I am convinced that Derek B. Miller’s HOW TO FIND YOUR WAY IN THE DARK (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pp., $26) was expressly tailored to my tastes and that I am its ideal reader. I suspect others will feel the same way; it’s that kind of book.
The book overlaps the Second World War and grapples with the American midcentury, specifically how Jews fit in (and how they didn’t, and couldn’t). There’s an outstanding middle section set at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort, a haven for aspiring stand-up comics, summer visitors and wayward spouses. There are gangsters and thieves, loves lost and found, murder and revenge.
Above all, there is Sheldon Horowitz, first introduced in Miller’s electrifying 2013 debut, “Norwegian by Night.” Then, he was an old man, contending with accumulated losses. Here, when he is 12 years old, the deaths of his mother (accidental movie theater fire) and father (car crash made to look like an accident) are fresh, gaping wounds. Avenging his father is his mission, but as Sheldon grows older, that mission shifts as he considers family loyalty, the price of assimilation and his love of America, even if the country fails to love him back.
In less confident hands the many moving parts would collapse into a jumble. Miller, however, juggles each element effortlessly. His character portraits are indelible, often heartbreaking. At times this novel moved me to tears, the highest possible compliment.
Cassie Woodson, the narrator of Lindsay Cameron’s wild ride of a novel, JUST ONE LOOK (Ballantine, 291 pp., $27), was once on an upward professional trajectory: fancy degree, prestigious white-shoe law firm, partner track. After that career implodes under cloudy circumstances, she finds herself temping at a different practice, spending her days poring through other attorneys’ correspondence as part of an ongoing fraud lawsuit.
“I loved reading those emails. There was something about being privy to other people’s private conversations that I treasured,” Cassie says. Never mind that she’s supposed to ignore the partners’ really personal emails. What’s the harm in reading just one? Cassie knows she shouldn’t, but she does, and before long she’s fallen down a rabbit hole of treachery, betrayal and danger.
Cameron’s first work of suspense, which draws from her own experience as an attorney, is one of the most viscerally accurate renderings of corporate law in recent fiction. It’s also a delicious and marvelously controlled portrayal of one woman’s delusions, and how they undo her, but also create something new and whole.
One of crime fiction’s unwritten rules is that you can kill as many people as you wish, but woe betide anyone murdering an animal, let alone several. Like all unwritten rules, this one can be circumvented only with a high degree of skill; it’s hardly ever done. (Carol O’Connell succeeded brilliantly in the opening chapter of her 1994 debut, “Mallory’s Oracle”; after that, the list grows thin.)
So I admire Greg Buchanan’s audacity. In his debut novel, SIXTEEN HORSES (Flatiron, 464 pp., $27.99), he doesn’t shy away from equine carnage.
A farmer and his daughter outside Ilmarsh, England, have discovered 16 horse heads buried in one of their boggy fields, each completely covered with soil except for one eye.
When a local police detective, Alec Nichols, visits the scene at daybreak, he’s struck by how desolate it is. “Chalky rocks littered the plot in every direction. Each step in this place was as muddy and wet as the last. … Just three feet away, almost the same color as the mud itself, there lay a great mound of black hair, coiled in thick and silken spirals.” Nichols soon calls a forensic veterinarian, Cooper Allen, for help. Her work at the mass burial site leads first to the discovery of mysterious pathogens and then to infuriating disappearances and murders of a human nature.
Buchanan’s narrative could have benefited from being looser, with fewer abrupt flashbacks and plot twists. But his punctuated prose builds believable tension, and the horror of the climax is properly earned. Here is a literary thriller unafraid to take chances, bending genre rules to its will.
There are many rich pop-culture portrayals of life in ancient Rome. One of the best is Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco detective series, which melds scrupulous research, arch banter, caustic characters and strong plotting over the course of 20 books.
Falco has ceded the stage to his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, who took up his role of “private informer,” or detective, in “The Ides of April.”
Eight books later, A COMEDY OF TERRORS (Minotaur Books, 336 pp., $27.99) finds Albia in a professional lull. The Saturnalia festival, circa A.D. 89, is about to commence, and it’s a time for celebration, not investigation. But then a toxic combination of organized crime, squabbling laborers and the interests of her husband, Tiberius, touches off events that jeopardize the festival and endanger several lives, including her own.
Flavia Albia’s voice — wisecracking, sarcastic — is perhaps too reminiscent of Falco’s, but she, like her father, is delightful, trickster-y company to spend time with.