Trail of the Spellmans

My newest review is of Lisa Lutz’s Trail of the Spellmans. This is actually the fifth installment in Lutz’s humorous series, but the first of the Spellman novels that I’ve read. I enjoyed the good-natured family chaos in this one, though, and some of the earlier titles sound enjoyable, so I wouldn’t write off the possibility of going back and giving another of these a shot.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence here. The full text is below.

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In Trail of the Spellmans, the fifth installment (or “Document #5”) of her popular Spellman Files series, Lisa Lutz’s hard-drinking, wise-cracking P.I. Isabel (Izzy) Spellman has her hands full dealing with several compromising surveillance jobs, a house-sitting assignment for an OCD mathematics professor, and all-out chaos at home. Which is, of course, what makes it fun.

Much in the vein of a Carl Hiaasen caper, Lutz’s Spellman novels are delightfully humorous romps, more about the zany characters and their convoluted mishaps than about any serious investigation. For those new to the series, a little background: Izzy, a former rabble-rouser and incorrigible snoop, has been an investigator in her family’s San Francisco business since the age of twelve. She shares her caseload with her parents and also her college-age sister, Rae, who not only seems bored at work these days, but has inexplicably begun to fake her surveillance reports. Then there’s Izzy’s older brother David, once an “excessively fashionable,” type-A lawyer who has now given up his career to be a stay-at-home dad for his eighteen-month-old daughter.

This time around, we find Izzy juggling three or four loosely interconnected mini-mysteries (some professional, some not) which give the story a bit of structure around the ongoing family drama. Among other upheavals, the Spellman parents now have a new household member: Demetrius Merriweather, (‘D’) a former client who was wrongfully imprisoned on a murder charge for fifteen years. Rather than pursue a lucrative lawsuit against the state, however, D spends his time baking delicious treats that then must be locked away from Izzy’s dieting father. Additionally, her relationship with San Francisco cop (and live-in boyfriend) Henry Stone is threatened by the prospect of a ‘serious talk,’ that Izzy continually dodges by going on drinking bouts with her new friend, Henry’s mother. Add to that her toddler niece inexplicably referring to everything as ‘banana,’ her harried brother throwing Rae out of his guest house for reasons that neither sibling will explain, and her mother’s sudden craze for jam-packing her days with Russian lessons, book clubs, and crafts, and you get a sense of the dizzying antics that Lutz seamlessly integrates into one sitcom-esque novel.

Although the family back-story is central to the plot of Trail of the Spellmans, new readers to the series need not worry about jumping into the fray mid-series. Important family history is folded neatly into the current plot, and Izzy peppers her ‘file’ with snarky explanatory footnotes, as well as an appendix with dossiers on each of the primary characters. And while none of the discoveries that she makes throughout the novel are even remotely surprising to the reader, the overall narrative about Izzy’s relationship with her family and the family business does reach a watershed moment at the book’s conclusion. In this way, Trail of the Spellmans feels like a transitional installment in the series—a lighthearted bridge between the more fully developed plots that have preceded it, and the inevitable drama to come.

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Call Me Princess

Review originally published on Reviewing the Evidence, here.

Although Nordic crime fiction has gained an incredible prominence on the world stage, Denmark has never been at the forefront of this movement. Among countless others in the field, Sweden has its Henning Mankell, Stig Larsson, and Sjöwall & Wahlöö; Norway its Jo Nesbø and Helene Tursten; Finland its Matti Yrjänä Joensuu; and Iceland its Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdadottir, but contemporary crime authors from Denmark have yet to gain renown as part of this current wave. One could speculate, however, that Danish authors are having their moment now: 2011 has seen the publication of English translations of The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, and Call Me Princess by Denmark’s “crime queen” Sara Blaedel.

Call Me Princess finds its tough, sailor-swearing, workaholic police detective Louise Rick tracking down a brutal serial rapist who targets women he meets through online dating websites. Having gained his victim’s trust after weeks of email correspondence, the rapist sets up what appear to be a perfectly chivalrous date. After a long, fancy dinner, the perpetrator returns to the woman’s apartment, where he then subjects her to mental and physical abuse. When Call Me Princess opens, one of this man’s victims has reported the crime. Just a few weeks later, the perpetrator murders his second victim, making it even more pressing that Louise and her colleagues make an arrest.

The story itself clips along at a reasonable speed, interspersing scenes of the ongoing investigation and its myriad dead-ends with short interludes in Louise’s daily life—her close friendship with ambitious crime beat reporter Camilla Lind (who ever so conveniently has started dating someone she met online) and Louise’s failing relationship with her live-in boyfriend Peter. The dialog sounds a bit tinny and the characters are by-and-large rather flat, but as Barbara Fister remarks in her review of the novel on this site, in its efficient-but-shallow approach, reading Call Me Princess is much “like watching an episode of a fairly entertaining television mystery.”

Unfortunately, there are two significant problems that loom over the story. For one, the plot is pervaded with head-smacking coincidences and the kind of farcical investigative ploys that anyone who has watched a few episodes of Law and Order will recognize as completely unworkable. For instance, police detectives don’t take civilian crime victims to help stake-out their attackers mere weeks after a crime has taken place. The most obvious reason is that this sort of situation would be dangerous for both the police officers and the victim. Moreover, this kind of set-up is completely devoid of empathy towards a person who has just endured a serious trauma.

This latter point brings us to the other, more disheartening problem about Call Me Princess. This is a novel written by a female author, about a female police officer who is investigating a string of heinous crimes against women. Given this, one might expect a substantial level of empathy throughout the book. But while Blaedel does attempt to make the reader feel for the victims—for instance, by relating both of the rape episodes from the women’s perspectives—her detective Rick is one of the more emotionally tone-deaf agents of the law that I’ve read in quite a long time.

Louise gestures towards compassion when dealing with rape victims—stiffly noting in one instance that the woman has “been through a terrifying experience”—but is unaccountably upset when the victim involved can’t render a full description of her rapist or articulate a full account of events just hours after she’s been attacked. There’s an explanation for this: we’re told that Louise avoids “…empathizing too much with other people’s sorrows and emotions,” in order to keep her work separate from her personal life. This makes sense, certainly. But Louise’s struggle to be understanding towards others bleeds into her personal life as well: into her relationship with her boyfriend, and also with her best friend Camilla. Struggling to be compassionate seems to be a major part of Louise’s character development in this series, so perhaps this weakness is meant to align her with the typical police detectives that abound in the genre: married to their work, solitary, unyielding in their morals and motivations. But more often than not, it just makes Louise Rick a difficult detective to root for.

Night Watch (Happy Halloween!)

Happy Halloween, everyone! Appropriately enough, my latest review is of Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch, the first installment in a tetralogy of novels about a parallel reality in which the agents of Light and Dark (read: vampires, magicians, shape-shifters, witches, etc.) must maintain a delicate balance or risk the destruction of the world. It’s a rather lot of fun.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence, here, and the full text is below.

***

First published in Russia in 1998 and later adapted in a popular film in 2004, Sergei Lukyanenko’s vastly entertaining novel Night Watch introduces readers to a parallel reality (centered in Moscow) in which good and evil constantly struggle to maintain a fragile truce, the disruption of which would literally mean the end of the world. This parallel realm, the Twilight, is visible only to Others–vampires, witches, magicians, shape shifters, and even particularly adept computer programmers–who have all pledged their allegiance to either the Light or the Dark. Light and Darkness monitor each other’s activities by way of their espionage-style agencies or “watches” (The Night Watch monitors the Dark Ones, and vice versa). While average people go about their days, the Others in both watches have their own responsibilities, namely complex operations and missions which might incrementally shift the balance, once and for all, to one triumphant morality.

Without any preamble or exposition, Lukyanenko drops the reader into a remarkably complex world with remarkably complex rules, histories, and problems. The three interconnected novella-length stories which comprise the novel–all narrated by the disillusioned but still idealistic systems analyst and low-level magician Anton Gorodetsky–are chronological, but there are significant time lapses between each tale. Rather than disrupting the narrative, these gaps actually reinforce the reality of this world: the characters all have lives and pasts that exist outside of the bounds of the novel.

The first story, “Destiny,” is by far the best, following Anton as he faces off with rogue vampires, identifies a young Other who isn’t yet aware of his own remarkable powers, and attempts to dispel a curse which, if left unchecked, has the potential to ignite another world war. The tale’s twisty storyline and fast pace have the feel of a particularly entertaining episode of an action-drama on TV: there’s romance, there’s danger, there’s an epic roof-top battle between dark magicians and hostage-taking vampires–when suddenly everything resolves itself quickly and cleanly, if a bit ironically.

“Destiny” is followed by “Among His Own Kind,” in which Anton is wrongly accused of murdering several dark magicians and, in order to clear his name, has one night to track down a ‘Maverick’ Light One on a homicidal rampage in Moscow. Among His Own Kind picks up threads of the the previous story, while upping the ante for action and creatively employed magical sleights of hand.

Unfortunately, Lukyanenko loses steam in the last story, “All For My Own Kind,” in which Anton spends far too much time lamenting the concessions that the Light must make in order to maintain the cosmic balance (apparently Communism failed due to a “little compromise with the Darkness”), and moaning about the futility of trying to save humanity from itself. (There’s also an excess of insipid Goth song lyrics throughout this installment.)

Nevertheless, with its labyrinthine storylines and abundance of fantastical creatures, this layered morality tale certainly delivers for the Halloween season. And avid fans will be able to further immerse themselves in the Twilight if they so wish: Night Watch is the first in a tetralogy of novels which follow Anton and other characters through their continued misadventures.

Headhunters

I recently wrote about Jo Nesbø’s stand-alone thriller Headhunters, which beside being a notable publication for enthusiastic fans of the author’s previous thrillers starring Detective Harry Hole, also caught my attention because all of the proceeds from its publication, subsequent translations, and film adaptations will go to support Nesbø’s literacy charity, The Harry Hole Foundation. I was, nicely enough, able to snag a copy of the book to review on late notice. My review of the book is on Reviewing the Evidence (here) or the full text is below.

It bears noting that Nesbø is an author that I just keep coming back to, even though I only like his work about half of the time (maybe less, actually). I find this interesting. I was relatively unimpressed with The Redbreast (which was wildly popular) and honestly, Headhunters wasn’t up my alley, either. But I just loved The Devil’s Star. I keep coming back to Nesbø because I really love his detective: Harry Hole is a complicated and interesting creation–some one that you root for, even when you don’t like him (or, in my case, don’t particularly like the plot line of the book he’s in). Perhaps the fact that Headhunters is a stand-alone without Hole set me up to be a little less taken with this novel, but I think I’m just not the Ideal Reader for this type of thriller. At any rate, I look forward to my next visit with Hole–last time I left him, it looked like things were on an upswing for him.

Without further ado:

Headhunters
By Jo Nesbø, Translated by Don Bartlett

Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has made a name for himself worldwide with the success of his crime thrillers starring the down-and-out detective Harry Hole. Arguably, most of the appeal of these novels is not in the creatively gruesome crimes and criminals that Nesbø creates, but in Harry Hole, whose raging alcoholism and determined self-destruction cannot completely obstruct the fact that beneath it all, he’s really, as Nesbø himself has said, “a Decent Guy.”

Roger Brown, star of Nesbø’s standalone novel Headhunters, diverges from Hole in all essentials. An arrogant, chauvinistic, and incredibly successful corporate headhunter, Brown moonlights as an art thief in order to supplement the decadent lifestyle he and his wife maintain, often stealing valuable paintings from the corporate candidates that he interviews for prestigious directorial positions. Brown is, as he tells us frequently, “king of the heap,” the best of the best: he’s never nominated a candidate for a position who has not ultimately been hired for the job. The secret of his success? The nine-step interrogation model developed by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley for the FBI.

Brown is not a “Decent Guy.” Not even his relationship with his wife Diana, who he very nearly worships, reveals a sense of compassion or real devotion. (Women in general are given rather two-dimensional motivations and weaknesses throughout the novel—as one man gruffly remarks late in the novel: “Oestrogen makes you blind.”) There’s almost nothing likable about Brown, and in some respects, that’s okay. Meeting his match in Clas Greve, a Dutch-Norwegian CEO superstar who also happens to own a priceless painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Brown finally has to really work not only to come out on top, but to survive at all. Unable to resist such a score, Brown steals the Rubens painting, only to discover that Greve has been an actual headhunter—trained by the Dutch army to track down drug dealers relentlessly through unfamiliar jungles. Here at last, is someone who is as ruthless as Brown. The reader is left to simply sit back and watch them destroy one another.

The ensuing chase and multiple double crosses are not for the faint of stomach—Brown’s attempts to elude Greve lead to some desperate, and in many cases, disgusting measures. For some readers, these episodes will be just farcical and gross enough to be amusing, but mostly, the latter half of the novel becomes sadly tiresome. Nesbø also can’t seem to commit to writing a strictly unlikable character, and develops a flimsy backstory for Brown which is meant to provide justification for his callousness and lead him to eventually reform his ways. What transformation does occur is rather flat, though, and Brown remains a pathologically self-serving and self-justifying man.

All the same, it bears noting that Jo Nesbø himself is a Decent Guy, and with the very successful initial publication of Headhunters in Norway, he created the Harry Hole Foundation, which gives out an annual Decent Guy (or Decent Lady) prize to deserving individuals to donate to the literacy-based charities of their choice. All domestic and international proceeds from Headhunters—including those from the film version that was made in Norway— will go directly to the Harry Hole Foundation, to continue to support literacy projects in developing countries.


The Bayou Trilogy

I recently reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s “Bayou Trilogy” for Reviewing the Evidence. Woodrell came across my radar when I saw the film adaptation of his book Winter’s Bone, which was a tense, atmospheric, and evocative story of a young girl trying to step into her parents’ shoes, to save her home and take care of her two younger siblings. I decided to wait for the images of the film to subside a little before reading the book, so the reissue of three of Woodrell’s previous books–all starring Detective Rene Shade–was very welcome to me. And while I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you sit and read all three books in a row (that gets a bit monotonous), each maintained a very cinematic quality, as well as a flare for regional descriptions and dialog. My full review is below, or you can read it as it was published, here.

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Although Daniel Woodrell has been earning the respect of critics and cultivating a devoted fan base for quite some time, his “country noir” novels, as he has named them, have garnered renewed attention in the last year, thanks to the astonishing success of the movie adaptation of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone. This spring, three of Woodrell’s early novels—starring his shambling Creole detective Rene Shade—have been republished as The Bayou Trilogy, and are sure to gain the author even more acclaim for their cinematic, gritty, and occasionally poetic portrayals of the perpetually backsliding town of St Bruno, Louisiana.

 Woodrell fills St Bruno with a colorful cast of downtrodden men and women for whom double-dealing and neighborhood loyalty are a way of life. Foremost are the Shade family, who play pivotal roles in all three novels in the trilogy. There’s Ma Blanqui, owner of the pool hall where her itinerant husband, John X., had once made a name for himself before he abandoned her and her three boys. The oldest of the brothers, Tip Shade, owns the Catfish Bar, whose clientele make a habit of avoiding the police. The youngest, Francois, is an up-and-coming District Attorney. And right in the middle is Rene, a failed boxer turned cop who treads a fine line between the law-abiding and criminal worlds of his family and hometown.

Under the Bright Lights opens, as do all of the novels in the trilogy, on an over-confident, back country hood who is already in over his head, although he doesn’t know it yet. Woodrell’s first line introduction of this young would-be hit man provides the reader with a succinct initiation into the dark, subtly mocking humor, drawling dialog, and simmering violence that characterize all of the author’s work. “Jewel Cobb,” we’re told, “had long been a legendary killer in his midnight reveries and now he’d come to the big town to prove that his upright version knew the same techniques and was just as cold.”

Muscle for the Wing, the second novel in the trilogy, finds Rene rekindling the soured friendships of his past in order to track down the killer of a local policeman who worked as a guard for underground poker games frequented by some of St. Bruno’s most powerful men. The Ones You Do introduces Shade’s infamous ne’er-do-well father, John X. Shade, who is on the run with his adolescent daughter (Rene’s half sister) after her momma ran off with a local gangster’s fortune.

The novels are all very similar—especially in tone and pacing—which can lend to monotony if read in quick succession. Woodrell’s plotting is also a bit shaky: in particular, the racially-charged murder and political scandal in Under the Bright Lights quickly becomes muddled and its resolution is a bit over-determined. But plot is really a secondary concern here. Woodrell has a spot-on ear for the patois of his bayou residents and a gift for characterization that extends into the psyches and pasts of both his anti-heroes and their adversaries.

Each of the novels in the trilogy opens at a running start, and Woodrell keeps up the constant, frenetic pace throughout the books. The stories all unfold over the course of a few days, and are staged in a series of iconic locales: the Marais de Croche swamp, underground poker games, a strip club on the edge of town, an elegant and crumbling cathedral. It’s no wonder that two of Woodrell’s novels have been made into movies (prior to Winter’s Bone his book Woe to Live On was adapted by Ang Lee). Reading his novels, one can easily imagine watching them unfold on screen.

Two Takes on Borkmann’s Point

I am finally reading Borkmann’s Point because episodes of the Swedish TV show that was based on Håkan Nesser’s Van Veeteren series are, conveniently, being screened at the Scandinavia House this summer. Being a big fan of detective shows (of the BBC variety—not so much CSI-type dramas) and of Scandinavian crime novels, this presented a nice opportunity to not only read the much-lauded Borkmann’s Point, but also compare and contrast two different tellings of the same story.

The basic premise is this: Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren of the (imaginary) city of Maarsdam is vacationing in the nearby seaside town Kaalbringen. Although he’s scheduled to go back to work, he’s recruited to stay in town and join forces with the local Kaalbringen police after a man murdered with an ax is discovered. Shortly after, there is another murder—similar in method, although the victims have nothing apparent in common. While he quickly bonds with the members of the Kaalbringen police force (particularly the clever inspector Beate Moerk and DCI Bausen), Van Veeteren sees no solution, even as the case drags on for two months and results in yet another murder.

In all honestly, I can’t say that either the novel or the TV version is all that successful, although if I had to pick, I’d probably opt for the show. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a good ‘list review,’ so here are some general observations about problems in the novel, and the oddly pointless changes that were made in its TV adaptation.

The Novel

1.  Borkmann’s Point now has the dubious distinction of introducing the most transparent killer since my Mary Higgins Clark reading days. I honestly guessed the killer on page 59 (the book is 321 pages total) and while there were moments throughout that were meant to telegraph the murderer’s identity to the reader, it’s clear that the big reveal at the end is supposed to be a shocker. But it isn’t, except perhaps to Van Veeteren, who for months has been dispensing sage advice and telling people that he’ll “only have to set eyes on [the murder’s] type” and then he’ll know whodunit. If this is supposed to be ironic, it doesn’t come across at all.We are later supposed to believe that Van Veeteren was actually on to the killer much sooner, but Nesser purposefully cloaks his hero’s thoughts—and much of his investigative work—in secrecy. We’re told that VV makes calls to follow up on hunches, but we don’t know to who or what he finds out. He takes trips to check out clues, but he doesn’t tell us (or his underlings) where he is going. It’s like reading an Agatha Christie novel, but without the charm. The only thing that makes this any more bearable is that the police inspector who joins Van Veeteren from Maarsdam—Münster—frequently notes that his boss is “sitting there, playing the asshole and being mysterious again,” which does provide a nice bit of relief from The Great Detective’s ego.

2.  Nesser is awful at writing women. There is a chapter in which inspector Beate Moerk is at home, contemplating the case, her weight, and her status as a single woman and a female detective, during which Nesser writes, “She started soaping her breasts…still firm and bouncy; another recurrent thought was that one day she would start to dislike her breasts—the whole of her body come to that. But naturally, that was a trauma she shared with all women.” Ugh.

Later, Van Veeteren meets a woman in the course of the case and makes an empty promise about how long it’ll take him to crack it. The woman leaves, comforted, and VV snickers to himself: “How easy it is to fool a woman…a woman you’ve only known for five minutes.” Again, there might be some underlying irony here—Van Veeteren is arrogant about fooling ladies all while he’s being fooled himself. But even so, the sort of easy chauvinism here only made me like him less than I already did.

3.  These people are investigating a serial ax murderer and yet, not much investigating seems to really happen. Even if there aren’t a lot of clues, it seems to me that it’d be worth spending far more time tracking down former associates, lovers, flat-mates, etc. to get more insight into the lives of the victims. Find possible connections. Right? As is, everyone spends the day kinda-sorta talking about the case at the local pastry shop and they all go home at the end of the day with a bit of a shrug. Van Veeteren spends night after night with DCI Bausen playing chess, eating rich gourmet dinners, and sampling multiple bottles of fine vintage wine from Bausen’s private collection. No one really seems all that fussed, honestly, except for Münster, the skeptical inspector from Maarsdam who wants to go home to his wife and kids. Which makes me think that maybe we’d all be better served if the book was about Münster—who cares even a little about the outcome of the case—as opposed to Van Veeteren.

(For two other takes on the novel, check out Yvonne Klein and Sharon Wheeler‘s reviews on Reviewing the Evidence. Peter at Nordic Bookblog also reviewed it rather favorably.)

The TV Adaptation

There were a number of problems with the novel, but none of them were really addressed by the changes made to the TV adaptation. Rather, the TV adaptation was more successful because it has a slighter scope. It’s an 80 minute police drama—you anticipate that there will be plot holes and smoothed-over characterization. Here are some of the odder choices for adjustment:

1. Van Veeteren is retired.

He does actually retire within the novels, but not in this book. By bumping up the retirement, VV becomes truly inconsequential to the case. He just hangs around, pointing out things that make the local police look dumb. During the show, an up-and-coming Kaalbringen inspector kicks him out of a meeting in frustration one day, and rightly so: ‘What are you even doing here?’ he asks. ‘You’re a civilian.’

2. The victims are actually beheaded, with a normal ax.

The book makes a point of saying that all of the victims probably could have been beheaded if a little less finesse had been used by the murderer. But they are specifically *not* beheaded. Also, Nesser makes a point of saying that the ax used has very unusual dimensions and wouldn’t be easy to purchase in a normal store. To change these details really just simplifies the whole thing and makes it even easier than in the book to suss out the killer. Also, it’s just more gruesome, which is pretty much unneeded in a story about ax murders.

3. The victims are all restrained before they die and made to look at a photograph, the impression of which is found in blood at each crime scene.

In the book, Nesser makes a point of telling us that the victims are all caught unaware by the killer and die almost instantaneously. So again, we’re just making this more graphic. As for the photograph—that’s supposed to help fill in the killer’s motive, but it isn’t in the book at all and is pretty much a cheat. And the fact that Van Veeteren can look at a square indentation in some congealed blood and figure out that it was made from a photograph, well, that just tests the suspension of disbelief a little too much for me.

There were more changes—characters switched around, a whole plot line where the murderer attempts to frame someone else, chronologies changed, but none really for the better. I think I’ll give the rest of the series—both the novels and the TV show—a miss.

Booklist’s The Year’s Best Crime Novels

Booklist‘s has just published a list of “The Year’s Best Crime Novels,” (compiled by Booklist publisher/editor Bill Ott) which does, of course, raise a few questions given that it’s only May. But whatever the logic behind this mid-year round-up (maybe it’s their own annual cycle? Some of the books were published in 2010, some in 2011…), it’s an enjoyable list of 20 books–there’s a top ten, and also a list of the ten best debut crime novels. You can check out the full list on their website, but I’ve cherry-picked a few of the ones that sound most interesting to highlight below.

I’ve actually only read one of the titles, but I was glad to see it on the list: Camilla Lackberg’s excellent debut novel, The Ice Princess, which I reviewed for Reviewing the Evidence in June 2010.

But here are some titles that sounded particularly interesting to me, just in time for summer reading!

Bury Your Dead. By Louis Penny. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377045).

Penny’s sixth Armande Gamache novel is her best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling. Juggling three freestanding but subtly intertwined stories, Penny moves seamlessly from present to past as Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, investigates a murder in Quebec City, tries to determine if he jailed the wrong man in an earlier case, and struggles with his memories of a third case that went horribly wrong. Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed mysteries in years.

Painted Ladies. By Robert B. Parker. 2010. Putnam, $26.95 (9780399156854).

Are we honoring the late Parker’s career here or is this really one of his best books in its own right? Well, both. His penultimate Spenser novel captures all the charm of the landmark series. The iconic Boston PI can still nail a person’s foibles on first meeting, still whip up a gourmet meal in a few minutes, still dispatch the thugs who haunt his office and his home, and still do it all while maintaining a fierce love of Susan Silverman and English poetry. Parker was one of the first to show us that a hard-boiled hero doesn’t have to frown all the time, and we’ve been smiling along with Spenser ever since.

Started Early, Took My Dog. By Kate Atkinson. 2011. Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, $24.99 (9780316066730).

In the latest entry in Atkinson’s brilliant Jackson Brodie series, the semiretired detective is touring abbeys in northern England, but soon enough he becomes involved in several interrelated cases, one of which concerns a police detective who has rescued a child from a prostitute by paying cash for her. Her odyssey as a new parent, relayed with tenderness and wry wit, must be one of the grandest love affairs in crime fiction. For its singular melding of radiant humor and dark deeds, this is must-reading for fans of literary crime fiction.

Mr. Peanut. By Adam Ross. 2010. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307270702).

Despite the fact that David declares that he has been in love with wife Alice ever since he first spotted her in a film class, he is continually imagining her death via everything from carjackings to “convenient acts of God.” Naturally, when she is found dead at the kitchen table, he is the leading suspect. Ross is interested in all the soul-killing ways men and women try and fail to achieve intimacy, and he explores his age-old theme (marriage as one “long double homicide”) in eloquent prose and with a beguiling noirish sensibility.