You’d think that three wives might have been enough for Blake Nelson, the head of a Mormon household in deepest Utah who makes a nice corpse in Cate Quinn’s debut mystery, BLACK WIDOWS (Sourcebooks Landmark, 418 pp., $26.99). Rachel, the No. 1 wife and one of the story’s three narrators, is the devoted, traditional one. Emily, the second wife, is a little more flighty. And Tina, Wife No. 3, is a former sex worker and addict. All the sister-wives were admittedly miffed when Blake started shopping around for Wife No. 4, but which one of them might have been mad enough to kill him? “Everybody loved Blake,” Rachel testifies. “Except his wives. Sometimes, we hated him.”
That’s the challenge for Officers Brewer and Carlson, the Salt Lake City police detectives who trek out to the derelict farm in the middle of the desert that Blake and his industrious wives have turned into a survivalist camp. Quinn writes haunting scenes of the desert in its many moods (hot, dry, very hot, very dry) but she’s not much for cops, so Detectives Brewer and Carlson are as lacking in dimension as they are in forensic savvy. But oh, my, can this author draw women! Rachel, Emily and Tina, who have been in thrall for so long to their husband, discover they don’t know one another as well as they thought they did until after he is dead and buried. Without Blake to fixate on, they’re finally free to raise their eyes and discover who they are by studying — and at long last truly seeing — their sisters.
As readers, we come to know the wives gradually, not only through the dramatic revelations of their painful histories, but also through modest expressions of their dawning self-emancipation. “I’d like to bake a real cake” is the bold wish of shy Emily. It’s the loveless wives, it seems, who could use the devotion and care of a wife of their own. And while Quinn writes with spirit on weighty subjects like kinky sex, domestic abuse, polygamy and religious cults, her primary and most poignant theme seems to be female friendship.
If you thrill to the chills of Scandinavian noir, chances are you’ve read something by Anders Roslund. (No? Do try “The Beast” to test your capacity for revulsion.) Roslund, a Swedish author who usually works with writing partners, has gone solo with a police procedural called KNOCK KNOCK (Putnam, 439 pp., $27). OK, I’ll bite: Who’s there? A killer who has returned to Stockholm to finish off the only witness to an atrocious multiple murder he committed 17 years ago, that’s who. Zana Lilaj was only 5 years old when this boogeyman broke into her home and wiped out the rest of her family. But trauma victims can have amazing recall, and some of them get itchy after years of boredom in a witness protection program.