Go globetrotting with Crime Corner—right from the comfort of your own armchair
It’s a snowy, blustery January day in Yellow Springs, Ohio—and that means it’s time for me to indulge in my favorite retirement pastime: losing myself in a mystery novel set in some exotic, dangerous clime where murder and mayhem hover like thunderclouds.
Mystery in the Far North
Because of my time spent in Bergen, it’s Norway that I always choose for my first port of call, and our first book today only barely fits that classification: Polar Bears are Black, by Sam Spicer, takes place around the town of Longyearbyen, a coal-mining village so small that its reindeer outnumber its people—as do the polar bears. It is in darkness three months of the year, but it also offers an eye-popping view of the northern lights.
Returning to this locale is Eloise Fletcher, a young woman whose wandering eccentric of a father had moved here—and met his death here, reportedly attacked by a polar bear. That impression will change quickly, putting the sleuthish Eloise on the hunt for a human killer.
No one knows what really brought Dad up here; neither can anyone come up with a good reason to want Dad dead. This one’s going to take some digging. Happily, it will be done in the company of a writer who knows well how to sustain suspense and how to build atmosphere. Spicer has got a series going here—and that’s not her only one.
Someone so prolific doesn’t usually write passages like this one: “The edge of the land here didn’t benefit from the compacted snow: rather it was a dark, icy pathway; treacherous underfoot.”
And if you want your mysteries socially conscious, Spicer has you covered there as well. Climate change is very much in the forefront in this novel set where polar bears die daily as victims of global warning. Eloise remembers that her lost father was “often saddened by the scars humanity inflicted, day after day, on these fragile ecosystems.” And though there are messages, they never slow Spicer’s momentum. This one will keep you turning pages while the flakes fly outside your window.
So the day is young and the snow is not letting up—looks like we’ll be able to jet over to Naples for the afternoon. There’s a series by Maurizio De Giovanni that I’ve been wanting to plug for some time: the Commissario Ricciardi Mysteries. We’ll soon get a new installment in this series and not a moment too soon: the last book, Nameless Serenade, left the recurring cast of these books in seven kinds of a big mess. Ricciardi, you see, is not exactly a man without a cross to bear—in fact, the symbolic one he is dragging around is life-size.
Ricciardi, in truth a rich landowner, plays the role of police officer to expiate his sins (they’re not an ounce as bad as he thinks they are), and those actions sometimes translate into solved cases. Ricciardi is a good detective with a real ace in the hole: the dead talk to him—and loudly. And, of course, they talk to him about the cases he is working on.
And what a venue! We are in 1930s Naples, where Mussolini is in power and abusing it right and left. Here Ricciardi is a little like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, whose sleuthing is done in that series while he plays cat and mouse with the Gestapo. For Ricciardi it’s Il Duce.
And the stakes raise in every installment, since the chronically depressed Ricciardi has fallen in hopeless love with the lovely Enrica, a young woman who lives across the way from Ricciardi and who he daily (and nightly) observes through her window. Happily, Enrica has been known to cast a longing glance or two back through Ricciardi’s open windows as well.
But alas, one of the tenterhooks the last novel is dangling on is the fact that Enrica has pretty well given up on the good commissario. He’s afraid that if he becomes too close to the young woman, she will somehow get mixed up with the ghosts that haunt him, so she has gotten herself involved with—gasp—a German officer. We have the makings of a great love triangle here—emotionally and politically.
The commissario has his own series these days on MHz Choice, the international mystery channel. Season 1 is now available, and the show’s a hit, so the second season is filming now. It is quite good—impeccably cast and handsomely produced. I’d check out an episode this afternoon, but what with all the snow my cable is down.
Crime on the Great Plains
No cable? No problem. Come on back to my native state of Oklahoma with me and join me in a snowy reading of Killers of the Flower Moon by historian David Grann. Nope, it’s not a novel, but it reads like one: This is the true story of a series of tribal murders that took place in the Osage Nation in the northeastern part of the state and it’s just about as bizarre a case as will ever come your way. I won’t reveal who is behind these murders, but I will say you will find yourself in the midst of as cold-blooded a scheme as you will likely ever see: unwitting Osage victims are being killed off by white people who are after the Native Americans’ headrights, which after they die can easily be bought up.
It’s a sorry little chapter of American history—rather like the horror of the Native American boarding schools under the Jesuits. But it’s real, and Martin Scorsese hung out last summer in Oklahoma where it happened, creating a film of the book. He had Robert de Niro, Jesse Plemons, and Leonardo DiCaprio in tow, and that’s the basis of a powerhouse cast.
So, in anticipation of the snow letting up before the movie’s release date this summer, I’m rereading the story now, and I’m pleased to say that Grann’s book holds up.
The Arctic Circle, Naples, and Pawhuska, Oklahoma! What a journey! And thanks to my library card—it was free!
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.