicely by making Strafford a Protestant of aristocratic pedigree, and thus a target of suspicion within the Irish police force. Although the puzzle plot here serves mainly as a frame in which to showcase Ireland’s postwar social ills, Banville’s prose is elegant and his story’s undercurrent of psychological manipulation quite potent.
The Abstainer, by Ian McGuire (Random House):
In 1867 three Fenians, members of a secret fraternal organization fighting for Ireland’s independence from Britain, were hanged in Manchester, England, following a police shooting. From that historical incident, McGuire spins a tense, noirish thriller about two damaged men dedicated to clashing causes: James O’Connor, an ex-Dublin constable prone to insobriety since his wife’s demise, who’s been seconded to the Manchester force to capture Irish firebrands; and Stephen Doyle, a cruelly scarred Irish veteran of America’s Civil War, who’s in England to “wreak some havoc,” and sees opportunity in the execution of those “martyred” Fenians. A spy tips O’Connor to Doyle’s intentions; however, it’s his boss who then recruits the constable’s nephew—newly arrived from New York—for the perilous mission of infiltrating the rebels and flushing out Doyle. O’Connor hopes to rebuild his life, abstaining from drink and envisioning romance with an informer’s sister. But the theft of pages from his police notebook leads to tragedy, and propels him into a downward spiral that will turn O’Connor as vengeful as Doyle. Tautly composed, popping with vivid imagery, this is an often bleak yet extraordinary yarn.
The Finisher, by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime):
Fifty years after publishing his first novel—the wonderful Wobble to Death, about murder during a Victorian race walking competition—British author Lovesey returns to the sports world in this 19th mystery starring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond. In the run-up to Bath, England’s spring half-marathon, we’re introduced to Maeve Kelly, a usually non-athletic schoolteacher, who’s training for this charity event in order to atone for an accident that cost the British Heart Foundation a valuable donation. Her preparations are onerous; yet they do lead her into a welcome friendship with Olga Ivanov, a weight-loss-obsessed Russian whom Maeve rescues from a mugging. On the day of the race, the curmudgeonly Diamond finds himself doing crowd control—only to spot among the competitors Tony Pinto, a sex predator recently freed from prison. When one of the women runners goes missing, Diamond blames Pinto. But his imperious efforts to prove that case lead to his censure, a quixotic search for corpses in the quarries beneath Bath, and human-trafficked Albanians fleeing a gang boss called the Finisher. Suffused with dry wit and local history, carefully plotted, and boasting myriad entertaining players, Lovesey’s latest is a master study in weaving a modern whodunit.
Black Sun Rising, by Matthew Carr (Pegasus Crime):
Integrating crime fiction into historical events can be a ticklish balancing act: one or the other component usually suffers. Not so with this suspenseful, impellent yarn set amid Barcelona, Spain’s notorious Tragic Week, during which socialists and Catalonian nationalists clashed with Spanish armed forces in the summer of 1909. The story introduces Irish-Chilean private investigator Harry Lawton, a Boer War vet and once-rising Scotland Yard detective, who’s hired both to confirm that a British scientist/explorer, Dr. Randolph Foulkes, was killed in a terrorist bombing on Barcelona’s scenic pedestrian way, the Ramblas, and to identify a woman Foulkes gave money to before his passing. As tensions build in the city, provoked by Spain’s colonial bellicosity in North Africa and augmented by an imminent general strike, Lawton—inhibited by his unfamiliarity with the city as well as his random epileptic fits—labors to reconstruct Foulkes’ final days, connecting that scientist with a prominent mesmerist, eugenics experiments, and a rumored blood-drinking killer, the “beast of the Ramblas.” Yet even aided by a local poet-journalist and a naïve young anarchist schoolteacher, Lawton is hard-pressed to solve his case before Barcelona erupts in violence. If we’re lucky, this won’t be Carr’s sole Harry Lawton novel.
Death in the East, by Abir Mukherjee (Pegasus):
Mukherjee’s fourth historical puzzler (and his best since A Rising Man), sends former Scotland Yard detective Captain Sam Wyndham from Calcutta to a remote Indian ashram, in 1922. He’s going there not on police business, but to be cured of his opium addiction. However, crimes past and present soon intrude upon the captain’s peace. Before reaching the retreat, he spots a man he’d known—and who he thought had died—in 1905, back when Wyndham was still a dewy constable in London’s East End, helping to probe the vicious locked-room slaying of a young housekeeper, Bessie Drummond. Although Bessie’s Jewish neighbor was eventually fitted up for that killing, Wyndham knows the real perpetrator was the man he’s convinced he has now seen again in India, 17 years later. Then, while recovering from his ashram treatment, Wyndham investigates the disappearance of a fellow patient. This leads our sort-of-hero to a second locked-room murder—even more impossible than the first—that he can only solve with help from his clever Indian sergeant, “Surrender-not” Bannerjee. The author deftly toggles between his two time periods and twin mysteries, and his explorations of Wyndham’s backstory and Bannerjee’s recent political maturation add welcome depth to both characters. ◊