Crime didn’t disappear from London during World War II; it actually became easier for opportunists during the blackouts. But it’s hard to get judgmental about Electra McDonnell and her Uncle Mick, who do some housebreaking on the side when his locksmith business isn’t enough to sustain them. The orphaned girl was schooled by her affable uncle to be an ace safecracker and lock picker, and she’s become a deft accomplice.
We’re not meant to think of them as bad people; though they move in shady circles, they rob from the rich without getting violent—not the worst strategy during hard times.
When the duo are set up for a robbery and caught by a special branch of British intelligence, headed by the handsome, no-nonsense Major Ramsey, they’re given a patriotic alternative to prison: use their larcenous skills to open a safe that contains documents originally intended for the Nazis. Ellie (as she’s known) doesn’t have much choice, so she agrees to help. But when that plan goes wrong, they have to improvise another, which involves some romantic role-playing by Ramsey and Ellie.
A Peculiar Combination has the sparky feel of a 60s caper film, with the focus on the fine art of safecracking and the unlikely couple’s fire-and-ice dynamic, an approach that Ashley Weaver pulls off without seeming oblivious to the ever present dangers and deprivations of 40s London. This book might make a nice aperitif for fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s venerable Maisie Dobbs series, as Ellie has intelligence, coolness under pressure, and the ability to move easily between classes with the redoubtable Maisie, though the quick Irish temper and more flexible moral code are all her own. She and the major click intriguingly in this first installment of what promises to be a charming series.
“But stories … are also maddeningly elusive. There is no deep mine of plots to blast around in, or big-box store with wide aisles of unused, undreamed-of, and thrillingly new narratives for a writer to push a big, empty shopping cart through, waiting for something to catch their eye.”
This is Jean Hanff Korelitz’s version of the hard truth faced by all novelists at some point; how they deal with it will determine the success or failure of their career. Sadly, there are no items in the story cart of Korelitz’s protagonist, the once promising Jacob Bonner, whose fiction writing has flatlined and morphed into a teaching stint at a third-tier college in Vermont.
The slipperiest choice faced by a blocked writer is appropriation, but Bonner is desperate, so he “borrows” a plot a former student once shared with him, puts his own spin on it, and, voilà, the resulting novel becomes a spectacular success. It feels safe because the student is dead, but ironically it never occurs to Bonner that the idea might not have sprung directly from the student’s imagination. And so the trouble begins.
The Plot joins a spate of stellar recent and upcoming mysteries—including Alexandra Andrews’s Who Is Maud Dixon? and Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl—that deal with literary appropriation, impostorhood, creativity, and revenge. These issues are clearly having a big moment now, and Korelitz (whose 2014 best-seller, You Should Have Known, was the much better, much-altered source material for HBO’s The Undoing) goes at them with satirical relish and a snaky plot worthy of the buildup. Can we agree that it’s getting a little scary out there for writers? As Korelitz demonstrates, there are worse crimes than stealing a dead guy’s idea, which really should have crossed Bonner’s mind when he did it.
Oops. Tech entrepreneur Miles Cookson was so obsessed with creating apps that he forgot to have a life. But like a latter-day Scrooge, he has suddenly embraced his own humanity after learning of his imminent deterioration and demise in the form of a terminal diagnosis of Huntington’s disease.
The wealthy Cookson, who in leaner times donated sperm to a fertility clinic, fears that any children who may have resulted from his contributions could have the gene and should be notified and made financially secure. But as he begins to track the kids down, he learns that some have recently disappeared without a trace, making him desperate to find out why this is happening to his … issue. In the process he has surprised himself by becoming paternally fond of one child he has located who’s still very much alive, and even more hungry for answers than he is.
At this point in Find You First, we may think we have a pretty good handle on their enemy, being privy to information Cookson and the girl are not, but Linwood Barclay is too ambitious a plotter to simply follow his premise to its logical conclusion, which would have been perfectly fine. Instead, he throws a curve that changes everything. There is another force at work behind the scenes, whose barely disguised real-life inspiration was so outsize and bizarre that I’m sure there will be fictional characters modeled on this person for years to come. But for now, Barclay’s version of the monster is pulling the strings in this no-frills, expertly designed thriller with just the right amount of heart.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City