I really should stop reading mysteries before bedtime. But the days are long and light-filled into the evening, and I forget. I start a new novel, and the sun goes down, the stars come out, and I just keep on reading into the wee hours. The next day — like today — I’m sleepy and don’t want to write, but I before I start reading another mystery — or just take a nap — I best tell you what’s been keeping me up nights.
Let’s start with the title-appropriate Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson (HarperCollins). Life is one long one-night stand for Christine Lucas, but not in the way you might think. She wakes up in a strange bed next to a strange man every day because a brain injury has resulted in years of memory loss. A look in the mirror reveals a middle-aged version of the young woman she still feels like; notes on the mirror tell her the man in her bed is her husband, Ben. A phone call from an unknown doctor prompts her to retrieve her journal from its hiding place in the closet. It’s full of the memories that sleep erases every night. “Don’t trust Ben,” she reads. Why not? She can’t remember.
Watson’s first thriller offers first-rate psychological suspense as Christine’s journal entries begin to fill in the blanks. She reads that she has recently started having visceral flashbacks of real memory. But what she remembers conflicts with what Ben has told her and the pictures he shows her. Perhaps she’s imagining that she once wrote a book and had a child. Ben reassures her daily with great patience and concern.
A story from an amnesiac’s perspective involves a certain amount of repetition, but Watson doesn’t overdo it as Christine realizes — every day — that the only person she can really trust is herself. If only she could remember. . .
Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Houghton Mifflin) offers such fascinating characters and atmosphere, I didn’t mind the meandering storyline in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Private investigator Claire DeWitt is sort of a New Age-noir Nancy Drew, who has been solving mysteries since her Brooklyn childhood with the help of her dreams, omens and a book by a mysterious French detective. Alcohol, cigarettes, pot, and memories of her mentor, Constance Darling, also inspire Claire as she searches for attorney Vic Willing, who disappeared during the storm. Perhaps the green parrots he used to feed are a clue, maybe the tough street kids he befriended. She compares tattoos and war stories with teen-age Andray, who reluctantly hooks her up with a gun and also has a connection with Constance.
“The thing about this city,” Andray says at one point. “It knows how to tell a beautiful story. It truly does. But if you’re looking a happy ending, you better be lookin’ somewhere else.”
Years ago, I dubbed Ruth Rendell something of a literary Hitchcock because she comes at her stories from unexpected angles. Now, in Tigerlily’s Orchids (Simon & Schuster), she does a version of “Rear Window” on a block of London flats. A widower named Duncan, who lives next door to a secretive Asian family, peers across the street, making up stories about the inhabitants of Lichfield House even as Rendell reveals their secret lives.
Charming slacker Stuart Font is planning a housewarming party in the flat he recently bought with an inheritance, but he’s having trouble with the guest list. He’d just as soon that Claudia, the married woman with whom he’s been having an affair, not come, especially with her powerful attorney husband. Olwen, the unkempt woman upstairs, is deliberately drinking herself to death. But the three young women who share a flat will be attractive additions, and he’ll also ask the hippie classics buff and the new woman who just moved in. He’s not much on the creepy building super and his vulgar wife, but Stuart asks them as well.
Rendell builds suspense slowly as she raises “people-watching” to a fine art. The party proves explosive, yet the requisite murder doesn’t happen until later, almost an afterthought. By then, readers have eavesdropped on a half-dozen characters’ private lives and lies, and mysteries have emerged. The most intriguing concerns the beautiful Asian woman across the street, whom Duncan calls “Tigerlily,” and with whom Stuart becomes obsessed in true Rendell fashion.
Town meets gown in Charlotte Bacon’s elegantly written academic mystery The Twisted Thread (Hyperion Voice). When a popular student at elite Armitage Academy is murdered in her dorm room shortly before graduation, her friends confide in Madeline Christopher, the novice English teacher. Madeline is at first flattered, and then threatened, by what the girls tell her. She turns to Matt Corelli, a local cop who has his own checkered history with the prep school.
Bacon moves among the perspectives of Madeline, Matt, Fred, an art teacher carrying on the family legacy, and Jim, the school’s middle-aged maintenance worker, well-versed in the school’s basement tunnels. Each has a back story that Bacon neatly twists into the well-knotted narrative that also includes a secret society, a charismatic headmaster, furtive love affairs, overprivileged students, suspicious townies and — to up the ante — a missing newborn.
Peter Lovesey’s likeable curmudgeon Peter Diamond returns in Stagestruck (Soho Press), an artful tale provoked by a horrific opening-night incident at Bath’s Theatre Royal. Diamond reluctantly investigates; just walking into the theatre gives him the willies, but his superior is angling for a part in an upcoming production of Sweeney Todd.
Lovsey’s humor and plotting are razor-sharp as Diamond and company question a cast of distinctive theater types, from the ambitious understudy to the oily artistic director. The theatre is supposedly haunted by a grey lady, and alternately blessed and cursed by tortoiseshell butterflies. Diamond’s impatient with the superstitions, but dogged about solving the mounting mysteries, including his own phobia of the footlights. The curtain comes down in a stunning finale.
Open Book: I read digital galleys of all of the above mysteries. Four were supplied by the publishers through NetGalley; Simon & Schuster has its own digital “galley grab.” I’ve more mysteries to read before I sleep, or they expire on my nook. Curses! Deadlines all over again.
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