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Happy new year everyone! During the break, I read some nonfiction: The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 by Ritchie Robertson. I was interested in finding out how people in the past were persuaded to move from superstition and assumptions toward seeing value in evidence. I hardly need point out that the same switch could help us this year, but my great takeaway is that…I’ve got nothing! We’ll have to just wallow in crime fiction, and that I do have ideas on.
This time we have two starred reviews. The first is of Sara Paretsky’s Overboard, her 22nd title starring investigator Vic Warshawski, who turns up every couple of years to show us how it’s done. The other is Simon Scarrow’s Blackout, a serial-killer mystery set in World War II Berlin that’s both a gripping, scary thriller and a thoughtful look at resisting a dictatorship. This time we’re also featuring a crossunder, a book that is aimed toward adults but can also be enjoyed by teens: Davida Breier’s Sinkhole, which looks back at a stolen youth. Lastly, Kristin Wright’s The Darkest Web, like Scarrow’s Blackout, frames a tense murder mystery with some weighty social themes. Enjoy and we’ll see you next week!—Henrietta Verma

From the Sunshine State
Breier, Davida. Sinkhole. May. 240p. University of New Orleans Press.
Michelle Miller finally got herself out of Lorida, Florida on a swimming scholarship and never looked back. Now, 15 years later, she’s returning to see her dying mother, and, unavoidably, confront her painful past. Back then, she was poor—she shared a bedroom in a trailer with her brother—and reclusive; she didn’t come alive until she met Sissy, a rich and rambunctious classmate. They were soon joined by Morrison, a queer punk rock kid, and their dysfunctional little family was complete. From shoplifting in department stores to hanging out in gay bars, Sissy offers fun in technicolor, but it comes at a price: possessiveness, dramatic mood swings, and ultimately violence. But it isn’t until she’s at college in Georgia that Michelle begins to understand how much of her youth Sissy destroyed, and how little of it she’ll ever get back. The surprising ending—with some extraordinary revelations—is downright healing. And while there is criminal behavior, it’s on the sidelines of the story, never at the center. A wonderful tale about the power of friendship to transcend evil that young adults should also appreciate.—Brian Kenney
A Mystery of the Moment
⭐Paretsky, Sara. Overboard (V.I. Warshawski Novels Book 22). May. 400p. William Morrow.
We need a V. I. (Vic) Warshawski novel every year or two to remind us of how good crime fiction can be. This title—Paretsky’s 22nd in the series—is one of her very best: taut yet complex, fast-paced yet thoughtful. The novel begins as Vic’s dogs, off the leash and exploring Lake Michigan, discover an injured teenage girl tucked between two boulders, barely alive. Through Vic’s efforts she makes it to the hospital, only to disappear soon afterwards. The search for the girl brings us into a classic Paretsky world of Chicago mobsters and lowlifes, some extending back to Vic’s childhood. Just when you think there are too many characters, too much plot, the story falls beautifully into place. Few crime novels seem more of the moment than Overboard, with its depiction of police brutality and of a city chaotically emerging from the pandemic. Longtime fans will enjoy catching up with Vic’s friends, especially her neighbor, the delightful Mr. Contreras. Powerful.—Brian Kenney
Terror on the Tracks
⭐Scarrow, Simon. Blackout. March. 384p. Kensington.
It’s 1939 and a vicious serial killer is pursuing his bloody wont in Berlin’s trains. Assigned to these cases, which his superiors in the Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo, think are unrelated accidents, is Inspector Horst Schenke, a former racecar driver who’s embarrassed that injuries related to his old career have kept him from the front. He’s not one to rock the boat but quietly resists the ridiculous bureaucracy, lawlessness, and brutality of “the party,” even as his thuggish superiors hint and then state outright that he won’t get ahead without a Nazi badge. Glamorous dates (or as glamorous as nightly blackouts, rationing, and lack of fuel allow) with his resistance-leaning girlfriend keep the moral quandaries from eating Schenke up too much, but when the killer goes after a Jewish woman, Ruth Frankel, a surviving witness whom the inspector feels compelled to save, the pressure is on. Nazi higher-ups feel the woman can be used as bait and force a bootlicking rule-follower to shadow Schenke’s every move so he’ll comply. At the same time, the killer continues his spree while attempting to cover his tracks, an effort that puts Ruth and her protector in grave danger. The close calls and chases in this novel are truly scary, and the unusual perspective ramps up the intrigue. Fans of serial-killer mysteries who are looking for something a little different are the audience for this one.—Henrietta Verma
A Tale of Two Lawyers
Wright, Kristin. The Darkest Web (Allison Barton #2). April. 319p. Thomas & Mercer.
A fast-paced, perplexing mystery plus the main suspect’s heavy past combine to make Wright’s second in the series (after The Darkest Flower, 2021) one to remember. Throughout the book, there are two stories. In the public one, beautiful—so beautiful it’s problematic—workaholic lawyer Jane Knudsen is accused of murdering her tyrant boss and is defended by her former college roommate, lawyer Allison Barton. Then there’s the private tale, in which it’s slowly revealed why Jane never lets anyone get close and finds taking the fall for a murder preferable to telling the truth. Child sexual abuse is a prominent theme here, and Wright manages to keep those crimes off-screen while their emotional and practical repercussions are sensitively explored. In the process, readers are given two relationships to root for: Jane’s fledgling one with a coworker she dares to fall for, and Allison’s as a single mom who’s trying to balance romance with a promising man with raising  a child who wants her mother all to herself. There’s a lot to ponder here, and before you know it, a twist shatters the story. Try this after Wanda M. Morris’ All Her Little Secrets, which also features a woman lawyer accused of murder.—Henrietta Verma
Short Stories
Wondering what to get me for my birthday? How about The Cambridge Companion to World Crime Fiction, coming out this July. According to the Cambridge University Press’ description: “Accessible yet comprehensive, this first systematic account of crime fiction across the globe offers a deep and thoroughly nuanced understanding of the genre’s transnational history…this book introduces readers to the international crime fiction publishing industry, the translation and circulation of crime fiction, international crime fiction collections, the role of women in world crime fiction, and regional forms of crime fiction.”
Alta interviews Steph Cha, author and series editor of The Best American Mystery and Suspense, 2021 (with guest editor Alafair Burke). “Cha’s appointment as series editor promised seismic changes, and she’s come through…bringing wit, darkness, social relevance, and a much-needed infusion of new voices…”
Writing in The Conversation, Clare Clarke’s “Beyond Sherlock Holmes: five Victorian detective stories you must read” not only provides a synopsis of each title but links to their full-text. “For fans of Doyle’s detective stories, the good news is that they found dozens of detectives to take his place. A vast (and largely uncharted) treasure trove of detective stories was published in periodicals, newspapers, and magazines between 1893 and 1900, as Holmes rivals, clones, and parodies emerged to fill the great detective’s deerstalker hat and cape.
I know what you’re thinking: What were the top 10 bestselling Canadian books of 2021? And were any of them crime fiction? Click here to find out.
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Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney
Henrietta Verma & Brian Kenney @1stClueReviews

At firstCLUE we read crime novels way in advance of their publication and share our favorite finds with you. We hope that firstCLUE will help librarians and booksellers select titles and make recommendations, and readers find that next great read. If we really love a book we put a star on it.

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