Murder, They Wrote

In my many years of attending crime and mystery writers’ conferences, the thought occurred to me — more than once — that they would make excellent settings for, well, murder. Jaime Lynn Hendricks takes this idea and runs with it in I DIDN’T DO IT (Scarlet, 325 pp., $26.95), her third suspense novel and one that entertainingly lays bare all kinds of writerly insecurities.

After a star author, Kristin Bailey, is found dead in her hotel room during the Murderpalooza conference, the news spreads quickly among other attendees. Soon, an anonymous Twitter account called @MPaloozaNxt2Die begins following and threatening just four people, all Kristin’s publishing rivals.

There’s Vicki Overton, a midlist author who thinks Kristin had an affair with her boyfriend; Suzanne Shih, a young writer who has been unhealthily obsessed with Kristin for years; Davis Walton, an up-and-comer who covets Kristin’s success; and Mike Brooks, a has-been who has spent months quietly working on a novel with Kristin “that’s supposed to take the industry by storm.” (Unfortunately, as he explains to his wife, it’s “about secret co-authors, and one gets killed at a conference. And in the book, the co-author did it.”)

As the imperiled quartet team up to figure out whether Kristin’s murderer and their Twitter stalker are one and the same, Hendricks revels in her characters’ flaws, absurdities and over-the-top Twitter dependencies. There’s a little too much Twitter, honestly, but you’ll forget about it when you reach the final, drama-filled twists.

Martin Cruz Smith introduced the Moscow detective Arkady Renko in the classic espionage thriller “Gorky Park” in 1981. Arkady returns for his 10th outing in INDEPENDENCE SQUARE (Simon & Schuster, 261 pp., $26.99), searching for a friend’s daughter — an anti-Putin activist — who disappeared in Ukraine during the lead-up to the Russian invasion.

The plot, though, is secondary to the poignant drama unfolding in Arkady’s own life: He — like the author — has developed Parkinson’s disease.

Sitting on a bench outside the clinic after the diagnosis, he realizes there are “three ways to deal with this new problem: acceptance, confrontation and denial. Acceptance was not so much a strategy as an aspiration. It would come in its own time, presumably once he’d exhausted every other option. Confrontation was all well and good, but it would elevate the disease to a station more central and important than Arkady wanted it to be.”

That Arkady chooses the third option — denial — is in keeping with his character and crucial to how the book unfolds, as a moving portrayal of struggle against political and personal tides.

Struggle against political and personal tides also figures prominently in Stacey Abrams’s new suspense novel, the second to feature the Supreme Court law clerk Avery Keene. Building on the frenetic events of “While Justice Sleeps,” ROGUE JUSTICE (Doubleday, 368 pp., $29) opens with Avery in the cross hairs of the right-wing media machine, her professional and romantic lives stuck in the wrong gear.

A little calm, in other words, might be in order. But no: Avery is minding her own business at a legal conference when another law ‌clerk hands her a burner phone‌ and flees‌. She sprints after him, only to hear the pop-pop-pop of gunfire: “Her stomach heaved and her hand clutched spasmodically. She’d just witnessed an execution. Then she remembered the phone in her hand. A phone from a dead man. A phone that was spewing out geospatial data every second.” You or I would drop the phone, but Avery does not; her curiosity leads her into a thicket of blackmailed judges, secret court rulings‌ and all kinds of existential threats‌.

Just as she did in “When Justice Sleeps,” Abrams oversaturates her narrative with details (this time, about cybersecurity issues). But the pages still turn. Abrams excels at showing how power and the desire for revenge can twist people into the worst versions of themselves.

When a famous singer-songwriter gets into the back seat of your beat-up Volkswagen Jetta, be prepared to do everything she says. That’s what Adam Zantz learns in Daniel Weizmann’s moody neo-noir debut, THE LAST SONGBIRD (Melville House, 330 pp., paperback, $17.99), when Annie Linden requests a ride, first on the apps, then as a private arrangement. When Annie turns up dead, Adam decides he must figure out who did it.

Weizmann’s music bona fides — he was a punk rock columnist and ghostwrote Dee Dee Ramone’s memoir — inform the novel’s tone and purpose, but it’s equally clear how steeped he is in the styles of detective fiction past and present. Adam’s and Annie’s relationships to each other, themselves and especially their music thrum with authentic emotion. This is a story of murder, but also of vivid life.

The mystery at the center of Mary Logue’s THE BIG SUGAR (University of Minnesota, 191 pp., $22.95) does not begin in earnest until about halfway through the novel. By then, I was already enthralled with the book’s heroine, Brigid Reardon, whom I first encountered in “The Streel” (2020), when she and her brother Seamus fled Ireland and ended up in Deadwood, S.D. It wasn’t long before “The Big Sugar” got under my skin in a major way.

It’s now 1881, and Brigid and her friend (and possible love interest) Padraic have made their way to Cheyenne, Wyo., to track down her brother, claim some land and start a new life. Soon Brigid discovers the murdered body of a neighbor hanging from the branch of a cottonwood tree, her petticoat swaying in the breeze. When the sheriff does not take the killing seriously — “Justice takes many forms out here. For all I know, she might already have received all the justice she deserved” — Brigid decides to investigate herself. Before long, she’s drawing the ire of local cattlemen called “big sugars” because “they’re the fellas with the money, and I guess that makes them sweet.” Even the sheriff warns her, “Steer clear of sticking your nose into things.”

The glimpse of what life might have been like for women in the West is fascinating. But Brigid’s curiosity and gumption drive the narrative, leading her to a conclusion that will alter the course of her life.

Nilima Rao’s debut historical mystery, A DISAPPEARANCE IN FIJI (Soho Crime, 288 pp., $25.95), introduces us to Sgt. Akal Singh, a 25-year-old detective recently arrived from Hong Kong after a career derailment. He would rather be anywhere else — though he longs for India in particular.

Then a woman disappears from a nearby plantation, and Akal gets the case. It becomes apparent that this is far from an open-and-shut disappearance, and soon Akal finds himself learning about the harrowing effects of colonialism, indentured servitude and caste. Rao expertly juggles the weighty themes and, in Akal, has the makings of a memorable series detective.

Because I think every summer reading roundup should include some older titles, I want to draw your attention to the first two mysteries by Sarah Caudwell, THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED (Bantam, 288 pp., paperback, $18) and THE SHORTEST WAY TO HADES (Bantam, 272 pp., paperback, $18), originally published in 1981 and 1984, and now reissued with snappy new covers.

Both star the delightful Oxford don Hilary Tamar, of indeterminate gender. I always recommend these books — and the two that will be reissued next year, “The Sirens Sang of Murder” and “The Sibyl in Her Grave” — to readers looking for intelligent, elegantly mannered mysteries. Here’s hoping these reissues spur a Caudwell revival.

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