They are partners in crime, the masterminds behind some of the greatest capers known to readers everywhere. For them, there is no need to guess and red herrings hold no sway – they know from the beginning whodunit.
These are the authors who write as a team, with the mystery novel their favorite playground. And, whether husbands and wives, professional colleagues, family members or friends with a common interest in mayhem, they are legion.
Some of the names are familiar in their own right, like best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark, who sometimes teams up with daughter Carol Higgins Clark, and James Patterson and Liza Marklund, mega-sellers who teamed up for “The Postcard Killers.” Others, like Ellery Queen, pose as both author and character, in this case created by cousins Manford Lepofsky and Frederic Dannay. A few authors use their own names, like Mark and Charlotte Phillips, authors of the Eva Baum series, and many smush their own names together to create a new author. That’s how Waverly Fitzgerald and Curt Colbert, authors of the Barking Detective series, became “Waverly Curtis.”
Husband and wife teams abound, following a route cleared 50 years ago by Swedish writers and life partners Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who were among the first to take the murder mystery out of English country houses and the noirish streets of America and make it a gritty exercise in genuine case solving with their incomparable hero, Police Inspector Martin Beck. For those who missed the series when it came out, there are 10 Beck books, all worth investigating.
Sjöwall described their writing process as a genuine collaboration, with the two plotting out each chapter in four or five sentences before one of them filled out the details. What worked for them, however, is not the way everyone does it. Anita Carter and Mary Lee Woods, who write the “Pampered Pets” mystery series as “Sparkle Abbey,” take turns writing the books, not just the chapters. “Evelyn David,” author of the Brianna Sullivan series, is two women who live in different states who have never seen each other. They collaborate by email.
The authors who are Charles Todd are on closer terms. Caroline Todd has a degree in international relations and loves history. Her son, Charles Todd, who gets to have his name on their books, is a corporate troubleshooter when he and his mother aren’t busy getting Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge into and out of trouble in Great Britain.
Rutledge is a classic character with a problem more attuned to modern day understanding than the 1920s, when he is solving his crimes. The inspector is a World War I veteran still haunted – literally – by his wartime experiences. In the Todds’ latest, “Hunting Shadows” (William Morrow, 330 pages, $25.99), Rutledge has left London for the barren north country, where the echoes of the war still echo across the case of two shocking sniper shootings of an Army officer and local politician.
While the case is interesting – one victim had many enemies, the other apparently none – the story is most intense when Rutledge battles his own demons, voiced by the ghost of Corporal Hamish McLeod, “one of the best men who ever served under him,” and lost at the Somme.
Touches of historical perspective give a Downton-esque sense of this other time and place, when servants were not always treated humanely, and when modern warfare carried with it stigma from another time. In Rutledge’s world, the idea of a gunman remaining hidden to pick off the enemy like pigeons was considered “unsportsmanlike,” so when it was necessary for marksmen to step up to the task, they kept it to themselves.
The book follows tightly on the inspector’s heels, so we never know much more than he does, but in his slow and steady way, he brings us to a satisfying conclusion, leaving the readers ready for whatever comes next.
The Danish team of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis returns with the third book in their modern mystery series featuring Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. “Death of a Nightingale” (Soho Crime, 329 pages, $26.95) explores a different kind of trauma, with deep, twisting roots in the forced famine of Stalin in Eastern Europe of the 1930s. Trying to help a young woman she believes is wrongly accused of murder, Nurse Borg discovers there is much more to the death of a man in a car than mere rough stuff.
The voices of the past the call out from alternating chapters ring louder and louder as the story goes on, as this well-crafted book takes us to the inevitable conclusion that, while life can go on after the worst of the worst, the past is always with us.
Sometimes it takes a village to write a crime novel, and that’s what we have with “Inherit the Dead” (Touchstone, 265 pages, $25.99). Author Jonathan Santlofer (“The Death Artist”) worked with writer and prosecutor Linda Fairstein (“Death Angel”) to recruit 20 mystery writers to write one chapter each about a Manhattan mystery that eventually turns into murder.
It is a little ironic that proceeds from the book benefit Safe Horizon, a charity for crime victims, since almost everyone in the book turns out to be a perpetrator of one thing or another – crimes against morality and good taste, if nothing else. Even so, the gang that includes Stephen L. Carter, C.J. Box, Mary Higgins Clark, O.J. prosecutor Marcia Clark and Buffalo native Lawrence Block has come up with a fast-moving, TV-like adventure with sad sack Private Eye Pericles Christo ping-ponging between the Hamptons and Manhattan to find a missing heiress who could be missing out on a fortune.
More fun than the case is comparing the styles of the contributors, with Block being one of the stand-outs.
Other team writers with recent books include the prolific Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, who long ago kicked their first names off book jackets in favor of the melodic moniker “Preston & Child.” If their own real names aren’t poetic enough, the multisyllabic FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast finishes the job.
Pendergast heads to a Rocky Mountain ski town in “White Fire” (Grand Central Publishing, 384 pages, $27), the 17th book in the series he stars in. Along with wolves and a mystery more than a century old, the authors bring in Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and an inventive cast of characters that mix it up over real estate, history and lots and lots of ice and snow.
The setting is sunny and warm a couple hundred miles south in Albuquerque, where husband and wife authors David and Aimee Thurlo land an Iraq War veteran in a mess of trouble. “The Pawnbroker” (Minotaur Books, 292 pages, $25.99) is a departure from the couple’s previous series.
Its hero has more in common with the Todds’ World War I vet Ian Rutledge than the Thurlos’ investigators from their Ella Clah and Sister Agatha series, although he’s paired up with a female police sergeant as he goes up against gangs and shady business people on the way to a “to be continued” kind of ending.
Don’t let the quaint pawn reference in the title fool you. This isn’t a puzzle as much as it’s an extended chase, with the readers just along for the ride.
Melinda Miller is a News reporter and book reviewer.