The Bottom Line: A slow-burn, cerebral mystery that methodically builds stakes and suspense en route to a shocking climax.
Thomas J. Thorson’s highly anticipated fourth Malcolm Winters Mystery (the first, Heirs Apparent, was one our 2020 Best of the Year picks) continues the story of Malcolm Winters, who is now living as an English professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. As he did in Heirs Apparent, Thorson continues to explore themes surrounding the fluid nature of identity within the context of a compelling crime thriller.
Refreshingly, Bad Fortune defines convention in both structure and tone. Unlike nearly all contemporary mysteries, Thorson doesn’t attempt to hook readers with a climactic flash forward at the outset. Instead, in the opening chapter, Malcom Winters is so bored that he goes to the campus cop to see if there are any investigative leads. Hilariously, the cop suggests he go home and do a jigsaw puzzle or take up karate.
It’s almost a relief when Malcom finds Leo, his friend and tenant with a sketchy past, has broken into his place, and is now bloodied and unconscious. Knowing the ulta-paranoid former assassin wouldn’t want police involvement, Malcolm and co-investigator/lover Vinn nurse him back to health. When he’s ready to talk, Leoe confesses that years ago he was hired to assassinate a foreign dictator. When the plan failed, he started a new life in Chicago as a cook. He thought everyone connected to the plot was dead by now, but he was apparently wrong. Malcolm and Vinn are presented with a folder with a photo of a man with many aliases, most variations on the name “Hector Alvarez.”
In parallel, fellow tenant and friend Rebecca has been tormented by a series of crimes – some of them financially-related, including at least one case of identity theft – that seem too frequent to be unrelated. It seems her bad fortune began when a volatile ex-girlfriend said she was going to put a curse on her. Soon, Malcolm and Vinn hatch a plan to conduct surveillance while Rebecca visits a spiritualist who may be able to help with the so-called curse.
While both cases work well on their own merit, chiefly because both Leo and Rebecca are highly relatable and sympathetic, Thorson’s storytelling shines as he fills in what previously appeared to be whitespace between the two cases. While the book’s tone is often light and whimsical, readers will be gobsmacked by the emotional heft of hard-hitting scenes in the book’s closing chapters.
To understand critical areas surrounding Malcolm’s character, readers are strongly advised to read Heirs Apparent prior to tackling Bad Fortune.