The Nutting Girl, by Fred DeVecca

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Alvin Toffler famously predicted in 1970’s Future Shock that coming generations would have many jobs in their lifetimes. Frank Raven can testify to that. A former monk, policeman, and private eye, these days he walks his dog, records bird songs, and runs a low-key movie theater in Shelburne Falls, a small town in Massachusetts, near the Vermont border.

His peace is disturbed by the arrival of a Hollywood film director and his crew, scouting locations for a new film featuring the mega-star Juliana Norcross. When the reckless Juliana goes missing, the film’s director Nick Mooney hires Raven to find her, which he does rather quickly, and then to protect her—primarily from herself. Then Juliana really disappears.

This debut mystery has a lot to recommend it. DeVecca takes these seemingly stock characters—a disillusioned, middle-aged detective; an arrogant, young director; and a wild, self-destructive actress—and brings them to life as unique individuals. He does this by bringing out emotions and aspects of them, contradictory and compelling. For example, Juliana instantaneously bonds with the Sarah, the teen-aged daughter of Raven’s new friend. Their friendship and mutual trust develops throughout the story.

Raven himself, in addition to listening to the birdsongs he’s recorded, is a morris dancer. Morris is a traditional performance dance from England whose popularity took off in the U.S. in last quarter of the 20th century when the handful of morris teams swelled to over a hundred. For me it was love at first sight that summer afternoon in 1975. I was taken by the simple elegance of the dance, the strength and grace it required. I went on to dance and perform morris for almost 40 years before retiring. (Full disclosure: I am slightly acquainted with the author through the morris community and have walked the streets of Shelburne Falls).

Morris dancers are mostly enthusiastic amateurs, for whom dancing is but one part of their lives. DeVecca’s description of Raven’s team practicing and then dancing the sun up on May Day adds distinctive color to the life of the town, as do his descriptions of the town itself, its famous Bridge of Flowers, and the Deerfield River.

After Juliana disappears and is given up for dead, Raven and Sarah continue to search for her and try to understand what happened on her last day. There are clues for the reader to untangle and ever-higher stakes to drive the story. As an editor, I would have made a few recommendations designed to tighten it up, but this is a very good first entry in what I hope will be a series of books about Raven and Shelburne Falls.

Have you read a mystery set in a place familiar to you? Did that make it more interesting?

Deep South, by Nevada Barr

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Looking to change up her life, Ranger Anna Pigeon accepts a promotion that takes her away from her beloved Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Driving deep into the tangled darkness, Anna finds her car sliding off the road. Then she learns that the directions she’d been following, provided by one of the rangers who will be working for her, had sent her down a little-used road that led nowhere. Is it a prank? Or something more ominous?

Anna struggles to adjust to her new role as chief in a culture where women are not expected to hold positions of authority. At the same time, the culture calls for men—even teenaged boys—to be respectful towards women. Anna stumbles across a group of Civil War re-enactors, a good introduction to Faulkner’s home state, the man who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then she stumbles upon a particularly gruesome murder and it is up to her to solve it.

I’ve long been a fan of Barr’s series, that takes Pigeon to national parks around the country. I’d read this book a dozen years ago, but have been rereading—or rather listening to—the whole series. I’ve been on the road a lot the last few months, and these books make the miles fly by. It also seemed appropriate to reread these books starting last year, which was the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service.

I remember hearing Barr speak, I think in 1998. She said that when she decided to write a mystery, she took a handful of her favorite mysteries and spent a long time studying and deconstructing them. Her process obviously worked well, because her first Anna Pigeon mystery, Track of the Cat, was a bestseller as have been the rest in the series.

As I’ve mentioned before, writers often debate about process. Is it better to plot out your story before starting to write or just start writing (known as “pantsing”, as in writing by the seat of your pants)? The answer is yes. Whatever works for you. And writers sometimes find that their process changes with each new writing project.

Another debate centers around training. Is it better to start by getting an MFA in creative writing or study the many craft books available? Or is it better to follow Barr’s path of reading intensively as a writer, studying books that have worked? Again, there are many paths to your goal. I don’t have an MFA, but I’ve taken a few workshops. I’ve learned a great deal from writing craft books as well as from reading as a writer (the original concept for this blog).

Perhaps most valuable of all has been engaging in critique groups. This involves not just reading a variety of work and having to think critically about it, but also hearing how other people think and react to the same work.

A friend recently said that she’d stopped reading Barr’s mysteries because they got too violent. I see what she means. As I’m proceeding through the series, it is not the violence of the murder, which is expected, but the violence Anna Pigeon encounters that strikes me.

Still, I love the descriptions of the parks, the complex characters both new and repeated, and Anna herself with all her doubts and strengths. She continues to hold my interest. And Barr does suspense well, so well that I find myself at the end of a roadtrip that seems to have taken no time at all.

Which national park–in the U.S. or another country–is your favorite?

By Cook or By Crook: A Five-Ingredient Mystery, by Maya Corrigan

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Mysteries are a genre in themselves, and there are numerous sub-genres. You can pick up a police procedural or a hard-boiled mystery. You might find a legal thriller, a paranormal, or a historical mystery. An extremely popular sub-genre is cozies, the sort of classic mysteries written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the puzzle is the important component and the grisly details are mostly off-stage.

This 2014 mystery is the first in a series and is both a cozy and a cooking mystery. Val has moved back to Bayport, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, ostensibly to persuade her grandfather to fix up and sell his large, old house and move to a retirement community. In reality, she’s hoping to make a new life for herself after a horrific car accident put an end to her career promoting cookbooks in New York City.

But there are plenty of snares for the uninitiated in a small town. Val is invited to the home of a new friend from the tennis club and finds her dead. Val gets ensnared in trying to solve the murder because the prime suspect is her cousin. Her investigation forces her to question her first impressions of the people she’s met in Bayport.

She herself becomes threatened when an SUV runs her off the road and there are mysterious sounds in the night. Some among the police suggest that it is just her imagination, but Val isn’t so sure.

I wanted a pleasant story to distract me during a challenging week and found it here, along with a few details of living on the Chesapeake Bay which is always nostalgic for me, but especially so just now.

The cooking aspect is quite fun, too, as Val tries to teach her grandfather to cook. As a bonus, several recipes are included in the book, one of which is for crab cakes. Well, like most Marylanders I have my own recipe for them, one that my mother jealously guarded, even if she did get it off an Old Bay tin.

I enjoyed the story, given the requirements I came in with. Yes, some of the clues were a bit broad, and I wished Val would have stood up for herself a bit more, but those are minor quibbles compared with the amiable diversion it gave me. The description of the town’s alliances and associations—and especially of teaching someone to eat hard crabs—were great fun.

What mystery sub-genres do you enjoy?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories, by Ian Rankin

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Two weeks ago I was thrilled to hear Ian Rankin speak at my local indie bookstore. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since the early 1990s when I picked up one of his books at a store in Toronto. I’d seen high praise for his work on DorothyL, a listserv for mystery enthusiasts, but his books were not available where I lived and online bookstores were only just getting started.

Rankin’s books feature John Rebus, following him from his early days as a detective sergeant in Edinburgh as he moves up through the ranks. In the last few years, Rankin has started another series with Inspector Malcolm Fox, but this volume of short stories is all about Rebus.

It’s surprising to me that short story collections are not more popular, especially now when there are so many entertainment options and our attention spans are said to be shrinking. One reason that I sometimes resist short stories is that I find the beginning of a story requires the most concentration. With a novel, the payoff for that investment is much larger than with a short story. However, here the familiar characters and setting make the stories easy to move into.

Putting a story collection together can be tricky. When you put stories written independently next to each other, sometimes unwanted resonances or repetitions might emerge. Not here. The stories are chronological—one of the joys of the Rebus series is that Rankin has the character age in real time—and vary in interesting ways. For example, while all of the stories are in third person, some of them are from the point of view of characters other than Rebus.

We first meet him in his fifties, living alone since his wife left taking their daughter with her. Rebus doesn’t have much of a life outside of the job: just a few friends from work, a broad knowledge of the pubs in Edinburgh, and a love of music. He’s known for going his own way—a trait not valued in a bureaucratic organisation like the police—but also for solving the thorniest crimes. He carries emotional scars from his past, wounds that are chinks in his armor. And, like the best detectives, he has a strong moral code that is constantly being tested.

What I love most in Rankin’s novels are the complex puzzles. The name Rebus itself means a puzzle. In every story, there are multiple strands, later understood to be thematically related, that come together at the end. To my surprise, the stories here are also quite complex despite the smaller playing field.

I also love the huge role played by Edinburgh in Rankin’s work. I feel like I know the city even though I’ve never been there. We endure its weather, spend time in Rebus’s favorite pub, the Oxford Bar, and visit the tourist spots like the Royal Mile and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We find ourselves in less savoury parts of town and even explore secret places, like the city below the city. As we follow Rebus in his chase for clues, we start to understand the differences between Edinburgh and other places, such as Glasgow or Fife.

There was standing room only at my local indie bookstore when Ian Rankin spoke. I’m delighted that so many readers have discovered this fabulous author and that he is continuing to give us stories that challenge our minds, enlarge our world, and ask us to look again at our own moral code.

What mystery writers have made your list of favorite authors?

The Dogs of Riga, by Henning Mankell

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I came to the corporate world from teaching where even the most cynical and disillusioned co-worker started from a place of caring about the children. When I started working in the corporate world, however, I quickly realised that there were two sorts of people there: those who cared only about getting ahead and those who cared about the work itself. Inspector Kurt Wallander is one of the latter.

Here, Wallander investigates the case of two dead men washed ashore in a life raft. Apparently in their mid-30s, dressed in expensive clothes with their arms wrapped around each other, both men have been shot through the heart. The previous day, one of Wallander’s younger colleagues had taken an anonymous call that a raft with two dead bodies would be washing ashore. At the time, Wallander decided to alert the coast guards and then wait and see what happened.

Wallander is not averse to waiting. He can act and does, but he takes a measured and intelligent approach to his job. Unfortunately for him, the ramifications of the case take him out of his comfort zone, out of his city and even out of his country. He must take action in an atmosphere of uncertainty, guesswork, and peril for both himself and others.

Once it is determined that the two men probably came from Latvia, Wallander is relieved to turn over the investigation to his Latvian counterpart, Major Liepa, whom he recognises as a policeman after his own heart. When the two talk late into the night over a bottle of whiskey, Liepa explains that he is a man of faith, though he does not belong to a religion. He cares about “the fight for survival”, which to him includes “the fight for freedom and independence.”

Another murder drags Wallander back into the case and sends him to Latvia, where he has to negotiate places, people and power structures that are foreign to him.

This is the third book in the Wallander series, first published in Sweden in 1992. The date is significant because, as Mankell describes in his Afterword, “Just a few months after this book was finished, in the spring of 1991, the coup took place in the Soviet Union—the key incident that accelerated declarations of independence in the Baltic countries.”

While the story is intricately plotted, with many unexpected twists and turns, the real joy of the book for me is Wallander as a character. We see much of his life outside of work: oppressed by the intense cold, navigating a difficult relationship with his elderly father, thinking of his daughter Linda who is away at college, and often missing his friend and mentor Rydberg who has died of cancer only a month previously.

Such scenes, which seem irrelevant to the puzzle of the two men in the life raft, help us with the puzzle that is Wallander himself. And each scene echoes through the story, adding context and color to Wallander’s thoughts and choices and actions.

I love the realism of this portrayal. Wallander gets discouraged; he needs to stop and rest sometimes or eat or use the washroom. He questions himself, at one point describing himself as “a Swedish police officer in early middle age, one who has completely lost his sense of judgment and gone out of his mind.”

But he goes on. Offered opportunities to leave and return to his safe desk in Ystad, Wallander is tempted but plows ahead, driven by the core of integrity that I most appreciate in those around me and in the protagonists with whom I choose to spend my time. These are my heroes, whether sitting at a desk near me or in the pages of a book: however flawed, they labor for something larger than themselves.

Who are some memorable characters from novels you’ve read?

And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippman

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While in line at Starbucks, small businesswoman and single parent Heloise Lewis learns of the apparent suicide of the so-called “suburban madam”. She hears the woman behind her patronisingly mocking the dead woman’s mental health and—in an action that might seem odd to anyone not from Baltimore—turns to confront her. Heloise defends the dead woman, arguing that prostitution is a victimless crime and, further, that as a person the woman deserves more respect than to have her entire life summed up in two words. She was “‘Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother.’” Like Heloise herself.

This 2012 stand-alone from the popular author draws us irresistibly into Heloise’s life, a life she’s fabricated out of her damaged past to protect herself, her son, and her employees. Chapters alternate between Heloise’s history and the present where her carefully constructed life is under siege from an increasing number of threats.

Lippman deals out these threats with care. She follows up the surprise of Heloise’s profession with an account of the moment when as a child, then called Helen, her father first turns on her the anger and fists previously reserved for Helen’s mother. Then in the present, Heloise suffers the small betrayal of one of her oldest and favorite clients asking for someone new on his next visit.

By this time it was hard for me not to identify with Heloise and feel so firmly on her side that I could not abandon her when a worse threat is revealed: the possibility that her son’s father, a gangster and murderer, might be released from prison. I could not distance myself, thinking that such a thing would never happen to me. I could understand only too well how I might have gone down that path.

As K.M. Wieland describes in her blog for writers, it is a character’s backstory (or history) that makes a reader identify with her. As Lisa Cron says, backstory is “what gives meaning to everything that is happening up there on the surface” of the story. The trick, of course, is to weave it in carefully so it doesn’t overwhelm the story. With the parallel stories of Heloise’s past and present, Lippman doubles the difficulty. The difference in names–Helen and Heloise–helps keep the reader oriented between the two stories.

There are more betrayals, large and small, as Heloise struggles to save her life and the lives of her sons and colleagues. For me, the great joy of this book, aside from its powerful momentum, is the way Lippman details the inner workings of Heloise’s business. She’s thought through even minor details such as Heloise providing bracelets with GPS chips for her employees. When they leave her employ, they can have the chip removed and keep the bangle as a souvenir.

Even better is the way Lippman presents Heloise’s approach to running her business. It reminded me of Stringer Bell taking economics classes to better manage drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s business in The Wire. It only makes sense, of course. A business is a business. Yet it keeps the reader identifying with Heloise even as we venture into less familiar territory.

As always with a Lippman novel, even as I’m racing to the end to find out what happens, I’m aware as a writer of bits of information falling into place, even those that seemed random or extraneous. I resisted this book for a long time because I so loathed the misogyny of the Philip Roth novel that the title pays tribute to that I not only threw it out but also tore it up first so no one else would suffer from its poison. However, I’m happy to recommend Lippman’s book as a supremely satisfying read.

Have you read any of Laura Lippman’s books? Which one is your favorite?

Salem’s Cipher, by Jess Lourey

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While the town of Salem, Massachusetts does make an appearance in this mystery/suspense novel, the title refers to Salem Wiley, a young woman whose deliberately uneventful existence in Minneapolis is torn apart by a phone call. She is a genius at cryptography and produced ground-breaking research for her PhD thesis, but her life is severely limited by a form of agoraphobia. The call from her best friend, Bel Odegaard, changes everything.

Police have informed Bel that her mother’s apartment has been broken into, a neighbor and her dog left in a pool of blood, and Grace–Bel’s mother–gone missing. When the two young women arrive, they discover that Salem’s mother was at the apartment as well, something we know from the prologue, and both Grace and Vida are missing, one of them probably dead.

Despite FBI Agent Stone’s warning that they too may be targets, Salem and Bel set out to follow the clue left for them by Vida, hoping to rescue their mothers. Or revenge them. As this tense, suspenseful novel tears along, the two women uncover a conspiracy going back hundreds of years. Each clue involves some kind of code, which Salem must decipher–and fast if they are to help their mothers. Factor in unforgettable characters they encounter, Emily Dickenson’s home and poetry, and an election about to produce the first female president of the U.S. and you have a story that works on several levels.

Lourey also works in references to scientific contributions by women, without slowing the breakneck speed of the story. She does an amazing job of capturing and conveying the emotions of the characters, especially the fraught mother-daughter relationships.

There are a few continuity problems that another editorial pass might have caught. There are also a couple of what Ray Rhamey calls “information questions” where information well known to the point-of-view character is teased yet deliberately withheld from the reader, presumably to create suspense. Mystery readers usually want to solve the puzzle along with the protagonist, so such tricks feel as though the author isn’t playing fair.

And it’s unnecessary, because Lourey is brilliant at ratcheting up the suspense. Every page has multiple instances of what Donald Maass calls “micro-tension” . A new and stunning bit of information or insight, a panicked physical reaction (“frantic movements”), even the use of especially active adjectives and verbs (“The . . . plane pitched and dropped, yanking Salem out of her light sleep.”) all keep the characters’ emotions in conflict and the reader turning the pages.

If you like to unravel a conspiracy or a good puzzle, if you long for a novel with engaging characters and a little history and literature thrown in, then hop on this rocket of a story.

Have you read a good mystery/suspense novel lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Lake House, by Kate Morton

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Summer is here, and no vacation is complete without plenty of books to read. Ebooks made packing easy: just bring my Nook. This year, though, I’ve gone even lighter, reading books on my phone through the Nook and Kindle apps. Which books, though?

For long car trips (I seem to do a lot of these) I love audio books, but must select them carefully. Thrillers make me drive too fast; long-winded sentences or complicated concepts make me tune out because I can’t follow them while driving. And the actor matters as well. If the delivery is too monotone, my eyelids get heavy. I thought I’d chosen a great book for my last trip: one of my favorite authors. However, this particular novel was more of a psychological study; it would have been excellent reading (and I may come back to it) but too slow for a car trip.

If I’m flying I want a book that is absorbing but not too thought-provoking, since its purpose is to distract me from my surroundings and make the time go by quickly. For a recent flight I picked up this novel by Kate Morton, an author new to me, though this is her fifth novel.

It was perfect! I fell into the story and barely came up for air during the long day’s travel.

Sadie Swallow, a disgraced detective keeping her head down at her grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall, goes running and stumbles on a beautiful abandoned house. Fascinated by the house, she becomes riveted by the 70-year-old mystery of the disappearance of the small much-loved boy whose loss so broke his family that they could not bear to return.

The story goes back and forth in time to fill in her past and that of the elderly crime novelist who is the last remaining member of the family who lived there. This kind of time-shifting rarely works, but here Morton handles it brilliantly. Each chapter is a single time period and labeled up front, so there’s no confusion. What really makes it flow are the transitions within the text, the scene at the end of one chapter flowing seamlessly into the first scene of the next chapter; even if there is a huge time gap, the story feels continuous.

The crime novelist, Alice Edevane, older sister of the lost toddler, is easily the most intriguing character in the book. While very successful as a writer, Alice loathes publicity and is impatient with people who don’t meet her standards. Those standards emerge through her interactions with Peter, the man she hires as a personal assistant, and later with Sadie: on time for appointments, clever (in the British sense of intelligent and practical), and a quality I used to call clear through: open and honest, without social artifice—someone you can trust.

I loved spending time with Alice. And also with Sadie. As a very junior female detective she’s smart but a little too willing to go her own way, ignoring orders from above, thus getting on the wrong side of her superiors. She has a bit of a troubled background, hence being brought up by her grandparents, and is too driven by work to care for a houseplant much less a relationship.

In addition to enjoying the characters, I too fell for the house and for the life the family led there before their tragedy. Set in Cornwall and the London I’d just left how could I resist? The atmosphere reminded me a little of the first part of Atonement. I loved Sadie’s grandfather and his life as a widower, making pies for the fête, walking his two dogs. He’s at peace with himself and able to advise Sadie without seeming too good to be true.

Some cross-genre novels shortchange one or another of their genres. For example, The Girl on the Train was a good thriller, but disappointing as a mystery. Here, Morton manages to present a satisfying mystery in a historical novel that also tackles important issues in women’s lives.

There were a couple of things I thought too improbable and if editing the book would have advised Morton to change. But overall a most satisfying read. I’ll certainly take along one of her other novels on my next flight.

Can you recommend a good audio book for a car trip or one for a flight?

Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason

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I have long had a soft spot for Iceland, partly from Halldór Laxness’s novels, so I was excited to find this mystery set in Reykjavik. The first of Indriðason’s books to be translated into English, Jar City starts with Detective Inspector Erlendur at the scene of a murder. In the sitting room of the basement flat he finds the body of a 70-year-old man who has been hit in the head with a heavy glass ashtray. Although Icelandic murders are not complicated, Erlendur knows this case will be different. In fact, everyone at the crime scene realises that this murder is something quite special, because they have seen the cryptic note left on the body, only three stunning words.

You want to know what they are, don’t you? So did I. When a mystery opens with this sentence “The words were written in pencil on a piece of paper placed on top of the body” you don’t expect to have to get through half the book before you find out what those words are.

This trick is what Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill calls an information question. He explains that the first page of any novel should raise a story question—a plot question about what will happen next—but not a simple question about information that the characters in the scene obviously have but the author has chosen not to reveal. Information questions break the contract between writer and reader, a contract especially binding in a murder mystery where the reader is challenged to identify clues and put them together to reach the answer before the detective does.

The note is only the first of several information questions in the book. Another egregious one is the identity of Erlendur’s mentor Marion Briem, whom we are told in a foreword has a gender-neutral name and whose gender is never identified by a pronoun. I’m all in favor of appreciating the spectrum of gender, but here it’s done so coyly that it just feels phoney. Information questions are a cheap way to try to create suspense instead of actually working to create suspense through the story. And they are irritating.

Aside from the information questions and some inconsistent word choices that are probably the fault of the translator (i.e., slang from different countries and different parts of the U.S. inexplicably mixed together), the book is quite good. Indriðason’s prose is appropriately spare, giving the reader a feel for life in Iceland’s capital city.

Erlendur is the usual sloppily dressed, lonely detective. He has two grown children: Eva Lind, a drug addict who provides a subplot for the book, and a son of whom we’re only told that he’s in “rehab”. Presumably that’s for recovery from alcohol or drugs rather than a knee replacement, but once again we are not given that information.

The story behind the murder is laid out well, with deceptive blind alleys and red herrings. Best of all, there is a larger story, a story about an aspect of society specific to Iceland but relevant to all of us.

You want to know what that larger story is, don’t you? Irritating, isn’t it? But in this case, I’m sparing you from a spoiler. If you can get past your irritation, the book is actually a good read.

Have you read any books set in Iceland?