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letterwriterNew York City, 1942. The war overseas plays out in the homeland, too. The very day Woodrow Cain, a former North Carolina cop with a tarnished reputation, takes a job with the NYPD, the luxury liner Normandie burns on the waterfront. There’s a black smudge on the skyline, and Cain feels his new life is “as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”

Betrayal, of course, is the very stuff of spy fiction, and Dan Fesperman expertly meshes crime and espionage, corruption and conspiracy in The Letter Writer (Knopf, paperback galley). An unidentified body in the Hudson has Cain stymied until a mysterious man calling himself Danzinger directs him to the city’s “Little Deutschland” of Nazi sympathizers. Danzinger is the title character, an older, well-educated immigrant fluent in five languages, who deals in information while translating and writing letters for his fellow immigrants on the Lower East Side. Over the last few months, he has become increasingly aware of the peril looming overseas as his clients’ secrets darken and more of their letters go unanswered. Cain initially resists Danzinger’s help, but he has trouble trusting anyone in New York, including his colleagues at the 14th precinct and the wealthy, well-connected father of his ex-wife.

The plot is wonderfully complicated, but Fesperman’s crisp scenes reveal one secret after another, both those involving the murder investigation, and personal back stories. Cain’s young daughter arrives in New York, and he begins seeing a woman he meets through Danzinger. The war breeds “creative alliances” — as Danzinger puts it — and offers new opportunities for the Mob. Cain’s encounters with real-life gangsters Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky bristle with tension and suspense. Still, danger rises from an unexpected quarter. Bullets find a target.

Despite the high-wire action near end, The Letter Writer is more like Danzinger, a thoughtful, learned risk-taker holding secrets close. My kind of thriller.

cityofsecretsJerusalem, 1945. Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazi death camps, drives a taxi through the winding streets. He tries to be casual at British checkpoints as he hands over his forged identity papers, supplied, like his name and car, by the Jewish underground. A member of a small cell tied to the Haganah, he is haunted by his past and memories of his lost family, including his beloved wife Katya. By day, he drives tourists from one historic sight to another. At night, he chauffeurs the widow Eva, a fellow cell member, to her assignations. When it rains, he still can smell the blood in the backseat leftover from the unknown man he ferried to the Belgian hospice under cover of darkness.

Stewart O’Nan takes a noir turn in his compact new novel, City of Secrets (Viking, review copy), which is taut as a trip wire. Although narrow in scope, it is morally complex as Brand is further drawn into the Zionist resistance and his missions become more dangerous and potentially violent. Questions are discouraged, paranoia flourishes. Brand learns how to use explosives. He comes under suspicion as an informer. The British crack down on suspected illegal refugees, sending them by bus to detention camps. The militant Irgun retaliate by planning an attack that will have profound consequences for the future of Palestine. Brand wonders if this is any way to live.

O’Nan provides some historical context in an afterwards, but it helps if you’ve heard of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, or at least have read Leon Uris’ Exodus. But while I’m sure his research was meticulous, the names of the streets aren’t what give the book its authenticity. It’s the way O’Nan gets inside his characters’ heads. In his last novel, West of Sunset, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Songs for the Missing, it was the family of a missing teen, and in Last Night at the Lobster, the workers at a closing chain eatery. Here it is Brand, a survivor who drifts into terrorism, a  man who has lost everything but hope. “He wanted the revolution — like the world — to be innocent, when it had never been.”

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rendellSometime back in the 1980s, I called Ruth Rendell “a literary Hitchcock,” and the phrase stuck. It was picked up in blurbs on paperbacks, sometimes attributed to me at the Orlando Sentinel, sometimes to other papers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune — where my reviews also ran. I repeated it myself, or variations thereof, as in this 1989 review of  The House of Stairs, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym: “Again we see how Rendell/Vine has become the Hitchcock of the literary thriller, approaching her subjects from unexpected angles and finding the odd twist that throws readers for a loop.”

Oh, I’m going to miss her. Ruth Rendell died Saturday in London, age 85. She wrote more than 60 books, both traditional detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and chilling novels of psychological suspense. She wrote the latter under the Rendell name, and she further transcended the genre with the Vine books. The first was A Dark Adapted Eye in 1986, and she once told me in an interview that she knew from the beginning which book would be a Ruth Rendell and which a Barbara Vine. “Barbara,” she said, “was more serious,” and the crimes depicted were more sensational, the kind that captured public attention and might result in a dramatic trial or a family scandal.

All of her novels were intricately plotted, less interested in the “whodunit” and  more in the how and why. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all, including the collections of short stories and the frosty novella Heartstones. Many of her characters were outsiders, perhaps mentally disturbed or caught up in strange obsessions. She was interested in questions of identity, especially in the Vine novels, and her narrators tended toward the unreliable. She wasn’t afraid of the sordid, the grotesque, the downright creepy.

In person, Rendell was pleasant and thoughtful, somewhat reserved. She took her writing seriously, she said, but not herself, and she had more ideas than time to write. Her most recent Rendell was The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about in the post “Scare Tactics” in November of last year. Its mystery centered on a pair of severed, skeletal hands — one male, one female — found in a tin box by construction workers. The last Wexford was 2013’s No Man’s Nightingale, in which the aging detective  came out of retirement to investigate the murder of a vicar. But this is no armchair cozy, I wrote, because the strangled vicar is a single mother, whose race, gender and progressive views divided her congregation. (After 2004’s The Babes in the Woods, the 19th Wexford, Rendell told me she thought it might be the last unless she had a really good idea. She then wrote five more Wexfords).

Vine wasn’t quite as prolific as Rendell. There are just 13, including 2013’s The Child’s Child, a book within a book. I wrote that whenever Rendell assumes her Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. The Vine novels still can surprise me on rereading because I never can remember all the secrets of The Minotaur, say, or Asta’s Book (published in the U.S. as Anna’s Book).

The New York Times obituary states that Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is to be published in October. I don’t know if it’s a Wexford, a Rendell stand-alone or a Vine. I know I can’t wait to read it, and that I’m sorry it will be the last.

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forgersA friend was trying to remember the title of an old P.D. James novel. “Y’know, the one with the hands.” Actually, no hands. Unnatural Causes opens with a memorably creepy sentence: “The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.”

Severed hands also figure in two chilly new crime novels. In Bradford Morrow’s artful The Forgers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), rare book collector Adam Diehl is found murdered in his Montauk home surrounded by the ruins of valuable signed books and manuscripts. That Adam’s hands are missing leads narrator Will to speculate that Adam, the beloved brother of his girlfriend Meghan, was killed and mutilated because he was a secret forger. Will knows something about the subject because he was once a forger, too — specializing in Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James, among others — but he has spent years working his way back into the book world’s good graces. Now he verifies the authenticity of  the handwriting in books’ inscriptions and in old letters for other collectors, occasionally recalling the thrill of faking the perfect signature. His suspicions about Adam, which he keeps from Meghan, are heightened when he begins receiving expertly forged letters from dead authors that hint at more secrets about the unsolved murder and Will’s past. Aha! The game is afoot — or is it at hand? Will makes for an eloquent and informed — if unreliable — narrator, and readers will appreciate the inside details about bibliophiles, obsession and books to die for.

nextdoorThe severed hands are skeletal in Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door (Scribner, digital galley), found in a tin box by construction workers. The tabloids are fascinated by the mystery of the two hands — one male, one female — and the news reunites a group of childhood friends who 60 years ago played in the subterranean tunnel where the box was found. Alan, long-married to one of the playmates, Rosemary, finds himself attracted to another, widowed Daphne, once “the girl next door.”  Michael decides to contact his ancient father, whose abuse drove away Michael’s mother in 1944. Others  also find their lives upended by the police investigation. Rendell moves between the present and past, stringing readers along with a deft hand skilled at misdirection. The book reminded me of A Fatal Inversion, a long-ago novel Rendell wrote under her Barbara Vine pseudonym, although its characters are decades younger than those in the new book. Both tales, though, explore how past choices play out in present lives, often with exquisite irony.

killernextIt’s not just hands that are severed in Alex Marwood’s grisly The Killer Next Door (Penguin, library paperback), her follow-up to the Edgar Award-winning The Wicked Girls. I liked that book a lot, but I had a harder time with this new thriller as the killer murders, dismembers and tries to mummify women living in a rundown boarding house in South London. Ick. But the main story of the diverse people living on the margins of society and slowly realizing that one of them is a killer kept me turning pages. I wanted to know why Collette fled her old life and changed her name, and what has turned young Cheryl into a shoplifter. What embarrassing secrets is Gerard hiding, and why is Thomas lying about his job? Is Hossein really a political refugee? The penny-pinching landlord has been feuding with basement resident Vesta for years. To what lengths will he go to oust her from her rent-controlled apartment? A bizarre accident brings together the boarders to orchestrate a cover-up with unforeseen and surprising consequences.

brokenA time-traveling serial killer stalked the pages of Lauren Beukes’  The Shining Girls, and she again adds a whiff of the supernatural to Broken Monsters  (Little, Brown, digital galley). A killer dubbed “the Detroit Monster” introduces himself to the city with a grotesque corpse, half-boy, half-deer.  Det. Gabrielle Versado catches the case and tries to keep the most sensational details out of the press. But this is the age of the internet, and citizen journalist Jonno sees the story as his ticket to fame. Meanwhile, Versado’s 15-year-old daughter is playing a dangerous online game with a sexual predator and ends up at an inner city art installation that hides another horrific creation. A rookie cop goes missing. Then there’s TK, whose checkered past brings him into contact with the homeless, the friendless and the deranged. The fragmented storylines converge in an abandoned factory warehouse where little is what it seems.

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goodbaitI can’t remember. Is the dead body encased in ice at the beginning of John Harvey’s Good Bait, or is it in Sara J. Henry’s A Cold and Lonely Place? Oh, yes, it’s in both, although not, of course, the same frozen corpse.

In Good Bait (Pegasus, digital galley via NetGalley)), the discovery of the body of a Moldavan teenager on Hampshire Heath jumpstarts DCI Karen Shields’ homicide investigation, which will eventually tie into Cornwall detective Trever Cordon’s search for a missing prostitute.

Both cases, which alternate by chapter, are confusing, and Cordon’s strains credibility. Still, the deft stand-alone from Harvey is especially strong in its characterizations; it’s also the third novel I’ve read in a month (after David Baldacci’s The Innocent and Peter Robinson’s Waiting in the Dark) dealing with human trafficking. Without realizing it, the writers are upping each other when it comes to horrific details.

henryHenry’s A Cold and Lonely Place (Crown, digital galley via NetGalley) is the sequel to her compulsively readable Learning to Swim, which introduced free-lance reporter Troy Chase. Here, Troy, who lives in Lake Placid, is covering the preparation for the Winter Ice Carnival at Saranac Lake when the ice cutters see the shadow of a man underneath the ice. Troy recognizes Tobin Winslow, the frat-boy slacker boyfriend of her roommate, Jessamyn, who had made a habit of dropping in and out of town and Jessamyn’s life. Was his death an accident, suicide or murder?

Partly to help Jessamyn, and then Troy’s sister, as well as to write an investigative story, Troy delves into the secret lives of Tobin and his wealthy family. A long-ago drowning suggests a connection, but so do events in Lake Placid with its transient population of snow jocks and Olympics trainees.

Henry writes with the crispness of a journalist, and her appealing characters (some returning from her first novel) and the well-drawn atmosphere make up for a rather undernourished plot. I want more of Troy, her faithful dog and a certain out-of-town detective.

flavia5“History is like the kitchen sink,” observes a character in Alan Bradley’s Speaking from among the Bones (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley). “Everything goes round and round until, eventually, sooner or later, most of it goes down the waste pipe. Things are forgotten. Things are mislaid. Things are covered up. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of neglect.”

Nothing would ever be lost if it were up to precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who cooks up poisons in her late uncle’s lab in her ancestral home Buckshaw and who wheels around her 1950s English village on a bicycle named Gladys, digging up mysteries at every turn. In her fifth outing, Flavia’s actual digging reveals an underground tunnel leading to a burial vault beneath the village church. It also leads to one of the book’s funniest scenes — when muddy Flavia rises from a grave in the churchyard and frightens the vicar’s wife. Of course, she has a good excuse for being there, as she hopes to discover who killed the church organist and perhaps recover a valuable jewel from an ancient bishop’s grave, which may keep Buckshaw from bankruptcy.

Oh, Flavia, she’s so delightfully sneaky, shivering with delight when Inspector Hewitt tells her that there are dangerous killers on the loose, “the words which every amateur sleuth lives in eternal hope of hearing.”  No surprise she was sacked from the Girl Guides “for having an excess of high spirits.” This high-spirited tale, though, offers quite a few surprises, including new information about Flavia’s missing mother, Harriet. More, please.

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Some writers have the gift of immersing you so completely in their world that you look up from the page with a start, surprised by the reality of your living room or cafe corner, or, heaven forbid, cramped airport seat, wherever you happen to be reading. Tana French whisks you away to Ireland with not so much a brogue as a silver tongue, persuasive and beguiling. Such a lovely writer.

French has three crime novels to her credit, each quite different from the others yet linked by sense of place and character. I love them all: In the Woods, a police procedural with an unreliable narrator and a whiff of something dark and haunted in a suburban village outside Dublin; The Likeness, in which a young cop goes undercover in an old Irish country house taken over by some university friends of secret history; and Faithful Place, the new one where a middle-aged Dublin detective is pulled back to the red-brick tenements and grasping tendrils of family he thought he’d escaped for good long ago.

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was 19 and heartsick when his girlfriend Rosie Daly stood him up on the winter night they were supposed to elope to England. He left Faithful Place and didn’t look back, and over the years, Rosie’s defection has worn itself into a corner in his mind, “like a bullet lodged too deep to dig out.” But now Frank’s younger sister Jackie, the only member of his contentious family with whom he’s kept in touch, calls to tell him Rosie’s old suitcase has been found in a nearby derelict house slated for gentrification. Frank’s jerked back to Faithful Place, his old assumptions crumbling like the bones soon found in the house’s basement. Rosie’s bones.

 Neither the cops working the case nor the old Faithful Place families, his own especially, want Frank around mucking up things. His alcoholic father coughs venom, his ma goes along with the abuse like always. His siblings, who haven’t escaped the neighborhood, eye him with suspicion, resentment and envy. Then there’s another family tragedy — accident? suicide? — and Frank doesn’t believe his estranged wife when she says no one could have predicted this event. 

“Personally, I would in fact have bet on at least one member of my family coming to a sticky and complicated end…”

But Frank doesn’t forsee that what next awaits him at Faithful Place is more even more complicated and sticky with memories and betrayals. It even threatens his 9-year-old daughter Holly. And it makes him wonder where his loyalties really lie, and how will he keep the faith?

Open Book: I have a trade paperback of Tana French’s In the Woods, a hardcover of The Likeness, and the e-book of Faithful Place (Penguin Group). They’re all keepers.

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