MARCH MAYHEM: NEW NOVELS BY ALEX NORTH, PETER SWANSON and REBECCA MAKKAI
Here are three very different, but very good crime and mystery novels for your mid-March reading!
Dark crime author Steve Mosby made a spectacular re-entry into the crime writing ranks in 2019 with his first novel under the Alex North nom de plume, The Whisper Man. The book was a bestselling hit across the world and was followed up in 2020 by the even better The Shadow Friend (The Shadows in the United States). Now, after a nearly three year break, North is back with a new novel, The Half Burnt House (Michael Joseph, 21 March 2023), which continues in the creepy tradition of its predecessors.
The plot is a typically intricate merging of timelines and multiple characters by North, but primarily revolves around Katie Shaw and her estranged brother Chris:
As a teenager, Katie prided herself on being a responsible big sister, until the day she left her brother Chris alone for one selfish afternoon, and everything fell apart. Although Chris survived the attack the scars ran deep, both physical, and emotional. The siblings are now estranged, but when the police identify the missing Chris as a suspect in a murder investigation, Katie decides that it is time to make up for her negligence years before and prove that her brother is innocent. Meanwhile the pair of quirky detectives investigating the strange murder of academic Alan Hobbes, soon suspect that the secret to Hobbes’ death lies in the past. As Katie plunges into the search to find Chris, she comes to realise that old secrets can kill.
This is a dark and tricky tale that will keep you engrossed from beginning to end. It requires careful reading to keep the various strands, timelines and characters in mind, but well worth the effort. The book builds to a strong and powerful climax, that makes good sense of what has come before. The writing is rich and interesting and North is a very evocative writer, who can capture the different moods of a city, especially the transformation that occurs at night:
“as the day died, the night-time world took over. The other people came out, reclaiming and repurposing the city’s streets and spaces. He thought of it like a map being turned over. You might still be able to see an impression of the roads and landmarks through the paper, but the more precise geography of the city disappeared.”
I was a keen admirer of the novels that North did as Steve Mosby, and liked his ability to mix dark, almost supernatural, themes with traditional crime plots. The Half Burnt House has that same creepy mixture and is a compelling read.
The Half Burnt House is released in Australia on 21 March 2023 and in the United Kingdom on 16 March 2023. It was released in the United States under the title of The Angel Maker on 28 February 2023.
Here is a review of an earlier book by Steve Mosby: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/throwback-thursday-black-flowers-by-steve-mosby-alex-north-2011/
There is no doubting Peter Swanson’s love of the crime fiction genre. His books bristle with references to old crime novels and movies, and he enjoys taking old mystery tropes and playing with them and updating them. Probably my favourite of Swanson’s novels is The Kind Worth Killing, which was a loose variation on Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train, but with lots of originality and cleverness.
The ending of The Kind Worth Killing was satisfying and very appropriate, but it did leave you wanting more and now, some eight years later, Swanson has bowed to requests from fans around the world and produced a kind of sequel, The Kind Worth Saving (Faber, 28 February 2023).
As an aside, Swanson says that he has received more emails and letters about the character of Lily Kinter, who appeared in The Kind Worth Killing, than any other character he has written about and had long sought for a way to include her in a new story. The Kind Worth Saving provided that opportunity.
I won’t discuss the plot of The Kind Worth Saving in any detail, because to do so would ruin some of the surprises in the earlier book. While The Kind Worth Saving can be read as a stand alone novel, you get much more pleasure from it if you have read The Kind Worth Killing first.
In essence The Kind Worth Saving is a multiple viewpoint novel, with flash backs and clever twists. The story opens with a woman hiring a private detective to investigate whether her husband is having an affair with a colleague at his real estate firm. The detective probably becomes too involved in the case before the story moves in some unexpected directions and a character from the earlier book makes a welcomed appearance.
This is a very clever book with lots of switchbacks and surprises. At one stage, I mentally applauded Swanson for the smart way he manipulated readers’ assumptions, and provided a twist which took me by me surprise.
In all, The Kind Worth Saving one of my favourite books of the year so far. Well worth checking out, but please read The Kind Worth Killing first.
The Kind Worth Saving is released in Australia and the United Kingdom on 28 February 2023 and in the United States on 7 March 2023. Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for a copy of the book for independent review.
Finally, Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions For You (Fleet, 28 February 2023) is that rare beast, a literary mystery that is actually enjoyable and fun to read.
Acclaimed American author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Rebecca Makkai, has produced an intriguing and insightful book about an old crime at a prestigious boarding school, and a woman’s reckoning with her past. Successful film professor and podcaster, Bodie Kane, is drawn back to her old school to give a two week course in podcasting, and finds herself re-investigating the killing of her classmate Thalia Keith over twenty years before. A black athletics trainer was convicted at the time for the murder, but Bodie begins to suspect that the truth is not that simple.
This is an intriguing and well written novel that canvasses some interesting ideas and is full of sharp reflections on society, changing perceptions over time, tensions between genders and classes, and how we frame stories to fit a purpose. I particularly liked some of her early commentary on true crime podcasts and the ‘celebrity murder victim’ attitude that pervades much of popular culture today:
“I’m queasy about the fact that the women whose deaths I dwell on are mostly beautiful and well-off. That most of them were young, as we prefer our sacrificial lambs. That I am not alone in my fixations.”
The large cast of characters require close attention, but they are nicely sketched and often fully fleshed out, and they are easy to keep clear in your mind. The story moves at a moderate pace, although it picks up towards the end when the different storylines converge.
It takes a little while to understand the storytelling device that Rebecca is using, basically Bodie is telling a story and asking someone ‘some questions’, and the frequent shifting between timelines also takes some getting used to. But these are small points and did not detract from my enjoyment. For those concerned by such things, there are also several trigger events in the book around teenage bullying, sexual abuse and racial stereotyping.
Overall, I Have Some Questions For You is a thought provoking and enjoyable read that raises some serious issues, while also being very entertaining.
I Have Some Questions For You seems to have been released world-wide on 28 February 2023.
Thanks to the publisher and the Canberra Weekly for a copy of the book to review.