The Plot Thickens

It’s uncanny to me how some crime-fiction authors are able to come up with book after book, sometimes more than one per year, and yet keep the quality high and the writing fresh. Elly Griffiths, the British author of the Ruth Galloway series, is one of those writers; she seems to have a new book out approximately every three minutes, and every one of them is a treat. Last month I mentioned her latest Galloway book, the pandemic-era page-turner “The Locked Room”; this month I devoured the latest in her series featuring Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, whom we first met a few years back in “The Stranger Diaries” (probably still my favorite Griffiths book, and a great place to start if you’re new to her).

In “Bleeding Heart Yard,” a newly promoted Kaur — who’s thrilled to have left suburbia and her overprotective parents behind, for a job with London’s Metropolitan Police and a flatshare in West London — investigates an apparent murder at a posh school reunion. Flashbacks, which might put you in mind a bit of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” show us a close-knit group of students with more than their share of secrets. Kaur, though outwardly stoic, loves her job and is good company as she puzzles her way through a thicket of backstory and finds amusement in how the world underestimates her. Riding the bus home one evening, she ponders how “no one would imagine that the Indian girl, gazing out of the window with her headphones on, was actually lost in a world of hit men, drug overdoses, and a pop star who got a strange look in his eyes when describing his old schoolfriends.”

I’m not certain that Winnie M. Li’s “Complicit” is a mystery exactly, but it’s certainly a suspense novel with a crime at its center, so it seemed appropriate for The Plot Thickens — and it’s very good indeed. Li’s timely second novel (her first was the Edgar Award-nominated “Dark Chapter,” based on her real-life sexual assault) doesn’t mention the name Harvey Weinstein, but it doesn’t need to: Anyone who’s read the headlines in recent years knows the inspiration for this book, in which former film producer Sarah Lai looks back on how her career aspirations were crushed by her experiences with a famous film-industry predator.

Li knows the ropes of the film business (readers will learn a lot about what, exactly, a producer does and how a low-budget movie gets made) and gives her story a cinematic tension; you read with dread and fascination. Every detail rings true, particularly the contrast between hardworking Sarah, who never quite feels like she belongs but desperately wants to, and the confident Hugo North, a man who “no longer moves with the quickness of youth, but he no longer needs to, because everything and everyone in the room now moves around him, to accommodate him.” A fascinating study of power, set in a business that deals in seduction.

And now, to reader recommendations! Last month, worried that I might have missed some great books while on leave earlier this year, I asked readers to share their favorite newly published mystery novels. Here are some favorites:

  • The Unkept Woman” by Allison Montclair. It’s the fourth in the Sparks & Bainbridge series, set in post-World War II London and involving the Right Sort Marriage Bureau.
  • The Bullet That Missed” by Richard Osman. Osman’s very funny debut, “The Thursday Murder Club,” was a big favorite with readers of this column; this one is his third mystery, set in an idyllic-seeming retirement village in rural England.
  • Killers of a Certain Age” by Deanna Raybourn. I’m currently in the middle of this one, and it’s definitely a page-turner: Four retired female assassins find themselves with One Last Job.
  • The Old Woman with the Knife” by Gu Byeong-mo. Hmm, we seem to have a theme here: An aging Korean contract killer contemplates her retirement, but life brings other complications.
  • The Housemaid” by Freida McFadden. A housekeeper learns a family’s secrets — and reveals a few of her own — in this twisty psychological thriller.
  • The Crooked Knife” by Jan Morrison. Set in the remote First Nations reservation of Sheshatshiu, Labrador, Morrison’s debut features a female constable trying to solve a mysterious murder. The publisher calls it “Canadian northern noir,” which seems rather specific but definitely intriguing.

And for next month’s slew of recommendations — how about some good legal thrillers? A while ago I reread Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” and was reminded how terrific that book is; his latest, “Suspect,” is also a good read (and Sandy Stern, the defense attorney from “Presumed Innocent,” makes a moving cameo, 35 years later). As someone who was mesmerized for years by the legal shenanigans of “The Good Wife” (and who will admit that I have frequently practiced removing my reading glasses in dramatic fashion, a la Diane Lockhart), I do love a nice courtroom drama on a winter afternoon. Send any recommendations my way — I promise not to yell “Objection!” — and we’ll reconvene next month.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon