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Originally published Saturday, February 7, 2015 at 5:03 AM

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An Isle of Lewis mystery; a new Tess Monaghan thriller

New in crime fiction for February: the conclusion to Peter May’s Isle of Lewis trilogy; a new Tess Monaghan thriller by Laura Lippman; and the tale of an English estate agent who is a very unreliable narrator.


Special to The Seattle Times

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Crime fiction

Scotland, Baltimore and the underbelly of an English village are this month’s settings for crime fiction.

Peter May’sThe Chessmen” (Quercus, 308 pp., $26.99) completes his stunning trilogy (following “The Blackhouse” and “The Lewis Man”) set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. May’s books so powerfully evoke Lewis’ rugged land and traditional occupations — fishing and weaving — that you can practically smell the ocean and the lanolin-rich wool.

Fin MacLeod, ex-Edinburgh police detective, has returned to his birthplace to supervise security for a large estate (poachers are a serious problem). The move drops him into a deep pool of memories: of school friends, pervasive religion and roads not taken.

Figuring in the past and present is MacLeod’s friend Whistler — the smartest guy in their class and the survivor of a troubled childhood. Whistler has stayed on Lewis. He survives by poaching salmon and carving chessmen, reminiscent of the famous set found on the island, taking his inspiration from Lewis’ Viking heritage.

Whistler was also in a rock band once poised to become Lewis’ most famous export since Harris Tweed. (For me, this struck the book’s only false note; the unlikely notion of a big-time rock band emerging quickly from the remote Hebrides is never convincingly explored.)

When Whistler and MacLeod stumble on a wrecked light airplane, they’re astounded to find the body of a friend who was also the band’s leader. But the death was not accidental, and the ensuing investigation becomes a poignant study of trust, truth and regrets.

No disrespect for Laura Lippman’s brilliant stand-alone novels, but it’s great to see the return of her series character, Baltimore detective Tess Monaghan, in “Hush Hush” (Morrow, 320 pp., $26.99).

Lippman’s stand-alones are generally intense novels of ideas; a Tess book, while still examining a serious theme, is all about Tess — her smartass intelligence, love of Baltimore, outraged sense of justice and messy home life.

Tess is now the joyful/terrified mother of a toddler — and, boy, does that complicate things. Try maintaining a stakeout while the small person with you is demanding Chicken McNuggets and a potty break. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Lippman also has a young daughter.)

If Carla Scout is a handful, Tess’ new client is terrifying. Imperious, rich Melisandre Dawes has a notorious past: Years earlier she was found not guilty, by reason of insanity, of killing her infant daughter.

She’s also wildly deluded. Following years of exile Melisandre’s back in town, bankrolling a documentary that she thinks will help her win custody of her two older daughters.

After receiving threatening notes, Melisandre hires Tess and her new partner, Sandy Sanchez, to provide security. (Sanchez is the empathetic ex-cop from last year’s stand-alone, “After I’m Gone.”) Then Tess starts getting anonymous notes too — some of them feeding her own anxieties about motherhood — and the threat of violence turns real.

Need some morbidly funny and unsettling psychological suspense? Look no further than Phil Hogan’s “A Pleasure and a Calling” (Picador, 288 pp., $25).

Such a nice man, that Mr. Heming. An estate agent in his bucolic English village, he’s considerate, charming and bland. He’s also deeply disturbed and a spectacularly unreliable narrator.

Mr. Heming considers himself the village’s guardian, watching out for its homes and their inhabitants. This protective feeling compels him to keep keys for the houses he’s brokered and poke around when no one’s home.

Then a chance encounter with a rude jerk triggers Mr. Heming’s righteous anger. He snoops around and discovers the jerk is a philanderer. Then the estate agent falls hard for the jerk’s paramour and things get really creepy.

Moral: Be careful when choosing a realtor. You might want to change your locks, too.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times



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