The female protagonists in today’s batch of crime novels range from vigilante to villain to victim.
The unlikely vigilante is bakery owner Maeve Conlon in Maggie Barbieri’s “Once Upon a Lie.” The story opens with Maeve attending the funeral of a cousin. Her “Bye, Sean . . . See you in hell” uttered over his coffin, hints at more than a passing dislike for this bloke who died of a bullet to the head.
With a demented, comical elderly father in tow and her struggles to tame a pair of Spanx, Maeve seems at first to have been cut from the same cloth as Alison Bergeron, the wisecracking college professor who solves murder mysteries with a hunky detective boyfriend in the author’s Murder 101 series. Comparisons to Janet Evanovich abound. But this time, Barbieri is out for bigger fish in darker water.
While ostensibly trying to keep her father from being arrested for Sean’s murder, keep her bakery from going under, raise two daughters, and maintain cordial relationships with her ex, Maeve begins to stalk a man whom she believes is abusing his wife and daughter. Her identification with the man’s child severely clouds her judgment, and it becomes apparent that Maeve is just a hair’s breadth from spinning out of control.
Some of the plot points strain credibility. How could this New York suburb be so small that Maeve keeps running into the abusive man and his family? Why would Maeve, a seemingly sensible woman, carry an unlicensed handgun in a purse with a big hole in it? And how does this single mother of two have time to engage in a stakeout? These kinds of gotchas can be hand-waved away in a frothy cozy mystery, but this novel aspires to more. It gets most of the way there.
Maeve is a virtual Sunday school teacher compared to the appropriately named Crissa Stone in Wallace Stroby’s “Shoot the Woman First.” Bakeries are few and far between in the burnt-out section of Detroit where Crissa and a band of fellow thieves stake out a drug dealer’s drop.
Stroby describes the setting in lean, poetic prose: “Empty windows, dark doorways. Ghost town. Deadtown. She pictured the vacant spaces inside the buildings, trash-strewn floors, broken glass.”
Crissa is a survivor. A former junkie, she was rescued and mentored by a master thief. He taught her to plan every detail of a heist, to trust her instinct, and walk away if a setup feels sketchy. Something seems off to her about this job, but she ignores her misgivings because she desperately needs the quarter of a million in cash she’ll score to help the man to whom she feels she owes her life.
But she doesn’t bargain on Eddie the Saint, a former police officer who makes his living stealing back and exacting revenge for crooks like the drug boss that Crissa burgles. Killing is a perq, as far as Eddie is concerned, as he goes about recouping his client’s losses and leaving a trail of mayhem and dead bodies in his wake.
This third Crissa Stone novel is delivered in propulsive prose and smart dialogue reminiscent of Robert B. Parker or Elmer Leonard and laid on with the same kind of dry brush. For fans of noir, this is among the best of the current breed.
Liana Clymer in Nancy Springer’s “Drawn into Darkness” is yet another kind of female character. Tested by adversity, she finds strength and tenacity she didn’t know she had.
Running away from a fractious divorce that left her estranged from her two grown sons, she and her dog move into a pink cottage at the edge of a swamp in the Florida panhandle. On a miserably hot, humid day, desperate for human company, she ventures across the street to introduce herself to her nearest neighbor.
The teenager, Justin, who opens the door seems amiable enough. He invites her in. The man Justin refers to as Uncle Steve radiates hostility. Too late, she realizes he’s not really the boy’s uncle. By then she’s trapped.
Liana’s is a compelling but brutal narrative. Her story is interwoven with other narratives, including Justin’s mother’s, who lives miles away and, after two years, refuses to give up hope that she’ll find her son alive. The strength of the novel grows out of Liana’s struggle to keep herself alive and save the young man she bonds with in a way that she failed to connect with her own sons.
ONCE UPON A LIE
By Maggie Barbieri
Minotaur, 304 pp., 24.99
SHOOT THE WOMAN FIRST
By Wallace Stroby
Minotaur, 288 pp., $25.99
DRAWN INTO DARKNESS
By Nancy Springer
New American Library, 336 pp., paperback, $14
Hallie Ephron is the author of “There Was an Old Woman,” now in paperback. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.