When a Cold Case Turns Deadly

By Sarah Weinman


Credit...Pablo Amargo

This column doesn’t do trend spotting, but the proliferation of crime novels featuring true-crime podcasts as a plot device has not escaped notice. (I write and edit crime nonfiction; listening to such podcasts is an occupational hazard.) In her propulsive debut, GIRL, 11 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 340 pp., $25), Amy Suiter Clarke ventures further in the fusion of real-life and fictional crime storytelling, making the reader privy to excerpts and transcripts from “Justice Delayed,” the podcast hosted by her protagonist, Elle Castillo.

Elle investigates old cases to right wrongs and center the voices of victims of crime. But this new season of her show — focused on an unidentified serial culprit dubbed the Countdown Killer who, decades before, had poisoned his victims with deadly castor beans — threatens to undo her on professional and personal levels: “She had felt pressure to solve cold cases she investigated on earlier seasons of the podcast, but nothing compared to this. It felt like the whole world was watching her.”

Not only is the book difficult to put down, it’s also an adroit exploration of the ethical quandaries of true-crime storytelling, particularly in podcasts. For Elle, whose stake in finding a resolution runs deeper than she’s willing to admit, and for her listeners, these moral dilemmas take on a frightening edge.

Jonathan Ames has been dancing around the edges of the crime genre for a number of years now, as evidenced by the postmodern HBO comedy series “Bored to Death” and his noirish novella-turned-film “You Were Never Really Here.” He has surrendered fully, and pleasurably, to his fate in A MAN NAMED DOLL (Mulholland, 224 pp., $26), the first in a dark new private detective series that’s a tightly coiled double helix of offbeat humor and unflinching violence.

The detective’s introduction sums up his entire personality: “Most people call me Hank, but my real name is Happy, Happy Doll. My parents saddled me with that name. They didn’t think it was a joke. They’d been hoping for the best. Can’t say it worked out. Can’t say it didn’t.” Hank scrapes by working security for the Thai Miracle Spa. Inanimate objects — his house, his avocado tree — get his open love declarations, but people? Not so much. His deepest relationship is with his rescue dog, George.

Things go wrong as soon as Hank accidentally kills a meth-crazed customer at the spa (“I meant to shoot him in the leg to slow him down, but my hand was unsteady and I shot him through the neck and blood geysered out in a spray”), angering powerful people and setting up a cascade of ever more gruesome acts. There will be excised body parts, kidnappings, coerced surgeries, stolen cash, people tossed off balconies, fists rammed into Adam’s apples. Wherever Hank Doll goes, no matter how strange the trip, I’ll definitely follow.

Books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, but what about their epigraphs? Cate Holahan draws the title of her newest suspense novel, HER THREE LIVES (Grand Central, 352 pp., paper, $15.99), from a quote by Gabriel García Márquez: “All human beings have three lives: public, private and secret.” It’s a telling quote that also shades the truth, for that tidy division blurs in the face of reality, as one couple is about to discover.

Jade Thompson is a social media influencer, and her fiancé, Greg, is an architect. Their 20-year age difference bothers him more than her, but it really sets off whoever invaded their home, caused Jade to miscarry and left Greg for dead.

Maybe it’s an obsessed fan of Jade’s. Maybe the resentments of the family he left not long before meeting Jade have bubbled up to near-fatal levels. Or maybe the break-in is related to financial matters, both obvious and hidden. Trust erodes and tensions rise, even if the conclusion is telegraphed early enough that my interest began to wane.

Still, Holahan’s propensity toward melodrama at high pitch is quite entertaining, even if her ambitions aren’t quite met here.

For Meddelin Chan, the wedding photographer protagonist of DIAL A FOR AUNTIES (Berkley, 299 pp., paper, $16), Jesse Q. Sutanto’s screwball adult debut, family loyalty is especially complicated. On the one hand, her lifelong devotion to her mother and aunts persuaded her to walk away from a formative relationship — something she still regrets — and work with them on a full-service wedding business. On the other hand, who else can she turn to when a dead body turns up in her car, something that’s not her fault? On the one wedding weekend that could make or break their business?

What follows is what might transpire from mashing up Natsuo Kirino’s standout novel “Out” and the madcap film “Muriel’s Wedding,” inflected with the hybrid linguistics Meddelin grew up with (“My Mandarin is awful, and my Cantonese nonexistent,” she says). It’s a high-wire act of comic timing, misunderstandings, romantic foibles and possibly foiled heists — not to mention, what’s going to happen to that dead body?

The glue is Meddelin, endearing, capable and in full thrall to her elders, who are all absolute hoots to keep company with.