New mystery novels set in Beijing, Bangkok and Yorkshire offer top-flight summer reading.
Here are three excellent crime novels for the heat of summer — this month’s recommendations for Books Mostly Likely to Have Sunblock Spilled on Them.
The first paragraph of Lisa Brackmann’s China-set “Dragon Day” (Soho, 368 pp., $25.95) lets us know we’re in sly hands. It’s a complaint about … well, about how trite it is to use the word “dragon” in the title of a book about China.
Ellie McEnroe, our guide, is a piece of work: an expatriate American veteran of Iraq with a bad leg and a worse attitude.
Foul-mouthed, funny and shrewd, she’s scratching out a living in Beijing as an agent representing Chinese artists.
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As if life for the pain-racked and chronically broke Ellie isn’t tough enough, her friendship with a prominent dissident artist has drawn the attention of China’s security service.
Then, for various reasons, Ellie can’t refuse when a Shanghai billionaire asks her to investigate his spoiled son’s creepy American business partner.
The story she uses to justify entering the family’s affairs is that she’s assembling a museum of the billionaire’s art collection and wants the help of his children in setting it up.
Ellie’s troubles with both the authorities and her ostensible museum are intensified when a waitress is murdered at one of the son’s debauched parties and she becomes a suspect.
Brackmann is terrific at evoking both the glitz of modern high-society China and Ellie’s hand-to-mouth existence in some of Beijing’s less reputable corners.
John Burdett’s“The Bangkok Asset” (Knopf, 336 pp., $25.95) continues the delightfully eccentric and unpredictable adventures of Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a detective with the Royal Thai Police.
His immediate case involves murder — a young woman has been killed in a gruesome and seemingly impossible way. The case leads to another seemingly impossible thing: a killer with inhuman strength and stamina controlled by a mysterious American spy.
Sonchai is a terrific character: a devout but skeptical Buddhist with a philosophy that combines classical religion, Thai superstitions and amused pragmatism.
Thrown into the mix is his complicated family history: his mother is a famous beauty and nightclub owner, his father an unknown American whom Sonchai has so far avoided tracking down, in part out of fear of who he may be.
Addressing the reader directly as “farang” (white person), Sonchai is a wise, cheeky guide through Bangkok’s baffling but fascinating mix of cultures — high and low, sexy and straight-laced, modern and traditional.
Peter Robinson and his series character, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, go from strength to strength — the latest example being “In the Dark Places”(Morrow, 336 pp., $25.99).
It’s a slack period for the mild, self-effacing Yorkshire copper and his smart, loyal team — the biggest thing on their plate is the theft of a tractor from a wealthy farmer’s land. So they’re pleased when a set of mysteries arrives to relieve their boredom.
One involves a murder scene in an abandoned aircraft hangar — no body, just human blood and bits of bone. Meanwhile, Banks’ team discovers that the tractor was worth quite a bit of money, and its theft points to a ring of thieves specializing in high-end agricultural machinery.
At the same time, the son of the wealthy farmer’s disgruntled neighbor goes missing. Was the son involved in the tractor’s disappearance? And then the son’s friend also disappears — that is, until his corpse turns up, disposed of in grisly fashion.
Not to get too graphic, but it involves the crash of a slaughterhouse truck carrying animal parts.
This component — the slaughterhouse — is one of the book’s recurring references; another is Banks’ serious love of music.
The book’s U.K. title, “Abattoir Blues,” neatly combines both — and is, IMHO, much better than the bland U.S. version.