One of the great pleasures of the mystery genre is the series, a tradition that began with Sherlock Holmes and continues with any number of authors nowadays. With the best series, each book brings greater depth to the main characters, the supporting characters, the setting and the issues the series explores. There are some authors, of course, who delight in killing off characters we readers have come to care about (I’m looking at you, Jo Nesbo), but for the most part, a good mystery series brings us back to familiar places and familiar people and that can be a real pleasure. In August we have some new mysteries in well-loved series for people to dive into.
Let’s start with a wonderful Scandinavian author, Karin Fossum, whose series starring Inspector Konrad Sejer is set in Norway. Sejer is not your typical police inspector in mystery novels and certainly not like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole (which is not to say I don’t LOVE Harry Hole and wish Nesbo would write another one in that series, but that’s beside the point). He’s old fashioned and polite; he will allow himself one cigarette and one glass of whiskey per day, and he never loses control of his temper or runs afoul of his superiors. And in some respects it’s really good to have someone as calm and even-keeled as Sejer in this series, because the actual cases he investigates tend to be dark and disturbing. The newest book in this series is Hellfire, in which a seemingly inexplicable murder is slowly and searingly solved and, more importantly, explained. The bodies of a young woman and her child are found dead in a pool of blood outside a camper. There’s no evidence of robbery or assault, and seemingly no reason for them to be so brutally killed. Sejer and his fellow investigator Jakob Skarre begin their hunt for the killer and his motives. At the same time, a parallel storyline follows 20 year old Eddie and his mother, Thomasine, known as Mass. There’s definitely something wrong with Eddie and his obsession with his missing father, and the secrets his mother is keeping from him about her past. The two storylines come together in a powerful climax that rests as much on the psychology of the superbly-drawn characters as any tricks of plotting.
Turning from Norway to Canada, we come to the work of Louise Penny, whose main series character is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. Penny has won just about all the major awards a mystery writer can: the Agatha award for best novel four years in a row, the Anthony award for best novel four years in a row, and awards in Great Britain and Canada. The new Inspector Gamache novel is A Great Reckoning, and at the beginning of this book, Gamache has retired from the Surete du Quebec. He’s taking on a new position, teaching cadets for the Surete, and when an intricate old map is found in a bistro in Three Pines, where Gamache and his wife live, he chooses to use this and its obvious connection to the town as part of an exercise for the cadets, so they can puzzle out who made it and why. A professor is killed, and somehow the map is connected to the death. As is also, seemingly, Amelia Choquet, a cadet with tattoos and piercings, guarded and angry, someone who would seem more at home on the other side of a police lineup, a protege of the dead professor. Gamache’s own relationship with Amelia becomes a focus of the investigation, as his potential involvement in the murder becomes an issue. The book is filled with the characters and settings, the intricate plotting and depth of psychological insight Penny’s fans have come to love.
If you prefer your mystery series set in an earlier historical period, then you may be in the mood for Charles Todd and his series featuring Bess Crawford, an English battlefield nurse in World War I. With the latest book, The Shattered Tree, the time is 1918, the war is grinding to its end, but the Germans haven’t given up yet and are pulling out all the stops to keep from losing the war. In the midst of this difficult time and place, a soldier is found under a shattered tree, suffering from blood loss and cold. Bess stabilizes him for his transport to the field hospital, but she notices that when he’s in pain, he cries out in perfect German, though he’s wearing a French uniform. Bess is suspicious, but her superior explains that the man is from Alsace Lorraine, an area between Germany and France which changed from French to German repeatedly over the last fifty years, most recently having been claimed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. This satisfies the supervisor but Bess has her doubts, especially considering the man’s location so far from the French lines and so close to where the Germans are fighting a last ditch effort. Bess is a soldier’s daughter as well as a nurse, and she is not going to let this man disappear, especially if he is in fact a German spy.
If any of these descriptions makes you interested in the series but you want to start the series at the beginning, the first book in the Inspector Sejer series is Don’t Look Back. The first book in the Armand Gamache series is Still Life, and the first book in the Bess Crawford series is A Duty to the Dead.