Human frailty at root of Unger’s compelling tale

smacknee@mcclatchy.comJanuary 11, 2014 

“In the Blood,” by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 352 pages.

College senior Lana Granger takes a baby-sitting job with a child who is billed as difficult but turns out to be positively disturbing. When Lana’s best friend goes missing, questions arise about Lana’s relationship with another girl who went missing and was found dead. Interspersed with the current story are diary entries by a woman who is not identified but who gives clues to Lana’s secret, which Lisa Unger gradually lets us in on. Unger doesn’t make the secret hard to guess; the mysteries left to the end are the fate of Lana’s missing friend, Beck, and the circumstances surrounding the murder of Lana’s mother years before.

Meanwhile the 11-year-old boy Lana baby-sits starts a macabre guessing game that skirts alarmingly close to the truth.

Unger is a compelling storyteller whose tales rest on human frailty and not on timetables or blood-spatter patterns. She makes it impossible to stop reading before you have found out how Lana and the woman writing the diary are related, and what made Lana adopt such a bitter, suspicious persona – and yet, in the end, still be too trusting to see where the real danger is coming from.

“From the Dead,” by Mark Billingham. Atlantic Monthly Press. 400 pages.

Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, reeling from a defeat in an abduction and murder trial, faces a new missing girl inquiry that is an offshoot of a 10-year-old case. A woman convicted of hiring a hit man who burned her gangster husband alive in a car has finished her prison sentence and is searching for her 18-year-old daughter. She’s receiving anonymous photos in the mail that seem to show her husband is alive and enjoying life abroad, and she’s sure he has abducted their daughter in revenge.

Thorne, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to the eager young investigator who brought him the case, even lying to his longtime girlfriend about his whereabouts at times.

Mark Billingham writes a nice mix of police procedure and chatty scenes, and some nice scenery when Thorne goes abroad in search of the double-crossing gangster.

“Hunting Shadows,” by Charles Todd. William Morrow. 330 pages. On sale Jan. 21.

Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge and his ghostly sidekick Hamish MacLeod travel to the fen country, where a sniper has killed two people with a rifle – such a rarity in England that it’s clear it must have been smuggled home by a war veteran. World War I still haunts Rutledge and plays a large role here as old wounds prove to have festered to a murderous rage. As always, the North Carolina-based mother and son who write under the pseudonym Charles Todd do a beautiful job with the period detail, making these books a nostalgic outing to England between the world wars.

“Clouds of Witness,” “Whose Body,” and “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” by Dorothy Sayers. Bourbon Street Books.

A series of reissues by one of the genre’s grande dames continues with these three early Peter Wimsey books that predate the aristocratic sleuth’s iconic love affair with Harriet Vane. In “Clouds of Witness,” Wimsey’s own brother is the chief suspect; in “Whose Body,” Wimsey puzzles out why one man is missing and another unidentified man is found dead; in the final reissue, an ancient member is found dead in his chair at the Bellona Club amid some odd coincidences.


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