Adam Woog’s June crime fiction roundup includes new mysteries by Parker Bilal, James Sallis and the master spy novelist Alan Furst. Also, Jon Talton wins the Spotted Owl Award.
This month’s crime fiction column highlights three deeply atmospheric novels evoking disparate times and places: Cairo 10 years ago, a small American town shocked by violence, and Paris under Nazi control.
“City of Jackals” (Bloomsbury, 464 pp., $27), by Parker Bilal, transports us to Cairo in 2005 and offers a complex hero, a Sudanese expat and former cop who goes by the single name Makana.
Makana, a tough-minded but softhearted widower, lives on a ramshackle houseboat and ekes out a living as a private eye. Hired by a couple to find their missing college-age son, he discovers that the young man was involved in radical politics — in particular the plight of refugees from South Sudan. Like Makana, the student is South Sudanese and thus a second-class citizen in Egypt.
(“Parker Bilal” is the pseudonym of literary novelist Jamal Mahjoub, who grew up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and is himself half Sudanese, half British.)
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Meanwhile, a severed head is fished from the river where Makana lives, and another murder victim is found in a burned delivery van. The killings and the disappearance are related and lead the detective deep into the murky political structure of Egypt during the iron-fisted era of its then-president, Hosni Mubarak.
James Sallis’“Willnot” (Bloomsbury, 192 pp., $26) packs a big punch for its slim size and spare prose.
The location of the little town of Willnot is never specified, though the book has a distinctly rural, Southern feel. Willnot rarely experiences serious crime, so it is naturally devastated by the discovery of several bodies in a field.
The book’s narrator — Lamar Hale, Willnot’s hardworking family doctor — becomes intimately involved in the subsequent investigation. Things become even more personal when a vaguely menacing man from Hale’s past shows up — and then a bullet intended for that man wounds Richard, a schoolteacher and the physician’s life partner. Sallis expertly weaves notes of hope throughout his pungent and often melancholy tale.
“A Hero of France” (Random House, 256 pp., $27) is Alan Furst’s latest journey through the rich world of espionage in the years around and during World War II. This is first-class Furst, cementing his place among the elite of spy novelists — a place earned by the author’s velvety prose style, full-blooded characters, leisurely but thrilling plots and gift for finding the small but vividly romantic details that bring a place to life.
It is 1941. The Nazis have occupied Paris and made life a terrifying proposition for everyday Parisians. But there’s a glimmer of brightness: The French Resistance is doing its courageous best to defy the Germans.
A man with the code name Mathieu oversees a network of brave Resistance operatives, including an enigmatic nightclub owner, a teenage girl who bicycles around the city to deliver messages, and a pillar of Parisian high society.
Mathieu is responsible for maintaining this crew’s complex, risky work. His people must be kept safe from threats on both sides of the conflict, notably a wily Nazi police inspector and a British spymaster who wants to start a hostile takeover of Mathieu’s carefully created network. All the while Mathieu must juggle multiple operations — one of the most urgent being the smuggling of downed British pilots to safety.
On the local front: For his novel “High Country Nocturne,” Seattle Times economics columnist Jon Talton has won this year’s Spotted Owl Award from the Portland-based fan group Friends of Mystery.
The short list of contenders included Seattle-area writers Robert Dugoni,Elizabeth George, Mike Lawson, Ingrid Thoft and Martin Limón. Congratulations to everyone — it must have been a tough call for the judges.