Mysteries: A new Junior Bender is an early Christmas present

“Fields Where They Lay,” by Timothy Hallinan. Soho Press, 384 pages.

Junior Bender is a thief of some talent who also takes on investigative jobs for other crooks. A few days before Christmas, he is asked to look into a surge in shoplifting at a decaying mall owned by Russian mobsters. As he learns more about the half-empty mall and the people trying to make a living there, he warms to them and especially to Shlomo, a Jewish mall Santa whose old family story about a Christmas miracle is interspersed with the action.

I was very taken with Timothy Hallinan’s wry observations and Bender’s mix of offhand courage and introspection. Book-jacket comparisons to Raymond Chandler and Donald Westlake are totally deserved and should give you a clue as to whether you’ll like this book as much as I did.

“Only Daughter,” by Anna Snoekstra. MIRA Books, 288 pages.

Faced with a stint in jail, a runaway claims to be missing girl Rebecca Winter, based on a startling resemblance she noticed in TV reports during the 10-year case. With only the slim details she remembers, she bluffs her way through by falling back on emotional outbursts to cut off unwanted questions.

But soon she notices that the warm family circle she expected to find has some jagged edges that sound alarm bells. Even the detective who never totally dropped the case lets slip that he thought Becky had secrets. “New Becky” starts trying to find out what really happened 10 years ago.

Anna Snoekstra's well-constructed mystery drops clues that lend themselves to various possible endings. She kept me guessing almost up to the last page.  

The Trespasser,” Tana French. Viking, 464 pages.

An embattled homicide investigator keeps worrying at loose threads in what everyone in her department wants to treat as an open-and-shut case of domestic violence. She and her partner have to guard their case as other detectives try and force a mistake that will wash her out of the squad. Plus she’s pretty sure she has picked up a stalker who fits the description of the victim’s fleeing attacker.

Tana French lingers almost lovingly over the alpha-male mind games, showing us exactly how the harness is slipped on, and then gloriously how our tough female detective chews through it and hands it back to them.   

“The Motion of Puppets,” Keith Donohue. Picador, 272 pages.

A woman named Kay disappears walking home from her job as a circus acrobat in Quebec City. The mystery is not where she went; we readers see her step into an arcane puppet shop and be transformed into a marionette. So while we are watching her husband Theo’s efforts to find her, we are also watching her adjust to her new society and begin to forget him and her old life.

Theo’s translation work on a biography of Edward Muybridge, a pioneer in the motion photography that was the precursor of modern film, lends a bit of a sepia tone to this poetic, melancholy story.