John Verdon writes grown-up detective novels, by which I mean stories with intelligent plots, well-developed characters and crimes that have social consequences. WHITE RIVER BURNING (Counterpoint, $27), featuring the author’s brainy gumshoe-for-hire, Dave Gurney, checks all these boxes. The primary crime is the “coldblooded assassination” of a police officer, who’s picked off by a professional sharpshooter. The authorities in the town of White River are supposedly knocking themselves out to solve the case, but the widow has her doubts and asks Gurney to conduct his own inquiries. So when there’s a second sniper killing of a cop, he suspects a link to the victims’ secret investigation of corruption in their department.
Upstate New York locales like White River can be home to a remarkable assortment of social and political factions. Although the main industry is a prison, this seemingly bucolic place attracts enough moneyed weekenders to support a poets’ colony and some serious real-estate investors. Verdon indulges his satirical impulses with takedowns of painters who create “burgundy cosmologies” with beet juice and charities like LORA, an animal rescue group that prides itself on spiritually bonding with its four-footed clients. “We give animals friendship,” one devotee explains. “We have conversations.”
On a deeper level, it seems to Gurney that White River, like many other towns, is “suffering from industrial collapse, agricultural relocation, a shrinking middle-class population, political mismanagement, the spreading heroin epidemic, troubled schools, eroding infrastructure.” Verdon doesn’t address all these issues, concentrating instead on the racial antagonisms that are fueled by them. Half the populace blames demonstrations by the Black Defense Alliance for stirring up hatred for local law enforcement after a traffic-stop fatality. The other half blames the blamers, creating one of those hate-fests that feed on their own furies. While keeping inside the lines of a classic whodunit plot, Verdon enriches the formula with a probing analysis of the way a community rips itself apart.
The children steal the show in Belinda Bauer’s unnerving suspense novel, SNAP (Atlantic Monthly, $26). When his mother disappears and his father ambles off in a fog, Jack Bright shoulders the parental duties for his younger sisters, Joy and baby Merry. Washing the windows, painting the front door and mowing the lawn keep snoopers away. (“The lawn mower was the best thing Jack had ever stolen.”) But his newfound skills as a burglar — who also raids the kitchen of one house to make a vegetable omelet before settling down for a nap — earn him a cool rep as the “Goldilocks” thief who’s unsettling the neighbors and irritating the police.
In a secondary plotline that elbows itself into the principal story, a pregnant woman named Catherine While is being taunted by a stalker who leaves a nasty greeting (“I could have killed you”) scrawled on a birthday card by her bedside — next to a knife. Bauer’s sleuth, Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel, notable for the “piggy cunning” in his eyes, has a hand in tying up both narrative threads. But we’re more in awe of young Jack: thief, con man and hero.
If your chosen line of work is being a hermit, you couldn’t pick a better location than Maquoit, a fogbound island 20 miles off the coast of Maine. In STAY HIDDEN (Minotaur, $26.99), Mike Bowditch, the game warden investigator in Paul Doiron’s nature-loving mysteries, flies out to Maquoit to investigate the accidental (or accidental-on-purpose) shooting of a sort-of famous journalist named Ariel Evans.
Ariel was supposedly on the island to do research on Blake Markman, a producer who fled Hollywood to live as a hermit and raise Icelandic sheep. But when the ferry arrives from the mainland, who should step onto the dock but Ariel herself — fit as a fiddle and anxious to investigate her own death. Doiron captures the stark beauty of his setting without averting his eyes from the sick and starving wildlife, the rancorous feuds among the lobstermen or the homicidal impulses that push islanders off the deep end.
John Straley has been holding out on us. BABY’S FIRST FELONY (Soho Crime, $25.95), his first Cecil Younger novel in 17 years, is bursting with the sort of oddball characters who make Alaska’s wildlife look tame. Younger, a hapless criminal defense investigator, has had some success in educating his dodgy clients about smart ways to beat a rap. (“Don’t hurt the dog and don’t do the meth.”) He has also witnessed some creative drug-smuggling methods. (Stuff the dope inside a fish.) But when his 13-year-old daughter and her best friend are kidnapped, he finds himself gambling for their lives — and way out of his depth. Straley knows how to wrap deadly violence in a bubble of black humor that suits the novel’s beautiful but harsh setting, where whales open their maws to dine on oceans of salmon fry and men kill one another while ravens fly overhead, screaming with laughter.
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