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Four great new mysteries and thrillers – and one to skip

Richard Lipez

THE WASHINGTON POST – Every month, I comb through stacks of new thrillers and mysteries looking for five to recommend. Often it’s hard to keep it to just five.

Other times – this time – I thought I’d found my top picks, only to be disappointed by one. So, here are four great reads and one dud.

THE VERIFIERS BY JANE PEK

Jane Pek’s exhilarating debut novel almost makes you want to be a 20-something in New York (if you aren’t already) – writing, making art, biking helter-skelter through traffic, navigating work and fraught relationships – even if, as in Claudia Lin’s case, you have to try to solve a murder.

Claudia works for Veracity, an outfit hired by suspicious people to check out someone they met on a dating app. Pek’s plot centres on the potential for evil in the “matching industry,” but it’s the keen, sprightly, incidentally heroine and her complex Chinese immigrant family you can’t get enough of. Says Claudia’s comically manipulative mom: “I don’t care if there’s a mouse (in the kitchen). It will keep me company.”

NINE LIVES BY PETER SWANSON

Peter Swanson’s smartly entertaining reimagining of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None introduces us to nine people with apparently nothing in common who receive a list of names in the mail including their own. An Ann Arbor lit professor is the first to guess that “someone has marked us for death”.

Devil House; The Verifiers; and Nine Lives. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

True enough, an oncology nurse, a resort owner and others start getting knocked off. Swanson cunningly plays with readers’ heads as we hope so-and-so gets it next, but not so-and so. In addition to the suspense – who’s doing this, and why? – there’s lots of literary wit: a Maine bookstore is called the Ragged Claw. If you don’t get the double meaning, ask an English major.

DEVIL HOUSE BY JOHN DARNIELLE

Devotees of true-crime books will be fascinated by John Darnielle’s novel about Gage Chandler, a popular practitioner of the genre – his books are in airports. But they may be dismayed, too, as Dannielle demonstrates how the form can be cruelly dishonest, hurting good people to tell a shapely, suspenseful story.

Chandler moves into a dilapidated former store in Milpitas, California, to research two grisly unsolved murders there in the 1980s. But what he uncovers is not what he’s been told readers want – crazed teens, satanic rites – which turns this gorgeously written novel by the lead singer-songwriter of the indie band the Mountain Goats is less about crime-solving than it is about moral conscience in publishing.

PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN LADY BY MARIA GAINZA

Argentine novellist (Optic Nerve) and art critic Maria Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady is being marketed as a mystery, but it’s hard to categorise. A sometimes lush, sometimes minimally inflected – Camus’ The Stranger comes to mind – tale of a master art counterfeiter named Renee and her bohemian disciples (including the narrator) paints a colourful picture of the Buenos Aires art world of the past century.

A crooked authenticator of fake paintings justifies her crimes by claiming it’s okay to stick it to the bourgeoisie, and she argues that counterfeits of masterworks are often as good as the originals.

BORN FOR TROUBLE: THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF HAP AND LEONARD BY JOE R LANSDALE

The nicest word I can come up with for the humour in Joe R Lansdale’s Hap Collins and Leonard Pine East Texas PI books is “broad”. Lansdale is an acquired taste a lot of readers have acquired, judging by the 50-plus novels and story collections he’s published. Lansdale does have a knack for the striking quick sketch. In this assortment of five stories, the second wife of the owner of a pet cemetery where human corpses are discovered underneath Fido “looked good but wore badly”.

The stale jokes, however, seem to come from a writer on autopilot, and the torture and beheadings and dopey gunfights feel like the most dispiriting kind of Scandinavian noir, except with a laugh track.

It’s just weird.

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