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Posts Tagged ‘Emily Arsenault’

At the beginning of her cunning first novel, The Ruin (Penguin, purchased e-book), Dervla McTiernan writes that in Irish, “Ruin means something hidden, a mystery, or a secret, but the word also has a long history as a term of endearment.” She teases out all these meanings in a layered procedural set in in a 2013 Galway thick with mist and misdirection. Police detective Cormac Reilly, recently transferred from Dublin, feels sidelined working cold cases until Jack Blake dies in a fall from a bridge. Neither Jack’s estranged sister Maude, who has been living in Australia, nor his girlfriend, a surgical resident, think it’s suicide, but the police are reluctant to investigate further.  Reilly remembers when he was a rookie in 1993 and removed 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack from a falling-down house in Kilmore after their mother died from a heroin overdose. When higher-ups turn their attention to Maude, who had motive and secrets, his suspicions are aroused. That the police unit itself is rife with rumors just adds to his unease. McTiernan follows Reilly, Maude and Aishling as they pursue mysteries old and new involving missing persons, drugs, rape and child abuse. It’s Ireland, so family loyalties and the church are also involved.  Count me in for next year’s second in the series.

Two dark moments of Florida history — Ted Bundy and the Dozier School for Boys — shadow Lori Roy’s modern Gothic, The Disappearing (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley). The residents of little Waddell in rural North Florida refer to a serial killer who took his last victim, a teenage girl, from their town years ago as “Ted.” These days, out-town-reporters keep showing up as former students of the now-closed Fielding School report crimes of abuse and even murder. Former headmaster Neil Harding, sliding into dementia in his historic home, has nothing to say. His long-suffering wife shields him from outsiders; his grown daughter Lane, recently divorced, has reluctantly moved home with her two daughters. She remembers when she was a girl and used to leave food outside for boys running away from the reform school. She also remembers being shunned in high school after an incident involving a runaway. When a Florida State student disappears, Waddell wonders if a serial killer like Ted has returned. But when Lane’s older daughter Annabel vanishes, too, Lane fears a connection to her father and the school’s tainted history. Roy, who has won two Edgar Awards for her previous books, uses multiple perspectives to tell her story: Lane, her younger daughter Talley, fretful Erma, and an odd handyman, Daryl, who spies on Waddell’s young girls. It’s all suitably complicated and creepy, doubly so for Floridians familiar with the real-life crimes that inspired Roy.

A true crime case — that of Britain’s notorious Lord Lucan — acts as touchstone for Flynn Barry’s nimble A Double Life (Viking, digital galley).  Narrator Claire is a London doctor whose real name is unknown to her colleagues and friends. She’s actually Lila Spenser, daughter of Colin Spenser, the Eton-educated lord who vanished when she was a child after being accused of attacking her mother and killing the nanny. Many believe that Spenser’s wealthy friends helped him escape, and he supposedly has been sighted in a number of countries over the last quarter century. Claire always has had trouble reconciling her childhood memories of her handsome father with her mother Faye’s account of her unhappy marriage. Mostly, she wants to find him, obsessively following Internet forums tracking the case and privately stalking his old friends. Barry mixes past and present to good effect, but the thrills really begin when Claire travels to Croatia on an apparent wild-goose chase. Maybe it is. Maybe not.

Belinda Bauer’s Snap (Atlantic Monthly, digital galley) has been longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize. A story in The Guardian noted that one judge thinks it transcends the crime genre, while another thinks it bends the form in new ways.  Ok. I think it’s a clever puzzler that reminds me of a Ruth Rendell standalone or one of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels as it presents several disparate stories before connecting the plots. First up are 11-year-old Jack and his younger sisters Merry and Joy, whose pregnant mother goes off for help when their car breaks down. She never returns, the victim of an unsolved murder. Three years later, Jack’s still in charge, keeping the siblings together in their old house after their grieving father walks out. He’s become an accomplished cat burglar, stealing food and necessities,  along with pricier goods he sells to his friendly neighborhood fence.  In another part of town, pregnant Catherine While wakes up to an intruder in the house and later finds a knife by her bed with the menacing note: “I could have killed you.” Not wanting to make a “hoo-ha,” she doesn’t tell her husband or call the police. The latter are busy trying to catch the Goldilocks burglar, although Chief Inspector John Marvel longs for a good murder case. Bauer has some fun snapping the puzzle pieces in place, and Jack is a character to care about as he tries to find his mother’s killer.

Three more for your reading pleasure. Lawrence Osborne does an elegiac Raymond Chandler in Only to Sleep (Crown, digital galley), which finds Philip Marlowe mostly retired in Mexico in 1988. With silver sword cane in hand, the aging detective investigates an insurance scam involving a dead American businessman and his lovely young widow. Nicely written and achingly familiar, this sunset stroll should please Marlowe fans. William Shaw set his terrific Kings of London crime trilogy in the 1960s, and in Salt Lane (Little Brown, digital galley), Det. Sgt. Alexandra Cupidi links her modern-day murder case in Kent to the 1980s peace protests. Opioid addiction, the immigrant crisis and homelessness also figure in the nifty plot, and prickly outsider Cupidi, introduced in last year’s The Birdwatcher, makes for an interesting protagonist. In The Last Thing I Told You (Morrow, digital gallery), Emily Arsenault plays the unreliable narrator card with aplomb. A quiet New England town that was once shocked by a mass shooting at a retirement home is again rattled by the murder of a well-liked therapist. Police detective Henry Peacher methodically investigates, but another voice — that of former patient Natalie Raines — commands attention as she recounts her therapy sessions when she was a troubled high school student. Is it just coincidence that Natalie is back in town for the murder? Mmmm. I didn’t think so…

 

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splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well.  But when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

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An urban fox prowls Hexham Place in Ruth Rendell’s cunning new ensemble piece, The St. Zita Society (Scribner, purchased e-book). The fox doesn’t care if the dustbins hold the detritus of the street’s tony residents or their various servants; he’s an equal-opportunity scavenger. So, too, is Rendell as she slyly details the intertwined upstairs-downstairs lives — the lazy au-pair who acts as two lovers’ go-between; the uptight business executive who keeps his car and driver on call; the elderly faux-aristocrat and her equally aged companion; the widowed Muslim nanny who dotes on her youngest charge; the gay couple who treats a tenant like a servant; the gardener who sips Guinness and thinks a god is talking to him through a cell phone; the young chauffeur sleeping with his employer’s daughter — and her mother.

Early on, Rendell notes a shaky bannister on some tall steps. It’s like introducing a gun in the first act; you know it’s going to go off in the third. Sure enough, the bannister plays a part in a sudden death, but the victim is a surprise, as is the cover-up that follows and turns one character into Lady Macbeth. As for the St. Zita Society, it’s a loose club of the servants named after the patron saint of domestic help. The members meet at the pub to air their grievances until the disappearance of a soap opera actor who’s a regular Hexam Street visitor really gives them something to talk about. The well-orchestrated conclusion is stunning.

Emily Arsenault’s new mystery novel Miss Me When I’m Gone (Morrow, digital galley via edelweiss) sounds like it might be a country song, which is only fitting. Gretchen Waters had a surprise bestseller with her memoir, Tammyland, in which she explored her life in the context of country music stars such as Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. After Gretchen is found dead at the bottom of a library’s concrete stairs, her family asks her college friend, Jamie Madden, to be her literary executor. A former reporter, pregnant Jamie is working as a part-time copy editor, and while pulling together pieces of Gretchen’s second book, she realizes her friend’s research into family history may have led to her death.

The story is told by Jamie, but is interspersed with chapters from Tammyland, as well as the notes and excerpts from Gretchen’s unfinished manuscript.  The whole is finely written and observed, as Arsenault delves into friendship, motherhood, identity, jealousy and violence. These same themes are reflected in the Tammyland sections, as Arsenault, via Gretchen, ponders how the messy lives of the stars spilled into their greatest hits. The only thing missing is a sound track.

Elly Griffiths’ mysteries featuring Ruth Galloway, an English forensic anthropologist and now single mom, just keep getting better. In A Room Full of Bones (Houghton Mifflin, library hardcover), Ruth’s examination of a medieval bishop’s coffin and of a small museum’s collection of bones from Australia are part of a complex plot of murder and superstition. Although it can stand on its own, the suspenseful book continues to reveal the personal problems of assorted series regulars, including archaeologists, police detectives and an enigmatic druid.

Open Book: You know me — why read read just three mysteries when you can read six or eight. I also enjoyed Jean Zimmerman’s rousing historical tale, The Orphanmaster (Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley), set in 1663 New Amsterdam — the future Manhattan; Cornelia Read’s involving Valley of Ashes (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley), in which former socialite Madeline Dare contends with toddler twins, a failing marriage, a part-time newspaper job and a series of arsons in Boulder; Meg Cabot’s fun Size 12 and Ready to Rock (Morrow; paperback review copy), featuring former pop star Heather Wells and her detective boyfriend caught up in a reality TV murder; Sara Foster’s chilling Beneath the Shadows (St. Martin’s, digital galley via NetGalley), in which a young mother returns to the snowy North Yorkshire moors where her husband vanished; and Alex Grecian’s gritty The Yard (Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley), set in a Victorian London still haunted by the Ripper and faced with the murder of a Scotland Yard detective. Now to start on Julia Keller’s A Killing in the Hills.

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