As the temperatures rise, so does the fictional body count. Our summer mystery roundup offers three stylish literary efforts by writers new to the genre. – Yvonne Zipp
1. “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead,” by Sara Gran
“Millennium” fans looking for a new heroine: Meet Claire DeWitt.
She’s got the damaged childhood, the antisocial habits and disregard for the law, and the tattoos. (Twelve, to be precise, including the initials of her best friend, who disappeared one night when they were teenagers.)
Instead of Lisbeth Salandar’s computers, though, Claire relies on dreams, the I Ching, and “Detection” by Jacques Silette, a legendary French detective who was never able to solve the biggest mystery of his own life: the disappearance of his young daughter.
Despite her almost-psychic abilities of deduction, hard-drinking Claire is a spiritual heir of Philip Marlowe and other loners solving cold-hearted crimes in warm climates.
Set in New Orleans during the months after hurricane Katrina, “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” is populated by the missing — from the prosecutor Claire was hired to find, who disappeared days after the levees burst, to Claire’s own mentor, who was gunned down years earlier.
“The first thing you need to know about being a detective,” Constance, who had been a student of Silette, told Claire, “is that no one will ever like you again… Your friends will never relax around you. Your family will shut you out. The police, of course, will loathe you. Your clients will never forgive you for telling them the truth. Everyone pretends they want their mysteries solved but no one does.”
Sara Gran (“Dope”) wrote urban noir before turning to mystery, and her descriptions of dead-eyed teen drug dealers in matching white tanks and baggy jeans have the precision of HBO’s “The Wire”: “They were as similar as Wall Street brokers in gray flannel suits or white-coated doctors in a hospital or Marines in uniform — and like those other people in uniform, their sameness subdued something in them, made them forget a piece of themselves.”
2. “Sister,” by Rosamund Lupton
Beatrice Hemming’s little sister Tess was more beautiful, more artistic and more carefree than her older sister — and careful, cautious Bee loved her more than anyone on earth in Rosamund Lupton’s eerie psychological mystery “Sister.”
Lupton’s first novel opens with Bee remembering the first letter she wrote to Tess, after she was sent away to boarding school. Bee sent hers in the form of a jigsaw puzzle to sneak it past a nosy headmistress. Tess’s reply came back penned in lemon juice. “Ever since, kindness has smelled of lemons,” Bee tells her.
With “Sister,” Bee is writing Tess another puzzle letter, but this one will never have a reply.
Tess’s body has been found in a public restroom in London’s Hyde Park, just days after she gave birth to a stillborn son. The coroner rules that the 21-year-old art student committed suicide while in the grip of postpartum psychosis.
Heartbroken and disbelieving, Beatrice is determined to prove that Tess was murdered.
Her investigation unfurls in epistolary fashion, a technique Lupton uses to effectively ratchet up both the tension and the tears.
“Lacking your ability with broad brushstrokes, I will tell you this story in accurate dots of detail,” Beatrice tells Tess. “I’m hoping that as in a pointillistic painting, the dots will form a picture and when it is completed, we will understand what happened and why.”
If we assume that Bee is right, the list of suspects is impressively varied: There’s the father of Tess’s child, her married professor; a fellow student who was basically stalking her; and the geneticist who ran the experimental trial Tess participated in after her fetus was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. (The trial was pronounced a success and her son was supposedly “cured.”)
But the reader starts to worry about Bee’s emotional and physical well-being as she abandons her own life to obsessively pursue clues — moving into Tess’s apartment, wearing her sister’s clothes and working her old job as bartender.
“I was in a Dali painting of drooping clocks, a Mad Hatter’s tea-party time,” Beatrice writes.
With its loving portrayal of what it means to be a sister balanced by some impressively Hitchcockian twists, “Sister” should appeal to fans of the character-driven mysteries of Kate Atkinson and Tana French.
3. “Pigeon English,” by Stephen Kelman
Since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, there have been certain rules observed when children play detective. Stephen Kelman throws them all out in his debut novel, “Pigeon English” (which last month landed on the Booker Prize longlist).
A teenaged boy in his housing project has been knifed, and 11-year-old Harrison Upoku and his friend, Dean, are determined to track down the killer, just like on “C.S.I.”
“Dean’s the brains because he’s seen all the shows,” Harri explains.
The two lift fingerprints using Scotch tape and stake out local eateries with Harri’s camouflage binoculars. Their investigation gets a dangerous boost when Harri sees someone disposing of what looks like the murder weapon.
Kelman, whose bio says he grew up on a council estate, based his acclaimed debut novel on the Damilola Taylor tragedy in Great Britain.
The mystery is secondary to the pleasures of listening to Harri as he prattles on winningly in a mix of street slang and Ghanaian expressions about everything from gummy candy (the cola bottles are the best) to his baby sister, who stayed behind in Ghana with their father and grandmom.
As he and his older sister, Lydia, try to navigate the rules of the giant concrete world where they’ve landed, populated by gangs, drug dealers, alcoholics, and petty thieves, Harri helpfully plays tour guide for the reader.
“In England there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over. It’s very helpful.”
Kelman does make a few missteps — most notably a “guardian pigeon” conceit that is wincingly off-key (and helpfully in italics, for readers who wish to avoid the pretentious portentousness).
More riveting is the violence surrounding Harri that he only half comprehends, as he, Lydia, their aunt and mother get sucked into a world of moral compromise.