Two crime novels — one set in the Shetland Islands of Scotland, the other in war-ravaged Vienna — bring detectives (and their work) to the fore.
This week, let’s look at two books from far away: remote Scotland and Vienna (a century ago).
Ann Cleeves is justly praised for two separate series about British police detectives Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez. (Both have become excellent TV series as well.) “Wild Fire” (Minotaur, 416 pp., $26.99) is the latest Perez story. Perez’s beat encompasses the remote Shetland Islands of Scotland. In elegant prose, Cleeves evokes the region’s bleak beauty, tough residents and extreme isolation.
The story begins with two terrible events: A group of young people mock an autistic boy, and a member of the jeering crowd is found hanged in a cow barn. The incidents link two very different families. One includes an arrogant doctor who employed the hanged victim, Emma Shearer, as a nanny. The other is the autistic boy’s family, comprising a renowned textile designer named Helena Fleming and her weak-willed husband — they’re outsiders distrusted by most islanders.
The story raises questions: Why did so many locals harbor grudges against the dead woman? Who has been sending Fleming crude drawings of a gallows? And how does the doctor’s family figure into all of this?
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Perez recruits a team from the mainland. Among them is his sometime lover, Willow Reeves, who reveals a life-changing secret. The two are a good match: both smart, dedicated and deeply empathetic.
“Wild Fire” is the final story about detective Jimmy Perez. Sad news, but the series ends on a high note.
A second police detective appears in Alex Beer’s “The Second Rider” (Europa, 320 pp., $17 paperback original). The young Austrian writer’s English-language debut (crisply translated by Tim Mohr) stars a most memorable character: police detective August Emmerich, who haunts the mean streets of Vienna, a city changed forever by the ravages of World War I.
Chronically broke, shabby and reliant on heroin to lessen the pain of a war wound, Emmerich investigates a series of seemingly unrelated murders that lead back to one wartime atrocity. Meanwhile, he pursues a black-market crime ring headquartered in Vienna’s extensive sewer system (shades of Orson Welles and “The Third Man”) and along the way forms an unlikely alliance with its ringleader.
Beer vividly conjures the horrors of ruined Vienna: devastating shortages of food, shelter and other essentials, offset by rare treasures like real coffee and eggs. She also deftly balances her grim story with flashes of coal-black humor.