December Reading List
It’s the end of the year and there’s still time to squeeze in a few more books before January rolls around and the whole process starts anew. The holidays are a time for relaxing with (or without) family but always with a good book in hand. This month sees the return of genre heavyweights like James Lee Burke, who continues his multigenerational saga first introduced over 40 years ago, and Val McDermid, with another installment of her popular Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series. Whether you’re seeking an in-depth look at crime in the Utah Mormon community or murders across the pond in Scotland, the December offerings have you covered.
House of the Rising Sun
James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)
In his follow-up to 2014’s Wayfaring Stranger, Burke returns to the Holland family, a clan he first introduced in 1971’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield. In Sun, patriarch Hackberry Holland sets out, over the course of two years starting in 1916, to find his son, US Army Captain Ishmael Holland. Hackberry, who’s a former Texas Ranger, has in his possession an artifact rumored to be the Holy Grail, and it’s attracted the attention of ruthless arms dealer Arnold Beckman, who will stop at nothing to get it back. There are a plethora of side characters who keep the momentum going, from Ruby Denton, a union activist who happens to be Ishmael’s mother, to brothel owner Beatrice DeMolay, who gives Hackberry invaluable help in Mexico. Readers who’ve followed Burke through Louisiana with Detective Dave Robicheaux will fall just as hard for the family Holland.
His Right Hand
Mette Ivie Harrison (Soho Crime)
An insular Mormon community can seem just as foreign as a far-off country, a fact Harrison uses to her advantage in her second Utah-set book featuring Linda Wallheim, the wife of the ward’s bishop. The peaceful atmosphere of Draper, Utah, is shattered when the body of Carl Ashby, the bishop’s second counselor (or right-hand man), is discovered. Linda, who has a nose for sleuthing, can’t think of why Carl, a devout Mormon and dedicated family man, would be murdered but then she discovers his secret: Carl was born biologically female. Transphobia is rife in the Mormon community and Linda is dismayed to discover that the authorities are more concerned with covering up Carl’s past than with finding his murderer. As she did in 2014’s The Bishop’s Wife, Harrison expertly plays up the conflict, here taken to murderous extremes, between adhering to the rules of the church and following one’s own heart.
Splinter the Silence
Val McDermid (Atlantic)
In the ninth installment of her long-running series featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, the seemingly mismatched but actually wholly compatible team of a socially awkward psychologist and a tough police detective, McDermid serves up a timely and relevant story of feminism and online bullying. Hill and Jordan (who gave up policing after her brother was killed) have had a fractured relationship for the past several books, and McDermid is careful not to shove the pair back together too soon, though she also knows that readers want to see the duo working together rather than apart. Hill continues his clinical work and occasionally consults with the police; Jordan whiles away her time in the countryside, falling deeper into alcoholism, until her former superiors approach her with an offer to return to the force and lead a newly formed Major Incident Team. With Hill at her side both professionally and personally as a sort of unofficial sobriety coach, Jordan tackles what seem to be a series of unrelated suicides: several prominent women online have taken their own lives after being abused by Internet trolls. Hill sees a connection before anyone else and, with most of the old team back together again, he and Jordan start to piece together an unsettling picture of online bullying and misogyny. In true McDermid fashion, the plot is bitingly contemporary and believable, and the emotional struggle of the heroes, as they grapple with demons both on and off the job, ring true.
Blood, Salt, Water
Denise Mina (Little, Brown)
The quainter a town looks, the darker its secrets. Or at least that’s how it seems in Mina’s fifth installment of her DI Alex Morrow series when a case brings the Glasgow-based cop to the small town of Helensburgh. Morrow and her partner have been watching Roxanna Fuenticilla for a while, thinking the woman might be part of a scheme to steal £7 million. But then Roxanna goes missing and the trail leads to the bucolic lakeside town of Helensburgh, which, despite its sleepy exterior, holds dark secrets of its own. Two local men murder a woman—is it Roxanna?—and dump her body in the lake. Then, one of them begins to go off the rails when his former Scout mistress shows up in town after an absence of 20 years. As Morrow and her team comb the town for clues relating to Roxanna and the missing money, more bodies turn up, making it more difficult for Morrow to concentrate on dire news coming from prison about her criminally inclined half-brother, Danny. Mina always manages to cut, swiftly and deftly, to the quick of the crime and her characters’ dilemmas. It’s no different here, even with a deceptively quieter setting.
The Last Witness
Denzil Meyrick (Pegasus)
The US debut of Meyrick promises the start of a compelling new Scottish crime series, starring Chief Inspector Jim Daley and based in the small town of Kinloch. Five years earlier, Daly and his fellow copper, DS Brian Scott, were part of a team that helped bring down notorious Scottish criminal James “JayMac” Machie, a ruthless gangster who allegedly died in a hail of bullets in the back of a prison ambulance. Nowadays, Daly is in charge of peaceful Kinloch, where the majority of the “crime” involves drunk-and-disorderlies. Halfway across the world, one of JayMac’s top lieutenants and his wife are murdered and a familiar face is caught on the CCTV: the dead man himself, James Machie. Now Daly and Scott are on the alert and must recalibrate everything they thought they knew about a case they thought was closed. As more bodies pile up and JayMac—if the killer is indeed the prodigal gangster returned—continues to toy with the investigative team who tried to put him away, Daly realizes that someone close to him may be playing both sides. Fans of Tartan Noir will welcome this new voice in Scottish crime fiction.