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January 15, 2021

George Ernsberger - Columnist
Posted 1/15/21

OUTLAWED by Anna North (Bloomsbury). This is being called a “speculative western,” apparently because it's set in a 19th-century American West that never existed. Well, neither did the one I grew …

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January 15, 2021

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OUTLAWED by Anna North (Bloomsbury). This is being called a “speculative western,” apparently because it's set in a 19th-century American West that never existed. Well, neither did the one I grew up kinda-believing in, with Johnny Mack Brown, Gene Autry, the Durango Kid . . . those “cowboy heroes.” And this gang of women are at least as credible. The gang, here, is in fact more realistic, come right down to it; among other things, the blood seems real, the dying isn't just falling over and waiting for the camera to move somewhere else. And they and their antagonists might remind you of people you have had to deal with in what we call our real lives, here in this century. It might even get you to think differently about women and men and what we all think about each other; but first, it's an action-adventure novel, a western, the best one I've read since Charles Portis's myth-renewing TRUE GRIT, fifty years ago. That great, grim-comic classic didn't get famous until the movie was made; this myth-mocking new one is already halfway there.

THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE by Katrine Engberg (Atria). A strong Nordic (Danish) police-procedural series getting its footing, with detective partners with heartbeats and sweat glands, and also a larger cast becoming well established. (If you know the characters, you'll want to know that Annette is pregnant in this one, and at once deeply absorbed in that state and process, and frustrated by her distance from the gory one of the central plot.) Nothing about this book's setup and resolution couldn't be applied, if the terms are kept general, to the best books of this kind. Which is saying a lot, given the richness of the genre.

THE WIFE UPSTAIRS by Rachel Hawkins (St. Martin's). And yet another new novel in an established form, and another to be thankful for. It is, as the title signals, a take on JANE EYRE (as this whole fiction category has been, in a certain sense), but it certainly doesn't require even a distant, high-school-assigned reading of the classic to make this one irresistibly engrossing. Though, yeah, the full measure of its wit will be most vivid to those who cherish that one (as who doesn't?).

ORANGES AND LEMONS by Christopher Fowler (Ballantine). Bryant and May, yet again, and at least as good as ever. Our first review of them and their Peculiar Crimes Unit came in 2006, and it's as well that they've barely aged; they weren't young then. But they haven't gotten tired, either—or Christopher Fowler hasn't, to be fair. The mystery is as intricate, and London as real and full of life, as ever.

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