They’re Ballerinas — and, Quite Possibly, Murderers

Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s debut novel, “The Ballerinas,” set in the hothouse world of a Paris ballet academy, follows three dancers hiding a very big secret.

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By Sarah Weinman

I’m a sucker for reworkings of Rex Stout’s classic Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin novels, especially when they play with gender, sexuality and power while staying true to the American midcentury setting — like Stephen Spotswood’s 2020 debut, “Fortune Favors the Dead,” which introduced the private investigator Lillian Pentecost and her younger, more fluid assistant, Willowjean “Will” Parker.

The follow-up is even more of a delight. MURDER UNDER HER SKIN (Doubleday, 348 pp., $27) vaults Parker back into her past life as a teenage member of Hart & Halloway’s Traveling Circus and Sideshow, which she left for an apprenticeship with Pentecost. This time out, the women need to uncover who killed Ruby Donner, the “Amazing Tattooed Woman,” who was “an impossible landscape of roses and sailor girls, hearts and mermaids and pirate ships.” Parker’s former mentor Valentin Kalishenko — “knife-thrower, sword-swallower, fire eater” — is the prime suspect.

Pentecost and Parker, of course, know better. It’s a pleasure to watch them arrive at that knowledge after sifting through red herrings and peeling secrets back like layers of an onion, all while revealing even more of themselves without guilt or shame.

Just like his mystery-writing ancestor, Spotswood understands that the detective story should be sound, but spending time with unforgettable characters is paramount.

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    Sarah Strohmeyer made an impression on me two decades ago with the first of her Bubbles Yablonsky mystery novels, full of humor, verve and a slightly manic air. She’s inhabited other genres and categories since, often veering to the serious side, so it’s welcome to see that early spirit revived in DO I KNOW YOU? (Harper, 352 pp., paper, $16.99), which examines the nature of memory, and how certainty and fallibility can collide in surprising ways.

    Jane Ellison has spent her life in a cloud of certainty, thanks to a brain quirk that allows her to recognize strangers years after the fact, even after fleeting encounters. Then Jane, working as a Department of Homeland Security agent at Logan Airport, sees a woman she’s certain was present the night her sister disappeared 11 years before — and she is disbelieved, fired, pilloried and humiliated, though her certainty does not waver, even as her mental health teeters.

    Strohmeyer alternates Jane’s feverish quest with that of Bella Valencia, about to marry into a fabulously rich family, connected to that disappearance in a sordid spider web. There’s an anarchic quality that kept me reading, near breathless, until all assumptions were gloriously upended.

    Spy fiction is a genre that, done poorly, can lurch toward humorlessness. Mick Herron has for years avoided this pitfall with his dryly entertaining Slough House series — a new one will be published next year, o frabjous day — while taking occasional turns writing shorter pieces that mix criminal doings and the absurd.

    The bulk of those short stories are included in DOLPHIN JUNCTION (Soho Crime, 294 pp., $24.95), a collection that demonstrates the breadth of Herron’s talent. Four stories feature the married private detectives Zoë Boehm and Joe Silvermann; over time, it becomes abundantly clear who is the unflappable, capable one and who’s more prone to trouble of his own making.

    Slough House gets a cameo in one story, and the rest are one-offs, designed to showcase the author’s mastery of plot twists. One that I won’t get out of my head anytime soon is the collection’s title story, which overturns the traditional missing-wife narrative with particular relish.

    The ways in which women torture their bodies in pursuit of creative dreams make for enthralling fictional drama. This terrain proves irresistible to Rachel Kapelke-Dale in THE BALLERINAS (St. Martin’s, 352 pp., $28), a debut novel set in the hothouse atmosphere of the Paris Opera Ballet academy as three students grow up, compete, forge friendships and embark on a trail of destruction.

    Delphine Léger narrates, and she is a willful, complex creature, at times maddeningly petulant, at other times singularly devoted to her best friends, Margaux and Lindsay. The novel charts their respective courses from the corps to soloist stardom, linear progressions shattered by an unholy mix of injuries, rivalries, passion and the capricious natures of the men they obsess over.

    “You start out as perfect,” Delphine says, “and you become something else.”

    For the longest time, despite Delphine’s offhandedly declaring herself a killer on the very first page, I struggled to classify this as a crime novel. But Kapelke-Dale has thought through the larger picture, and examined how trauma and asymmetries of power derail so many dancers. There’s often a personal — and, in this case, criminal — price to pay for success.

    “Don’t they realize,” Delphine hisses to Margaux after a performance, “that we’re all covered in the most disgusting sores under our shoes?”

    “Of course they know,” Margaux hisses back. “That’s why they like to watch.”

    “And that was what I liked,” Delphine tells the reader, “to hide the suffering with my own brand of perfection.”

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