Mysteries: No Door but the Exit

By Tom Nolan

In “The Thursday Murder Club” (Pamela Dorman, 355 pages, $26), first-time novelist Richard Osman introduces a quartet of senior-age amateur sleuths who gather weekly in Coopers Chase, “Britain’s First Luxury Retirement Village.” Joyce is a former nurse, Ron is an ex-labor activist, Ibrahim is a retired psychiatrist, and Elizabeth is bound by the Official Secrets Act.

The club’s efforts are strictly academic, inspired by old case-folders supplied by a former police officer. But a contemporary killing has just occurred at Coopers Chase. The community’s builder is bludgeoned to death, just after being fired by the village’s vain and greedy owner. (“He’s all the things that can go wrong with men,” Joyce says of the owner, “if you leave them to their own devices.”) Now, Ibrahim realizes, “the Thursday Murder Club has a real-life case . . . a real corpse, and somewhere out there, a real killer.”

A young policewoman and her sympathetic colleagues are charmed into feeding the club members tidbits of confidential information, in return for significant clues the amateurs uncover. A second murder occurs in broad daylight, beneath the noses of oblivious coppers and Coopers residents. “It’s beginning to feel like this isn’t all some jolly lark,” Joyce perceives. “An adventure where everything resolves itself and we all come back for more of the same next week.”

Mr. Osman’s debut novel is witty, endearing and greatly entertaining, but its tone darkens as older crimes are exhumed and themes such as dementia and euthanasia emerge. As club member Elizabeth knows: “Everyone has to leave the game. Once you’re in, there is no other door but the exit.”

Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective whom Agatha Christie introduced in 1920 and fatally retired in 1975, was resurrected in 2014 by English author Sophie Hannah. “The Killings at Kingfisher Hill” (Morrow, 272 pages, $27.99), the fourth Christie estate-approved Poirot mystery from Ms. Hannah, is set mostly at a country house in Surrey in 1931.

On a motor-coach en route to the titular Kingfisher Hill, Poirot and his Scotland Yard friend Edward Catchpool (the book’s narrator) encounter a memorable passenger who insists she will be killed if she sits in a particular seat—and disembarks before the two detectives conclude their journey.

The investigators arrive at Kingfisher Hill to discreetly inquire into the matter of a man who died there on the same day he reunited with his long-estranged family. The victim’s fiancée at the time has confessed to killing him and has been sentenced to hang, but the dead man’s brother—now the condemned woman’s new fiancé—believes her innocent and has asked for Poirot’s help. The master of the house immediately ejects Poirot and Catchpool, but the two soon return when a second murder victim is discovered at the estate.

Ms. Hannah mixes the expected Poirot ingredients for the most part with welcome moderation: the Belgian’s fractured locutions (“You bark at the improper tree”), the Scotland Yard man’s obtuseness (“Too many scones had impaired my deductive functions”), the fervor with which Poirot attacks a puzzle (“His eyes take on a peculiar green glow, as if lit from within”). But as the book progresses it features increasingly mind-boggling incidents and extraordinary coincidences, begging massive amounts of a modern reader’s suspension of disbelief.

“Fortunately,” Poirot reassures, “everything that requires an explanation has one.” Yet again, the diminutive man with the little gray cells delivers the goods.

Ten guests assemble for a retreat in an Alpine chalet which becomes cut off from the outside world by heavy snowfall. Then they individually begin to die or disappear. Such is the Christie-like premise of Ruth Ware’s “One by One” (Scout, 372 pages, $27.99), set not in the remote 1930s but in the high-tech present.

The guests are all affiliated with a hot music app called Snoop (“We’re pretty cool. Are you?”). There’s Topher, the arrogant young co-founder; Eva, his ex-model ex-girlfriend; Elliot, the code-writer; and so on. Odd guest out is Liz, the self-effacing PA who left the firm while it was still a startup—taking with her a bundle of voting shares which make her valuable to bickering Snoopers debating whether or not to accept a life-changing takeover bid.

Egos clash and agendas wrestle. The retreat’s first victim falls prey to a treacherous ski-run. After an avalanche confines survivors to the chalet, poison claims a second guest. The lodge’s live-in help do their best to maintain decorum and keep up spirits, as does Tiger-Blue, Snoop’s “head of cool” and yoga guru (“C’mon. Deep breaths”). But the body count increases: Now there are seven. . . . Now there are six. . . . By the book’s latter stages, readers may think they have it all figured out. They should think again.


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