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April Mysteries Roundup: Delve into a Scandinavian whodunit, a sports-based Southern Gothic or a gripping legal thriller

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April Mysteries

April Mysteries

A familiar setting and situation: a manor house where something bad must have happened and a blizzard that constricts the movements of several visitors. Can such a story be rendered anew, with freshness and daring?

Absolutely, and it does so in Swedish author Camilla Sten’s second novel, “The Resting Place” (Minotaur, $27.99, 322 pages).

When Eleanor Fälth arrives at her grandmother Vivianne’s Stockholm apartment for dinner, someone rushes past her and leaves. Within seconds, Eleanor finds Vivianne fatally stabbed. But she’s of little help to the police; she suffers from prosopagnosia, aka face blindness, which makes it nearly impossible for her to describe the killer.

When she later learns that Vivianne has left Solhöga, a country estate north of Stockholm, to her, she travels there with her boyfriend, Sebastian; her aunt, Veronika; and an appraisal lawyer, Rickard.

The longtime caretaker, Mats Bengtsson, cannot be found. And little time passes before the four visitors realize that Solhöga conceals secrets and scandals. Possible repercussions put them at each other’s throats—and in deadly peril.

Sten devises an atmospheric and serpentine plot that induces readers to believe in their astuteness, only to realize that the author has played them throughout her story. And she does so while creating exceptional characters, especially Eleanor.

With vigor, passion and originality, Sten offers a disturbing but entertaining example of a psychological thriller, a subgenre at which she—like many Scandinavian crime-fiction practitioners—excels.

A savvy exploration of family, identity and deception, “The Resting Place” represents the heights to which crime fiction can rise.

‘DON’T KNOW TOUGH’

Football delivers moments of stunning beauty—Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception”—and sickening brutality—Joe Theismann’s horrific injury.

Former pro quarterback and high school coach Eli Cranor renders such vivid and diverse scenes in his début novel, “Don’t Know Tough” (Soho Crime, $24.95, 336 pages).

Fired by his father-in-law as the head football coach at a Southern California high school, Trent Powers, an evangelical Christian, moves to small-town Denton, Ark., with his wife, Marley, and their two daughters to work as a head coach there.

Among his players is Billy Lowe, a star running back with a virulent temper who has been the target of physical abuse from his mother’s boyfriend, Travis Rodney. Trent, whose childhood was as fraught with instability as Billy’s, takes the boy into his home and family.

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But when Travis is murdered, the situation explodes exponentially as Cranor unleashes the power of his imagination, nurtured by his experiences.

He draws the major characters with depth, and an empathetic but simultaneously clear eye. And his startlingly original prose often causes the reader to pause and revel at its wisdom, as in passages such as this:

“She is beautiful but weathered, worn down like women who carry their men.”

A pointed study of the South’s secular religion, “Don’t Know Tough” stands as a sport-based Southern Gothic that explores issues of family, race, class and place.

Gut-wrenching and gripping, troubling and tragic, Cranor’s novel finds its basis in football but builds its core in all of life’s struggles.

‘THE DARKEST PLACE’

During an episode of “All in the Family,” lovable dingbat Edith Bunker contrasted Raymond Burr’s portrayal as Perry Mason with his subsequent performance as Robert Ironside. As Ironside, she said, “He don’t jump up no more.”

Neither will readers who quickly become and maintain engrossed in “The Darkest Place” (Minotaur, $27.99, 304 pages), Phillip Margolin’s fifth legal thriller featuring Portland, Ore., defense attorney Robin Lockwood.

Distraught by the death of her investigator and fiancé, Jeff Hodges, Robin returns to her Midwest hometown of Elk Grove to recuperate.

Also fleeing to Elk Grove is Marjorie Loman, who’s at first overjoyed by the murder of her despicable, estranged husband, Joel, but frustrated when his fortune is frozen and frightened by the appearance of two thugs who threaten her.

Needing money, Marjorie agrees to be a surrogate mother for Caleb and Emily Lindstrom, who cannot conceive. But when the baby is born, a nurse fails to read the note specifying that Marjorie is not to hold or bond with him. So Marjorie threatens the Lindstroms, strikes Emily with a pistol and kidnaps the child.

Enter Robin, enticed to help Elk Grove lawyer Stan McDermott defend Marjorie. And secrets from several cases are eventually exposed.

A first-rate novel, “The Darkest Place”—like Margolin’s entire canon—benefits from the author’s legal background. But it’s his knifelike ability to create sophisticated plots that keeps his fans in their favorite reading chairs.

Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.

Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.

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