Globe-trotting through mysteries: this month's best suspense novels take readers on a trip around the world, with four tales from Austria, the Philippines, Denmark and Japan.
MURDER IN MANILA
Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, $26.95, 368 pages, ISBN 9781616953980), the first mystery I've read that's set in the Philippines, is a killer debut for author F.H. Batacan. It revolves around the investigation of a series of murder-slash-dismemberments (the keyword being "slash") of young boys in an impoverished neighborhood of Quezon City. The inept National Bureau of Investigation has enlisted the aid of a pair of Jesuit priests, who double as forensic experts, to consult on the case. It's an uneasy alliance, as the Bureau and the Jesuits have crossed proverbial swords before, and the wounds are still fresh. At irregular intervals throughout the book, the first-person voice of the killer appears in italics; this is an especially compelling plot device, and Batacan uses it to its fullest advantage. This is a thought-provoking novel on every level, one that left me itching for the sequel.
DEAD IN DENMARK
Best-selling Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is back with another searing novel of Department Q, The Hanging Girl (Dutton, $28, 512 pages, ISBN 9780525954941). The girl in question isn't hanging in the way you might expect, but rather was suspended in the branches of a tree, having been catapulted there by a hit-and-run driver. The case is 17 years cold at this point, and Department Q head Carl Morck doesn't appreciate being summoned by colleague Christian Habersaat to the remote Baltic Sea island of Bornholm to investigate an unsolved case that has consumed a significant portion of Habersaat's police career. But then Morck receives news that Habersaat has just shot himself to death in front of a group of eyewitnesses. It's the first in a series of unfortunate and perplexing events, including the suicide of Habersaat's son and the one-by-one disappearances of young women from a naturist cult located on the picturesque island. All the requisite Adler-Olsen hallmarks are on display here: the easy camaraderie of the investigative team; great moments of humor; and Morck's crotchety disposition. It helps to read the series in order, but these books are so good that it's no hardship to start at the beginning.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
The English-language debut of best-selling Korean author J.M. Lee, The Investigation (Pegasus, $24.95, 336 pages, ISBN 9781605988467), is the first-person tale of Watanabe Yuichi, who reluctantly served as a prison guard in Japan during WWII: "The war ended on 15 August 1945. The prisoners were freed, but I'm still here." Incarcerated by the Allies for low-level war crimes, Watanabe now has time to reflect on his wartime investigation of the murder of a fellow guard. Virtually the only clue was a handwritten poem of ineffable sadness, found in the dead guard's pocket. Watanabe was singularly unsuited to be an investigator, and he soon realized that nobody really wanted him to solve the crime. The Investigation is a rollicking good mystery tale, with an earnest if occasionally nebbishy protagonist. It is also a volume of poetry, with heartbreaking verses of love and loss set against the backdrop of war. Wide-ranging sub-themes include the enmity between Japanese and Korean cultures, the history of pre-split Korea and the side effects of war on a civilian population. The Investigation is nearly impossible to review in a paragraph; even a whole page wouldn't do it justice. Read it, you'll understand.