New mysteries from Louise Penny and Liane Moriarty of ‘Big Little Lies’ fame

Louise Penny
Louise Penny

“An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good” by Helene Tursten. Soho Crime, 184 pages.

Grab this one as a stocking-stuffer for the mystery lover on your list. It’s a petite, deliciously dry set of short stories about an 88-year-old woman who finds that a deft murder here or there can solve many of the problems of aging.

“Kingdom of the Blind” by Louise Penny. Minotaur, 384 pages.

As one fan told me after last year’s intense “Glass Houses,” it’s hard to see how Louise Penny can raise the stakes any further for her iconic, fatherly good guy, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, but somehow in each book she does. Here, what should have been a routine internal review of his gamble to take a deadly drug off the streets instead is manipulated by his enemies into a career assassination. The search for the deadly drugs, still unaccounted for, brings back tough police recruit Amelia Choquet, who amasses a strange army of street people in her quest.

Meanwhile Armand, bookshop owner Myrna, and a puppyish young builder all find themselves named to administer the will of a woman none of them knew, a nonsensical document leaving millions she clearly had not amassed in her job as a cleaning lady, even if she was affectionately nicknamed The Baroness.

“Nighttown” by Timothy Hallinan. Soho Crime, 384 pages.

Professional burglar Junior Bender is not at all happy about being in a haunted-house story, but as usual he makes it fun for the reader. Junior needs the money, but it seems like too much for the simple job of breaking into an abandoned house to look for an old doll. Then he discovers there was a second “backup burglar” hired, and he goes looking for answers.

“Nine Perfect Strangers’” by Liane Moriarty. Flatiron Books, 464 pages.

This is the first one I’ve picked up by the author of “Big Little Lies,” and now I’m stoked to go back and read that one. Liane Moriarty is a serious talent. In “Nine Perfect Strangers,” she gathers her characters at a luxury spa where they are promised a transforming experience. In a prologue, we’ve had a glimpse of the backstory of the spa owner and her main assistant, so we know she was a driven executive and he was a paramedic who saw her try (and fail) to power through a heart attack.

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We mainly see through the eyes of a romance novelist who’s trying to recover her sense of self-worth after falling for a lonely hearts scam and having her latest book rejected by the publisher. With her we discover more about the other eight and what brought them in search of transformation: a busy mother, a grieving family, a couple who won the lottery, a former sports star, a divorce lawyer with a spa habit. Moriarty paints a picture with color, sound, aroma, mood, and fragments of the characters’ inner monologues, telling us their stories in quick details while the transformation goes off the rails.

“The Comforts of Home” by Susan Hill. Overlook Press, 320 pages.

Family is both inescapable and indispensable in Susan Hill’s latest Simon Serrailler story. Chief Inspector Serrailler wakes up in the hospital on Page 1 and spends most of the book on leave as he deals with a life-changing injury. Retreating to an island off Scotland to recuperate, he helps the shorthanded police investigate a local death and goes over files on a cold case for his new brother-in-law back in England. There’s a nice contrast between the wild, wind-swept island and the workaday town life where he eventually rejoins his sister’s family in the midst of coping with elder care, a pivotal job offer and an outbreak of arson.

In counterpoint is the cold case, a disappearance never officially charged to a man already serving time for two murders. That’s not good enough for the grieving mother, whose only recourse is to hound the police nonstop.