Mystery Favs for May

Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears

If you like your mysteries succinct and neatly structured, Stone’s Fall isn’t for you. It runs 800 pages, spans a century, and tracks labyrinthian financial plots through the lives of a large and colorful cast of characters. As the novel opens, a journalist is hired by a fascinating woman of middle age to fulfill the terms of her husband’s will by finding the child he sired but never knew. The year is 1909 and the dead man, William Stone, was one of the most legendary financial wizards at work in the world at the turn of the century. As the tale winds us back through time, we see the rise of international finance, of espionage and of the arms race. The characters in Stone’s Fall are history’s equivalents of the titans of Enron and Halliburton, AIG and Citibank. All of which makes Pears’ newest novel revelatory both in terms of history and of today’s news. – Betsy Burton, Spiegel & Grau, $28.95

Genesis, Bernard Beckett

Playing, predominantly, with the theoretical ideas laid out in a 1996 book by Aaron Lynch titled Thought Contagion and an entire corpus of utopian/dystopian novels that can be traced all the way back to Sir Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, Beckett knits together an intellectual thriller that operates around an axis of classical philosophy and 21st century politics alike. Genesis is a bold little volume that roars like a lion, an intelligent book of ideas. Its format is original and its prose, in places, is as poetic and distilled as that found in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921-22 Russian utopia/dystopia, We, which was the single most significant influence on George Orwell’s much better known 1984. Best of all, its shocking conclusion drops open like a trap door and the reader is left grasping backward through the novel for footing. – Aaron Cance, Quercus, $20

The Red Squad, E.M. Broner

This is an ensemble story told through the eyes of Professor Anka Pappas, now an English professor at Ohio State but back in the ’60s a Ph.D.-in-waiting instructor at a state college in Detroit and a passionate activist against the war in Vietnam. When Anka receives in the mail a red squad file which details the lives, loves, and crimes of ‘the bullpen’–the group of teachers Anka thought of as her family–it unsettles her. Who was the informer among the group? Why send the file now and stir up so many old–sometimes painful–memories? Red Squad is touching and hopeful but also laced with humor that’s as academic and acerbic as Anka herself. Red Squad isn’t so much as a whodunit but a whydunit. – Paula Longhurst, Pantheon, $24

The Secret Speech, Tom Rob Smith

The follow-up to Child 44 is set in post-Stalinist Russia where Khrushchev–Stalin’s successor–has just denounced his master as a tyrant and a murderer. This ‘Secret Speech’ causes a massive backlash against the MGB and the past rises up to confront former MGB agent, now homicide detective, Leo Demidov. People connected to an arrest at the beginning of Leo’s career are committing suicide and the person at the center of the spider’s web has a agenda against Leo, his family, and particularly his daughter Zoya. Smith’s chilling glimpse into Soviet Russia on the eve of great upheaval repels and attracts in equal measure. Difficult to put down. – Paula Longhurst, Grand Central Publishing, $24.99

Living Witness: A Gregor Demarkian Novel, Jane Haddam

What makes this particular mystery so fascinating is not the series of bludgeoning attacks, but the apparent reason for them: There is an enormous controversy in the town of Snow Hill between the forces in favor of teaching evolution, and the forces that insist that so-called intelligent design be represented. Fundamentalists rage, but so do atheists, while bodies stack up and detective Gregor Demarkian not only detects but also ponders, worries, doubts. Doubts not God, but whether people actually kill over school board decisions. Haddam addresses his musings and those of the town with dry humor, reminding us that whichever side of a debate one may be on, whatever the rights or wrongs of intellectual issues, intolerance is intolerance. – Betsy Burton, St. Martin’s Minotaur, $25.95

The City & the City, China Mieville

A labyrinthine mystery as well as a visionary look at identity, politics, and geography, The City and the City is simply stunning. Both mystery and speculative fiction junkies will want to pick this one up. Mieville adeptly juggles a murder, two cities’ mysterious pasts, and a tense political situation with deft prose and compelling characters. Utterly enthralling, absorbing, and ultimately unforgettable. – Jenn Northington, Del Rey, $25

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