Dolls are creepy, an irrefutable fact of which Rory Moore, a forensic crime reconstructionist and the protagonist of Charlie Donlea’s strange mystery THE SUICIDE HOUSE (Kensington, 356 pp., $26), seems unaware. In fact, she has even made a hobby of collecting and repairing damaged antique porcelain dolls. Given her tolerance for eerie things, it’s no wonder Rory is drawn to an abandoned boardinghouse where two students at Westmont Prep were murdered, which has since become the preferred spot for teenagers playing “a dark and dangerous game” with death.
No surprise, this spooky house in Peppermill, Ind., becomes a media star, thanks to Mack Carter, a popular blogger who featured it on his podcast, “Events.” But to Rory, this is no atmospheric haunted house where prep school seniors initiate juniors into their secret society rituals for raising holy hell. It’s a crime scene where the souls of the dead remain trapped until she can “lead them to a proper place of rest where peace and calm would be found.”
That’s nice, but a multiple murder scene is no place for peace and calm, and Donlea obliges more perverse tastes with more killing, more mystery and more sleuths — too many, in fact. A criminal profiler named Lane Phillips gets a pass because (a) a good mystery can always use a criminal profiler, and (b) he’s Rory’s love interest. But Ryder Hillier, a reporter at The Indianapolis Star, is a sleuth too far, as are the exceedingly dull professional detectives on the case.
Of them all, only Rory maintains a firm grip on our interest, mainly because “the mysterious and unexplained intrigued her” as much as it does us. And let’s not forget that she speaks to those terrifying dolls.
I have a message for every professional cop and amateur sleuth being retired by his or her creator: Don’t go! Honestly, just when you get into the rhythms of life in a regional mystery series, said author decides it’s time for the Big Kiss-Off.
That’s how it goes with HEAD WOUNDS (Norton, 307 pp., $26.95), in which Michael McGarrity sends his New Mexico lawman Kevin Kerney off into the sunset after 14 books. Actually, aside from a nifty 70th-birthday bash, we don’t see a lot of Kerney in this story, which opens with a sensational double murder in which the victims have been scalped.
The investigation falls to Detective Clayton Istee, who makes neat work of it — but not before facing off with a Mexican cartel assassin known as El Jefe. (F.Y.I.: All reputable bad guys in Southwestern fiction want to be called El Jefe.)
McGarrity knows his territory, so his plots always feel regionally grounded, accounting for scenes like the Apache ceremony that guides the dead “from the Shadow World of human beings to the Real World beyond, the Land of Ever Summer.” Sheer poetry.
Near the beginning of Sara Foster’s THE HIDDEN HOURS (Blackstone, 305 pp., $26.99), on a frosty, damp December night, a London publishing house is celebrating the holiday season. Eleanor, the new office temp, a very young, very green transplant from rural Australia, can’t imagine why Arabella Lane, the company golden girl, has chosen to chat her up at the office party. (That is definitely part of the mystery, so pay attention.) When, hours later, Arabella is found floating in the Thames near Waterloo Bridge, “the memories become hazy” for Eleanor, who wakes up the next day fuzzy and disoriented, her clothes damp and her feet caked with grime. As she digs in her handbag to find her cellphone, she comes across Arabella’s stunning sapphire and diamond ring. She has no idea how it got there.
At this point, the reader might also experience a bit of a brain freeze. The police investigation is vague enough to feel surreal, flipping the narrative almost entirely into Eleanor’s head. And while Foster certainly knows how to create an unsettling life of the mind, it is not a place you’d care to linger, especially in Eleanor’s case.
One of the smartest things Sue Grafton did was to set her Kinsey Millhone mysteries in the 1980s, when private eyes did their sleuthing up close and personal, using telephones, pen and paper and the Yellow Pages.
Peter Colt does the same thing in BACK BAY BLUES (Kensington, 262 pp., $26), a classical mystery with an honor-bound detective and a keen sense of place. Andy Roark, Boston Irish and proud of it, put in more than two years of duty in Vietnam, a nation and a culture that still play a profound role in his life. He is definitely the right man to investigate when someone starts murdering Vietnamese locals.
Besides having the P.I. spiel and the P.I. moves down pat, Roark is genuinely likable (not too tough, but not a patsy) and very much a character of his time — the kind of guy who can get away with turning down a fortune cookie because “I learned my fortune a long time ago.”
Silly us, we thought they didn’t make them like this anymore. It seems that they do.