Forget the killer — it’s the victims who matter to Denise Mina. In THE LESS DEAD (Mulholland, 341 pp., $28), these are drug addicts, prostitutes and other people who are barely missed and rarely mourned. Margo Dunlop, a doctor who was adopted as an infant, discovers that back in 1989, her birth mother was one of nine sex workers killed in Glasgow — and becomes determined to put a face to the murderer. Lurid newspaper accounts and a popular true-crime book aren’t all that helpful to her search, and threatening letters hand-delivered in the dead of night to frighten her away from her mission lend little encouragement.
Mina tends to wrap her stories around politically incisive subplots. Here, it’s society’s indifference to the sordid lives and lonely deaths of people like Margo’s mother. When Margo speculates that youthful trauma and low self-esteem must have driven her mother to become a prostitute, her aunt hoots in derision. “She was poor,” she says. “It’s not a mental illness, she didn’t have secret daddy issues. … It’s about money.”
That no-nonsense voice, with its unsparing intelligence and utter lack of sentimentality, is what makes Mina such a good writer. Margo is too blandly goody-good for my taste, but she meets plenty of sharply defined individuals who educate her about what it means to be socially marginalized. “When we get killed they call us the ‘less dead,’” one of them tells her. “Like we were never really alive to begin with.”
Question: What’s “funnier than cops, dumber than lawyers?” Answer: “private investigators.” That’s private-eye humor, courtesy of T. Jefferson Parker, who always gets his laughs. In THEN SHE VANISHED (Putnam, 338 pp., $27), his San Diego sleuth, Roland Ford, is hired by a state assemblyman, Dalton Strait, to find his missing wife. Given the occupational hazards of California politics, Natalie Strait may have been kidnapped on partisan grounds. But given her serious gambling addiction, she may be hiding from racketeer loan sharks — or maybe she’s joined a gang of anarchists leaving bombs all over the place.
Natalie isn’t a very interesting character until someone has the good sense to shackle her to a wall. But she got herself into this mess, and she can get herself out of it. Meanwhile, we’ll just hang out under the big palapa hut at Rancho de los Robles, the funky motel that Ford owns and has colonized with tenants like his grandparents, Dick and Liz Ford, Odile Sevigny, a psychic, and somebody’s dog. Make room under the palapa for one more.
Surprise me! Is that too much to ask of a whodunit? In lean times, there’s always the option of picking up a classic mystery that’s just been reissued, like either one of these by Seishi Yokomizo. The great Japanese crime writer, who often gets compared to the Belgian master Georges Simenon, assigns his cases to a brilliant but modest detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who uses his big brain and native shrewdness to solve insanely intricate puzzles that leave everyone else baffled, including the reader.
THE HONJIN MURDERS (Pushkin Vertigo, 189 pp., paper, $14.95), originally published as a magazine serial in 1946, is a classic locked-room murder mystery, the first in the Detective Kindaichi series. Louise Heal Kawai’s translation respects the genre conventions while observing the period idiom: The story is set in a Japanese village in 1937.
“If you are the kind of reader who enjoys reading between the lines of a story, and recall the particulars of the crime, you may already be able to guess what I am about to write next,” Yokomizo intones at the outset. Well, actually, no — despite a passion for John Dickson Carr, I am hopeless at second-guessing the diabolical minds that devise locked-room puzzlers. Here, the premise alone is dazzling: A young bride and groom repair to the bridal chamber after their wedding. The next morning they are dead, hacked to bits in “a tableau from hell.” But no one had access to the room — and the sword that did the deed is found outside the house, buried in fresh, unblemished snow.
Yokomizo teases the reader with a clear and not in the least helpful list of characters, and also supplies a meticulous illustration of the murder scene and its immediate surroundings. (That doesn’t help much, either.) Despite his benevolent assistance, the solution to this mystery came as a complete surprise — exactly what I asked for.
THE INUGAMI CURSE (Pushkin Vertigo, 317 pp., paper, $14.95), translated by Yumiko Yamazaki, finds Detective Kindaichi called upon to solve a particularly gruesome string of murders within the rich but fractious Inugami clan. Sahei Inugami, the eccentric family patriarch, made a fortune as the “Silk King of Japan,” but his eccentric will inspires his greedy heirs to devise some bizarre methods for weeding out their rivals. For the sake of fair play, Kindaichi scrupulously defines his methods of detection and shares the logic of his reasoning. But Yokomizo has his fun, and the diabolically twisted plotting is top-notch.