A number of recent mysteries have featured true crime podcasts as a plot device, so it’s only fair that actual true crime podcasters are starting to publish crime novels of their own. The latest is Alaina Urquhart, an autopsy technician and co-host of the Morbid podcast. Her debut, THE BUTCHER AND THE WREN (Zando, 245 pp., $27), clearly benefits from her professional and personal obsessions.
Wren is Dr. Wren Muller, a talented forensic pathologist who finds herself taken aback by the sheer number of murder victims piling up of late in Louisiana bayou country. “Unidentified bodies in her morgue irritate her endlessly. … She doesn’t like having unfinished business, and especially not when she’s reminded of it every time she opens the freezer door.” The titular butcher preys largely on women, killing them in increasingly daring and terrifying ways made all the more so because readers are in his evil head for half the novel.
Urquhart has crafted a thriller that is necessarily graphic but not exploitative. The crisp detail, the narrative brevity and the blade-sharp connections between the pathologist and the killer all bode well for future installments.
Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” — his first, and best, legal thriller — share a certain similarity: Their narrative-altering twists, which arise out of the intricacies of marriage, feature the kind of bitter betrayal that can only happen between spouses.
In Turow’s latest effort, the rather generically titled SUSPECT (Grand Central Publishing, 439 pp., $29),the Highland Isle police chief Lucia Gomez-Barrera has been accused of “sextortion” — demanding sex from subordinate police officers in exchange for promotions — and Clarice “Pinky” Granum, last seen working as a paralegal for her grandfather Sandy Stern in 2020’s “The Last Trial,” is now a fledgling private investigator tasked with ferreting out the truth.
Pinky is supposed to be edgy — tattoos! magenta mohawk! overt bisexuality! no filter! Her entertainment value as first-person narrator, though, is undercut by the nagging sense that a 30-something woman would not think and say certain things, but her 70-something male creator might. The courtroom scenes remain gratifyingly sharp, and the skulduggery levels reach maximum impact. Still, I wished for a grand unifying element, like the monumental rug-pull of “Presumed Innocent,” that would knit the disparate story lines together.
A main character who’s a fearsome assassin for a secretive and elite government agency? That’s pretty standard thriller fare. But there’s nothing ho-hum about Nena Knight, the killer at the heart of Yasmin Angoe’s THEY COME AT KNIGHT (Thomas & Mercer, 347 pp., $24.95). Nena, whom we met in “Her Name Is Knight,” works in the family business, known as the Tribe, a syndicate which supports the well-being of African countries — “the advancement of all Africans and all people of the diaspora” — by rooting out corrupt villains. “When the Tribe doled out death decrees, they were a necessary punishment to those who sought to undermine the advancement of Africa as a whole.” In one blistering action scene after another, we get to see how good Nena is at what she does.
Nena cares as much about her work as she does her family, and the lines separating the two blur only occasionally. But when the Tribe is threatened by violent paramilitary action, those lines are obliterated. The threats emanate from inside the Tribe, and involve people Nena has long believed she could trust with her life.
It’s a surprise to learn how deep the rot reaches, and how far it will send her reeling.
When my mother celebrated her 80th birthday this past summer, I asked her what she wanted as a gift. Large parties and celebrations were out; in-person visits were definitely in. And what she also wanted, when I mentioned I had it in my possession? A galley of Richard Osman’s newest Thursday Murder Club novel, since the first two books in the series had been her cup of tea as much as mine.
For what it’s worth, THE BULLET THAT MISSED (Pamela Dorman Books, 342 pp., $23.99) ranks ahead of the first book but a smidgen behind “The Man Who Died Twice.” The quartet of aging amateur sleuths (Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim) remain wonderful company, and the initial case they investigate, the disappearance of local news anchor a decade ago, is suffused with intrigue. Connections to more present danger, even in their retirement community, soon emerge — not that such a thing bothers them. “Things have been too quiet recently. A retired optometrist crashed his moped into a tree, and there has been a row about milk bottles, but that was about it for excitement. The simple life is all well and good but, in this moment, with a murder to investigate, and threatening texts arriving daily, Elizabeth realizes she has missed trouble.”
What struck me was how relaxed and loose Osman is this time around. His writing is more confident; his dialogue snappier; his characters more vivid. With such a sky-high standard for the first three books, the future remains bright for the series, but the pressure’s definitely on.