Salma Lowe, born into Hollywood royalty, has been through it. Before the murder of her older sister Tawney sent her spiraling into grief-fueled drug addiction 20 years earlier, Salma was a child actor on the cusp of stardom. Now, as Halley Sutton’s enthralling THE HURRICANE BLONDE (Putnam, 347 pp., paperback, $17.99) opens, Salma works for a company called Stars Six Feet Under, conducting tours of the houses where starlets lived and died in violent circumstances for “murder tourists.” Is it avoidance or deep immersion? Salma isn’t sure.
Then, not long after she learns that Tawney’s old fiancé Cal, a director, is making a film about her life and still-unsolved murder, Salma discovers the body of a young actress, Ankine Petrosyan, in the pool at the same house where her sister lived, “suspended in the water, twisting gently like a ballerina in a music box.” Ankine’s resemblance to Tawney is so uncanny that Salma believes there must be a link between their deaths. She sets her sights on Cal: She’s always believed he was guilty, and to prove it, she needs to finagle her way onto his movie set.
Sutton indicts our culture for its fixation on beautiful young women who died at the hands of others. Salma grimly notes how eager her customers are to “fork over $75 to let tragedy crinkle the edges of their cookie cutter … lives, sprinkling Dead Girls over their Instagram feeds like a game of brunch, brunch murder.”
I missed Joshua Moehling’s debut, “Where They Found Her,” when it was released last year, and that was my mistake. WHERE THE DEAD SLEEP (Poisoned Pen, 320 pp., $27.99), his next book to feature the Sandy Lake deputy sheriff Ben Packard, is a well-paced whodunit that doubles as an evocation of Minnesota small-town life in all of its messy, dysfunctional glory. Nothing like a home invasion and a murder to reveal all sides.
The victim of the invasion is Bill Sandersen, and at first it seems like anyone could have killed him — he was a gambler, a womanizer, a man who didn’t always pay his debts. The number of suspects keeps rising as each new, sordid detail emerges. Packard grapples with what he can never know about the town’s secrets — and whether he even wants to know.
Packard is an appealing character to keep company with. His ambivalence about whether he wants to run for election as sheriff — and disrupt his privacy in a place that’s less than hospitable to queer life — is palpable and real. The solution to the mystery is a surprise, but the real suspense emerges as Packard figures himself out, defying expectations in quiet, sometimes devastating ways.
One of my favorite reading experiences of years past was Leonie Swann’s debut, “Three Bags Full,” in which a flock of sheep try to solve the murder of their beloved shepherd. Though the writing sparkled with delight, Swann’s subsequent novels were never translated into English — a mistake I hope is now being rectified.
That same sense of fun comes through in THE SUNSET YEARS OF AGNES SHARP (Soho Crime, 359 pp., $27.95), in which the eccentric senior citizens who share a dilapidated cottage in the English countryside must contend with a vexing dilemma: what to do with the body of a housemate that they’ve stashed in the shed. When a policeman arrives to inform them that a neighbor has been murdered — shot dead “in her deck chair” — they wonder if they could pin both deaths on the same killer. That bright idea, naturally, is going to go wrong in all manner of spectacular ways.
“The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp,” translated from the German by Amy Bojang, operates in its own skewed universe. Fans of the “Thursday Murder Club” books will find much to like here.
It took reading A CHATEAU UNDER SIEGE (Knopf, 304 pp., $28), the 16th “Bruno, Chief of Police” novel by Martin Walker, for me to comprehend the appeal of this long-running series. There’s a mildly cantankerous protagonist along the lines of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano or Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti. There’s a rustic village, St. Denis, where “the green of the grass and the honey colored stone of the houses against the clear blue sky” recall an Impressionist painting, and where shenanigans major and minor (and murder certainly counts as major) abound. There are mouthwatering descriptions of food — veal stews, plum tarts, fresh croissants with apricot jam (perhaps it’s unsurprising that Walker also co-authored a cookbook of Bruno’s favorite recipes). The slow, relaxed pace feels an awful lot like a vacation to the south of France.
But there’s also some unexpected steel, in keeping with Walker’s prior career as a journalist. The murder victim was playing the hero in a re-enactment of the Hundred Years’ War, and tracing his last steps requires Bruno to probe intelligence operations, emerging technologies, and rivalries within families and between countries.
The result is an occasionally awkward mix of gentle mystery and hard-driving suspense, but the easy camaraderie and lush descriptions paper over any plot holes. The vibes, as the saying goes, are good.
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