Reading about murder -- real or imagined -- can be engrossing, thought-provoking, and even unsettling, but it is hardly ever dull.
True-crime fans will appreciate "Murder at the Supreme Court: Lethal Crimes and Landmark Cases" by Martin Clancy and Tim O'Brien. The authors describe "the difficult road the Court has set for itself in allowing states to go forward with capital punishment," citing actual Supreme Court cases in which the justices examined verdicts and sentences involving murder and other "horrendous crimes."
Among other things, the Court has had to consider mitigating circumstances (such as childhood abuse), cruel and unusual punishment, race, mental incapacity, punishment of juveniles, ineffective counsel, and the death penalty, including forms of execution.
For some questions, there are no easy answers: What exactly is cruel and unusual punishment? When should the death penalty be used? (The two accepted social purposes of the death penalty are retribution and deterrence.) Of the 15 cases cited by the authors, 10 split the Court 5-4.
There's a lot of death in this book. For each case, the participants are introduced, the crime is described, and the trial is recalled, along with the verdict and any appeals. If the condemned person is executed, that's described.
The book includes some disturbing photographs and, indeed, disturbing text, particularly in scenes of crimes and executions. For those who want even more, the authors offer links to videos on their website.
The Supreme Court decisions are told in understandable language. In fact, there's surprisingly little legalese. It makes an interesting read.
On the fiction shelf, there's plenty of fodder for crime buffs.
"The Nightmare" by Lars Kepler (the pseudonym of a Swedish husband-and-wife writing team) is part of the recent invasion of Scandinavian crime novels. And it's powerful.
A young woman is found dead on a yacht drifting near an island. She was drowned; her hair is wet, but her clothes are still dry. How is this possible? An older man is found hanged in his apartment, an apparent suicide. But there's no ladder, no chair for him to have stepped up on. How could this be? Are these two deaths somehow related?
Call in the very clever Detective Inspector Yoona Linna, who solves crimes by brilliance and intuition. Linna is a fascinating character, and he's joined by several major female characters.
The thriller is really long (528 pages), and it has a great deal of violence -- pretty gruesome stuff, including the killing of innocents -- that makes no sense until the end. Yet oddly, the book also has musical themes that serve as a counterpoint to all the barbarity.
When the good guys are being pursued by a professional killer, the edge-of-your-seat action is intense and well written.
Adult situations and language.
"The Beautiful Mystery" by Louise Penny is the eighth in her Inspector Gamache series.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his protege, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are assigned to investigate a murder in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, located in a remote area of northern Quebec.
The monks live a cloistered and silent life, almost never allowed to speak, but all chosen for the monastery as singers of the sacred Gregorian chants. (The holy chants are called "the beautiful mystery.") The monks have even made a recording of the chants that has become a surprising hit.
What would lead one of these quiet, contemplative monks to brutally murder one of their own?
The police inspectors are the first non-monks to enter the monastery in 400 years. And yet, they are followed almost immediately by their superintendent. Why? And why is the Vatican involved?
The members of the police investigation team have their own issues, separate from the crime. At one point, the police misinterpreted a clue so badly that I kept yelling at the book: "No, you've got it wrong! It doesn't mean that!" But of course, they finally got it.
The story is multi-layered, haunting and thought-provoking. And in the end, it's just sad.
"Bad Little Falls" by Paul Doiron is set in Maine in the middle of winter. Game warden Mike Bowditch has been assigned to a remote post near the Canadian border, where his superiors believe he can't possibly get into any more trouble. Ha!
When a man is found buried in the snow following a blizzard, it turns out he was murdered.
In his investigation of the crime, the poor, likable sap Mike finds himself drawn to a beautiful but troubled young woman with a complicated home life.
And somebody has targeted Mike with eerie threats. Are they practical jokes? warnings? or something even more dire?
The third in Doiron's Mike Bowditch mystery series features eccentric characters and more eccentric weather, which is itself a major character in this mostly outdoor adventure-mystery.
The tense manhunt in the snowy woods is compelling.
All three novels are available from Macmillan Audio.
Copyright © 2013 by Mary Louise Ruehr.