You’d think that three wives might have been enough for Blake Nelson, the head of a Mormon household in deepest Utah who makes a nice corpse in Cate Quinn’s debut mystery, BLACK WIDOWS (Sourcebooks Landmark, 418 pp., $26.99). Rachel, the No. 1 wife and one of the story’s three narrators, is the devoted, traditional one. Emily, the second wife, is a little more flighty. And Tina, Wife No. 3, is a former sex worker and addict. All the sister-wives were admittedly miffed when Blake started shopping around for Wife No. 4, but which one of them might have been mad enough to kill him? “Everybody loved Blake,” Rachel testifies. “Except his wives. Sometimes, we hated him.”
That’s the challenge for Officers Brewer and Carlson, the Salt Lake City police detectives who trek out to the derelict farm in the middle of the desert that Blake and his industrious wives have turned into a survivalist camp. Quinn writes haunting scenes of the desert in its many moods (hot, dry, very hot, very dry) but she’s not much for cops, so Detectives Brewer and Carlson are as lacking in dimension as they are in forensic savvy. But oh, my, can this author draw women! Rachel, Emily and Tina, who have been in thrall for so long to their husband, discover they don’t know one another as well as they thought they did until after he is dead and buried. Without Blake to fixate on, they’re finally free to raise their eyes and discover who they are by studying — and at long last truly seeing — their sisters.
As readers, we come to know the wives gradually, not only through the dramatic revelations of their painful histories, but also through modest expressions of their dawning self-emancipation. “I’d like to bake a real cake” is the bold wish of shy Emily. It’s the loveless wives, it seems, who could use the devotion and care of a wife of their own. And while Quinn writes with spirit on weighty subjects like kinky sex, domestic abuse, polygamy and religious cults, her primary and most poignant theme seems to be female friendship.
If you thrill to the chills of Scandinavian noir, chances are you’ve read something by Anders Roslund. (No? Do try “The Beast” to test your capacity for revulsion.) Roslund, a Swedish author who usually works with writing partners, has gone solo with a police procedural called KNOCK KNOCK (Putnam, 439 pp., $27). OK, I’ll bite: Who’s there? A killer who has returned to Stockholm to finish off the only witness to an atrocious multiple murder he committed 17 years ago, that’s who. Zana Lilaj was only 5 years old when this boogeyman broke into her home and wiped out the rest of her family. But trauma victims can have amazing recall, and some of them get itchy after years of boredom in a witness protection program.
Roslund has two strong prose styles — dark and darker — and both are on show in this no-frills translation by Elizabeth Clark Wessel. The author also likes to work with twin plots, which means that a conventional sidebar involving weapons smuggling keeps muscling in on the main action. But note that Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens, who starred in the books Roslund wrote with Borge Hellstrom, reappears here, as morose and socially alienated as ever, bless his miserable soul.
The snappy mother-daughter writing team known as P. J. Tracy created the lighthearted “Monkeywrench” cyber mysteries. But after the death of her mother, P. J. Lambrecht, Traci Lambrecht has struck out on her own, though she’s still using the P. J. Tracy name. In DEEP INTO THE DARK (Minotaur, 338 pp., $26.99), the first installment in a new Los Angeles series, she introduces Sam Easton, a wounded Army veteran who is neither too tough nor too cute, and Margaret Nolan, an equally sympathetic L.A.P.D. detective. Easton is suspected in the murder of a friend of a friend, which is as good an excuse as any for getting this new team on the road, and before long the two settle in to a relationship that’s not too jokey or too morose. Although Tracy seems to have found her literary sweet spot, she’ll have to keep an eye out for the wordy dialogue and clichés that litter the sidewalks of her brave new world.
For those of us who acquire our knowledge of science, art and history — if not life itself — from the pages of crime novels, Cecilia Ekback’s THE HISTORIANS (Harper Perennial, 464 pp., paper, $16.99) is the perfect read, an exciting and enjoyable way to sop up some history. It’s 1943 and the world is at war. Norway and Denmark are both occupied by the Germans, Finland swings this way and that, and Sweden, which is technically neutral, is known to be collaborating with the Nazis. Five friends who have gone their separate ways since college are feeling the stress, but it takes the torture and murder of one of their old gang to really bring the war into their lives. Laura Dahlgren hasn’t laid eyes on Britta Hallberg since their school days, but when Britta is murdered, Laura decides to use her political connections to find out how her friend became involved in an ugly conspiracy, one that threatens the very future of Sweden.
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