There’s a mordant theme to this month’s column; in three of the four books, dark humor undercuts despair and sardonic wit compensates for failure. Nowhere are these traits more on display than in DEATH OF THE RED RIDER (Pushkin Vertigo, 396 pp., paperback, $16.95), the second appearance of Yulia Yakovleva’s Stalin-era detective, Vasily Zaitsev, who goes about the ordinary business of solving murders while communities around him in 1930s Russia are purged and exiled en masse.
This time Zaitsev is dispatched to Novocherkassk, a Soviet cavalry school in the south of Russia, to investigate the horrifying death of a famous rider and his horse midrace. Soon he’s given an assistant he didn’t ask for, Comrade Zoya Sokolova, who arrives with her own agenda. The events — aided by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s nimble translation — unfold slowly, but hold the reader’s attention.
Yakovleva captures the futility of living and working in such a blighted society, picking up the torch from Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. “Murder’s easy,” a man tells Zaitsev. “We did something much worse, all of us. To each other — Russians, Germans, English, French. Not just murder. Extermination — that’s what we did. We learnt that life was worthless. Worth less than a penny. That is a terrible thing.”
A coincidence ties together Yakovleva and August Snow, the Detroit-based private detective who returns for a fourth time in Stephen Mack Jones’s DEUS X (Soho Crime, 352 pp., $27.95): The former lives in Oslo and also writes in Norwegian, while Snow now spends a chunk of the year in Oslo with his partner, Tatina.
Snow is there as the novel opens, “babysitting an inbred, clearly psychopathic bastard son of obscure Norwegian royalty,” when he learns of the sudden retirement of a Franciscan priest back home who is also a lifelong friend. The circumstances make Snow so suspicious that he heads to Detroit to investigate. It becomes clear to him that Father Grabowski is hiding something, but only when an armed squad arrives from the Vatican — and the body count climbs — does August learn the whole sordid truth from the priest.
As in previous installments, Jones’s action sequences move at a whip-quick pace, and his observations are endlessly quotable. For instance: “What’s really annoying about amateur killers is they either show up at the murder site too early, adrenaline pumping prematurely, and by the time the action goes down they’re exhausted and paranoid, increasing the odds of collateral damage. Or they show up late after one too many nerve-settling bourbons.”
Behold, a milestone: The last of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s noir novels has been translated into English. I’m already on record saying that I’d rather read the French noir writer — even one of his less-than-successful efforts — than most contemporary genre writers, and SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET (NYRB, 168 pp., paperback, $16.95), originally published in 1976 and newly translated by Alyson Waters, is up there with his brutal best.
Readers first met the wily, caustic private detective Eugène Tarpon in “No Room at the Morgue,” published as “Morgue Pleine”in 1973. (Think Dashiell Hammett with a strong sense of the absurd.) Here, pursuing corruption, he’s caught up with dirty police officials, drug runners, kidnappers and an abundance of guns.
With the help of two friends, Charlotte Malrakis — who hems and haws about sleeping with him — and the journalist Jean-Baptiste Haymann, Tarpon, as usual, realizes the only way out of a violent situation is by bulldozing through its messy, bloody center: “Under normal circumstances, you’ve got to take seriously someone who’s aiming a gun at you. But on this occasion, I giggled; I must have been slightly wound up.”
Finally, for a complete change of pace, pick up the new Juneau Black novel. The gentle humor in TWILIGHT FALLS (Vintage, 272 pp., paperback, $16) befits the winsomeness of the anthropomorphic animal characters who populate the village of Shady Hollow.
Vera Vixen, the intrepid reporter, and Orville Braun, the newly minted police chief, are picnicking together on a day date when they witness a local man named Shelby Atwater go over Twilight Falls. They soon learn he was last seen arguing with the young woman dating his son, a match he vehemently opposed. That woman, Anastasis von Beaverpelt, seems the likeliest suspect and Orville arrests her — but Vera is convinced of her innocence. The investigation will upend Shady Hollow and, possibly, her romance with Orville.
Black, the joint pseudonym of Jocelyn Cole and Sharon Nagel, again leans heavily, and successfully, into earnestness. These authors believe so fervently in their characters and world that readers, too, find it easy to buy into their vision of community and harmony — one that’s altered, but never destroyed, by violent death.