By JAY STAFFORD FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
A familiar scenario: an isolated area, a lodge for paying guests, growing fears and frightening events.
In the hands of pedestrians, a banal mystery would result.
But not in those of Gilly Macmillan, whose “The Long Weekend” (William Morrow, $27.99, 352 pages) is built on a foundation of originality rather than a fragile floor of clichés.
Jayne Pavey, Ruth Land and Emily Ramsay arrive in the north of England for a weekend at Dark Fell Barn on the farm run by Maggie and John Elliott. To follow the next day, their husbands, Mark Pavey, Toby Land and Paul Ramsay, whose long friendships are the basis of the couple’s relationship.
But when the women enter the lodge, they find a note threatening that “by the time you read this, I will have killed one of your husbands” signed only “E”. The three assume it was written by Edie Porter, a recent widow whose husband, Rob, was a close friend of the three men.
So much for a few days of relaxation and camaraderie; the women’s friendships fracture and their instabilities are exposed: Army veteran Jayne’s tendency toward dissociation, the alcoholism of doctor and new mother Ruth, and young Emily’s delusions about truth in marriage.
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To make matters worse, they learn that John Elliott has been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, which also leaves him vulnerable to hallucinations.
Macmillan, a master of misdirection, puts his jaw-dropping talent to good use in “The Long Weekend,” gradually but steadily revealing long-held secrets while simultaneously and deftly tricking the reader.
‘THE YOUNGEST WOMAN’
On rare occasions, a marriage ends in blood. But a wedding?
This is what happens as Sally Hepworth “The young lady” (St. Martin’s, $28.99, 352 pages) begins. But don’t expect to know the identity of the perpetrator or victim until the end of this cleverly crafted domestic thriller set in Australia.
Heart surgeon Stephen Aston, 63, is considering divorcing his wife, Pamela, 69, who has terminal dementia in a nursing home, to marry Heather Wisher, 34, an interior designer who has overcome the challenges of his childhood.
The Astons’ eldest daughter, Tully Harris, 37, is a stay-at-home mom who has two young sons with her lawyer husband, Sonny. She is also a kleptomaniac who has been shoplifting since she was 11 years old. Meanwhile, Sonny lost $2 million from the family treasury due to a bad investment.
Younger sister Rachel, 35, works from home as a baker and hasn’t dated anyone – male or female – since she was a teenager.
And who is the mysterious Fiona Arthur?
Hepworth’s characters are so dysfunctional they make the Sopranos look like the Waltons.
Hepworth gradually picks up the pace as she simultaneously heightens the reader’s dread as the deceptions are exposed and glimpses of the novel’s destination begin to appear.
An exuberant good read that values both plot and characterization, “The Younger Wife” incisively explores the causes of psychological turmoil hidden behind well-constructed facades.
“THE CASE OF KING ARTHUR”
When we think of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, we usually conjure up images of England. But the legendary and magnificent forest of Brocéceliande in the Brittany region of France also claims a connection.
This is where Commissioner Georges Dupin is assigned to a baffling case of murders in “King Arthur’s Affair” (Minotaure, $26.99, 384 pages), the seventh part of the series by Jean-Luc Bannalec.
Seven Arthurian scholars gathered there to study. An eighth had died in England of a possible heart attack, but his widow wants his body exhumed. In Brittany, Fabien Cadiou, the leader of the group, is shot and Paul Picard, professor and Parisian archaeologist, is fatally stabbed.
Some of the academics view others with professional rivalry, while some have personal relationships seemingly unrelated to their task. And as the investigation continues, another scholar is killed and two of Dupin’s detectives disappear.
Also complicating matters is Cadiou’s widow, Blanche, CEO of a company that wants to build a theme park in Brocéceliande, a project opposed by locals.
And what would a mystery driven by legend be without a connection to the Holy Grail?
Complex and captivating, Bannalec’s story continues the development of Dupin, a coffee addict, and his lover, Claire. And the portraits the author paints of each Arthurian scholar ring with individuality and cast suspicion on each of them.
Enriched with charming and evocative descriptions of Brocéceliande’s diversity, picturesque allure and history, “The King Arthur Case” offers another thought-provoking whodunit in a splendid series.
Jay Strafford, a retired journalist from Virginia, now lives in Florida.