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5 new mysteries and thrillers to help get you through winter

Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

The long days of January and February usually herald some great reads featuring crime, suspense and — everyone's favorite — murder. This year's new releases include works involving several unique communities from indigenous reindeer herders to sexy would-be authors to students at a pretty unusual academy.

Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

All hail the queen of dark academia! Leigh Bardugo gained an audience with her Shadow and Bone YA series set in the fantasy "Grishaverse," but her 2019 Ninth House takes place at a very real location, New Haven's Yale University, one of the original seats of the Ivy League and in Bardugo's telling, a seat of secret magic. Many of us already knew about Yale's secret societies, like Skull and Bones, but Bardugo gives us Lethe, a secret society that watches over all the others — and when a new underclassperson named Galaxy "Alex" Stern gains entrance to Lethe, her ability to see ghosts gives it a new leg up on its competition.

Ninth House and Hell Bent may be Bardugo's first books for adults, but you'd never know it, or care, because you're so busy following all of the action. Suspend your disbelief willingly as Alex Stern gets thrown into a dizzying series of faculty murders. Why not? The version of Yale thrown down in this Bardugian gauntlet (yes, there is a passage known as a Gauntlet) doesn't lack for realistic detail (Bardugo is a 1997 graduate and a member of its Wolf Head secret society), to the extent that anyone who has ever attended the university or even just partied there will puzzle over what's real and what's fantastic. If you love the latter and want to head down a lot of rabbit holes (see the book cover for that reference), you'll want to capture your copy quickly.

The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen

Set in the eerie world of Finland's Sámi people, Pylväinen's second novel about a reindeer herder and a Lutheran minister's daughter came about when the author began to investigate her family's fundamentalist-religious roots. Not only did they those roots have a deep place in the austerity of territory that lies above the Arctic Circle; they derived from a time when an indigenous group interacted with Western Christians. The mystery here is less about a crime and more about whether or not Ivvár, from the Sámi, and Willa, the minister Laestadius's daughter, will find a way to stay together through their cultures' clashes (especially since Willa's father deplores alcohol and drunkenness, which are part of the Sámi survival strategy here).

The End of Drum-Time begins in 1851 with a bang, an actual earthquake, during one of Lars Levi's church services. Pylväinen's first book, We Sinners, also dealt with the sect in which she was brought up, Laestadianism: Sin, sin, and more sin. However, the writing is so beautiful and so entrancing that you'll embrace both the harsh realities of herding and hunting in sub-zero temperatures, and the doctrines dictated by a culture centered on suffering and submission. Fortunately, the author also gives the young couple a heated ... coupling, which, along with other scenes of communal joy and work, remind readers that even in the darkest Northern world life remains.

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

Writing retreats and residencies hold such promise: You'll be housed, fed, provided with space and quiet and materials with which to think and create, but have time in the evenings to dine and drink with fellow scribes. So productive, so comfortable. So ripe for turning on its head, as debut novelist Julia Bartz does in The Writing Retreat, where a group of women answer the call of a famed novelist named Roza Vallo who tells them that one will win a million dollars and guaranteed publication at the end of this winter week at the novelist's cushy estate in the Adirondacks.

Bartz, a fulltime psychotherapist who writes a column for Psychology Today, clearly knows what happens when any group engages in competition — and even better, when members of that group also want to engage in sybaritic eating, drinking, and sexing. (Side note: the author's sister is thriller writer Andi Bartz, who has a new novel out later this year.) She turns up the heat considerably when the small group — which dwindles over time — realizes they're trapped, and not accidentally. It's a lush thriller that will keep you turning pages all night.

Murder Your Employer: The McMasters School to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

How has no one thought of this before? Murders set at an imaginary academy set up to train murderers. The McMaster School for Homicide aims to be "a finishing school for finishing people off," instructing students in "Principles of Extermination" so that they can "delete" (they never use the word "murder") their odious employers, from a military contractor unconcerned with a mistake that will result in the deaths of thousands to a casting-couch Lothario resembling a recent #MeToo villain. Meanwhile, three classmates have their own intramural hurdles to jump, since every single one of their peers is busy testing out weapons and methods and accoutrements on each other.

Author Holmes delights in wordplay that includes puns, literary terms, cultural references, and twists: "Consider the legendary murderers of ages past: Nero, the Borgias, Dr. Crippen ... even the unconvicted Lizzie Borden. Think for a moment? What do all these supposedly great killers have in common? Answer: You've heard of them. Sham and for shame!!! ...the successful murderer is the unacknowledged murderer."

Success in murder, believed Guy McMaster, comes from "deleting" someone for ethical reasons. And as Holmes takes hairpin turns from irony back to sincerity for his three McMasters pupils, his zany storytelling will delight fans of The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett, all Sherlock Holmes stories, and even those who love tales of arcane and Gothic institutions. (Psssst: Yes, he's that Rupert Holmes, songwriter, playwright, screenwriter, and hopefully the author of at least a few more McMasters titles.)

Time's Undoing by Cheryl A. Head

Cheryl Head's grandfather was shot and killed in Alabama "ninety-plus years ago," and in this departure from her Charlie Mack Motown series, Head places a fictional Detroit Free Press journalist named Meghan McKenzie covering the Black Lives Matter movement into position to investigate her great-grandfather's 1929 death in Birmingham. Like Head's family, McKenzie's never looked into the murder, worried about attracting the wrong kind of attention in the era of Jim Crow laws and the Klan.

Time's Undoing has a dual perspective, as Meghan's grandfather Robert Harrington relates what happened during the year he died, when he was just about her age. His story adds urgency and detail to what might seem a paper trail if told by Meghan alone. We've seen so many of these novels, in which a modern person looks into what happened to an ancestor or a revered figure, but in this case, after George Floyd's murder, the parallel narratives work with poignancy and righteous rage. So many decades gone, so few inroads made into the racism at the foundation of United States history. Head and her Black colleagues in this genre are lifting up new stories, to everyone's benefit.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven and hosts the podcast Missing Pages.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bethanne Patrick
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