Spring is usually a time of anticipation — of better weather and even better books; in 2020 it’s a time of dread, when reading becomes not just a fun prospect but a solace, maybe even a source of hope. The crime fiction I’m gravitating toward offers some measure of that: protagonists who must overcome professional or personal obstacles while solving a mystery, righting a wrong or contributing to the greater good. It doesn’t hurt that these novels also are set in far-flung locations, allowing our minds to escape while our bodies are stuck indoors.
‘Three Hours in Paris’
Soho Crime: 350 pages, $35.95
For two decades, the Bay Area author’s francophilia has infused her Aimée Leduc series, 19 impeccably researched mysteries set in the 1990s that have immersed readers in almost all of Paris’ 20 arrondissements. Yet it was a true mystery that inspired this first standalone thriller: Two weeks into the Third Reich’s occupation of Paris in WWII, Adolf Hitler spent three — and only three — hours in the city. In Black’s imaginative retelling, Hitler’s arrival at Sacré-Coeur is disrupted by an assassination attempt. Unlike real-life Russian sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who had 309 confirmed German kills during WWII, the fictional assassin is an American. Through flashbacks, we learn how Kate Rees’ sharpshooting skills, developed on her family’s Oregon farm and honed by testing weapons in the Orkney Islands, had brought her to the attention of British intelligence. Driven to revenge by a family tragedy, Rees finally accepts the hit job on Der Führer in Paris. In the aftermath, Rees tries to elude capture in the occupied city, heeding the advice of her shady British handlers: “Read, Assess, Decide, Act.” Beyond Black’s encyclopedic knowledge of Paris, her deft interweaving of WWII history and spycraft with a relatable female protagonist puts “Three Hours in Paris” on par with other top thrillers about botched missions followed by harrowing escapes — such masterworks as Frederick Forsythe’s “The Day of the Jackal,” Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed” and Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games.”
‘The Last Tourist’
Minotaur: 384 pages, $27.99
Steinhauer’s 2012 novel “An American Spy,” the fourth and supposedly final Milo Weaver thriller, left open the possibility that he or other members of the CIA’s clandestine Department of Tourism might one day reappear. While Weaver made a cameo in the 2018 thriller “The Middleman,” the brooding agent and his comrades were largely mothballed as the author pursued other interests. But now, he’s back for one more case. Almost 50 and heading up a UNESCO intelligence unit called the Library, Weaver is being sought by CIA officials who want to know whether the Massive Brigade (whom you’d know from “The Nearest Exit”) is back in action. The Agency sends young analyst Abdul Ghali to the Western Sahara to interview Weaver, but when their location is exposed, the action really begins. Lauded for modernizing the espionage genre, Steinhauer pushes it even further in this era of eroding institutions, unethical surveillance corporations and “fake news” — a time when, to quote Ghali, “Some had the gift of coloring the truth just enough to make it look like a lie, and to carefully prune a lie until it passed the smell test and became accepted truth.” It’s an intriguing way to reboot a series readers didn’t know they missed until it was gone.
‘The Eighth Girl’
Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
William Morrow, 480 pages, $28.99
While dissociative identity disorder affects only about 1% of the population, what was formerly known as multiple personality disorder occupies a disproportionate place in culture —"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” “Sybil,” “The Three Faces of Eve” and even “The Incredible Hulk.” Chung, a practicing psychoanalyst, brings her own expertise to her debut novel. Its protagonist, fledgling London photojournalist Alexa Wú, contemplates suicide in the book’s opening pages. Perched on Jumpers Bridge are Wú and the Voices: “Like all good enforcers, they seem to engulf me tonight, pointing fingers of blame, their message both hateful and threatening.” Wú is the exhausted Host to what she calls the Flock, a cacophony of identities jockeying for dominance — including Dolly, a 9-year-old who first appeared in 2003; Runner, the no-filter protector of the Flock; and a Greek chorus she calls the Fouls, relentless and spiteful critics. Rewinding a few months, we learn of the young woman’s otherwise solitary life. Only three people know of her struggles: her vivacious and sympathetic bestie, Ella, whom she calls her Reason; her stepmother Anna, who raised Wú after her mother’s suicide and father’s abandonment; and her new psychiatrist, Daniel Rosenstein. After Ella takes a job ostensibly as a receptionist at a shady gentlemen’s club, Wú must help her take on the smooth manipulator who controls the club. Chung does an excellent job balancing the ensuing dramatic tension with a sharp portrayal of Wú’s disorder, which also plays a crucial role in building suspense.
‘What’s Left of Me is Yours’
Doubleday: 331 pages, $26.95
Scott’s debut is inspired by the sensational 2010 story of a Tokyo man who murdered his lover after she discovered he’d been hired by her own husband to set her up for divorce. Scott spent almost a decade researching the case and the Japanese wakaresaseya or “breakup” industry. The result is a mesmerizing novel, told from multiple points of view: Rina Sarashima, the wife, photographer and devoted mother; Kaitaro Nakamura, who targets and seduces her; and Sumiko Sarashima, the daughter who was told at age 7 that her mother died in a car accident. Raised by her maternal grandfather, a prosperous attorney who read aloud to her Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” as a child Sumiko is fascinated by the novel’s concept of lying. “Lies, when they are first told,” she notes, “have a shadow quality to them, a gossamer texture that can wrap around a life. They have that feather-light essence of childhood, and my childhood was built on lies.” But it is a chance phone call that sends the grown-up Sumiko back and forth in time to unravel the mystery of Rina’s marriage, seduction, betrayal and murder. The reader, meanwhile, gets an immersive tour of Japan — not just sites like Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and Sapporo but also the country’s legal system, which made Rina’s problems worse.
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several mystery novels.