A friend is off to Great Britain for a couple of weeks and another is already there, posting lovely pictures on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am muttering, “Oh, to be in England,” drinking tea and reading a stack of atmospheric mysteries that make me think I’m there — almost.
The London where police detective Maeve Kerrigan works isn’t a tourist attraction, and Murchison House isn’t a stately home. Rather, it’s a concrete tower on a rundown public housing project that turns into a deathtrap for some poor souls when a fire breaks out. In Jane Casey’s After the Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Maeve and her fellow coppers discover mysteries among the victims. What was a conservative anti-everything MP doing there in the first place? Are the two unidentified women victims of human trafficking and murder? Why is the hospitalized mother living under an assumed name? Casey writes an absorbing procedural, but her sympathetic characters propel the series, especially Maeve, who is determined to stop the stalker who keeps her up at nights, and DI Josh Derwent, who doesn’t play well with others.
As a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway is usually concerned with old bones. But she is drawn into a current case in the picturesque medieval town of Walsingham when her old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, reveals she has been getting threatening letters from someone against women in the clergy. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 5-year-old daughter, is investigating the murder of a young woman in a white dress and blue cloak whose body is discovered a day after the druid Cathbad thinks he has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby churchyard. The plot of Elly Griffth’s clever The Woman in Blue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) pivots on the past, linking to both long-ago foster children and a missing religious relic. The personal relationships among the characters are just as complex, with Nelson dismayed to find a crack in his longtime marriage, and he and Ruth continuing to deny their mutual attraction.
Nursing a broken heart and fearing she may be implicated in a crime, librarian Jude flees London for a Scottish village. There, she finds refuge working in a dusty bookstore presided over by eccentric Lowell Glen, who also offers her housing in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage nearby. Catriona McPherson’s new standalone Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, digital galley) is awash in busybody villagers, old secrets and suspicion. Jude doubts that pregnant Eddy, who turns up out of the blue, is really Lowell’s longlost daughter, and is disconcerted that Eddy has her own suspicions about Jude’s motives. Neither has much use for gossipy Mrs. Hewston, who worked as a nurse for Lowell’s father, old Dr. Glen, but what of the troubling postscripts left in old books by gravedigger Todd Jolley? A threatening letter and a fire in the night have Jude looking over her shoulder, even as her past comes calling. McPherson’s twisty tale is not as cozy as its quaint setting and quirky characters suggest, but I’d love to get lost in Lowell’s bookstore.
Annie Dalton introduced Anna Hopkins and her dog Bonnie in last year’s The White Shepherd, and they return in Written in Red (Severn House, digital galley). Also back are the dogwalking friends Anna met during a murder investigation, vibrant young Tansy and retired Oxford professor Isabel Salzman. When professor James Lowell is attacked at the college where Anna works as an administrative assistant, she and Tansy are surprised at how devastated Isabel is at the news. Turns out she and James were part of the Oxford Six back in the mid-1960s, recruited as anti-communist spies by the manipulative Tallis. The unsolved murder of glamorous Hetty led to the group’s dissolution back then but not the secrecy surrounding it. Anna, still emotionally fragile from a family trauma, comes to Isabel’s aid when the older woman is assaulted, even as she makes plans for Christmas and time spent with Jake, the American soldier who rescued Bonnie in Afghanistan. It’s a busy, somewhat uneven book, but Dalton still leaves room for a third in the series. More dogs, please.
The dreaming spires of Oxford take on a nightmare cast in Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Keep You Close (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley). Rowan Winter hasn’t seen her best childhood friend, Oxford artist Marianne Glass, since a misunderstanding drove them apart 10 years ago. Still, she doesn’t believe Marianne’s fatal fall from the rooftop of the Glass family home was an accident, and her suspicions are heightened when she receives a one-sentence letter from Marianne mailed before her death: “I need to talk to you.” So Rowan returns to Oxford from London and begins piecing together Marianne’s recent past and last days, talking to her nearest and dearest, from her gallery owner fiance to a controversial artist who was painting her portrait. Whitehouse reminds me of Ruth Rendell in the way she artfully withholds information and misdirects readers. The result is suspenseful and unsettling.