Americans are fascinated by serial killers, and American culture usually depicts them in ways that play to this fascination. But doing so negates the truth: These murderers, while evil, are often fairly banal people who get caught because of their own errors, or stay uncaptured because of others’ mistakes. So I approached the Norwegian author Victoria Kielland’s novel MY MEN (Astra House, 194 pp., $25) with trepidation — especially given her aim to humanize the turn-of-the-20th-century serial killer Belle Gunness, who murdered and buried untold numbers on her Midwestern homestead before it was set aflame and she vanished.
To my surprise, Kielland succeeds. “My Men,” superbly translated by Damion Searls, is a portrait of a woman trying, and failing, to escape her punishing trajectory. Bit by bit, day by day, we see, and come to understand, what has made Belle Gunness a killer.
We meet her first as Brynhild Storset, a 17-year-old maid in Norway, miscarrying her baby after the father brutally kicks her in the stomach; then as Bella, a young, traumatized immigrant, realizing that “it was the same in America as in Norway — it didn’t matter, the world didn’t care about her”; and finally, stripped of hope, as obsessive, calculating, murderous Belle: “There was no one who reached out his arms for her and took care of her. And the longest movement of all was neither love nor desire, it was the butterfly wings in the garden, it was death, the eye always trying to make eye contact, the longest eternal flicker.”
James Wolff’s prior espionage novels, “Beside the Syrian Sea” (2018) and “How to Betray Your Country” (2021) — the first two novels in his Discipline Files trilogy — were very good but not top-tier. However, THE MAN IN THE CORDUROY SUIT (Bitter Lemon Press, 294 pp., paperback, $15.95), the last book in the trilogy, establishes him as a memorable voice in the genre.
This status elevation owes much to Wolff’s latest creation, the MI5 officer Leonard Flood, whose manner is brusque and rude (a superior once noted his “impressive ability to kneel on the bruise,” while another said he was “definitely not a charmer”). An outsize personality is required for the investigation he’s tasked with, which involves spying on other spies suspected of working for the Russians, particularly a recently retired operative who may or may not have been poisoned. It comes down to a single question, one with no easy answer: Who is worth the loyalty that people — and governments — extend?
“Some spies are all about warmth, others are a blast of cold Arctic air.” The same description applies equally to Wolff’s prose, all sharp edges and abrupt surprises, keeping the reader in a state of edgy discomfort.
The title of Katie Siegel’s rollicking debut, CHARLOTTE ILLES IS NOT A DETECTIVE (Kensington, 372 pp., paperback, $16.95), is both truth and misnomer. Sure, Charlotte isn’t a detective now. She’s 25, living at home, stuck in suburban New Jersey on a merry-go-round of failed job applications and tepid dates. But back when she was a child, Charlotte was a mystery-solving legend, taking cases through her trusty blue landline until the pressure built up so much that she quit.
Then one day Charlotte’s phone rings again (her mom kept it working, just in case). Turns out it’s her brother: Can she figure out who is stalking his girlfriend and leaving her creepy notes? Charlotte balks. “I was a detective for years, right? It was all I did. So how was I supposed to know if there’s anything else out there for me if I just kept doing that one thing?” But her resistance slowly melts away as her old sleuthing skills return — until, that is, someone goes missing and the case takes a turn. Unlike the mysteries of her childhood, this one involves an actual dead person.
Siegel, who created Charlotte Illes as a TikTok character, has a lot of story to work with, though she can’t quite sustain it; the pacing bogs down in the middle. Even so, Charlotte is a delight. When a date says she used to think of Charlotte as a “mini Sherlock Holmes,” Charlotte deadpans, “Yep, just a 10-year-old solving mysteries and doing cocaine.”
Finally, fair warning for those embarking on Michael McGarrity’s new novel, THE LONG AGO (Norton, 364 pp., $28.95): There are crimes aplenty; disappearances voluntary and involuntary; and all manner of violence, individual and state-sanctioned. But this, McGarrity’s first stand-alone after a western trilogy and the earlier Kevin Kerney series, is more family saga than crime novel — one I adored without reservation, and inhaled in a single sitting.
The Lansdale siblings, Ray and Barbara, survived instability, absent parents and other childhood losses by retreating into a shared utopian fantasy they called “the Long Ago.” Escaping reality isn’t as easy when you become an adult, though. In the early 1960s, Ray, once shiftless and wayward, finds purpose in the Army as the Vietnam War looms large, while Barbara flees their Livingston, Mont., hometown, and no one seems to know where she is. Ray, home on leave, wants to find her.
“People who decide to voluntarily disappear — if that’s what really happened with her — usually want to keep it that way,” the sheriff warns him. But Ray takes the words of another cop to heart: “We all lose people, Ray. Sometimes you can’t do a damn thing about it, sometimes you can.”