However much we may romanticize the Middle Ages, visions of primitive dentistry invariably kill that fantasy. To take the edge off the agony, Adelia Aguilar, the skilled herbalist and healer in Ariana Franklin’s superb medieval mysteries, might offer the sufferer a cup of poppy-head tea, which is basically pure cocaine. DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (Morrow, 412 pp., $27.99), written by the late author’s daughter, Samantha Norman, completes the “Mistress of the Art of Death” series with an appropriate homage, a story featuring mother-and-daughter sleuths. Both Adelia and her daughter, Allie, address their skills to solving the murders of young women whose violated bodies are discovered in the Fens. But the urgency to find a husband for Allie also drives the story.
The forensic procedures are appropriately grotesque (leeches, anyone?), and the period settings run to luscious details, like “a perfect pastry sculpture of the baby Jesus” at a sumptuous Christmas banquet. Don’t be distracted from Norman’s true theme; namely, the crushingly limited life choices for women — even the most highborn women — of this period.
Who doesn’t love “large and shabby” Vera Stanhope, the blunt detective in Ann Cleeves’s Northumberland police procedurals? She is already one of the genre immortals. Cleeves delivers some choice Vera moments in THE DARKEST EVENING (Minotaur, 373 pp., $27.99), beginning with her rescue of a toddler in the middle of a blinding blizzard. (Nature red in tooth and claw is a favorite subject of this author, whose early mysteries about pretty birds and homicidal bird-watchers are unsung classics.)
“Vera’s experience of small children was limited,” we are drolly informed, so she hastily deposits the child at the nearest house. This proves to be a gracious old pile known as Brockburn, where a party of vacuous people are sitting down to eat dinner and assassinate the characters of absent friends. But after a farmer on a tractor uncovers a woman’s body half buried in the snow, dinner is once again interrupted and the guests couldn’t be more delighted “about being in their very own country-house murder mystery.” And who could blame them?
Noir, noir, noir — everybody wants to write noir fiction. But most self-anointed “noir” narratives just don’t hack it. They’re dark and dreary, to be sure; but a true noir mystery must also have a black heart. This kind of spiritual despair comes naturally to Stuart Neville, whose Belfast crime novels bleed. The title novella in THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES (Soho Crime, 336 pp., $27.95) features his brilliant contract killer, Gerry Fegan, who gave us the miseries in “The Ghosts of Belfast” and returns here as a revenant.