New Novels Brimming With Murder, Jazz and Sumptuous Sweets

Ragnar Jonasson has long been one of Iceland’s commercial successes, selling more than 3 million copies of his crime novels there. REYKJAVIK (Minotaur, 367 pp., $28) his first collaboration with Katrin Jakobsdottir — the country’s current prime minister, by the way — qualifies as a breakout: seamlessly plotted, with terrific characters and plenty of surprising, earned twists.

The central crime, the 1956 disappearance of a girl named Lara, who worked for a rich couple on an island near off the coast near Reykjavik, is still unsolved as the city approaches its 200th anniversary three decades later. The journalist Valur Robertsson knows a fresh investigation will sell newspapers (and make his impatient editor ecstatic). He finds himself battling internal frustration and external impatience, all of which he expresses to his sister, Sunna, a slightly adrift graduate student.

Despite secretive sources, legal threats and reminders that past and present are forever intertwined, Valur pushes hard to center Lara and her family in his stories. Sunna, too, will find herself drawn into the investigation, sometimes at her own peril. Jonasson and Jakobsdottir, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb, demonstrate with understated brilliance how the truth rises to the surface, no matter how ugly it is or how powerful the players are.

Nina Simon’s MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT (Morrow, 357 pp., $30) filled me with equal parts excitement and hesitation. I loved the concept — three generations of the Rubicon family, all women, team up to solve a murder in their Northern California coastal town. But a novel can’t succeed on concept alone, and I’m pleased to say that Simon crafted an endearing trio of fully-fleshed out characters.

There’s Lana, a real-estate baron who’d rather be in Los Angeles but is convalescing from cancer treatment at her daughter Beth’s home. The two of them been in conflict ever since Beth gave birth to Jack when she was a teenager. Their problems only get worse when Jack, now 16, finds a body on the beach — and promptly gets tagged as a suspect. Lana, naturally, decides to focus on finding the murderer, because she’s spent her whole life and career problem-solving.

Simon grants equal spotlight to Beth, content in her life but learning to understand her willful mother, and Jack, a resourceful adolescent with plenty of agency. Though “Mother-Daughter Murder Night” functions better as a character study than a mystery, I foresee more crime-solving in the Rubicons’ future.

Most dreams are doomed to die, and for Clyde Morton, whose journey is at the center of Jake Lamar’s moody noir VIPER’S DREAM (Crooked Lane, 194 pp., paperback $19.99) the heartbreak of realizing he can’t cut it as a jazz musician in 1930s Harlem informs all of his subsequent decisions. By 1961, it’s impossible to tell that Morton — nicknamed “the Viper” — is doing anything but living his dream: After all, “he now owned two Cadillacs, one silver, one black,” along with a fifth-floor apartment in Harlem’s Sugar Hill with stunning views of northern Manhattan.

Ah, but the price of such riches turn out to be ruinously expensive. Morton earned his lucre as an enforcer in the drug trade, committing a murder here and there. They were necessary, he explains, except for the one that was pure revenge. There’s another great cost: the ebb and flow of his relationship with Yolanda, a talented singer he couldn’t keep because she didn’t know how to keep herself.

Lamar’s primary strength is his sense of place, especially the “crowded, hot and rollicking” Harlem jazz clubs that Morton so loves.

Sometimes, after reviewing a debut series mystery I like, I don’t return until a few more installments have been published. I’m glad I did with MURDER AND MAMON (Berkley Prime Crime, 270 pp., paperback $17), the fourth in Mia P. Manansala’s series featuring the Midwestern small-town coffee shop owner and baker Lila Macapagal. Though the effervescent delights of Manansala’s opening salvo, “Arsenic and Adobo,” are still very much in evidence, now Lila’s world feels richer and more fully imagined. Manasala has become truly enmeshed in her characters’ lives, and it shows.

Lila has helped establish the Brew-ha Cafe as a staple in Shady Palms, Illinois. Her love life is stable and she feels more rooted in her community and her family, both biological and chosen. The arrival of her cousin Divina from the Philippines and the opening of a new laundromat by Lila’s godmothers — the “calendar crew” of April, Mae, and June — point to more good news. But then someone vandalizes the laundromat and murders Divina, leaving a spray-painted message next to her body: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS.” Is this directive referring to the gossipy godmothers, who love to stick their noses in everyone’s affairs? When the local police fail to make much headway Lila decides she must unearth whatever secrets proved so deadly for her cousin, even as she’s warned, “Be prepared to find out stuff about Divina and maybe even your mom that you’d rather not know.”

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