“Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages.
John Darnielle, of the band The Mountain Goats, earned lots of notice for his first novel, “Wolf in White Van,” a disquieting story about a disfigured gamemaster. His second, “Universal Harvester,” is an equally eerie story about enigmatic video clips inserted into VHS films.
Jeremy, a video store clerk in a small Iowa town, starts hearing of the clips from his customers when they return the films, and when he shows his boss the grainy black-and white scenes that have been spliced into the movies, she suddenly stops coming to work, giving Jeremy two odd situations to deal with.
Darnielle writes beautifully here about families and small-town life, and often slips into a narrative style reminiscent of the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” musing about how the story might go.
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He builds a deep sense of foreboding by giving pieces of the puzzle in such a way that you really can’t see the solution until that final piece is in place.
“The Crow Trap,” by Ann Cleeves. Minotaur, 560 pages. (Paperback)
Here’s a treat for fans of Vera Stanhope: Ann Cleeves’ first Vera mystery, published in 1999 in the U.K. but never in a U.S. edition until now. The stout, abrasive detective as usual appears about halfway through the story, after Cleeves has spent time letting us get to know the victims and suspects. Three women doing environmental sampling for a quarry project are staying in a rustic cottage where Vera has history, it turns out. They each brought secrets into the mix that dovetail with the others’ and with the surrounding community’s as well. A suicide opens the story, and after our leisurely introduction to them, one of the researchers is found dead. Enjoy!
“Lucidity,” by David Carnoy. Overlook, 288 pages.
A woman who is pushed into traffic on a New York street wakes up from her coma and says a few groggy words that connect her to a cold case in California.
That connection a continent away is made because an ear-perking amount of money has been pledged for solving the cold case. So wheeler-dealer Max Fremmer reaches out to the retired detective looking into a 20-year-old disappearance, and together they try to prove they’ve found the missing woman.
I enjoyed the humanity David Carnoy gave to characters who could easily have been pure cliche, like the sharp-talking New Yorker.
“A Darkness Absolute,” by Kelley Armstrong. Minotaur, 416 pages.
Casey Duncan, a policewoman in an off-the-grid town in the Canadian wilderness, deals with crimes that are not just rural but backwoods weird, like chasing a crazed resident out into the forest but instead finding, in whiteout conditions, a missing-presumed-dead woman captive in a deep cave.
When police find bodies that seem to belong to two previous victims, they realize they have a serial abductor who may already be stalking his next victim – but is it one of the townspeople or one of the “characters” more at home in the deep woods?