Paul Doiron made a big splash with his Edgar Award-nominated first novel, “The Poacher’s Son,” which introduced Maine game warden Mike Bowditch and his extraordinary talent for tracking animals and people through the worst weather that Maine can dish up. When he’s reassigned to the eponymous “Bad Little Falls,” a remote town near the Canadian border where drug abuse, unemployment, poverty, violence, and poaching are rampant, his reputation for disregarding orders precedes him and it looks as if his career has dead-ended. To him, it’s the equivalent of “being exiled to Siberia.”
When he’s called upon to examine the carcass of a zebra, frozen to death in a wild animal hunting park, he immediately makes a dangerous enemy of the park’s owner, a yahoo whose only concern is luring customers who will pay big bucks so they can mount animal heads over their fireplaces. Lonely and far from friends, Bowditch develops an unhealthy attachment to lovely Jamie Sewall, a former drug addict who manages a McDonald’s. Her son is troubled, and her brother and ex-boyfriend sell drugs that may have recently killed a college student. When Jamie’s ex is murdered, Bowditch struggles to rein in his need to protect her.
The story has a strong sense of place and makes palpable the raw power that weather and water can wield. The plot is driven by the elusive possibility that this time Bowditch can redeem his career while saving Jamie and her son. Shelve this book beside the works of Steve Hamilton and William Kent Kruger, stories of strong but not macho men living in godforsaken places, bruised by past relationships, and trying to get it right this time.
With Detective Constable Fiona “Fi” Grffiths, Harry Bingham, author of “Talking to the Dead,” finds a sweet spot in crime fiction — a female protagonist with stunted emotions, a passion for protecting women (think Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander), outsider status (think Denise Mina’s “Paddy” Meehan), sheer guts, and an unstoppable drive to follow her own instincts even when it means breaking every rule in the book (think Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher).
Fi has no idea what it feels like to cry, and when she’s investigating the brutal murder of a prostitute and her young daughter, she feels an odd kinship with the dead. She doesn’t talk to the deceased, but she experiences a kind of peaceful guidance while in the presence of a corpse that she fails to find among the living. With her analytical mind, hobbled emotions, and prodigious work ethic, she sees connections others miss.
Set in Wales, this is an intensely first-person novel. It’s anything but boring spending three-hundred-plus pages inside the head of this emotionally numb creature with a razor-sharp wit, a mind on hyper-drive, and a yearning to inhabit “Planet Normal.” As she tells the reader in something of an understatement, “I’m not that good at feelings. Not yet. Not the really ordinary human ones that arise from instinct like water bubbling up from a hillside, irrepressible and clear and as natural as singing.” Did I mention? The writing is terrific, just literary enough to make you catch your breath but not so eye-catching that it detracts from the storytelling.
“Salvation of a Saint” is the second Keigo Higashino’s police procedural to be translated from Japanese. In this “locked room” mystery, a philandering husband is poisoned, and the person with the most compelling reason to kill him, his wife, has an ironclad alibi. But from there on it’s anything but formulaic as his wife and mistress seem to team up to thwart the police inquiry.
The book stumbles a bit in the beginning but finds its footing once its three investigators begin trying to unravel how, and then who, done it. Seasoned veteran Detective Kusanagi is hampered by his infatuation with the wife, and increasingly annoyed with his partner, bright-eyed rookie Detective Utsumi, who can’t keep herself from acting on intuition. Assisting and often opposing them both is Yukawa, a Holmesian physics professor who gets pulled into investigations that stump the police. He keeps warning his colleagues not to let their feelings influence their detective work even as he’s increasingly convinced that this is the proverbial “perfect” crime.
Like Higashino’s stunning “Devotion of Suspect X,” this character-driven drama is loaded with insights into male/female relationships and the struggle between reason and emotion. The solution is unexpected.
BAD LITTLE FALLS
By Paul Doiron
Minotaur, 320 pp., $24.99
TALKING TO THE DEAD
By Harry Bingham
Delacorte, 337 pp., $26
SALVATION OF A SAINT
By Keigo Higashino
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith
Minotaur, 336 pp., $24.99