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Posted on Sep 9, 2016 in BookPage Reviews

Book of the Day: “A Great Reckoning” by Louise Penny

Great ReckoningState Department crisis manager Judd Ryker returns in a late summer beach read,Ghosts of Havana, the third in Todd Moss’ diplomatic thriller series. Ryker is summoned to intervene on behalf of four American sport fishermen who have strayed into Cuban territorial waters and promptly been arrested by the Cuban navy. As in real life, the Cuban situation is complicated, and there are powerful forces on both sides of the U.S./Cuba reconciliation issue. Ryker finds himself in the middle of something much more sensitive and multilayered than the simple rescue mission he had anticipated. And Ryker is no Jason Bourne; he’s kind of professorial, preferring negotiation over pyrotechnics every time. His wife, a CIA operative, is cut from different cloth, however. And although they have sworn never to work on the same case again, they’re finding themselves drawn into the vortex of this delicate situation. Moss brings a wealth of personal experience to his narrative; he was deputy assistant secretary of state, at one time responsible for relations with 16 West African countries. Now he works in a D.C. think tank and serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University—lofty credentials indeed, and put to very good use in his writing.

Hercule Poirot, perhaps the greatest detective of all time, once again twirls his luxurious mustache in consternation as he sifts through obscure clues and red herrings in Sophie Hannah’s second homage to Agatha Christie (with whom she shares the writing credit), Closed Casket. Poirot is summoned to the Ireland home of Lady Athelinda Playford, a novelist of some note, where he is to bear witness to a dramatic change in her will, in which she will disinherit her children and leave the entirety of her considerable estate to Joseph Scotcher, her personal secretary who is in the final stages of terminal kidney disease. The point becomes somewhat moot that very evening, when someone uses an antique club to bash poor Scotcher’s head in. There are suspects aplenty: Playford’s children and their significant others; the young woman recently betrothed to the victim; a pair of solicitors; Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool; an assortment of household staff; and of course the redoubtable M. Poirot. As in the best of locked-room mysteries, the killer must be one of them, but which one? For those who grew up devouring the Poirot mysteries,Closed Casket seems like the latest in an unbroken chain. You’ll totally forget that you’re not reading something straight from the (ghostly) pen of Dame Agatha.

Regular readers of Ken Bruen’s moderne noir series featuring Irish ex-cop Jack Taylor will find lots to like in his latest dark thriller, The Emerald Lie. Together with sociopathic (perhaps psychopathic) Em/Emily/Emerald, the femme fatale who bedeviled Taylor in 2015’s Green Hell, he pursues a serial killer nicknamed the Grammarian, who lethally targets people who misuse the Queen’s English. To simply describe the setup of the plot is to pay short shrift to Bruen’s prodigious writing skills. His books are atmospheric to the max, albeit an atmosphere redolent of Irish damp and chill. His characters are fueled by avarice, obsession and Jameson whiskey. His writing is peppered with world-weary and witty observations, and it’s nigh impossible to read a Bruen book without unearthing new music to listen to, TV shows to watch, books to read—such is Taylor’s devotion to, or perhaps reliance upon, pop culture. It’s simply not to be missed. That is all.

Three Pines, Québec, is a town straight out of a Currier & Ives lithograph, a town where everyone knows one another as intimately as extended family, a town where secrets do not remain secrets for long. Think Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life, modernized and Frenchified un petite peu. It’s the home of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Sûreté du Québec, now back to work as head of the notoriously corrupt Sûreté Academy after a foiled attempt at retirement. A Great Reckoning, the 12th Gamache novel from legendary Canadian novelist Louise Penny, centers on an old map found hidden in the wall of a Three Pines bistro. Dismissed by some as just a curiosity, a copy of the map shows up in the bedside table of a murdered man, casting immediate suspicion on a small group of Academy cadets—and on Gamache as well, as there was no love lost between Gamache and the sadistically corrupt victim. The magic of Penny’s books lies in the details: the intricacies of the relationships; the vivid rendering of small village life; the thematic overlays of weakness vs. power, malleable youth vs. world-weary experience and corruption vs. innate honesty.

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This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage.

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