This week: a girl begins receiving letters from her dead sister, plus the violent mutiny on the HMS "Hermione."

Dead Letters

Caite Dolan-Leach. Random House, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-58885-3

When news of Zelda Antipova’s death reaches her buttoned-down twin sister, Ava, the latter returns home to her family’s central New York vineyard from Paris. She helps her ailing mother and estranged father with funeral arrangements, yet Ava is suspicious of her townie sister’s supposed demise in a barn fire, and it isn’t long before she begins to receive email messages from Zelda, who claims to have faked her own death. Following a series of clues left by Zelda, Ava begins to piece together her sister’s troubles, from massive debt to drug addiction. Along with her old high school boyfriend, Wyatt, she immerses herself in Zelda’s world, hoping to find her sister at the end of the puzzle. Dolan-Leach’s debut is a smart, dazzling mystery with a twist that not only shines a new light on the novel’s title but also leaves the reader hunting for the next clue. Dolan-Leach revels in toying with both Ava and her audience, placing small hints and red herrings throughout her text, and the result is captivating.

American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution

A. Roger Ekirch. Pantheon, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-307-37990-0

Ekirch (Birthright), professor of history at Virginia Tech, delves into the far-reaching ramifications of a violent 18th-century mutiny on the HMS Hermione, a British frigate. He persuasively argues that the fallout of the mutiny—specifically the extradition of Jonathan Robbins (aka Thomas Nash), a key mutineer, from the fledgling U.S. to Great Britain and his subsequent hanging—was pivotal in the bitterly fought battle for the American presidency between incumbent John Adams and challenger Thomas Jefferson. Ekirch also builds a strong case that the politics informing the controversy were instrumental in the historical refusal of the U.S. to extradite aliens charged solely with political crimes. Ekirch, a meticulous historian who writes with flair, brings the political theatre of the 1800 election into full view. He explains in detail how Jefferson’s Republican Party turned Robbins into a martyr and cause célèbre, which helped bring an end to the Adams administration. Modern readers will recognize several elements of the campaign to discredit Adams: a vitriolic press, high-profile Congressional hearings, and threats of censure. The story of how a mutiny on a British frigate became a major influence in U.S. politics and spawned bedrock U.S. policy is a complex and instructive tale.

Things We Lost in the Fire

Mariana Enriquez, trans. from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Hogarth, $24 (208p) ISBN 978-0-451-49511-2

Morbid tales of contemporary Argentina animate Enriquez’s memorable collection of short fiction. In “The Dirty Kid,” a privileged woman comes to believe that the homeless boy who lives outside her building has been the victim of a beheading, only to later learn that his fate is much more complicated. A young girl inexplicably disappears into an abandoned home, never to be seen again, in “Adela’s House,” while a broken-down car causes a tenuous marriage to disintegrate in “Spiderweb.” At their best, stories such as “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt” recall Stephen King at his most literary, grounding supernatural horror allegories in a detailed realist tableau. This collection depicts the singular strangeness of life as a woman in Argentina, where instability seems to haunt every facet of existence—the electricity, the currency, the concept of family—and sudden, otherworldly violence is always at one’s doorstep. Enriquez’s debut collection is elevated by its vivid locale and its deft inclusion of genre sensibilities.

Spook Street

Mick Herron. Soho Crime, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61695-647-9

In Herron’s terrific, and terrifically funny, fourth Slough House novel (after 2016’s Real Tigers), London’s intelligence teams are on full alert after a suicide bomber kills dozens in a mall. But at Slough House, the home of British spies put out to pasture, the immediate need is to investigate the possible murder of one of its own, River Cartwright, apparently shot while seeing to his grandfather David Cartwright, a former powerful member of the Service, now a paranoid old man. Those in charge quickly figure out the people responsible for the bombing but don’t understand the motive. Meanwhile, the Slough House team, led by the despicable Jackson Lamb, tries to figure out who would go after River. The search leads to France and a recently torched commune, an odd ménage of Americans, Russians, and children. The two plot lines slowly converge amid a heady mixture of deadpan humor, deft characterizations, and acute insight (“A loose bullet rips a hole in normality”). The title refers to a suspicious state of mind: “When you lived on Spook Street you wrapped up tight: watched every word, guarded every secret.”


Cara Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5757-5

Hoffman’s excellent third novel (after Be Safe I Love You) follows acclaimed poet and professor Milo Rollock as he reminisces about his unscrupulous youth in Greece and the people who still haunt him. After leaving his working-class neighborhood to try and make a living as a boxer, Milo falls for Eton dropout Jasper Lethe. The two survive in Athens in the 1980s by working the local trains, goading tourists into staying in disreputable hotels. Nomadic Bridey Sullivan, an American teenager who was raised in the woods by her survivalist uncle, becomes their friend and lover. In the present, as a middle-aged man teaching creative writing in New York City, Milo sees himself in his talented student Tiffany Navas, but he is otherwise dismayed by his bourgeois existence. He moved to the U.S. in an attempt to reconnect with Bridey, who was pregnant when he last saw her. Jasper’s sociopathic and destructive tendencies long ago, including the fallout of a scam he masterminded that destroyed the reputation of a friend of Bridey’s, long ago sealed Jasper’s fate. Hoffman beautifully conveys the depths of Milo’s longing as well the personalities of his motley crew.

Rusty Puppy

Joe Lansdale. Mulholland, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-316-31156-4

The murder of Jamar Elton, a young black man, propels Edgar-winner Lansdale’s dark, moving 12th novel featuring crime fighters Hap Collins and Leonard Pine (after 2016’s Honky Tonk Samurai). A witness, recidivist criminal Timpson Weed, claims to have seen three white police officers beat Elton to death near a project house in the East Texas community of Camp Rapture. Unfortunately, Weed soon ends up dead. Aided by a motley crew, including Hap’s daughter, Chance, and Reba, who regards herself as a 400-year-old midget vampire (but is actually a tough-talking adolescent girl from the projects), Hap and Leonard follow a trail that keeps leading them to an old abandoned mill outside town, where illegal dogfights and perhaps even more sinister activities are taking place. As always, Lansdale spins a wild, rollicking yarn, but behind all the mayhem is a heartfelt tale about friendship, brotherhood, loyalty, and family. Hap and Leonard are complicated, violent men, but they display a basic humanity and decency that carries this remarkable series along.

Optimists Die First

Susin Nielsen. Random/Lamb, $17.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-553-49690-1

The accidental death of Petula de Wilde’s younger sister, Maxine, has fractured her family, perhaps irrevocably. Her parents are retreating into their passions for books, music, and cats; Petula, who blames herself for Max’s death, has adopted the attitude that “tragedy can strike when you least expect it” and worries constantly about earthquakes, walking past construction sites, shaking hands, and catching rare diseases. Petula’s anxieties have landed her in youth art therapy (YART) at school, where she gets to know new student Jacob Cohen, a talented filmmaker with a bionic hand and his own tragic past. Grief and guilt permeate Nielsen’s (We Are All Made of Molecules) empathic and deeply moving story, balanced by sharply funny narration and dialogue. “It’s like a twisted version of The Breakfast Club,” says Jacob of YART, whose members struggle with bullying, substance abuse, and anger. Readers will be riveted by Petula’s rocky attempts to repair damaged relationships with her parents and a friend she drove away, connect with the members of YART, and open herself up to the idea of romance with Jacob.

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

Damion Searls. Crown, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-8041-3654-9

In this clear and well-illustrated study, writer and translator Searls shares the histories of Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach as well as his eponymous test’s evolution and reception. As Searles notes, Rorschach’s test was not totally original; one precedent was the work of Justinus Kerner, a 19th-century German Romantic poet and doctor. Rorschach’s genius lay in attending to patient-sensitive specifics, including those of psychotics, and in developing an interpretative code that revolved around how the patient saw movement, color, and form in the inkblots. After Rorschach’s 1922 death at age 37, his test saw widespread use in America during the psychoanalytically oriented 1940s and ’50s; it was given to every student entering Sarah Lawrence College starting in 1940 and the army used a multiple-choice version after Pearl Harbor. However, it had fallen in popularity by the 1970s, eclipsed by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and other personality tests. Despite its occasional abuse, the Rorschach regained some of its popularity around the turn of the millennium. Searls dutifully shows how the test added a whole new visual dimension to the emerging field of psychology in general, and the study and analysis of personality in particular.


Carl Frode Tiller, trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland. Graywolf, $16 ISBN 978-1-55597-762-7

In this first volume of the ambitious Encircling Trilogy (winner of the European Prize for Literature), David’s memory has vanished and three voices from his youth recall his life in a series of letters. Jon writes of growing up in the sheltered town of Namsos, Norway, in the 1980s and how his sexual explorations with David proved that the bohemian “image of ourselves which we had formed was real.” The brooding vicar Arvid, on the other hand, saw in David, his stepson, a kindred spirit. “Like me,” he writes, “you had a great thirst for knowledge.” David’s friend Silje’s memory is different still—she writes wistfully of his “fanaticism and refusal to compromise.” The image of David that emerges is infused with stunning dimension, a stark contrast with the everyday domestic turmoil and illness the aging narrators cope with between letters. Silje bemoans the loss of “the rawness, the intensity, and the passion I had,” and Jon ruefully casts himself as a “young, once plump, man with girlish features and a receding hairline.” As the novel progresses, Tiller skillfully parries David’s shifting character into uncertainty about the narrative itself.