Does anyone write creepier villains than Jo Nesbo? Wait a minute, I’m thinking. Still thinking. O.K., the answer is: No, I can’t think of anyone who makes my skin crawl like Nesbo.
In KNIFE (Knopf, 451 pp., $27.95), translated from the Norwegian by Ned Smith, a sexual predator named Svein Finne is at large in Oslo. “Finne’s driving force is to spread his seed and father children,” we learn. “It’s his way of gaining eternal life.” If he fails to impregnate his victims, he casually kills them. If any of the women should have an abortion, he punishes them in vile ways. And if any of them should bring a child to term, “the Fiancé,” as he’s known, appears in the delivery room to “assist” in the birth.
While Finne’s intervention at the hospital is disturbing, it provides this weirdo with an ironclad alibi for the killings being investigated by Harry Hole, the rogue police detective in Nesbo’s bleak noir series. Harry is at a low point in his unstable life. He’s drinking much of the time — to the point of sucking up the last drop of whiskey from a filthy floor — and when his wife leaves him, this time for good, he completely falls apart. But this is what readers expect of Harry, whose weaknesses somehow contribute to his manly appeal. And whenever he does fall flat, there always seems to be a good woman around to pick him up.
[ In his By the Book, Jo Nesbo wrote, “I remember throwing Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’ against the wall.” ]
“He was unshaven, his eyes were bloodshot and he had a liver-colored scar running across one side of his face,” according to one such woman, upon meeting him for the first time. “But even if his face had something of the same brutality as Svein Finne, there was something that softened it, something that made it almost handsome.”
In an unexpected move, Nesbo resolves the business of the psycho fiancé rather early in the story, which necessitates the introduction of another slippery killer, as well as a chilling flashback to a military mission in Afghanistan. There’s an explicit description of that reliable old method of execution, “drawing and quartering,” if that’s your thing, plus many other throwaway delights, including a list of the eight categories of killers, of which No. 8 is “just plain bad and angry.”
They play great music in Ace Atkins’s down-home mystery, THE SHAMELESS (Putnam, 446 pp., $27). Fine country tunes like Waylon Jennings’s “Rainy Day Woman” (“Woke up this mornin’ to the sunshine / It sure as hell looks just like rain”). They also throw superior shindigs, like the annual Good Ole Boy, “a big gathering of every swindler, huckster and elected official in north Mississippi.” They’re just a little sloppy about observing the laws of the land.
A long time ago, the sheriff of Tibbehah County, Miss., ruled Brandon Taylor’s death a suicide; but 20 years later, two Brooklynites hope to prove otherwise on their true-crime podcast. The two reporters are bland white bread compared with the hell-raising locals they encounter down South — folks like Old Man Skinner, who thinks it’s a fine idea to build a 60-foot cross on the highway, and Fannie Hathcock, whose brothel sign would be hidden by the cross. There’s a plot in here somewhere, but it doesn’t intrude on the real fun, like catching up with the boys in the barbershop watching “Days of Our Lives.”
If you think of cozy mysteries as palate cleansers, THE BODY IN THE WAKE (Morrow/HarperCollins, 219 pp., $25.95) is your kind of book. Katherine Hall Page’s latest Faith Fairchild mystery (the 25th in a long-running series) sends her beloved amateur sleuth on a rare solo vacation to the family’s summer cottage in Maine. Her minister husband, Tom, is fine, as are their two grown children, so series fans need not worry. Faith, a professional caterer, plans to relax and help a bit in the kitchen of a friend whose daughter is getting married. (There’s a recipe for old-fashioned blueberry buckle at the back of the book that seems easy to make and sounds delicious — except you really need wild Maine blueberries, which are hellish to gather.)
Given her sleuthing history, it’s not surprising that Faith’s detective skills are called on when a body with goth tattoos is found floating in the lily pond. Murder, if murder it is, is a grave business, but the next-door neighbors are committing a more serious crime by cutting down the old-growth pines on their property, which had provided much-needed privacy. In the country, some people would happily fight to the death over such an offense. The question is: Will Faith find the villain in time to save the wedding?
David Gordon’s sequel to “The Bouncer,” THE HARD STUFF (Mysterious Press, 311 pp., $26), opens with Joe Brody in a car with three strangers, on their way to New Jersey to kill a man.
On most work nights, Joe can be found arming the door at a Mafia-owned strip joint, the Club Rendezvous, “talking down drunks, extracting gropers and defusing fights.” But when he was in the military, Joe specialized in killing people, and he’s managed to hang onto that skill set, which occasionally comes in handy. Like now, when a coalition of mob bosses makes him their unofficial “sheriff” and directs him to make some shady heroin suppliers disappear. For no good reason except the fun of it, that assignment somehow necessitates pulling off a complicated diamond heist. Gordon’s quirky characters and offbeat humor take the sting out of some action scenes of horrific violence.
Marilyn Stasio has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.
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