Body Parts and Missing Bodies: Another Spree of Crime Fiction

What the Authors of Our 10 Best Books Read and Loved This Year

Let’s see, now. … Suppurating boils? Check! Pestilential miasmas? Check! Dying children, rotting corpses, plague houses? Check, check and check! S.D. Sykes covers all the low points of the Black Death in THE BONE FIRE (Pegasus Crime, $25.95), which opens in 1361 as England is ravaged by the pestilence. Religious zealots regard the plague as God’s punishment on the wicked. “There is a malignance here,” local wisdom would have it, “a pervasion of evil.” Oswald de Lacy, the worldly lord of Somershill and the action figure in this excellent piece of storytelling, suspects the spread of the disease has more to do with touching people who are oozing disgusting substances. There are plenty of those unfortunates, many of whom seem to exist only to suffer in excruciating detail. The hectic plot covers everything from contested inheritances to the religious upheavals of the period, keeping the history from deteriorating into mere background. But the plague’s at the center of the story, and Sykes gives it a life and character of its own — swift, remorseless and deadly.

T.S. Eliot didn’t much care for the month of April, with its heartbreaking scent of lilacs. Neither do the restless residents of Three Pines, the lovely Canadian village where Louise Penny sets her enchanting mysteries featuring Armand Gamache, chief inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. In A BETTER MAN (Minotaur, $28.99), the avuncular detective has stepped in to help investigate the springtime disappearance of Vivienne Godin, known to the local police as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her artist husband. From years of experience, Gamache has come to know that artists, while often touched by the gods, are “not the most stable, or house-trained individuals.” So there’s a sharp sense of urgency to his search for Vivienne, whose pregnancy makes her even more vulnerable. For all his hard-core professional know-how, Gamache is deeply compassionate when it comes to any crime victim lacking a personal champion, which makes this one of his most ennobling missions — and the perfect argument against any ridiculous talk about his possible retirement.

Matthew Venn is the kind of
man who isn’t even welcome at his own father’s funeral. But that’s where we find this detective, skulking around the edges of the service at the North Devon Crematorium, when the call comes in that a body has been found nearby, on the beach at Crow Point. Not a drowning victim, we learn in Ann Cleeves’s atmospheric procedural THE LONG CALL (Minotaur, $26.99), but murdered with a stab wound to the
chest.

Venn already has plenty to occupy him, having recently married his lover (“beautiful” Jonathan) and moved back to Devon to police the strictly religious community where he grew up. A prolific author with two sturdy mystery series already underway, Cleeves has a fondness for quirky characters, several of whom show up here when Venn starts interviewing suspects. But Cleeves’s true strength lies in her descriptions of the natural world, gorgeously captured in this brief description of Venn listening to “the surf on the beach and the cry of a herring gull, the sound naturalists named the long call, the cry which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain.”

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