Damsels in Distress — or Causing It

Karin Fossum’s characters are so realistic, I keep expecting to see them on the crosstown express. Ragna Reigel, the protagonist of THE WHISPERER (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24), certainly looks familiar. She takes the same bus and sits in the same seat (“by the window three seats back from the driver”) every day on her way to and from work at a supermarket on the outskirts of the small Norwegian city of Kirkelina, where she’s lived since childhood. She buys the same groceries at the same small Turkish shop in her neighborhood, and makes the same simple meals for dinner. “Her world had to be small and manageable, because then she was in control.”

Ragna has earned the right to her eccentricities. Her vocal cords were damaged years ago in a botched operation, leaving her with an ugly scar and the inability to speak above a whisper. With no friends or family, aside from a neglectful son who lives in Berlin, she has retreated into a cocoon of loneliness. What, then, has this sadly isolated woman ever done to cause someone to send her anonymous death threats? The first message left in her mailbox reads: “You are going to die.” There are more to come, but the first one says it all. “The message was concise, that she was going to die, and that was true enough. Someone had just felt the need to point it out.”

Before that mystery is resolved, Ragna will find herself in prison being interrogated by Konrad Sejer, the astute and caring detective in Fossum’s psychologically incisive series (translated this time by Kari Dickson). “Sejer had questioned many people over the years, but no one like her,” no one as thoroughly encased in a shell that allows no feelings in or out. “Do you often lose control, Ragna?” he asks, already knowing the answer. “You do have that most important of instincts in you — rage.”

Unlike Fossum’s other books, this one doesn’t observe the standard procedural structure. Instead it burrows deeper and deeper into Ragna’s sad past and disturbed mind, raising troubling questions about the human capacity for intimacy and making you wonder whether grief and loneliness might drive a person mad.

That tired old trope of the “damsel in distress” never seems to go out of style, not even in the mysteries of an enlightened crime writer like Robert Crais. But what damsel wouldn’t mind enduring a bit of distress in order to be rescued by Joe Pike, the “studburger” who flexes his manly muscles in A DANGEROUS MAN (Putnam, $28) to save Isabel Roland, a young bank teller, from being kidnapped by robbers? Isabel knows something she doesn’t know she knows, which makes her predicament all the more nerve-racking when her foiled kidnappers are found shot to death, execution style.

But enough about plot. Let’s talk cars. (This being California, people’s rides are extensions of their existential selves.) One of the kidnappers drove a Dodge Challenger, an aggressively styled muscle car. John Chen, a forensic scientist who wants to be hip, has a “molten silver” Porsche Boxster. The cops, of course, pilot beat-up black-and-whites. As for Joe Pike, ex-Marine and former mercenary, he sits tall in a Jeep.

What could be cozier than A NICE CUP OF TEA (Bloomsbury, paper, $18), Celia Imrie’s latest mystery set in Bellevue-sur-Mer, “a picture-postcard village” curving up a hillside overlooking the Côte d’Azur? Strolling in the commercial district along the shoreline, one comes upon La Mosaïque, a charming restaurant run by five British expats. Everyone shares the day-to-day chores, but it’s Theresa Simmonds, the talented chef, who has made a success of La Mosaïque — until now. The messy Brexit referendum has scared off British tourists just as a terrorist attack in neighboring Nice cost the partners local business. The decision to sell their prized Picasso floor mosaic might save the day, but, as one of them notes, “If we don’t get good money, we’re all done for.” The last thing Theresa needs right now is someone making off with her granddaughter Chloe. Yet according to Chloe’s sister, Lola, the would-be kidnapper is old, fat, bald and wearing a dress — clearly no match for an indignant grandmother.

There’s something disturbing — downright spooky, actually — about the apartment building where Jules Larsen finds herself in Riley Sager’s deliberately derivative (hello there, “Rosemary’s Baby”) but tightly plotted suspense story, LOCK EVERY DOOR (Dutton, $26). Homeless, jobless and loveless, Jules thinks her luck has changed when she lands a job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew. A Gothic beauty famed for its devilish gargoyles, the building is considered “one of Manhattan’s most storied addresses,” and the terms of her employment seem fair, if a bit odd: She can’t sleep away from the apartment, she can’t entertain visitors and she must not approach the tenants — or even talk about them. There are other apartment sitters in the building, but when they start to disappear, Jules wonders if there’s any truth to the urban legends about her new home. And guess what? There is.

Marilyn Stasio has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.

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