The first great crime novel of 2023 is BLAZE ME A SUN (Hogarth, 435 pp., $28), by the decorated Swedish crime writer Christoffer Carlsson, who twines together national and personal traumas to devastating effect.
The central crime — the murder of a young woman in Tiarp, a small Swedish town, mere hours after the assassination of the prime minister Olof Palme — is horrific. The perpetrator helpfully calls the police to tell them what he’s done, adding, “I’m going to do it again.”
More killings follow, kindling deep anger in Sven Jörgensson, the first detective on the case. “When Sven closed his eyes, he saw the green fields and deep forests of Nyarasen, the car that had been left up in Tiarp and the violence that had befallen the woman in the back seat. Hardly a day went by that he didn’t do this — close his eyes and meander through these scenes he’d once experienced, perhaps in the hopes of noticing something he’d overlooked before.”
“Blaze Me a Sun,” translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, contains deep pleasures and thrilling surprises. What I most loved is how Carlsson plumbs what can and cannot be known about human lives and criminal investigations. He understands how familial love can blind people to difficult truths, and how “closure” often never happens. “I refuse to die,” the mother of one of the murdered women says. “I just don’t know how to keep on living.”
A serial killer obsessed with redheads stalks the pages of Tracy Clark’s HIDE (Thomas & Mercer, 369 pp., paperback, $16.99), engaging in ritual murder in downtown Chicago during broad daylight. “Hide” kicks off a series starring Detective Harriet Foster, who can tell it will be rough going as soon as she arrives at the first crime scene. Not only because of the killer’s apparent signature — lines of blood-red lipstick drawn around the victim’s wrists and ankles — but also because she’s still working through her own grief and guilt over the suicide of her longtime partner on the force.
“There had to have been signs. … But Foster had missed every single one, even though she had been trained to lock in, to be observant, intuitive even, to always see three moves ahead.”
Unfortunately, Foster’s new partner is a jerk, needling her with boorish racist and sexist comments while failing to pull his investigative weight even as the deaths mount: “A by-the-book cop and a bleeding heart? Boy, did I hit the jackpot,” he sneers at her early on.
When Foster gets a tip to look into the behavior of an unstable young man with a violent past, she begins to sense just how deep the levels of depravity will run.
Juniper Jessup, the narrator of Olivia Blacke’s new cozy mystery, VINYL RESTING PLACE (St. Martin’s, 304 pp., paperback, $8.99), planned to make it far, far away from Cedar River, Texas, close enough to Austin for commuting but distant enough to retain serious small-town bona fides. Then, Juni’s sisters, Tansy and Maggie, implore her to return home to help out and sink cash into the family’s record shop and cafe, Sip & Spin. Since her life out West isn’t really clicking, Juni comes home, resigned to making a future in Texas.
At least, until she finds a dead body in a supply closet during a party at the shop, and the main suspect is her Uncle Calvin, a practical joker and Sip & Spin’s silent partner, who becomes an apparent fugitive when he disappears after his arrest. Of course the Jessup sisters put their heads together and figure out who the real culprit is, even if baser instincts — and the presence of Juni’s police detective ex — suggest that’s less than a stellar idea.
Blacke’s previous series, which was set in hipsterish Brooklyn, felt out of tune; the more relaxed vibe of “Vinyl Resting Place” is bolstered by the sisters’ genuine bond, colorful personalities and not-so-gentle conflicts. It’s a winning combination.
If Gelett Burgess’s name is familiar to readers, it’s very likely because of his 1895 nonsense poem “The Purple Cow” (though his claim to fame should probably be that he coined the word “blurb”). Beginning in 1908, Burgess, a poet and humorist, also published stories featuring Astro the Seer — a Sherlock Holmes knockoff in the guise of a mystic, clad in a turban and red silk robes — and his comely assistant, Valeska Wynne.
These stories, which were first collected in book form in 1912, are now being reissued by the Library of Congress Crime Classics line as THE MASTER OF MYSTERIES (Poisoned Pen Press, 496 pp., paperback $14.99). Several things emerge when reading through all 24 of these tales back-to-back, chiefly Burgess’ sense of the ridiculous. He hardly hides from the reader that Astro the Seer, whose real name is Astrogon Kerby, is a full-on charlatan, his public proclamations of clairvoyance a subterfuge for milking the rich of their money.
Astro and Valeska are also superior detectives, uncovering mysteries major and minor among the moneyed classes. What’s hidden from them — but not the reader — is their growing attraction. The resolution is equal parts dated and sweet, but also earned.