When you've finished shopping, trimming the tree, planning parties and dinners — and figuring out how to get out of certain invitations without hurting anyone's feelings — is anything more appealing than putting your feet up with a book good enough to draw you in so deeply that the hassle of the day dissolves as quickly as willpower when the dessert tray appears?
Let me recommend a first novel by Caro Ramsay, a Scottish author who is able to write scenes of heartbreaking tenderness nestled amid evocations of such grotesque violence that it is difficult to imagine that they can coexist as such sublime interlocking pieces of the whole.
"Absolution" (Pegasus, 401 pages, $25) opens with a beautiful woman, pregnant, near death in a hospital bed, her face and much of her body swaddled in bandages following an unimaginably vicious acid attack. Heavy doses of drugs are used to mitigate her suffering, allowing her to fall into unconsciousness for long stretches.
Glasgow police detective Alan McAlpine, assigned to the case, visits her in the hospital. He sees her slender foot sticking out beneath the covers, and imagines her to be lovely, a leap of imagination later confirmed by seeing a photo of her, laughing in the sunshine. On duty to guard her, lest her attacker return, he speaks to her, though she cannot answer. Slowly, although he never sees her face or hears her voice, he falls in love with her.
When, inevitably, she dies from her assault, he is devastated, unable to expunge his idealized vision of her. He is reminiscent of Mark McPherson, the detective who falls in love with a painting of a woman believed to have been murdered in Vera Caspary's superb book — and even better film — "Laura."
Twenty years later, McAlpine has a beautiful and loving wife, but remains haunted by the memory of the woman in the hospital, holding a place in his heart for her against all reason. When a serial killer gruesomely murders young women, McAlpine discovers links to his own past, recalling "memories of things he had never known, a voice he had never heard, a smile unfurling from lips he had never gazed at. Had never kissed. A beauty he had never seen."
A noir police novel, like those by fellow Scottish author Ian Rankin, but with deeper psychological exploration, "Absolution" marks the beginning of what certainly will be a major career.
Speaking of major careers, though not one deeply immersed in defining psychological nuance, a previously unpublished novel by Mickey Spillane has just been released. "Dead Street" (Hard Case Crime, 219 pages, $6.99) was among the papers left by the alltime best-selling author at his death.
It is not a Mike Hammer novel (though a few of those were among his papers, too, for which his countless fans will be thankful when they are published) but it's got the talk.
Jack Stang, a former NYPD cop known as "The Shooter" because of what he did to gangsters, thought his girlfriend had been killed during an attempted abduction. Twenty years later, he discovers that she's alive.
"Somebody has got to pay for twenty lost years," he says.
"They may be dead," he's told. "I'll kick over their tombstones," he replies.
Fast action, snappy dialogue, and the good guys win. It's no wonder that Spillane was the world's best-selling mystery writer for a long, long time.
For something slightly more literary, try Jennifer Lee Carrell's "Interred with Their Bones" (Dutton, 416 pages, $25.95). If you're like me, and have special affection for bibliomysteries (okay, so it's not in the dictionary, but as a mystery reader you will have deduced that they are crime stories about books and book people), you will like this one.
The heroine's quest for a previously unknown manuscript by William Shakespeare, the holy grail for any Shakespeare scholar, kick-starts this exciting adventure. In real life, the Bard's handwritten grocery list would be worth a small fortune; a play would be beyond imagination, so it is inevitable that others would stop at little to nab it for themselves.
"Hamlet" is about to have a production at the Globe Theatre when it is set ablaze, exposing a body murdered in the same manner as Hamlet's father. As the death count mounts, the search for the manuscript is as compelling as the search for the killer.
Note: The dust jacket bizarrely attempts to compare this good first novel with "The Da Vinci Code," which it resembles as much as a porterhouse resembles a Snickers bar. You might like them both, but you're unlikely to compare them.
Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual "Best American Mystery Stories." He can be reached at [email protected]