Mystery deaths, the social divide, and saving Mother Earth

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: The four novels today are a mixed bag of delights. We have the latest from crime fiction luminaries Mick Herron and Chris Brookmyre, a newly hailed author from India, and the new one from the author of “The Martian.”

‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron

This is the seventh in the series that Mick Herron has fashioned into one of the more intriguing and critically acclaimed reboots of the 21st century spy novel. It’s been so good that the Daily Telegraph has described the first book, “Slow Horses,” as one of the 20 best spy novels of all time. Central to the series is Jackson Lamb and his retinue of “slow horses”—spies who have either been put out too pasture, have proven themselves to be utterly incompetent, or are outright liabilities. These agents all end up in Slough House, the halfway house/retirement home where condemnation or, worse yet, that no one cares about you, is the next step. Lamb presides over the House and the agents are known for not letting dead horses lie.

In this installment, the members of Slough are being killed off by what looks to be Russian hitman. Pawns in some political gambit, it seems their records have been wiped out of the system, turning them into fair game. Recalling the Novichok poisoning episode when a British citizen was inadvertently killed, the current state of news intrudes upon the narrative, and it involves First Desk Diana Taverner getting into “bed” with PR and political fixer Peter Judd to get much needed funds for the Service. It’s the price paid and how Lamb’s wards get sucked up in the game that drives the action of this outing. Once again, it’s our investing in the slow horses that makes this such compelling reading.

‘The Cut’ by Chris Brookmyre

Chris Brookmyre has been one of Scotland’s gifts to Crime Fiction for decades now, giving us a unique blend of hard boiled detective work and sparking sarcasm and social commentary. In this latest, he presents us with a truly unique pairing. On one hand, we have Millicent Spark, a geriatric make-up special effects artist, who’s just been released from a 25-year prison sentence for a murder she claims she never committed. Her specialty when she was working in the 1980s and ‘90s were the iconic slasher and horror films of that era. And on the other hand, there’s Jerome, a potentially brilliant film student, who’s not been averse to petty crime, and is a horror film fanatic. It’s when these two meet that the narrative combusts and provides so much reading pleasure.

Millie was found unconscious in 1993 with a dead lover in her bed, a violent argument the last thing seen by friends and witnesses to their relationship. Lurking in the corners of the narrative is a colorful cast of characters: from shady movie producers, more than willing starlets and ingenues, to British Government Cultural Ministers, and media moguls with ambitious children. You’ll appreciate how the story shifts from the present day and Millie’s search for the truth and justice, to those heydays of film-making in the 1990s. And the uneasy alliance that Millie and Jerome enter into is a precious one, as he’s effectively her guide to today’s world of social media and the internet. Both an effective, tight mystery thriller, and a strange bedfellows tale, there’s much to commend this novel, plus it should be a favorite for fans of the film genre Millicent took part in, and Jerome is obsessed over.

‘How to Kidnap the Rich’ by Rahul Raina

Here’s an ingenious take on modern India that has much in common with previous works such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and the Korean film “Parasite,” in the sense that it explores social divide but with dark humor, rich irony, and potent social commentary. In terms of style, you’ll like the breakneck pacing and the cutting sarcasm that’s shot through every page. There’s much to enjoy here, and you’ll appreciate the plotting and the rich character studies that populate the novel. I understand that this early, it’s already been optioned for a film treatment and one can only hope that like “The White Tiger,” the screenplay won’t dilute the “voice” contained in this work, as it would be a shame if what seems to be a natural for film adapting loses direction in the transitioning.

Ramesh is our main character and he’s what in India is called an “examinations consultant.” He’s not a tutor but he sits in and takes the exam on behalf of the spoiled rich kids, whose parents contract Ramesh for his services. The conflict arises when he forgoes his own chance to retake the National Exams and gain a scholarship, by sitting in as Rudi. By sheer coincidence, he ends up topping the exam, and the crass, objectionable Rudi is suddenly thrust into the media spotlight—a hero to all Indian mothers and aunties. Rudi is asked to endorse products and even host a popular game show, and Ramesh feels he has to turn this to his financial advantage. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, and a series of misadventures and complicated scenarios arise.

‘Project Hail Mary’ by Andy Weir

Here’s the new novel from the author of “The Martian & Artemis.” There’s an immediately intriguing set up as the book opens with a man waking up, not knowing who he is or remembering his name. All he realizes is that there are two corpses lying beside him, he’s in some vessel, and is experiencing zero gravity. Welcome to the world of Ryland Grace. As memories slowly invade his consciousness, we understand that he’s a scientist and that he was in an induced coma, traveling to a distant star (other than our sun). His mission is gradually revealed as said memories flicker back to life. Our sun is dying, thanks to some form of life that has been dubbed Astrophage. When it was discovered that another distant star was experiencing the same thing but that a third star was unaffected, a mission to this unaffected star was drawn to understand why and hopefully save Earth.

What follows is a detailed space adventure that’s heavy on the physics and science that allows all this to happen. Kudos to Andy Weir for doing the research and making all this speculative science sound plausible and reasonable. What turns this into something altogether different from “Martian”—lone man in a hostile environment and situation—is the introduction of a close encounter of the third kind. Weir elevates his sci-fi tale with this unexpected element and, once again, turns his story into something cathartic and compassionate, amid all the hard science and technology. The flashbacks of Ryland on Earth are in themselves a great narrative, which reveals that surprise and raises the stakes of our sympathy and involvement in what transpires. Much better than “Artemis,” here is Weir back to form and giving us what should be an exciting film adaptation if it ever comes to pass.