Crime-fiction critic Adam Woog looks at “Sleep No More,” a slim volume of six masterful tales of crime and psychological suspense by the much-honored English writer P.D. James, and Arnaldur Indridason’s excellent “The Shadow District.”
As the days close darkly in on us, turning to crime fiction seems like a natural response.
“Sleep No More” (Knopf, 208 pp., $21) is, sadly, probably the last work we’ll see from the much-honored English writer P.D. James, who died in 2014 at the age of 94.
(It’s Baroness James of Holland Park to the likes of you and me, although when I had the delightful task of interviewing her years ago she told me cheerfully that I should call her whatever I liked.)
James’ extensive legacy includes 14 richly nuanced books starring Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh. This posthumous book is different, a slim volume of six masterful tales of crime and psychological suspense.
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They range from a classic country-house mystery (“The Murder of Santa Claus”) to one reminiscent of the disturbing, compact stories Roald Dahl wrote for grown-ups (“The Yo-Yo”).
A certain type of character appears in several: a lonely young person with an indifferent, distant family. Another recurring theme: how ordinary people can be compelled to commit terrible crimes.
Short stories can sometimes disappoint — the long form seems better suited for expansive exploration — but I’m happy to report that these tales are perfectly sized and balanced, with the sharp insight and graceful prose that helped earn the writer her fame.
The rugged beauty and distinctive culture of Iceland figure prominently in Arnaldur Indridason’s excellent “The Shadow District” (Minotaur, 368 pp., $25.99, translated by Victoria Cribb), the start of a promising series by a writer justly praised for his novels starring melancholic police detective Erlendur.
The novel introduces Konrad, a retired detective who, bored, offers to help the overworked Reykjavik police with a cold case. In 1944, as American soldiers swarmed the city, the body of a young woman was found by a secretly courting couple — she an Icelander, he a G.I. Despite a conviction, the murder was never solved to the police’s satisfaction.
Cut to the present day, when an elderly man is found dead in his Reykjavik apartment, and what looks at first like a fatality from natural causes proves to be murder. While investigating, the police find a collection in the old man’s apartment of newspaper clippings about the earlier crime.
Meanwhile, both cases appear to have some connection to a rural woman’s seemingly far-fetched claim that she was raped by the huldufolk, elves out of Icelandic folklore. The three cases converge in a gripping and deeply satisfying way.