Fall has become the season for publishing tentpole books, but I find these winter releases featuring kickass female protagonists with SoCal connections well worth exploring.
They are among the mysteries I’m most excited about for early 2020.
‘Pretty as a Picture’
In Elizabeth Little’s nimble “Pretty as a Picture,” part of the fun is figuring out L.A. film editor Marissa Dahl. Her interior dialogue teems with fears of missed social cues, movie trivia and some worrisome habits. Dahl’s got reason to be apprehensive. Hired to edit legendary director Tony Rees’ latest film, she barely inked the deal before being whisked away to a super-secret set on an island off the Delaware coast. The film, a fictionalized account of the unsolved 1990s murder of aspiring actress Caitlyn Kelly, has attracted not only the filmmakers but two local teens who host a true crime podcast and enlist Dahl’s help in solving the crime. Despite (or maybe because of) her quirks, Marissa Dahl is an engaging narrator who’s up for the challenge, her encyclopedic knowledge of cinema serving as her north star: “Give me a movie, and I’ll find the meaning,” Dahl says. “I’ll find the truth; I’ll find the story. Sometimes, if I’m very lucky, I’ll find all three.” (Feb. 25; Viking; 338 pages; $27)
‘The Missing American’
I enjoyed the five delightful Darko Dawson novels by Ghanian American author Kwei Quartey, a retired physician who lives in Los Angeles. But his new series, which debuts with “The Missing American,” conjures something more realistic. Set in Accra, the mystery features 26-year old Emma Djan, a second-generation cop whose principles and high standards make her ill-suited for the corrupt Ghana Police Service. After a harrowing #MeToo experience with a superior, Djan lands at a private detective agency where she investigates the disappearance of an American widower who traveled to Ghana in pursuit of a young woman he fell in love with online. Her search illuminates the real-life sakawa boys,who make their money on magic-enhanced Internet scams that rook gullible and lonely victims around the world. The adventures of a tenacious African female sleuth will likely ring bells for fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling Mma. Precious Ramotswe mysteries. “The Missing American’s” unflinching portrayal of Ghanaian criminals, their fetish priest handlers and corruption at the highest levels makes this intriguing debut a more bracing antidote to its cozier cousin. (Jan. 14; Soho Press; 420 pages; $25.95)
Another strong protagonist on my radar is Eve Ronin, a rookie detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In Lee Goldberg’s taut “Lost Hills,” Ronin struggles with family baggage and her colleagues in a male-dominated department. The old boys resent her as much for her gender and youthful zeal as for the internet-driven fame that contributed to her promotion to the robbery-homicide division. Based out of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s station, Ronin deals with a gruesome first case — the triple murder of a mother and her two children that forces her into the spotlight. A veteran writer of countless mystery series and a collaborator with Janet Evanovich, Goldberg shines a light on the lesser-known SoCal crime-fighting agency. He excels at employing realistic forensics, ratcheting up the department’s political tensions and using the region’s real-life wildfires in climatic scenes while leavening the proceedings with just the right amount of cop humor: “If it was suicide, he’d picked an odd place to end his life,” Ronin says at a crime scene. “The last thing he saw as he bled out was Gelson’s, an upscale supermarket. Then again, Gelson’s was heaven to some people.” (Jan. 1; Thomas & Mercer; 255 pages; $24.95)
‘The Dark Corners of the Night’
Caitlin Hendrix started out as a sheriff’s deputy too, in Alameda County, in former L.A. attorney Meg Gardiner’s blistering 2017 debut, “UNSUB.” (The title comes from what the FBI calls an unknown subject.) Hendrix — now working for the FBI as a behavioral analyst — is back for her third nerve-wracking outing in “The Dark Corners of the Night.” This time, a serial killer dubbed The Midnight Man is stealthily breaking into Southern California homes. He kills couples while they sleep, leaving traumatized small children behind to bear witness. Hearing one set of survivors’ harrowing Christmastime encounter heightens Hendrix’s clarity of purpose: “The more challenging and urgent the case, the more dangerous the UNSUB, the hotter her blood sang.” Side note: CBS Television Studios has an “UNSUB” show in the works based on the mystery series. (Feb. 18; Blackstone Publishing; 352 pages; $26.99)
Paula L. Woods is a book critic, editor, author of several mystery novels.