Books

Mysteries: Graphic ‘Taking Pity’ rescued by compelling characters, poetic writing

Taking Pity, by David Mark. Blue Rider Press, 324 pages

Amid the avalanche of “Gone Girl” imitators, I found a police procedural. Well, I say police procedural. David Mark writes about police investigations, but his style is so dense and haunted that it’s like an impressionist police procedural.

Aector McAvoy, on leave after a devastating explosion at his home (see previous book, “Sorrow Bound”), is needed at work because of an upswing in gang activity. His boss Trish Pharaoh starts him off on something that should be light duty: looking into a 50-year-old multiple murder in a country churchyard, which is threatening to finally come to trial.

The old case proves anything but cold, though, so McAvoy soon finds himself back in the center ring.

An early scene of Pharaoh enduring a needless bureaucratic meeting hooked me on her character, and Mark’s poetic style kept me reading even when I saw that the graphic torture scenes well exceeded the threshold that would normally keep me from recommending a book. So, reader beware on that score. Then again, I know my threshold is not everyone’s threshold.

The New Neighbor, by Leah Stewart. Touchstone, 290 pages.

Moving to a new town is one of the classic jumping-off points for horror and mystery stories. The possibilities for menace are endless, from ghosts to weird neighbors to the odd satanic HOA.

Nothing supernatural here – just one vindictive old lady.

The new neighbor is Jennifer, who has moved to a small college town in Tennessee with her young son to escape her past. Unfortunately, her nearest neighbor is a bitter, lonely nonagenarian, Margaret, who takes curiosity to a malevolent extreme. Margaret answers the young woman’s ad for massage sessions, and then draws her into a memoir project in order to have more time with her. When new massage customers start taking up more of Jennifer’s time, an angry Margaret goes from merely digging into the younger woman’s hidden past to actively stirring up trouble.

Leah Stewart skillfully captures conversational nuance and family alienation.

The Insect Farm, by Stuart Prebble. Mulholland, 313 pages.

The prologue of “The Insect Farm” teases us with the discovery of two bodies in a forgotten shed, picked clean by a disturbing profusion of bugs.

The insect farm belongs to mentally deficient Roger, and we suspect fairly early that one of the bodies is going to be Harriet, wife of Roger’s younger brother Jonathan. It’s impossible not to spend the rest of the book trying to figure out which character will become that second body.

Two factors at various points in the story could put any of several people in that shed: Jonathan’s uncontrollable jealous streak, and Roger’s lack of affect, which masks unguessable thoughts. In a pivotal scene, the jealousy finds a fatal foothold when Harriet confesses that it’s not totally unfounded. Watching the police come ever closer to the truth of that night is a well-choreographed dance, fully engaging and a bit reminiscent of Ruth Rendell’s uneasy style.

Hostile Takeover by Shane Kuhn. Simon & Schuster, 265 pages.

I became an instant fan of hit man John Lago in his first outing, “The Intern’s Handbook,” in which he shared the secrets of his success at HR Inc., which places assassins as interns in order to get them close to their targets. Sony Pictures liked it, too, so there’s a movie in the works.

Now he has aged out of the business – interns over 25 don’t blend in so well — and married his nemesis/romantic interest, Alice. That’s just as wild and treacherous as his internship, and equally hilarious. The two decide to go after their former employer and take over the assassin-intern business for themselves. Since Lago is recounting this in flashbacks during an interview with an interrogator at Quantico, we anticipate a few bumps in the road.

You can definitely start the series with “Hostile Takeover” and get all the major plot points, but why skip the first book and deprive yourself of a truly fun read?

Now, I wonder who they’ll cast as John Lago...

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