This week: a historical novel about the first female Pinkerton detective, plus a brilliant true-crime epic set during the reign of Louis XIV.

Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd)

Julie Bowe. Penguin/Dawson, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3693-1

Just after her parents reveal that they are getting divorced, nine-year-old Wren Jo Byrd is sent to spend the summer with her grandparents, avoiding messages from her best friend, Amber, and the painful changes back home. Returning for the new school year, Wren finds that Amber has an outspoken and confident new best friend, Marianna. With her friendship in shambles, Wren continues to keep her parents’ divorce to herself, but she soon discovers that secrets have a way of turning into lies. Bowe (the Friends for Keeps series) effectively conveys Wren’s fears and frustrations: “I’m don’t know why I’m the one who has to go away when none of this was my idea,” she confides to her cat, Shakespeare. Wren’s decision to hide her difficulties at home, even as it affects her life on many fronts, powerfully illustrates how deeply upsetting family changes can be. Bowe’s genuine portraits of the key relationships in Wren’s life—with her friends, parents, and even the often-difficult Marianna—make for a warm and rewarding story about dealing with change.

The Catawampus Cat

Jason Carter Eaton, illus. by Gus Gordon. Crown, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-553-50971-7

Mr. Grouse the grocer is the first to see the catawampus cat wander into town; the cat is gray, prim, and tilted to one side, as if leaning into a strong wind. When the grocer and his wife cock their heads to get a better look—Gordon (I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) shows them in close-up, his nose red, her apron wrinkled—she finds her wedding ring dangling from a vegetable bin: “I haven’t seen it in twenty years!” The cat spreads sly catawampus enchantment all over town, making people do and see things in new ways, as when a reclusive schoolboy, Bushy Brows Billiam, looks at the blackboard sideways and completes a comically long math equation: “Everyone was happy and slanty and catawampus.” Like a cowboy out of a western, the cat works his magic and moves on. Gordon’s engaging charcoal and wash spreads, enlivened with collage elements, supply the tilted special effects, while Eaton’s (How to Track a Truck) fond portrait of small-town life reminds readers that a slight change in outlook can transform everything. Ages 4–8.

Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero

Michael DeForge. Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-77046-270-0

This collection of the psychedelic webcomic from Canadian cartoonist DeForge (First Year Healthy, Big Kids) follows the titular celebrity hero—“former: Olympian, poet, scholar, sculptor, minister, activist,” among other things—through a series of one-page adventures. In the first we’re told that after a scandal, Sticks has decided to live in the forest with a group of talking animals, and the rest of the book explores the dynamic between hero and fans in surreal episodes. In one strip, a rabbit confesses a desire to be Sticks’s pet; in another, a moose (named after cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt) steals Sticks’s sweaters in a ploy to get closer to her. A character named Michael DeForge even gets in on the action, as a magazine reporter looking to interview the arrogant and impetuous Sticks. As a meditation on fame and as a beautiful, disturbing daydream in pink-and-black ink, the book marks a successful shift for DeForge after the sometimes detached body horror of his earliest works.

Mississippi Blood

Greg Iles. Morrow, $28.99 (704p) ISBN 978-0-06-231115-3

Both unwieldy and tightly controlled, bestseller Iles’s terrific conclusion to his Natchez Burning trilogy (after 2015’s The Bone Tree) is a sweeping story that remains intimate. The Double Eagles, a savage KKK splinter group, have declared a personal war on Penn Cage, a former prosecutor who’s now the mayor of Natchez, Miss., necessitating 24-hour security protection for him and his family. The toxic bigotry escalates as Penn’s father, Tom, once a respected physician, goes on trial for the murder of his former nurse and one-time lover, Viola Turner, an African-American who was suffering from terminal cancer. Penn teams with Serenity Butler, a famous black author who plans to write about Tom’s case. Together, they look into the secrets of the Cage family, the Double Eagles, and the South. Though a side plot about J.F.K.’s assassination stretches credibility, relentless pacing keeps the story churning, with unexpected brutality erupting on nearly every page. The trial scenes are among the most exciting ever written in the genre.


Melissa Scrivner Love. Crown, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-451-49610-2

At the start of Love’s stunning debut, a messenger from the Los Liones cartel visits the Huntington Park, Calif., home of 26-year-old Lola Vasquez and extends an offer to her boyfriend, Garcia. If Garcia’s gang, the Crenshaw Six, can intercept a drop between one of Los Liones’s former dealers and the man’s new supplier, the gang will get 10% of the loot and control of the dealer’s territory; if they fail, Lola dies. Garcia accepts, but the ambush goes awry, forcing Lola—the Crenshaw Six’s true leader—to emerge from the shadows and fight for her own survival and the safety of those she holds dear. This powerful read is at once an intelligently crafted mystery, a reflection on the cycles of violence and addiction, and a timely mediation on the double standard facing women in authority. Love’s writing is artful and evocative, her story’s sense of place and culture are strong, and, in Lola, Love has created a fully fleshed-out and uniquely compelling antihero who commands fear, respect, and adoration in equal measure.

Girl in Disguise

Greer Macallister. Sourcebooks Landmark, $25.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4926-3522-2

Macallister (The Magician’s Lie) pens an exciting, well-crafted historical novel featuring Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective in 1856 Chicago. Kate is a widow and needs a job, convincing Allan Pinkerton that a female detective can go places and do things a male detective cannot. Once hired, Kate becomes skilled at lock picking and surveillance, but she is best in disguise—as a prostitute, rich matron, spinster, clerk, Southern belle, doting sister, and false friend—an expert liar, playing a role. She investigates burglaries, bank robberies, embezzlement, counterfeiting, blackmail, and murder. The Pinkerton Detective Agency is a man’s world, and Kate is forced to prove herself, especially when someone tries to discredit her. She eventually earns the respect of her fellow detectives, learning a secret to be used later. Kate carries a pistol, but her wit, careful observation, and boldness see her through tricky and unexpected situations with desperate, dangerous criminals. In 1861 Kate comes up with an ingenious plan to protect President Lincoln from a Southern assassination plot, and she later works as a Pinkerton spy in the South during the Civil War, vowing revenge on whoever betrayed her lover and focusing on a formidable adversary, the notorious real-life Southern spy Mrs. Rose Greenhow. Loaded with suspense and action, this is a well-told, superb story.

Find Me

J.S. Monroe. Mira, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7783-3001-1

Jarlath “Jar” Costello, a London-based Internet click-bait content writer and the hero of Monroe’s thrilling debut, has started seeing a dead person. Specifically, he’s been seeing glimpses of Rosa Sandhoe, his girlfriend who leapt to her death into the sea off Norfolk in 2012 when she was a student at Cambridge University. Five years later, Jar is certain of two things: that Rosa and he are soul mates and that she’s still very much alive. A body was never recovered. When he gets ahold of an encrypted file containing Rosa’s journal, his faith is confirmed and his search for her kicks into high gear. A gear so high that the pages all but turn themselves as the story unfolds in taut chapters alternating between Rosa’s journal entries and Jar’s frantic quest. Monroe adds more voices in the book’s second half, keeping the guess-who’s-crazy/guilty ball in the air until the all-consuming reveal. Pacing is crisp and the plot is credible, but it’s the cast of expertly crafted, psychologically ambiguous characters that rivets. Monroe is the pseudonym of a well-known British author and journalist.

Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

George Prochnik. Other Press, $27.95 (528p) ISBN 978-1-59051-776-5

Prochnik (The Impossible Exile) effectively and movingly combines a nuanced biography of Gershom Scholem, who “singlehandedly created an academic discipline [Jewish Mysticism] out of an obscure theological tradition [study of the Kabbalah],” with a warts-and-all autobiography that recounts Prochnik’s search for meaning in his own life. The contrast between the physical and the spiritual is manifest from the opening section, as Prochnik engages even readers with no knowledge of his subject by recounting how he visited Scholem’s old house in Jerusalem to find it abandoned and derelict. He interweaves Scholem’s life story, starting with his boyhood in Berlin, with his own, alternating sections that illustrate how both he and his subject dealt with the contrast of the reality of the State of Israel with its idealistic aspirations. Scholem was prominent in the pre-state Brit Shalom movement, which advocated a binational Arab-Jewish state in Palestine; Prochnik, who lived in Israel with his wife in the 1990s, confronted the dehumanizing aspects of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the profound trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He also makes Scholem’s study of Jewish mystical texts, and of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Sevi, interesting and accessible. This is a powerful must-read for anyone interested in how people of faith struggle to live in the real world.

City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris

Holly Tucker. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-23978-2

Tucker (Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Science Revolution) vividly brings to life a slice of Parisian history in this rigorously researched true-crime epic, set during the reign of Louis XIV. The book opens in 1665 with the murder of the city’s criminal lieutenant, the public official with jurisdiction over most crimes committed in the city, who was stabbed to death by some inept burglars, followed by the poisoning of one of his colleagues, who resolved civil disputes, a year later. The embarrassment about these deaths led to the appointment of the first police chief of Paris, Nicolas de La Reynie, who began with reforms to literally clean up the filthy streets of the city and to deter nighttime crime with a massive campaign to install thousands of lanterns on most Paris streets. Eventually, he investigated the Affair of the Poisons, a series of crimes involving members of France’s high nobility and reaching into the palace. The investigation led to the creation of a secret tribunal that imprisoned hundreds and executed more than 30 people. Although many documents were burned by the king himself after La Reynie’s death, Tucker draws on other contemporary records to meticulously reconstruct this fascinating chapter in the annals of true crime. The result reads like a combination of the most compelling mystery fiction and Dumas’s romances of twisted court intrigues.

The Exploded View

Ivan Vladislavic. Archipelago (PRH, dist.), $18 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-914671-68-8

The latest from Vladislavic (The Folly), a South African known for his knotty, wry narratives of the post-Apartheid era, is a stimulating journey around Johannesburg and into the restless minds of its inhabitants. Comprising four sections, the book surveys the city and its environs through the eyes of four introspective men, assembling a collage-like portrait of a metropolis from its sewer system to its high-arts scene. A statistician testing new versions of a national census questionnaire becomes infatuated with one of the respondents, a television anchor living at an upscale housing development called Villa Toscana, which induces a “dreamlike blend of familiarity and displacement.” Inspecting a shoddily constructed affordable apartment complex, a white sanitation engineer ponders the project’s blend of optimism and futility, as well as the country’s race relations, over a meal with black colleagues. A mixed-media artist slices up kitschy animal masks, “liberating the curio from its stifling form” while ignoring their provenance and the craftsmen who made them. Finally, a billboard erector’s stalled journey home sets his mind racing. The title refers to those Ikea-like diagrams in which an object is exploded into its component parts; the characters enjoy no such coherent vision of how everything fits together in South Africa’s fractured cultural landscape. A sense of unease often permeates these subtly linked tales, which skillfully lay out a disorienting blueprint of modern Johannesburg.