This week: solving true crime puzzles, plus Siddhartha Mukherjee's history of the gene.

Morgue: A Life in Death

Vincent DiMaio and Ron Franscell. St. Martin’s, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-06714-2

In this engrossing look behind the headlines of notorious homicides, Franscell, a veteran crime writer, aids DiMaio, a renowned forensic pathologist, in narrating the career he made of solving some of the most disturbing puzzles of the dead. In 40 years of work, DiMaio has worked on cases that involved the disturbed and infanticidal Martha Woods; the grisly exhumation of J.F.K. assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, whose own mouth debunked a conspiracy theory about his identity; and a deviously wicked nurse, Genene Jones, who was jailed for killing one patient and “deliberately injuring” another, and suspected of being responsible for dozens of other deaths. The often lurid, occasionally sad, and always intriguing details never overpower the drive for justice that fuels DiMaio’s life and work. “Forensic evidence,” he writes, “tells us honestly and candidly what we need to know, even when we want it to say something else.” The killing of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood-watchman George Zimmerman serves as DiMaio’s example of an instance about which, even after the question of homicide was settled, “the bigger questions about humanity” were left unanswered. Di Maio and Franscell deliver a well-paced, thoughtful, and absorbing work that will fascinate crime buffs and scholars alike.

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

Ted Geltner. Univ. of Georgia, $32.95 (406p) ISBN 978-0-8203-4923-7

Geltner brilliantly renders the life of the late writer Harry Crews (1935–2012) in this well-researched and vivid biography. It captures the wild spirit of an unflinching American writer from his early years in impoverished Bacon County, Ga. (which Crews devastatingly captured in his most beloved book, A Childhood), to his years as an esteemed but volatile faculty member in the University of Florida’s creative writing program. In just two decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Crews went from working as a junior college composition teacher to being a friend of Madonna and featured writer for Playboy. Geltner traces much of the inner pain in Crews’s life back to his tense relationship with his brother, Hoyett; the suspicion that his father was not his biological parent; and the shocking death by drowning of his young son. Geltner deftly examines each of Crews’s books and, without glossing over his alcoholism, shows that the hard living for which Crews was known did not break his ability to write. His discipline and respect for the art were reflected in the motto displayed above his desk: “Get Your Ass on the Chair.” Geltner proves that Crews was not just a great “Southern Gothic” writer, but a great American one, too.

The Fireman

Joe Hill. Morrow, $28.99 (608p) ISBN 978-0-06-220063-1

In Hill's superb supernatural thriller, the world is falling apart in a maelstrom of flame and fury. A spore dubbed Dragonscale infects people, draws patterns on their skin, and eventually makes them spontaneously combust—and it's rapidly spreading. School nurse Harper Grayson volunteers at a local hospital in Concord, N.H., until it burns down. Soon she discovers that not only is she infected but she's also pregnant. As the beautiful filigreed markings of Dragonscale start to flourish on her body, she vows to do anything to bring her baby safely into the world. Her husband, Jakob, doesn't want the baby and attacks Harper when he realizes she wants to keep it. Harper flees and encounters John Rookwood, a near-mythical figure known as the Fireman. He takes her to Camp Wyndham, where the infected have learned to control and harness what they call the Bright—the flames that smolder just beneath their skin. Harper finds purpose there, but Jakob has found a purpose too: he's joined the Cremation Crews, brutal marauders who kill the infected on sight. When the peace of the camp is threatened, Harper, John, and their friends band together.

Some Kind of Happiness

Claire Legrand. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4424-6601-2

Finley, 11, is sent to spend her summer at Hart House, her estranged grandparents’ country estate, while her parents deal with their divorce. Feeling like a stranger among her own family, she finds solace in the woods across the river because she believes them to be the real version of the magical Everwood she writes about. Legrand (The Year of Shadows) weaves portions of Finley’s tales seamlessly through the novel, building a foundation of understanding for Finley’s feelings of isolation and overwhelming sadness. As Finley allows her cousins into her imaginary world, she begins to trust her family and build friendships, but these new feelings of acceptance do not keep Finley’s depression and anxiety at bay. Legrand handles the tough subject of childhood mental health gently and honestly, and—through the dual narratives of Finley’s real and fantasy lives—paints a realistic picture of a girl trying to figure out what’s wrong with her. Finley’s quest to uncover family secrets reveals not just what kept her father away from his relatives but how a family sticks together through good times and bad.

Draw the Line

Laurent Linn. S&S/McElderry, $17.99 (528p) ISBN 978-1-4814-5280-9

In this thoughtful drama, a gay teen navigates the treacherous social landscape of his small-town Texas high school, confronting homophobia and his own reluctance to publicly embrace his identity. Adrian Piper lives for his art, especially his “secret superhero creation,” Graphite, a Renaissance-art-inspired, outwardly gay character who has romanticized adventures with stylized versions of Adrian’s best friends. In the real world, Adrian just wants to make it to graduation. After he stands up to bullies assaulting another gay student, Adrian discovers that he’s no longer content to slip under the radar. As he attempts to fight injustice through art and quiet action, he finds his inner strength and realizes that things aren’t as simple as they seem. Linn, an art director at Simon & Schuster, makes a powerful debut with this empathic page-turner, for which he also supplies dramatic pencil illustrations that believably represent Adrian’s Graphite comics. A diverse cast and an emotionally rich plot make this a gripping journey of self-discovery, romance, art making, and justice.

Devil and the Bluebird

Jennifer Mason-Black. Abrams/Amulet, $17.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4197-2000-0

In an exquisitely crafted celebration of music and magic, a young woman ventures across a haunted, unpredictable, and occasionally wonderful America to find her missing sister, who vanished after making a deal with the Devil. In order to save her sister’s soul, 17-year-old Blue Riley likewise makes a wager: the Devil gives her six months to locate Cass or both sisters’ souls are lost. Blue forfeits her voice as part of the bargain, and so, armed only with a guitar and a pair of enchanted boots, she sets out, encountering a diverse range of people, both helpful and dangerous. But the Devil moves in mysterious ways and constantly changes the rules, forcing Blue to keep moving and to think on her feet. As Blue encounters the ghosts of the road and of her past, she gradually comes to understand herself and her complicated, fractured family. First-time novelist Mason-Black delivers a subtle, delicate tale reminiscent of the work of Charles de Lint, a magical realist journey of self-discovery and hidden depths, with fascinating characters and a captivating narrative.

The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee. Scribner, $30 (592p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3350-0

In skillful prose, Mukherjee, an oncologist and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies, relates the grand tale of how scientists have come to understand the role genes play in human development, behavior, and physiology. He deftly relates the basic scientific facts about the way genes are believed to function, while making clear the aspects of genetics that remain unknown. Mukherjee offers insight into both the scientific process and the sociology of science, exploring the crucial experiments that have shed light on the biochemical complexities inherent in the genome. He also examines many of the philosophical and moral quandaries that have long swirled around the study of genetics, addressing such important topics as eugenics, stem cell research, and what it means to use the composition of a person's genotype to make predictions about his or her health or behavior. Looking to the future, Mukherjee addresses prospects for medical advances in the treatment of diseases and in selecting—or actively crafting—the genetic composition of offspring, regularly pointing out the pressing ethical considerations.

Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories

Edited by Stephanie Perkins. St. Martin’s Griffin, $19.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-07912-1

Readers will be enticed by more than steamy romance in this volume of contemporary love stories from 12 popular authors, a summery companion to My True Love Gave to Me. The selections, ranging in tone from heartfelt to spooky to downright outlandish, find passion springing from some very unexpected places. Lev Grossman’s protagonists, Mark and Margaret, are drawn together in a Boston suburb where time stands still. Cassandra Clare’s Lulu Darke unexpectedly finds a kindred spirit at her father’s dark carnival: “You know the drill. Evil clowns lurching out of the shadows, blood on their puffy white gloves.” Even stories with more conventional settings—like Jennifer E. Smith’s tale recounting the growing affection between a day-camp counselor and a withdrawn, disabled young man—offer unexpected twists and turns. In all cases, the authors captivatingly render the vulnerabilities of teenagers tentatively navigating the confusing maze of first love. Offering a sampling of many different genres, bright and distinct narrative voices, and a generous portion of tender moments, this book has something for everyone who has loved or longs for it.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

Lindy West. Hachette, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-316-34840-9

West, a GQ culture writer and former staff writer for Jezebel, balances humor with a rare honesty and introspection in her debut. Over the course of the book, West details finding her voice as a writer and a feminist through stories about her family, her weight, having an abortion, and the emotional toil of being harassed online. West's chronicle of the series of highly personal online attacks—and of how much Internet conversations have changed in the past decade—marks this book as required reading. Always entertaining and relatable, West writes openly and with clear eyes about embarrassing moments and self-esteem issues, and has a remarkable ability to move among lightheartedness, heavy hitting topics, and what it means to be a good person. By reading about West's thought-provoking responses to online rape jokes, gender-specific attacks, and being trolled about a family tragedy, readers learn by example how to navigate the Internet's sometimes soul-sucking terrain with dignity and retain a sense of adventure.

The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics

Sean Wilentz. Norton, $29.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-393-28502-4

Wilentz, author of the Bancroft Prize–winning Rise of American Democracy and professor of history at Princeton University, once again proves himself to be among America’s most skilled (and pugilistic) historians with this brisk, hard-hitting book. He tries, with some success, to rescue liberalism from its detractors on the left and right by arguing that, at its best, liberalism has succeeded through pragmatic, principled politics as well as ideals. Wilentz also convincingly argues that efforts to reduce economic and other inequalities have been a constant in the nation’s history. (It should be noted that he doesn’t stress that counterefforts have also been a constant.) He makes his case principally by taking up other historians’ work about major historical figures: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. Dubois, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson chief among them. The result is wonderfully readable and the best kind of serious, sharp argumentation from one of the leading historians of the United States.

Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence

Edited by Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain. Univ. of Georgia, $29.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-8203-4957-2

This thoroughly remarkable compendium of works about African-American life, edited by the three history professors who started the #CharlestonSyllabus Twitter hashtag, offers solid ground for the oft-requested national conversation about race. Their work firmly connects the dots among slavery, white terror organizations, the Confederate battle flag, and the murders of eight African-American Bible study members in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. The 66 entries, organized first by theme and then chronologically within each section, date back as far as the 18th century and include eyewitness accounts, op-eds, scholarly articles, legal documents, public speeches, and even an occasional poem or lyric. The words of early 19th-century writers Henry Highland Garnet and Jarena Lee, respectively addressing slavery and religious life, sit comfortably alongside thought-provoking, considered responses to the Charleston killings. The book keeps a tight focus on Charleston but still manages to offer a broad account of African-American history, finding space for Islam, women’s issues, and global outreach. This solid offshoot of the original online syllabus (a blockbuster bibliographic tool that’s also included in this volume) is simply a must-read, both for those already versed in these topics and those just getting started.

You May See a Stranger

Paula Whyman. Northwestern Univ./Triquarterly, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8101-3353-2

Whyman’s debut is an honest and sharply observed linked story collection, spanning the life of Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s. The opening, “Driver’s Education,” sets up many of the collection’s themes as Miranda learns to drive while gaining insights into herself, her sexuality, and the class and racial tensions in 1980s Washington, D.C. Her relationship with her disabled sister, Donna, becomes the focus of “Drosophila,” which takes place before Miranda leaves for college, and which juxtaposes a science project about genetics with a dance at Donna’s social club. This story reveals Miranda’s impatience with and persistent feelings of guilt about her sister. Miranda grapples with specters of her past in the title story, which describes a fraught country club dinner with her questionable boyfriend and his family. Though the stories proceed chronologically, past and present intermingle as memory creeps in and informs Miranda’s experiences, perhaps most vividly in “Transfigured Night,” about her struggle to maintain a connection with her husband as a newlywed. Themes of love, sex, politics, and family run through the collection, and every detail has satisfying echoes later on. Together, these smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.