The most unnerving thing about Ali Land’s debut novel, GOOD ME BAD ME (Flatiron, $25.99), is that you can trust the word of Annie Thompson, the 15-year-old narrator, because she’s speaking to the mother she loves and misses. The anguished conversation is one-sided because her mother is about to go on trial for killing nine little boys — and Annie is the one who turned her in.
Under her new name, Milly, Annie is in the care of a psychologist, Mike Newmont, and his family, who are none too even-keeled themselves. Mike’s wife, Saskia, is emotionally fragile and his daughter, Phoebe, is a vicious brat. What’s more, Mike is secretly writing a book about Milly. Despite all this, the notion of masquerading as a normal kid is irresistible. If only Milly weren’t so terrified of turning into her mother, so “scared of finding out who and what I might be.”
Milly is intellectually and psychologically miles ahead of the grown-ups who keep underestimating her, but living in her head isn’t easy. When she isn’t analyzing herself for violent tendencies, she’s anxiously denying the guilty secrets that might slip out when she testifies against her mother. In her yearning to be good, she cuts her own flesh “to bleed out the bad.” But there are times when “it feels good to be bad,” and you really don’t want to be around for those times.
Land is a mental health nurse who has worked with traumatized children, and her portrait of Milly has a powerful sense of authenticity. Her excursions into the twisted psyche of Milly’s mother — or, rather, into Milly’s keen memories but conflicted feelings about her mother — are less realistic, but more distressing. The harrowing scene in which they meet in court, with only a screen between them, harks back to a disturbing exchange between Milly and her only friend. After mentioning a story about “a girl who was so scared she prayed to be given the wings of an eagle,” Milly is asked what the girl was so frightened of. Maybe, she thinks, “The person who was telling the story.”
As a wise old teacher notes in John Sandford’s DEEP FREEZE (Putnam, $29), “There is a lot of potential violence in class reunions.” But when someone murders the “Girl Most Likely to Succeed” in Trippton High School’s class of 1992, following a planning session of the 25th class reunion committee, no one suspects the “Funniest Boy in the Class of ’92” of being the killer. “I can’t believe it,” someone insists. “It’s like saying a duck did it.”
Virgil Flowers, the most laid-back agent in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, arrives in midwinter, when everyone is either ice fishing or having illicit sexual adventures, aided by the naughty toys in the back room of Bernie’s Books, Candles ’n More. While people are happy to tattle on their friends and neighbors, no one will help Virgil find the “outlaw heroine” who’s supporting a lot of poor folks by making pornographic Barbie and Ken dolls. Desperate times demand desperate measures.
Scandinavian crime novels don’t get much darker than Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q police procedurals. In William Frost’s translation of THE SCARRED WOMAN (Dutton, $28), the Copenhagen detective Carl Morck and his eccentric colleagues in the cold case division are conducting two investigations, neither of them very interesting, when Rose, their normally efficient colleague, has a breakdown. Although the details of the childhood trauma that caused her crackup are impossibly lurid, Rose proves far more likable than the stock female victims in this noir series. Lest we think Adler-Olsen is getting soft, he also introduces us to Anne-Line Svendsen, a caseworker in the social security office who has developed a seething hatred for “those damn young women who totally cheated society” by drawing benefits they don’t deserve. Unfortunately for her, she commences to attack the most irritating of her clients, Michelle Hansen, at the precise moment when Michelle and another of Anne-Line’s clients are plotting to kill her.
Once upon a time, Peter May began a series of mysteries featuring Enzo Macleod, a forensics expert who took a bet with a Parisian journalist named Roger Raffin that he could use his modern-day skills to solve seven cold cases of homicide, including that of Raffin’s wife. CAST IRON (Quercus, $26.99) is the last book in this series and it ends Macleod’s quest with a flourish. I would have been happier with less flourish and more forensics, which seemed to taper off drastically after the early cases.
Science barely figures in the current book because the victim, Lucie Martin, wasn’t found until her bare bones were discovered in a lake bed that had been exposed during a severe drought. Macleod explores the possibility that Lucie was murdered by a man she met while doing social work with recently released felons. But the harried sleuth has so much personal baggage to wrap up — the vindictive ex-wife, the uncertain paternities, the infidelities, the new girlfriend — that he has little time for a proper investigation.
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