Scots on the Rocks and Jo Nesbo’s Latest: The Best New Crime Fiction

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This content was originally published by MARILYN STASIO on 19 May 2017 | 1:00 pm.
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Christoph Niemann

There’s no point waiting for Denise Mina’s two dependable series sleuths, Alex Morrow and Paddy Meehan, to appear in THE LONG DROP (Little, Brown, $26), which is a drastic departure from her brilliant contemporary studies of criminals who prey on Glasgow’s social underclass. This new novel takes its story from the Burnside murders, a true crime spree that horrified the city in the late 1950s. William Watt, the owner of a string of bakery shops, is innocent of the murder of his wife, his sister-in-law and his daughter, but although the police can’t prove otherwise, they’re convinced of his guilt. So Watt sets out to convince them that the real killer is Peter Manuel by — wait for it! — taking him out on a bender and jollying him into a confession.

Mina has always been a close observer of the brutality drunkards can inflict on their wives and children (“Between lunchtime closing and the pubs reopening for the evening, Glasgow is carpeted with drunk men. They loll on pavements,” wet themselves at bus stops, “fight invisible foes in the streets”). But she also feels for women like Manuel’s mother, Brigit (“My knees are broken with praying for you”), and the father of a murdered girl who describes her in the blandest of terms on the witness stand because he can’t bring himself to share his memories of the “real daughter” the public knows only as a mangled corpse. Mina even holds out her hand to those inarticulate thugs whose violent acts are a perverse way of validating their own lives. “‘You can’t tell a story,’” Watt says, dismissing his companion’s veiled threat over the course of their wild night, “not knowing that this is cutting Manuel to the bone.”

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With one plotline continually hopscotching over the other, Mina manages to keep two narratives going at once: the farcical account of Watt and Manuel’s binge and the sober courtroom drama of dueling life-or-death stories when Manuel faces a jury. Despite the novel’s final reassurance that it’s “just a story. Just a creepy story about a serial killer,” this one feels painfully real.

Jo Nesbo certainly has the magic touch when it comes to psycho serial killers. In THE THIRST (Knopf, $26.95), breathlessly translated by Neil Smith, the gloomy Norwegian novelist introduces a monster who stalks his victims on Tinder, rips out their throats with lethal dentures made of metal spikes and drinks their blood. When the killing starts, summer is over, with all its “hysterical, cheerful, stupid self-expression,” and Oslo has resumed its true character, “melancholic, reserved, efficient.” That also describes Nesbo’s protagonist, Harry Hole, “possibly the best, possibly the worst, but certainly the most mythologized murder detective” on the city’s police force.

Something about the killer’s bizarre M.O. strikes a memory chord with Harry, and at the scene of the second killing he gets down to work, scrutinizing the bloody evidence, reading the clues the madman has left for the police and coming to the unnerving conclusion that “he wants to play.” At this chilling point, teams of investigators are dispatched and the good citizens of Oslo are paralyzed with fear. But much of this melodrama is only a distraction from the intricate plotting that keeps the story shifting under our feet. Nesbo is a master at this narrative sleight of hand, and if you can stand the gory details and hang on during the switchback turns, the payoff is its own reward.

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One way to deliver a message in the unsettled political climate of 1919 Calcutta is to stuff it in the mouth of a murdered man. “English blood will run in the streets,” warns the note in Abir Mukherjee’s enthralling debut novel, A RISING MAN (Pegasus, $25.95). “Quit India!” Lord Charles Taggart, the police commissioner, assigns the case to Capt. Sam Wyndham, newly arrived from England with lingering war wounds and a morphine habit but a keen appreciation for the “vibrant, wretched beauty” of the slums of Calcutta. The investigation sends Wyndham and his Bengali assistant on a whirlwind circuit of the city. On his way to uncovering “a fully fledged terrorist campaign” against the Raj, Capt. Wyndham is educated in the ways that 150,000 Britons have managed to maintain mastery over millions of Indians.

LOVE AND DEATH IN BURGUNDY (Minotaur, $24.99), Susan C. Shea’s novel set in the French countryside, offers a pleasant getaway from hard-core killers. Reigny-sur-Canne is an unspoiled village with only a crumbling castle to recommend it to tourists. Katherine Goff, an American artist of modest reputation and a likable enough amateur sleuth, has acquired an eclectic group of friends and potential murder victims (including a rich, rude American I’d like to murder myself). There are local fetes, excursions to colorful flea markets and the odd interesting character like Jeannette, a 14-year-old thief with personality. That might be enough for a respectable cozy mystery. Even so, this feels like something you’ve read before — the same characters, the same fetes, even the same recycled scenery.

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