Until her murder, Lady Araba was the It Girl of Ghana. A strikingly elegant fashion designer with her own successful line of clothing, a close-knit family, and an adoring boyfriend, she seemed to have it all, so naturally the list of people who may have wanted her dead is lengthy.
Nearly a year after she was killed at her home in a ritzy gated community outside Accra, supposedly by her now imprisoned chauffeur, a concerned aunt takes matters into her own hands, engaging the Sowah Private Investigators Agency to see if they can succeed where, she feels, the police have failed.
Lady Araba was the It Girl of Ghana, so naturally the list of people who may have wanted her dead is lengthy.
The aunt suspects that Araba’s boyfriend, an unstable, alcoholic talk-show host, is the real culprit, but the agency’s detectives keep an open mind, taking a broad look at a case they have reason to think has been manipulated by the powers that be. In Kwei Quartey’s Ghana, police procedure can be iffy, and when a detective from the Sowah agency discovers that key evidence has been mishandled, the agency’s investigators go undercover to spy on a forensics lab and the many players who revolved around the star designer.
Sleep Well, My Lady goes back and forth in time, sympathetically filling in the contours of Araba’s glamorous but disciplined life and also taking a sobering peek at less privileged lives, as private eye Emma Djann and her colleagues impersonate a variety of workers to gather information. Quartey, who was born in Ghana and now lives in California, takes a dim view of the hypocrites who constitute the cream of Accra society—doctors, lawyers, and clergymen (such as Araba’s father) who will do anything to protect their status and reputation.
Lady Araba remains a vital presence throughout the book, so we genuinely feel her loss, but there’s a nimbleness to Quartey’s style and a vibrancy to his characters that are a tonic, especially welcome as we endure this beyond-bleak midwinter.
Uncategorizable and wonderfully strange, this novel takes place on a single day and is spun from the mental chatter of 12 characters, all on vacation at a holiday park on a Scottish loch in the middle of a miserable, nonstop June deluge. It may sound slender, but English writer Sarah Moss has something significant in mind as she artfully constructs a powerful narrative from these multiple points of view; the technique is a bit reminiscent of the Wim Wenders movie Wings of Desire, where the angels listen in on the thoughts of mortals.
But in Summerwater (the title is a play on “Semmerwater,” an old Scottish ballad about a drowned city), each person’s experience contributes to a nagging dread that something is about to go very wrong, or perhaps already has.
At first we hear the mundane minutiae of people slogging through a dud vacation and the strained relationships it was supposed to be helping. Some try to make the best of it; for instance, an obsessive runner who ignores more than just the weather, a retired doctor determined to stave off old age by walking, and a teenage boy who drags his kayak out for an ill-advised paddle in the angrily foaming loch.
In Summerwater, each person’s experience contributes to a nagging dread that something is about to go very wrong, or perhaps already has.
Then there are those who stay in their cabins—a couple using the foul weather as an excuse for a hilarious sex marathon and a beleaguered mom unable to enjoy her only hour of alone time. Some develop opinions about their neighbors, based on their choice of rain gear, maybe, or their accent, while most are united in their annoyance with the all-night, volume-cranked-to-11 partying of a family of Ukrainian descent, clearly the “other” in this all-British crowd.
Sarah Moss is a flat-out dazzling writer. She captures the frenetic humor of human thought bubbles that constantly pop up during this holiday from hell, but then pauses to examine the natural world in brief passages of surpassing beauty and cruelty. What these contrasts ultimately reveal is devastating.
Danish writer Katrine Engberg made a big splash last year with her impressive debut novel, The Tenant, which introduced no-nonsense detective Anette Werner and her more thoughtful partner, Jeppe Kørner (yes, they rhyme). The Butterfly House picks up soon after where its predecessor left off, with Werner sidelined and feeling trapped at home with her new baby girl, while the recently divorced Kørner takes the lead on a gnarly case where three bodies are found, one after the other, immersed in various fountains and lakes in Copenhagen with their blood drained.
All the victims once worked at the Butterfly House, a small residential clinic for disturbed teenagers that closed after the suicide of one of its female patients. Wondering if that girl’s death might hold the key to the murders, Kørner and Werner—going rogue from her maternal duties—go looking for answers in some of Copenhagen’s most marginal spaces, including mental hospitals and underground homeless enclaves.
The Butterfly House picks up soon after where its predecessor left off.
Since its subject is the treatment of mental illness, The Butterfly House can initially feel a bit disorienting, overcrowded with eccentric and troubled characters. But Engberg writes about them with compassion, reserving her displeasure for the Danish health-care system, which benefits the provider more than it does the patient.
Extreme emotions drive nearly everyone’s behavior, from a young woman’s determination to survive on the streets rather than be zombified by pharmaceuticals, to an unpopular nurse’s twisted desire to play God, to Werner’s fear that catching serial killers might be easier than motherhood, an eminently relatable worry.
Engberg isn’t sentimental or preachy—Tara Chase’s translation keeps the tone lively and colloquial—but she is insightful about why people act as they do, making this an unusually rich police procedural.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City