Crimes from the past wreak havoc in the present in three new releases. In Jennifer McMahon’s “The One I Left Behind,” Vera Dufrane turns up in a homeless shelter 25 years after she was abducted by a serial killer. Vera, once featured in ads as the Aphrodite Cold Cream girl, was a blowzy blonde who lived off the men she picked up in bars when she disappeared; now she’s barely recognizable, incoherent, and ill. Her daughter Reggie, just 13 when Vera was taken, always believed she was killed. Now Reggie returns to the Connecticut bedroom town where her austere aunt took her in and raised her, needing to reconnect with her mother and determined to find out what happened.
The novel takes us back to the summer Vera disappeared. She was thought to be the fourth woman abducted by a killer the police called “Neptune.” He left his victims’ severed right hands, like his calling card, on the steps of the police station. Five days later their dead bodies would be found — except for Vera.
When Reggie, now a successful architect, returns she finds Tara, her one-time best friend, still there and still obsessed with finding Neptune. Soon it becomes apparent that Vera’s return may have awakened the killer.
With its severed hands, abducted women, and a killer who lavishes care on their dead bodies, this novel gets pretty gruesome. But character, not creepiness, drives the story. McMahon writes young women with clear-eyed sensitivity. In Reggie and Tara she creates archetypal “good” and “bad” girls, one who obeys rules and the other who needs lines drawn in the sand, just so she can cross them.
Nele Neuhaus’s “Snow White Must Die” is the fourth in a popular German series and the first to be translated (by Steven Murray) into English. It features investigators Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein.
In a truly grim fairy tale beginning, the novel opens with a trip down a rusty staircase to a dimly-lit cavern and the corpse of a beautiful woman, lovingly tended by a man who calls her Snow White. Switch to prison where Tobias Sartorius is released from a 20-year jail term served for killing two teenage girls whose bodies were never found. Switch to a rainy former military base where a woman’s skeletal remains are discovered in an underground tank. Switch to a woman being pushed off a pedestrian bridge and onto a busy expressway.
In short order, Neuhaus sets an impressive number of plates spinning. But some readers will find the many plot lines, timelines, narrators, and numerous characters, each with a complicated past, make this novel a challenge to get into. Eventually the stories converge and gain momentum, and the reader is carried along by red herrings and adrenaline-packed scenes tacked together with cliffhanger endings. But for this reader, the artifice and plot devices felt heavy handed, machinations that constantly alert the reader to the presence of the author pulling both characters’ and readers’ strings.
Junior Bender, the crusty, loveable hero of Timothy Hallinan’s “Little Elvises,” is a career burglar who does “detective stuff” for criminals. But this time his client is a cop, and Junior’s reward will be avoiding a jail sentence for a heist he didn’t commit. His assignment is to keep the cop’s uncle, an aging music industry mogul who promoted a string of ’60s pop stars known as the “Little Elvises,” from going down for a murder he didn’t commit. To clear the uncle, Junior has to figure out who killed a tabloid journalist whose body was dumped, tellingly perhaps, on the Hollywood sidewalk star emblazoned with the name of one of the Little Elvises, one who was killed in a fire.
Meanwhile, Junior proves a mensch. He’s got an ex-wife he still regrets losing, a spunky computer-whiz daughter he adores, and a girlfriend who finds him irresistible. He’s got a soft spot for elderly Marge who runs Marge ‘n Ed’s North Pole, a seedy Christmas-themed motel in North Hollywood where he’s staying, and she talks him into finding her daughter who’s disappeared with a creep.
There’s a lot going on in this book with a teddy bear of a main character and laugh-out-loud dialogue — though I couldn’t help noticing, even the dumbest characters seem to crack awfully wise, and some villains feel as if they’ve been hauled out of the Marvel Comics crypt.
“You want to be funny,” says one of Junior’s sidekicks, “hire a writer.” For that, Hallinan’s your man.
SNOW WHITE MUST DIE
By Nele Neuhaus
Translated, from the German, by Steven T. Murray
Character, not creepiness, drives the story in ‘The One I Left Behind.’ Jennifer McMahon writes young women with clear-eyed sensitivity.
Minotaur, 384 pp., $24.99
By Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, 347 pp., $25Hallie Ephron’s is the author of the forthcoming “Three Was an Old Woman” (April, 2013). Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.