Archive for Psychological

Lori Rader-Day: The Day I Died

This is one of those thrillers that gets inside your head and leaves you thinking after you finish it. Lori Rader-Day’s book isn’t as much terrifying as psychologically detailed and often heartbreaking—which is the kind of thriller I like. The main character is Anna Winger, and the book opens with the chilling scene of her “death.” And while what she’s doing can be called “living” you might beg to differ.

Because of fear (she’s hiding from someone and it’s pretty clear early on that it’s probably an abusive husband) she’s made her life as small and controllable as possible. She’s a handwriting analyst at a very high level—she can basically work from anywhere, and she has a contract with the FBI. She lives in a tiny podunk Indiana town with her son, Joshua. Joshua is 13, so he’s doing his best to make his mom’s life hell.

As you read, you’re kind of on the mom’s side, here—the kid is definitely hanging with the wrong crowd, lying about skipping school and ultimately, disappearing. But I think a really good writer can show both sides. Sure, the kid is up to no good, but on the other hand, his mom has made him move with such regularity he has no friends, she is out of contact with any kind of family—and he’s starting to ask—and the kind of claustrophobia most 13-year-olds feel being stuck with a parent at breakfast must really be nothing compared to being stuck with only your parent all the time.

But as Anna’s carefully constructed world begins to become unglued, she must change. She’s called in by the local sheriff to consult on the case of a missing toddler (everyone assumes the mother is the guilty party, and Anna is not convinced) and she’s asked by a neighbor for help. Her world is beginning to crack and let other people in. When her son goes missing, she’s all in—she has to go back and confront her past.

I think one of Rader-Day’s strengths as a writer is the unexpected in terms of character. She’s not writing in black and white but in shades of grey. With the exception of the ultimate villain, you can kind of see everyone’s point of view to a degree. I also loved the handwriting analysis portions of the book—they gave Anna an excuse to be involved and they give her extra insight. Even the doubtful sheriff begins to come over to her side.

Anna is an indelible character—and Ms. Rader-Day has created an indelible novel.

Chevy Stevens: Never Let You Go

When Robin asked me to write a review of Chevy Stevens’s new book in advance of Chevy’s appearance at the store, she wondered if I’d have to reread the book in order to refresh my memory. But, despite the fact that I’d devoured Never Let You Go  back in early September, and have read many mysteries since, the answer was an emphatic no. Believe me, consuming one of Chevy’s books is such a powerful and enthralling experience that you’re not going to forget it anytime soon.

In a thriller the initial setup is crucial, and as usual in her work, Never Let You Go has a compelling hook that lands the reader into her hold. There are two lines of narrative, one told in the voice of Lindsey in 2005, a young and somewhat naive wife trapped in an abusive relationship. At a vacation resort her Machiavellian husband Andrew pulls a power trip that endangers their daughter Sophie, making Lindsey realize once and for all that she and Sophie must escape from him.

Flash forward to 2016 where Lindsey and Sophie have rebuilt their lives on an isolated Canadian island. Unfortunately Andrew has gotten out of prison, mysterious and vaguely menacing things have started to happen, and the drastic measures Lindsey used to get Andrew incarcerated in the first place haunt her in more ways than one.

As we learn how she escaped from her previous hell we also see the fresh one developing around her. Then there’s the narrative from teen Sophie, who doesn’t really remember her father, has been surreptitiously corresponding with him in prison, and is rebelliously sympathetic to his attempts to forge a relationship now that he’s out.

The result is very hard to put down. Stevens knows how to twist a plot without tying it into implausible knots and the unexpected ending makes you wonder how you didn’t see it coming rather than filling you with a desire to throw the book across the room. In a thriller landscape infested with zombie Gone Girl on the Train clones, she stands out because of the deep humanity of all her characters, as well as the sincere empathy she brings to even the most horrifying scenarios. The result is a book that is sensational without being sensationalistic, one that, like many classic “women in peril” mysteries, is, in fact, a commentary on the relative powerlessness of women in society. You’ll race through Never Let You Go, but it will reverberate for a long time. (Jamie)

Alex Marwood: The Darkest Secret

darkestsecretMystery writers have always, throughout time, held an unflinching mirror to their contemporary society. Alex Marwood, much like her brilliant contemporary Laura Lippman, is exceptionally good at this. I think one of the keys is not to hold the society or whatever parts of it you are writing about in actual contempt. There’s an element of familiarity, that, if done well, should make a reader uncomfortable. Of course mysteries also add in the element of an extreme event, obviously a murder, and the reactions of the characters to this event factor in to the plot. If done well you are putting yourself in the shoes of the characters and feeling maybe the fit is a little too close.

Marwood’s set up is a compelling one, and echoes the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal. While Marwood keeps her book at home in the UK, the surrounding circumstances are similar. A wealthy man had invited a group of friends to enjoy one of his rehabbed mansions (he’s a very high level house flipper) before he sells it, as well as to celebrate his 50th birthday.

The book opens with different accounts of toddler Coco’s disappearance, and it’s clear none of them have any idea of what actually happened. Marwood then skillfully weaves her narrative back and forth through time, as she paints of picture of a wealthy, spoiled man enjoying his privileges in the company of his second wife with several equally successful couples and their assorted children. It’s clear he was not a nice man, the wife is very unhappy, and the various friends have their own issues.

The narrative ends up belonging mostly to the man’s then 15 year old daughter, Millie, and the twin of the missing girl, Ruby, as they meet as adults (or semi adults) for the funeral of their shared father. The two of them have different mothers and there is some wariness involved, but that quickly wears off when it becomes obvious they are naturally sympathetic friends. 15 year old Ruby is a Goth in training; Milly, a late 20 something, is a dedicated party girl living a somewhat dissolute life. While neither of them were especially close to their father, they are weirdly still very sad at his passing.

Their shared journey takes him to the house of their father’s 4th and final wife, who has her own toddler and is behaving in an oddly stepford wife-ish manner when they arrive. As the story focuses on the funeral preparations, it also goes back to the weekend when little Coco disappeared and everyone’s life was upended by it. Ruby barely remembers her little twin but Milly does, though her recollections of the weekend are cut short as she and her sister India took off in a snit when it became clear to them that their father had forgotten they were coming.

Marwood’s precise explication of each character in this novel is brilliant, and in that, she’s absolutely contemporary as she explicates both character and the aftermath of a crime. But she’s also old school in her love of a tight plot and a vicious, unexpected twist or two. She won an Edgar for her first novel, The Wicked Girls, and she’s quite obviously a talent to watch. If you have a taste for a dark and twisty read, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Laura Lippman: Wilde Lake

wildelakeLaura Lippman’s thoughtful new standalone novel, Wilde Lake, assumes the structure of Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird but brings the story into the present day. The book is very much Lippman’s own, but the shadow of Mockingbird hovers. It enables the reader to consider both more deeply. In Lippman’s incarnation, which opens with an act of violence involving the narrator’s older brother (even ending in a broken arm, as Jem’s act does) all the moving pieces are there. Lippman centers her story on young Lu, who lives with her widowed father and her older brother in the newly created suburb of Columbia, Maryland, an attempt at a Utopian suburb, down to the outdoor structures designed by Frank Gehry.

One of the many things Lippman excels at as a narrator is using two story threads, separated by time, and bringing them together as the book comes to a close. She does that here, as some of the book is told via the young Lu, and some of the book is told from the point of view of the grown up Lucinda, a widowed mother of twins and the first female State’s Attorney of Howard County, Maryland. The post was previously held by her father, a living legend.

There are two crimes in the novel. The early crime, told through the eyes of young Lu, involves her brother and his talented friends as they celebrate the end of high school out at Wilde Lake, when one of them is attacked by some thuggish townies. One of the townies is stabbed to death accidentally and Lu’s brother, AJ, is the hero of the night, having saved the life of the friend who was being attacked.

In the present, sleepy Howard County gets a homicide case (they don’t get too many) and Lucida assumes control. It involves the apparent stabbing of a single woman by a homeless man. As Lucinda investigates, there are repercussions from the past case involving her brother that come to light, tying into the present day one, and it all becomes very complicated.

The thoughtful Lippman seems concerned, in this novel, with truth and lies, and whether the whole truth and nothing but the truth is always for the best. She is examining the repercussions of hiding facts from people and whether they are better off when they do know everything. Lucinda as a grown up and as a child is a real terrier, not giving up on anything and completely, relentlessly ambitious.

Lippman is also a complete master at conveying character and place in a very specific way. In the future, to find out how middle class folks lived in Maryland at the beginning of the 21st century, you could go ahead and read this novel with it’s specific, telling details about suburban culture and mores. On a broader scale, then, how does that very specific culture and community affect the events of the novel?

As Lippman’s characters unravel the facts and the truth behind the case in the past – so much has been withheld from the young Lu, and Lippman brilliantly portrays the way a child knows something is going on, but can’t begin to understand what it might be. As the great Harper Lee was able to do in her novel, Lippman also portrays an unsentimental, tough, smart little girl who grows up into a tough, smart woman.

As the threads of the two stories converge it’s very difficult to stop reading, and when finished, to stop thinking. Why were certain things kept secret? What purpose does it serve when the grown up Lucinda, in her relentless fashion, uncovers them? Her literal rush to judgement creates lasting havoc.

I loved the nods through out to Mockingbird (down to the “chifforobe” in Lu’s father’s room) and as always, I love the way Laura Lippman writes. This quote is long but it gives a real feel of the book:

“…so you will have to trust me when I tell you my story is true. I guess I could swear on my children’s lives – but that strikes me as distasteful. Sometimes I think we hold truth in too high an esteem. The truth is a tool, like a kitchen knife. You can use it for its purpose or you can use it – No, that’s not quite right. The truth is inert. It has no intrinsic power. Lies have all the power. Would you lie to save your child’s life? I would, in a heartbeat, no matter what I was touching. Besides, what is the whole truth and nothing but the truth? The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained with identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.”

This book is definitely one of the best of the year, and I savored every sentence.

Elizabeth Hand: Hard Light

hardlightA stolen passport will only get you so far.

That memorable first sentence reintroduces us to one of my favorite protagonists, Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary. Hard Light, the third installment in the misadventures of our anti-heroine, follows closely on the heels of the excellent previous volume, Available Dark, as we find Cass in full flight from that book’s violent denouement in Iceland, the aforementioned passport in hand. It belongs to the junkie ex-girlfriend of Quinn O’Boyle, Cass’s elusive long lost love, briefly re-found and then just as quickly lost again. Quinn plans on slipping into the country separately, having giving Cass a piece of paper with a man’s name and the name of a pub as her only guide to their hoped for reunion.

The enigmatic note leads her on a crooked path to Adrian Carlisle, who is either protecting her or trying to kill her, and his companion Krishna Morgenthal, a troubled but talented Amy Winehouse-like singer, and their peculiar London demimonde. It’s a toxic nexus of drug dealers, anarchists and musicians that seems like a degraded echo of the Swinging London of the sixties when a similar mix of rock stars and criminals produced an equally perilous but much more glamorous brew.

Im the ghost of punk, haunting the twenty-first century in disintegrating black-and-white; one of those living fossils you read about who usually show up, dead, in a place you’ve never heard of.

As a crime novel protagonist, Cass operates less as a cerebral calculating machine and more like a Waring Blender, who, through sheer force of personality, churns things up so that all the hidden heavy stuff comes to the surface, and as, usual, she’s finds herself in the middle of the crap, forced to deliver some mysterious packages to some mysterious people, and soon enough people on both sides of the transaction end up dead.

This, too is what it means to be a ghost: you forever witness your own slow self-destruction, and that of those around you. But no one knows what you’ve seen until it’s too late.

With all the blood in the water, Adrian fires up his vintage Land Rover and, amidst an apocalyptic blizzard, drives a suspicious Cass and a drugged Krishna to his boyhood home deep in the boggy wilds of the Cornwall. Kethelwite is the home of prehistoric relics and structure, but much more recently it was the site of a peculiarly sixties semi-commune of counterculture filmmakers, groupies and various hangers on, presided over and financed by  heiress Tamsin and her director husband, Leith Carlisle. The result of all this grooviness was ruined lives, possibly the most nauseating movie ever made, a catastrophic fire and some skeletons which are of more than archeological interest. Adrian becomes the voice of those who were children in the age of Aquarius, the “Blank Generation” who were gullible enough to actually believe the peace and love platitudes their elders were professing, and permanently disenchanted when it all collapsed into the Me Decade.

“How did it all get so f***** up?” he asked in a child’s voice. When we were little they told us there was magic. There weren’t any rules, because we were all going to make magic here.”

All I could do was shake my head and say, “You were misinformed.”

There are so many other passages in Hard Light I could quote because I just love the way Hand writes. Cass’s first person voice is memorable and pithy, and the novel is rich with meditation, observation and thematic obsession, not to mention a crackling pace and a well fashioned plot that, for all it’s bracing New Wave qualities, follows the path of the classic English mystery. Like Geoffrey Household’s suspense gem of 1939, Rogue Male, it starts in cosmopolitan London and ends in a hole in the countryside, and, like much of the golden age oeuvre, questions of parentage are paramount.

I once went to a panel at the Cleveland Bouchercon that was basically a group of authors whose characters were deemed “unsympathetic,” and I listened as they all proudly said they didn’t care a fig if they were unsympathetic or not, and, in fact, they hoped they were. This was all well and good, but only my innate civility (hem-hem) prevented me from pointing out that this panel was one of the most sparsely attended I’d seen, and located in the smallest and most out of the way room in the venue. I personally don’t care if characters are sympathetic or not, I only ask that they be interesting, but my interactions with customers over these oh so many years has taught me that readers are often looking for heroes and heroines that they would enjoy having a beer or a cup of tea with. I only hope that such predilections don’t prevent more people from sharing time with Cass Neary.

I hate resorting to the truth, but sometimes it’s the only way.

It’s true that Cass lies, cheats, steals, takes drugs and has a bad attitude and a foul mouth, but in the end, when push comes to shove she does the right thing and stands up for the weak and powerless, often with her steel-toed boot. Another tough female named Salander has had a lot of success in her own punk noir, and I can only hope that Ms. Neary enjoys similar success, because she and Elizabeth Hand deserve it for this original and captivating series. (Jamie)

Julia Dahl: Invisible City

invisible-cityThis is a true coming-of-age finding-yourself novel, a genre I sometimes find irritating, but I liked this one as it also illuminated a little examined culture. Dahl sets her first novel in Brooklyn, featuring fledging reporter Rebekah Roberts. Rebekah is a “stringer,” sent out wherever her paper thinks she can score a quote from someone involved in a breaking story. This finds her all over the city and as our story begins, it finds her in her own section of Brooklyn where a woman’s body had been found by a crane in a scrap metal yard.

The woman turns out to be a Hasidic Jew, and as Rebekah begins to dig into the story of the woman’s death, she’s also turning over bits of her own personal history. Her mother, who left her when she was a baby, was a Hasidic Jew who had ended up with Rebekah’s Christian father. Rebekah, of course, has always wondered about her.

As the dead woman’s body is extracted from the maw of the crane, Hasidim come and take away the body and the NYPD stands off from the machinations of the de facto Jewish police force (especially strong in Brooklyn), the Shomrim. This is all new to Rebekah, but she’s approached after talking to the dead woman’s sister in law by a cop who is also Jewish and who says he serves as a community liaison. The cop, Saul, gets Rebekah’s attention when he mentions that she looks like her mother.

Rebekah, who suffers from anxiety and just from being in her 20’s, basically, doesn’t always think clearly as she’s examining this case but she gets to a resolution, all the same. Saul’s mentioning of her resemblance to her mother makes her even more invested in discovering the dead woman’s killer.

As Dahl describes the way the Hasidic culture feels confining to some women – including both Rebekah’s mother and the dead woman, Rivka – Rebekah begins to find the places these women (and some men) go to to get away and to “question” or basically to find themselves. Dahl gives the other side of the coin equal shrift, explaining that to Jews, turning another Jew into the police, who killed so many of them, is considered a non starter. The Shomrim or “guards” or “watchers” of the community are often called before the police to settle all kinds of disputes.

Rebekah is learning her job; she’s learning who she is and a little bit about her mother; and, like Dahl herself, she’s learning to tell a story. As Rebekah had mostly called in details and quotes to a more senior writer who wrote up the actual story, Rebekah must now learn to do this for herself.

While I enjoyed this novel, I almost anticipate that the second one will be better, as the baggage has been unloaded. She’s laid the plot threads out for Rebekah and her mother to meet, and that seems like where this story was headed all along. One of the greatest things about series fiction is the way it can take a long look at a character’s life, giving he or she true depth. It’s something readers look forward to with each new installment of a series, and really talented writers will have you waiting for that next piece. Dahl may well fit into this category.

Sophie Hannah: Woman with a Secret

WomanWithASecretAs with Tana French, I have a love/hate relationship with Sophie Hannah, an extremely talented writer who nevertheless (like Tana French) tends to dilly-dally a bit in the middle of her books. Hannah’s books are a series but the series characters are merely a very loose binder for the truly spectacular set-ups Hannah comes up with. She’s one of the best in the biz when it comes to setting up a story, and I imagine that’s why she was chosen to continue writing Christie’s Poirot books.

Her series characters, Charlie and Simon, are married detectives. Simon has the reputation of brilliance; he and Charlie are excellent at bouncing ideas off one another. Charlie’s sister is having a long-term affair with one of their co-workers; both are married to other people. That’s the background. The foreground in this particular novel concerns the murder of well-known columnist Damon Blundy, who was known for his unpopular opinions and Twitter flare-ups with famous folks he’s taken to task. It’s pretty clear he was incredibly obnoxious in life; in death, he’s discovered bound and suffocated in his home while his wife, two floors away, heard nothing.

We’re also introduced to Nicki, who clearly has some kind of secret though the exact nature and depth of her secret are Hannah’s concern through much of the novel. On the surface, Nicki is an average housewife with two young children living a blameless suburban existence. Who of us are who we seem to be on the surface, however? And that is indeed Hannah’s main theme in a twisty novel that finds Nicki’s life blown apart as the police take her in for questioning about Blundy’s murder.

Hannah is excellent at both character creation and at complex plotting. Her novels always take a good long while to unravel, usually containing a surprise ending, and this one is no different. Along the way, Hannah examines “normal” marriage and “normal” middle-class life and finds that none of it is actually normal. As Nicky’s story and Damon’s draw closer together, Hannah includes a glam former MP and a nutty writer of horror fiction, all grist to Simon’s mill as he uncovers rocks in search of the answer to who killed Damon Blundy. Postmortem, his unpleasant character emerges fully from the folds of Hannah’s storytelling.

Complex, thoughtful, even profound (I found her description of the interior of a woman’s purse especially memorable), she also takes a bit of a long time to get where she’s going. In this novel, I found the journey worthwhile, as the denouement and motives were believable and satisfying. Sometimes the motives attributed to her killer or the unveiling of the central villain (who often is the dead person) are either not believable or too sketchy. This novel did not have that problem and really, it’s a true pleasure to join the twisted mind of Sophie Hannah as she explicates a murder.

Julia Keller: Last Ragged Breath

LastRaggedBreathJulia Keller is using the slow, steady approach toward becoming one of the best crime writers in the business. Some people rocket to the top, some build their way up more gradually – it’s a real pleasure watching Keller’s ascent. In her fourth novel (to my mind, her strongest yet) she focuses on the murder of a developer in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. The dead man had been campaigning to buy up land for a shiny new resort in Acker’s Gap, where, like much of Appalachia, the scenery is gorgeous and free, but the life is hard and brutal with a tanking economy, thanks to the demise of mining.

Threaded into this story is the backstory of Royce Dillard, a recluse who lives with his seven dogs and rarely ventures into town. He’s quickly arrested for the crime – the body was found on his property – but his history makes prosecutor Bell Elkins dig just a little deeper. He’s a survivor of a terrible 1972 flood that swept away a good part of the town, killing hundreds. Little Royce was thrown to safety by his father and he’s been regularly interviewed on the anniversary of the disaster ever since. (The flood is a real one, the Buffalo Creek disaster. Ed.)

Sometimes Keller’s storytelling threads can become too diffuse and numerous – I thought that was a bit of an issue in her last novel, Summer of the Dead; but in this novel she’s tightened her storytelling skein and drawn her story threads more closely together, creating a good mystery along with her powerful narrative.

Bell, her protagonist, is a county prosecutor and she’s long ago left her fancy Georgetown law firm to return to her home in the mountains, becoming an integral part of the community. Just as integral was her friendship with the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong, but Nick has retired and taken a private security job. Bell misses Nick, she’s angry with him, and she’s not sure how the new sheriff, a young woman, is going to work out. Keller beautifully portrays the many layers of emotion Bell is experiencing.

Keller is also an absolute master as providing a three dimensional view of her characters, as well as a well reasoned and explicated look at all sides of whatever she’s chosen to write about. In this novel the less sexy back topic is corporate responsibility, but she makes it memorable and gripping all the same. She gives both sides to the views on mining; on development; and on the effect of both on Bell’s particular small town. There’s an amazing scene inside a mine shaft that illustrates every point she wants to make, as she shows, not tells, the reader her point of view.

The magical spark that lifts these novels above only polemic or only a great story or only a great setting (though all three of these things are true of her books) are her characters and the depth and heart she gives to them. I can say I have been as moved by Keller’s books as I have been by other favorite authors of mine – William Kent Krueger, Louise Penny, and Julia Spencer-Fleming. That’s high praise and it’s well earned not only by Keller’s entire body of work but by this particular novel, which is one of the reads of 2015.

A.J. Rich: The Hand That Feeds You

thehandthatfeedsyouIt’s no secret that I have a bias against slumming “serious” authors who try to write mystery books. They seem to believe that any idiot can produce crime fiction, so maybe it’s time they dashed one off themselves and finally achieve the money and success they deserve. Most of them, however, have not been prepared by their MFA programs to deal with such necessary matters as plot, pacing and suspense,and their well honed abilities to evoke suburban anomie, critique consumer culture and describe changing foliage are of scant use. Clearly, I’m disposed not to like such efforts and I usually don’t, even the ones that many people rave over, like John Banville’s Benjamin Black series.

So when I like I book I’m so predisposed not to, it must be a pretty good book. Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment are Guggenheim award winners, college professors and long time serious writers, and together, calling themselves A.J. Rich, they have written an extraordinary mystery/suspense novel called The Hand That Feeds You.

When I read an advance reading copy from a new writer, it has to grab me from the get go, and the set-up for this one is extremely compelling. Morgan Prager (any relation to Moe?) is a young woman who is completing her thesis on the psychology of victims and predators. She met her new fiancé Bennett as the result of her online trolling to attract predators to study, Bennett being so sane and seductive that he became the control group against which the deviance of the online weirdos could be measured. Her putative future happiness is shattered, however, when she returns to her apartment to find, in an memorably chilling scene, the bloody body of Bennett, who has been apparently mauled to death by her beloved rescue dogs; two pit bulls and a Great Pyrenees.

Quite naturally this horror throws her into an emotional tailspin. She’s pulled out of it after she tries to write a letter of condolence only to discover that the people he claimed as his parents do not exist, and, in fact, nothing that he told her of his past and present life had any validity. She doggedly (so to speak) begins to pursue this man mirage, and, as in many good mysteries, the true identity of the victim provides the solution to the crime. In the familiar mystery manner, the closer she gets to the truth the more dangerous things become, as Morgan discovers that she was not the only woman in Bennett’s life, one of whom was murdered before he died and another, more frighteningly, after.

The writing is vivid and powerful and the plotting extremely clever. Only at the great final reveal does the keenness of the book falter a bit, but the reader who has figured things out has to spend but a few pages wanting to slap some sense into the suddenly obtuse narrator. There’s quite a bit of serious, engaging rumination about the relationship between humans and dogs, men and women and the power trips, heedless cruelty and ultimate love that can result from their interactions. Although there is a measure of ultimate redemption, be forewarned that this is NOT a whimsical Chet and Bernie style dog story, and the compelling quality of the prose, the hard truths and the sex and violence coming at the reader from odd angles can make The Hand That Feed You at times a deeply disturbing book, not that there’s anything wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. Good job, A.J. Rich – you may not achieve the goal implied in your assumed name, but you made me like a book I didn’t want to. (Jamie)

David Bell: The Forgotten Girl & J. Sheridan Le Fanu: Wylder’s Hand

WyldersHandI generally read one book at home and a different one at work. Recently the home book was an old one, Wylder’s Hand, the 1864 “sensation novel” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and the store book was brand new, David Bell’s The Forgotten Girl. Strangely enough, I didn’t get very far in either of them before I realized that despite a span of 150 years, they had the same basic plot. I call it “the mysterious disappearance,” and even though it’s an ancient story, going back at least as far as Persephone, perhaps the original Gone Girl, it’s very much in the air these days, especially since we’re all about to ask where the heck the warm weather went to.

Le Fanu is best known today as the author of many classic ghost stories (if you haven’t checked out “Green Tea,” you really ought to), but he also was a popular novelist, including Uncle Silas, which showcases his peculiar ability to make the skin crawl. His creepy and eerie qualities are in abundant evidence in Wylder’s Hand, but they’re in the service of a plot which today would be classified as a mystery. The tale begins with the titular Mark Wylder about to marry the enigmatic beauty Dorcas Brandon, in a union that’s more the re-grafting of two powerful, entwined family trees than a love match. After a few unsettling comments about how he’d prefer pretty blond neighbor Rachel Lake, Wylder suddenly decamps to London, and from there to the Continent, sending letters that cryptically hint at vague difficulties and eventual return. The main beneficiary of his flight is Rachel’s brother, the shady Captain Stanley Lake, who himself marries the beautiful heiress (who has had a secret crush on him the whole time) and assumes the life of the manor born. Of his character Le Fanu says: Captain Lake was a gentleman and an officer, and of course an honourable man; but somehow I should not have liked to buy a horse from him.

You can catch something of Le Fanu’s tone here – ironic, clever and with a definite Dickensian flavor. Like much writing of the time, there are a lot of coincidences, a wobbly point of view and more than a few plot holes – but the point is not credibility but entertainment, and in this he richly succeeds, sneaking a good dose of class commentary in along the way.

forgottengirlNeither the plot nor the prose of The Forgotten Girl is as rococo, but it is just as compelling, briskly proceeding with its suspenseful storyline in the manner of modern stalwarts like Harlan Coben and Chevy Stevens. I picked it up after several other new books couldn’t hold me beyond the first few paragraphs, and once I did I couldn’t put it down. In it, Jason Danvers and his wife Nora, caught both in an economic malaise and a relationship one, have returned to his old home town of Ednaville  in order to simplify their lives and stabilize their marriage, which had grown wobbly in high pressure New York City.

One night Jason’s sister Hayden, the family black sheep and former addict, out of touch for many years, appears at his door, teenage daughter in tow, and asks Jason and Nora to watch over the girl. Hayden claims she has cleaned up her act, has amends to make and will return in 48 hours at the latest. She does not, and the investigation that follows stirs up the embers of the other great conflagration of Jason’s life, the disappearance of his high school best buddy, Logan Shaw, the rich kid, who, following their fight on graduation night, apparently hit the road, confirming his peripatetic existence, like Mark Wylder, with the occasional letter. Jason’s nosing around after Hayden also seems to stir up her former running mates, the bad boys of high school days, grown even badder and scarier over time, one of whom is her ex-husband and the father of her daughter.

Then there’s that looming figure of the American imagination, “The Girl from High School,” Regan Maines Kreider, whose relationship with Jason was very close to becoming romantic when he and Logan fought over her that last night. She still lives in Ednaville, has been married and divorced, and she and Jason resume a not quite adulterous relationship over coffee and memories, though as events unfold it seems as though she knows more about the double disappearances than she’s revealing.

In Le Fanu’s world characters may be mysterious, but at some point they drop their masks to reveal their true nature. In the modern understanding human nature is much more fluid – the Danvers find that their growing attachment to Hayden’s daughter makes them question their decision to forgo children, and even the baddest of the bad guys can commit a good act. There is a lawyer figure in both books, however, and I’m afraid in terms of their character there hasn’t been much improvement over the years.

The “mysterious disappearance” plot, on the other hand, has remained extremely admirable, both in its durability and the thrills it provides. I heartily enjoyed both Wylder’s Hand and The Forgotten Girl, the former a charming yet creepy iteration from the past and the latter a crackling, suspenseful example of the best of today. (Jamie)