Corpses pile up in holiday tales and family dramas

smacknee@mcclatchy.comDecember 8, 2012 

Safe House, by Chris Ewan. Minotaur. 441 pages.

The author of the “Good Thief’s Guide” mysteries brings us a standalone with plot twists fast and furious enough to bring on literary whiplash.

On the Isle of Man, motorcycle rider Rob Hale wakes up in the hospital after an accident and finds that the woman who was with him is gone, and no one believes she was ever there. A doctor suggests the accident and his sister’s recent death might be scrambled together because of brain trauma.

But soon enough he meets a private detective who is looking for the missing woman for reasons of her own. They start peeling away layers of the story, only to reach new layers involving environmental activists, private security firms and even the death of Rob’s sister.

The island is a picturesque setting but a claustrophobic one, too. Rob’s parents and granddad provide some warmth to balance the relatively large cast of cold-blooded killers.

The Twelve Clues of Christmas, by Rhys Bowen. Berkley Prime Crime. 312 pages.

This one’s recommended if you have the holiday blues and the doctor orders a dose of pure sugar plum fantasy. It’s a confection of Yule logs, Christmas crackers, fox hunts, a picturesque village and romance – with a man named Darcy, no less! And did I mention Noel Coward is staying in a nearby cottage?

Meanwhile, people in Tiddleton-under-Lovey are dying in odd ways. Not just one murder, not even two or three – one every day for 12 days. (Talk about overkill.) And still the rustic celebrations and country house party games continue. Pantomimes, hide-and-seek, whoops, the butcher’s dead – anyone for charades?

The Child’s Child, by Barbara Vine. Scribner. 320 pages

Here’s a nice winter’s read from Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine. It’s not so much a whodunit as a novel with just enough suspense and mild violence to keep it from being shelved with the Nicholas Sparks books.

Vine creates a story within a story, with parallel plots of homosexuality and unwed motherhood pointing up differences in attitudes between the modern-day story and the embedded novel set in 1929. Although both “sins” are more harshly regarded in the older story, they are not as free of stigma today as we might assume.

But lofty themes aside, the “old” novel is just a cracking good read and packed so full of nostalgic Britishisms that I dare you to get through it without stopping to make a good strong cup of tea.

Two Graves, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Grand Central. 484 pages.

Series character Aloysius Pendergast is reunited with the wife he had thought dead for years – only to see her abducted. A serial killer is staging elaborate death scenes in New York hotels. From Pendergast’s luxury apartment at the Dakota to the Brazilian jungle hideaway of the ubervillains, it’s a lavish story and one that takes the time for some skillful vignettes and characterizations.

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