THE STOLEN ONES
By Owen Laukkanen
Putnam, 368 pp., $26.95
Some women are more gullible than others. In Owen Laukkanen’s “The Stolen Ones” a beautiful Romanian girl has been seduced by the promise of safe passage to the United States and a modeling career. Instead, as the story opens, she and her perceptive younger sister find themselves crammed in a boxcar with 40 other young naïve women, merchandise in a lucrative, high-stakes business deal. Readers can feel the claustrophobia of their confinement, smell the stench of human waste, and feel their fear of the fate that awaits.
At a truck stop, the sisters make a break for it. In the skirmish that follows, a sheriff’s deputy is shot dead, and one of the sisters is recaptured. Enter Kirk Stevens, special agent for the state of Minnesota, and Carla Windermere, his FBI counterpart. They soon find themselves pitted against the criminal enterprise of a crime lord whose minions fear him more than death.
This novel, the fourth in the Stevens and Windermere series, is a police procedural with the pulse of a thriller, a page-turner that lifts you up at chapter one and hurls you forward. Tightly plotted events unfold from the point of view of the sisters, the special agent, and the bad guys as stakes rise and evidence leads investigators from Montana to Manhattan.
The prose is clean and clear, and Laukkanen knows when to pull the camera back and let the reader’s imagination take over. In a pleasant twist, this thriller with strong, flawed, and fully fleshed out heroes and villains presents its female victims as equally three dimensional — and resourceful as well.
THE POCKET WIFE
By Susan Crawford
Morrow, 320 pp., $25.99
The troubled protagonist of Susan Crawford’s “The Pocket Wife,” Dana Catrell, talks to her St. Christopher medal, and it talks back. She’s stopped taking her medication and now she rarely sleeps, spending her nights speeding through novels and rearranging furniture.
She’s pushed over the edge when her neighbor Celia shows her a compromising picture of her husband, Peter. Celia and Dana have a noisy row and Dana, in a drunken rage, stumbles home. The next morning she awakes to sirens. Celia has been murdered.
When Dana calls her attorney husband, hoping he’ll tell her what to do, he does what he always does: puts her on hold and pockets the phone. She muses, “It isn’t the big things Peter does that make her want to leave him; it’s more the smaller things, like sticking her inside his pocket in the middle of a thought — these demeaning, shrinking things he does that make her feel as trivial as a sneeze.”
At this moment this novel grabbed me. The writing is original without drawing attention to itself as Crawford spins a tale of a woman on the verge, or perhaps in the midst of, a nervous breakdown. Is she crazy, or being made to think she is?
Ballast is provided by Detective Jack Moss, who painstakingly examines the evidence while hiding a few secrets of his own. Intrepid mystery readers will find a few too many coincidences in the plot but with writing this good, most won’t notice.
By Laurie R. King
Bantam, 352 pp., $26
Readers will be gobsmacked by who turns out to have been gulled by whom in Laurie R. King’s new Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novel, “Dreaming Spies.” This 13th series novel finds Holmes and his much younger acerbic, perceptive wife shipboard and traveling incognito as “Mr. and Mrs. Russell,” en route from India to Japan. An enigmatic Japanese woman, Haruki Sato, the tiny and physically-agile daughter of an acrobatic dynasty, entices them to a secret meeting with Japanese royalty.
Holmes is happy to do the special favors requested of him, particularly since he’ll get another chance to take down a blackmailer he’s encountered and failed to stop before. He muses, “I hold a special loathing for the blackmailer as a species.”
There are so many pleasures in this book. What fun to watch Holmes and Russell take a crash course in Japanese customs, preparing them to bow properly, bathe at a communal bathhouse (Russell calls it being “parboiled and beaten”), eat eel and sheep’s eyeballs, and sleep on the floor. It gets even better as the pair have to prove themselves by traveling across Japan in third class with severely limited funds.
Their tutor, who both teaches and tests them, is the inspired Haruki-san. She springs off the page jousting mentally and physically with Holmes and Russell, keeping one step ahead of them with her nerve, conniving, and powers of observation. One dearly hopes King will bring her back for an encore.