Archive for Suspense/Thriller

Karen Dionne: The Marsh King’s Daughter

Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.

The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it.

But flash forward to when Helena is a grown, married woman with two daughters of her own, and she learns that her father, the “Marsh King” of the title, has escaped from prison. When the cops show up on her doorstep at the same time as her husband, who has no idea of Helena’s backstory, his first impulse is to get the girls in the car and get out of dodge. Helena refuses to go with him – this is her quest, but she fears she’s lost her husband forever. Trust is not a concept she’s familiar with, and as the story evolves, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The story weaves together the past and the present, so we learn of Helena’s childhood where her mild mother was very much a background figure to the devotion and kinship of Helena and her father as he teaches her to hunt and survive in a remote area with no running water, electricity, or any means of communication. Everything the tiny family has is a product of their hard work, from the leather Helena’s mother softens and makes into gloves and hats to the snowshoes made by Helena’s father. Helena’s only frame of reference for the world are an old stack of National Geographics.

In the present she’s hunting her father in the wilderness they both know so well, and it’s clear that while he’s an expert woodsman, so is she, thanks to his training. They are lethal equals, and Helena’s task is made more urgent when she starts finding bodies.

In the past, while the young Helena clearly loves her father and loves the things he teaches her, she’s also subjected to beatings and punishments (being locked in a well, for example) and her mother is basically being raped every night, with Helena being a product of a rape. These things are only clear to Helena as she gets older, however – when she is a young girl she holds her mother in contempt.

This story could be set nowhere else but the UP, and Dionne is an amazingly evocative and vivid writer describing her setting. While I grew up in Michigan and spent my summers “up north,” entering the UP always felt like I was going to a different country, and Dionne is expert in portraying that feeling.

As Helena grows older and becomes ready, naturally, for the next phase of her life, her growing rebellion and strength makes her father angry and leads to a showdown. As the two of them in the present race toward one another for another show down, it puts this intimate story on an almost epic scale. Everything about this novel is perfect: the writing, which is not too flowery but is memorable and clear; the characters – Helena and her parents will stay in my mind for a very long time; the vivid setting, and finally, the story that doesn’t let up. If there’s a better novel written this year I would be very surprised. Don’t miss it.

Steve Hamilton: Exit Strategy

Steve Hamilton’s Exit Strategy, the second book in his Nick Mason series, begins with the kind of slam-bang bravura action sequence that we’ve come to expect before the credits in a James Bond or Bourne movie. Nick must infiltrate a heavily guarded eighty-two-story building, elude or incapacitate at least a dozen Federal Marshals, eliminate a prospective witness and then escape before the big explosion. Adding to the degree of difficulty is Nick’s reluctance to kill innocent people.

Exit Strategy is built around several expertly dramatized set pieces like this, where Nick must rub out targets who are heavily guarded by professionals on high alert.  Action sequences may seem basic, but their actual execution takes a very adroit hand to delineate who is doing what to whom. You have only to read a bad thriller or watch a bad action movie (no names please) to see that pacing, sure description and accuracy are crucial, and the lack of them excruciating.

But what Exit Strategy has that many otherwise fine thrillers lack is the human element. Human beings aren’t actually killing machines, and there’s always a cost to violence, the effect of which is charted in superior crime fiction. As Nick reflects:

You kill one person, it changes you. You kill five… it’s not about changing anymore. It’s who you are. 

Becoming “The Angel of Death” makes you necessarily less of a man, with the result threatening the human connections that surround us all. This interior drama is expertly painted as well, with the character and motivations of even the most despicable characters clear and credible.

Obviously, Hamilton walks a fine line in this series. Nick may be a reluctant hitman in the same way that Steve’s other series character, the beloved Alex McKnight, is a reluctant private eye, but he’s a hitman all the same.  He isn’t doing these things for money or pathology or even truth, justice and the American way, but because he’s been forced into it by kingpin crime boss Darius Cole. Cole fixed it so that Nick was released early from prison, mobile but not free, and keeps him in line by threatening his family, particularly beloved daughter Adrian.

Ultimately it’s his paternal desire to see her grow up (usually from a distance) that’s his motivation to pursue an unholy trade. As the book continues he’s also motivated to seek revenge on taskmaster Cole and somehow forge the titular “exit strategy.”

The Noir is deep in this one, as the corrupt authority figures seem to outnumber the honest ones, and the police, feds and even the Army seem essentially powerless in the face of evil. And just when it seems like Nick might find his way out of his maze, there’s another turning that may leave him as trapped as before. In the hands of a lesser writer it all might get too grim, but from the gifted Steve Hamilton Exit Strategy is crime fiction of the highest quality. (Jamie)

Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer: Mercy

Every now and then I have a teeny tiny “free reading” window—when I’m not reading books for Mystery Scene or for the store newsletter or by authors who are nice enough to come and visit us—so when I unpacked a recent shipment and found a new Michael Palmer paperback during this last such free reading moment, I practically squealed with delight. I love these books and have found that since Palmer’s death, and the pick-up of the series by his son, Daniel, there has been no let-up in quality or change in style or storytelling. Unlike his Dad, Daniel himself is not a doctor, but the medical details seem absolutely real.

In this outing, Dr. Julie Devereaux, an advocate for death with dignity, is reveling in her life as a cordially divorced mother of a tween boy looking forward to her upcoming marriage to Sam, who has introduced her to the pleasures of motorcycle riding. An ER doc, she finds the motorcycle riding relaxing. However, as any soap opera viewer or reader of mysteries knows, whenever a character feels they have “everything they ever wanted,” that’s when the trouble starts.

And you’ve probably guessed the trouble—Julie’s out riding with her beloved Sam when they get into an accident and Sam is horribly injured, though not killed. Not only is her world shattered, but her views on death with dignity are put to the acid test. Julie’s personal agony and several cases she’s involved with, also involving critically ill or injured patients, illustrate the dilemma of the book. To spice things up, many of these patients seem to be dying of the same rare heart condition: all of them were almost literally frightened to death.

As in every Palmer novel there’s some big bad happenings inside the upper echelons of the hospital that also play into the story, a typically rousing Palmer thriller that involves intrigue, suspense, a creeping killer, a hero or two and a not unexpected though well earned conclusion. These books are to be read for the joy of pure storytelling. I hope this father and son collaboration continues for many years to come.

Nicholas Petrie: The Drifter

While I am not very interested in the mechanics of violence—i.e., action scenes—Petrie is pretty good at them. This lean, mean, stripped down novel about an Iraqi war vet with serious PTSD grabs you from the start as he climbs under a porch to remove and subdue a large, smelly and hostile dog. It’s unclear why he’s under the porch, who the little boy on the porch is, or why exactly he has to remove the dog, but as the book progresses the whys and whos come into focus.

It becomes clear that the main character—the drifter of the title—Pete, is living in his truck because he can’t bear to be indoors and he’s repairing this particular porch because it belonged to a fellow vet who committed suicide. He feels he let his friend down and is trying to make it up to him.

While he’s working, he finds a suitcase full of money and plastic explosives under the porch, and the question becomes—did it belong to his friend? Does the wife know about it? Does anyone else know about it? Some sinister questioning from a man with a scarred face who happens to drive by the house puts a rest to that question.

It becomes clear who the real couple in the book is early on: Pete and the dog. To get the dog out, he’s tied a stick in his mouth so he can’t bite, but as Pete hand feeds him and lets him sleep in his truck they become friendly and eventually one of the more pressing questions I had when reading this compelling thriller was, when was Pete going to give the dog a bath?

As the plot threads tighten and Petrie uses some clever sleight of hand to reveal the identity of the criminal mastermind behind the money and plastic explosives, it’s hard to stop reading this book. It’s well written and well constructed, and Pete and the dog will stay with you long after you finish reading.

We had Petrie’s professor in the store for an event and he bought one of Lee Child’s books, as he said Nick cited him as an influence. The professor seemed confused by this. No mystery reader will be, however. Pete has threads of Jack Reacher hanging all over him. This is a terrific debut.

Ruth Ware: The Woman in Cabin 10

cabin10First of all, kudos to Ruth Ware for not calling this “The GIRL in Cabin 10”. Thank you, Ms. Ware, for writing a book about adults and referring to them as such. Second of all, I was a huge fan of her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, and this one is even better. No kidding. The skills she brought to her first novel are both refined and sharpened here.

The book opens with travel journalist Lo Blacklock waking up alone in her London apartment to the sounds of a burglar. While she’s only slightly injured, she’s terrified and feels invaded, and her panic doesn’t abate when the locksmith changing her locks mentions that lots of time burglars come back. She ends up sleeping at her boyfriend’s apartment – he’s away on a work trip – and he wakes her up when he returns only to be rewarded with a punch in the face.

After she and her boyfriend Judah – who seems perfectly nice, and very understanding – have a bit of a tiff, she heads off in a state of exhausted paranoia for what should be the trip of a lifetime. Her boss at her travel magazine, Velocity, is on maternity leave, and Lo has been given the plum assignment of covering the maiden voyage of the Aurora, an ultra-luxurious cruise ship owned by a Norwegian billionaire. At the beginning, it’s just her exhaustion making her touchy and paranoid, as she’s almost too tired to enjoy her rented evening gown, delicious champagne and incredible food the first night out. The next morning – horrors – she’s scheduled for a spa morning with the other “lady” journalists.

As she sinks into bed the first night to sleep the dreamless sleep of the exhausted, she’s yanked awake in the middle of the night by a thumping sound from the next door cabin. She knows it’s occupied, because she’d borrowed a mascara from the woman staying there before dinner, but when she hurries to her balcony, she hears a splash and sees what she’s sure is a smear of blood on the balcony wall next door. She hurriedly calls security.

What follows is almost a bad dream played out in real time, as Lo attempts to convince the security guard that she’d seen a woman in the cabin next door – it’s now spotlessly empty, and she really did heard and see what she says she did. There’s suggestion of her drinking too much, of being hungover, even the fact that she uses anti-depressants comes to light, all to make Lo into the classic unreliable narrator. This part of the novel is almost difficult to read, it’s so tense, frustrating and suspenseful, all at the same time. Fans of her first novel will recognize this – it’s fem-jeop on steroids. If Mary Higgins Clark were a few decades younger, this is probably the type of novel she’d be writing at this moment.

But then about halfway through, while this is still a suspense novel, it also becomes a classic detective novel with a twist and clues that Ware has placed for the reader throughout. I loved Ware’s sly references to classic detective novels– I spotted Miss Marple, Agatha Raisin, and Karin Fossum, just to name a few.   It’s never overboard, just a winking detail, like when Lo is in a particularly unpleasant situation and all she has to read is Sylvia Plath’s novel of attempted suicide, The Bell Jar. Yikes.

Ware also expertly layers her story by using e-mails, news clips, and segments that divide her well planned novel into parts. I literally could not stop reading, and unlike other recent novels I couldn’t stop reading with “girl” in the title, I actually liked Lo and was rooting for her to figure out what was happening. The sting is in the tail, as they say, and this novel has a bravura twist and a terrific ending that made me smile. This is one of the reads of the year.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Say No More

saynomoreSometimes the cultural zeitgeist affects writers even more than others, and this year I’ve read several novels addressing sexual violence and even more specifically, the rape culture that exists on college campuses. Jamie reviewed two recent memoirs, The Red Parts and Jane Doe January, involving real cases, and I was captivated earlier in the year by Allison Leotta’s The Last Good Girl. Hank Phillippi Ryan is now joining the fray with her latest, Say No More.

Ryan and Leotta are a fair comparison – both are proactive women who have or have had real life careers where they can make a change: Ryan as an on-air, Emmy winning reporter in Boston, and Leotta as a former sex crimes prosecutor. Both are no nonsense writers who do not mince words, a quality I never fail to appreciate. Both write the kind of thoughtful thriller that keeps a reader turning pages and thinking afterward.

Ryan’s and Leotta’s novels are of course not the same, they just address the same vitally important issue. Ryan approaches it through the eyes of her central series character, reporter Jane Ryland. Jane is in a bit of a betwixt-and-between stage in her life, both in her relationship with policeman Jake (they are engaged, but she’s not wearing her ring) and in her professional life, as she eases back into on air journalism.

To that end she’s working with a young co-worker on a documentary about college rape, inviting victims to call in with their stories, and looking for one she can interview on-air, a difficult proposition. In the “real time” of the story, she and her co-worker have witnessed a car accident and Jane’s recall of the driver puts a tumbling cascade of events into motion.

One of Ryan’s super powers as a writer is to infuse her books with a real heart-on-the-sleeve quality that feels very genuine. While she’s a thriller writer with the complex, intertwining plotting skills of the best of them, her heartfelt way of telling a story and making the reader bond with her characters sets her apart.

I really care about Jane and Jake – I care about Jane’s career. I want to know what’s going to happen. And more importantly, I think, I care about the people she writes about and makes central to her novels. In this one it’s a young woman who goes by the pseudonym of Tosca, and who has called Jane with the details of her story, a giant leap for a young woman who is taking all her classes remotely and refuses to leave her apartment.

As Jane and Tosca make contact and begin to form a bond, it’s also clear there’s a pattern of campus assaults, and it’s somehow tied to the death of a young professor, a death that may or may not be an accident. (This is a mystery novel, though, so you know it’s not an accident).

As Ryan skillfully weaves together the threads of her complex plot I was captured, as always, by the sheer narrative, but I was also engaged emotionally as Ryan examines a culture of rape and an attitude towards women that’s simply unacceptable. If stories like Ryan’s and Leotta’s can begin to affect the way people think, behave and approach a problem, these authors will have, even more importantly than writing a compelling novel, have hopefully actually affected the way people think and behave. It’s a very good reason to spread the news of this book as far and wide as possible.

Brian Freeman: Goodbye to the Dead

51n4dDPJuzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Anyone who has read any of Brian Freeman’s other Jonathan Stride novels set in Duluth know Stride is haunted by the death of his wife, Cindy. He’s in the present happily dating a woman named Serena but it’s been an itch I couldn’t scratch throughout the series – what was Cindy like? How did she die? (I knew she had cancer but the details were murky). What was her relationship with Stride like? Well, readers, those questions are answered at last and I could not have immersed myself more in this novel as I drank in the details of Stride’s marriage. Mr. Freeman, of course, as usual, includes a kick ass thriller on top of all this, so the book is literally impossible to put down.

The book opens with Stride’s adopted daughter, Cat, hanging out in a bar; step-mama Serena sweeps in to remove her from the bar (she’s 17 and pregnant). When they leave, however, Serena interrupts a shooting and chases down the suspect, getting beaten up for her trouble. Then the story backtracks to the past, and we meet Cindy Stride. If, like me, you’ve waited though six novels for details of Cindy, I won’t spoil it for you except to say that she’s certainly worthy of the wait.

The book goes back to a case where Cindy was forced to testify against a friend she’d dropped off at home after a party. Cindy headed home only to hear later that the friend’s husband had been shot and killed soon after she left. While Stride does his best to examine every avenue, Cindy’s friend – an accomplished and beautiful doctor – sure seems guilty and her case goes to trial. It’s the one thing Jonathan and Cindy fight about but around the time of the verdict, Cindy becomes ill. That’s hardly a spoiler as we already know she dies of cancer.

Stride must come to terms with his past, with his feelings for Serena in the present, with his feelings with Cat who is not an easy person to have around, and he must deal with tendrils of the long ago case against the doctor that have turned up in the present. I won’t get into specifics as I don’t want to give away too much of the clever and complex plot, I’ll just say that Mr. Freeman has hit this one out of the park. To me it’s by far the best in the series, and I was a big fan of the last book, The Cold Nowhere. I finished the book in tears, which to me is the true indication of a great read.

Linda Castillo: Among the Wicked

512arl5LsTL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The first chapter of this novel is a master class on how to kick off a gripping thriller. We meet an unnamed woman as she sneaks out of—somewhere?—we just find out it’s very cold and she has to be quiet. We join her on her escape and ultimate chase and death, caring about her more and more the more we read. In indelible strokes and in a short amount of space—only 9 pages—Castillo introduces her story conflict, brings us a character we care about and are invested in, and establishes a vivid setting. Really, if you want to write a gripping crime novel, this would be a great chapter to check out as an example. But if you’re a reader, like most of us, you’ll simply want to find out what’s next.

What’s next is Chief Kate Burkholder, out on one last call—she admonishes an Amish buggy driver about using reflective signage when he’s out on the road—an incident that quickly sets Castillo’s scene in Painter’s Mill, Ohio, in the heart of northeast Ohio Amish country. As she returns to her office to check in with her staff, she’s waylaid by a couple guys from BCI who, as it turns out, want her to go undercover. Kate’s boyfriend, John Tomacetti, a BCI agent himself, is against it.

As it turns out it seems something is amiss in an Amish settlement in upstate New York, and Kate, being not only female but actually Amish and fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch, seems like a perfect choice. Tomacetti has his doubts, as undercover operations can go wrong in so many ways. Nevertheless, Kate is set up with a cover story, a new identity (“Kate Miller”) and a rented mobile home. On arrival, moving into the grim home out in the woods with spotty heating and no chance to use electric light (being Amish), only lanterns, she starts to regret her choice, but she soon makes headway in the community.

It’s apparent before too much time has passed that something is very, very wrong, from the Bishop who rules the community with an iron fist, to the mysterious Amish youth on snowmobiles apparently abusing women, to the culture of no talking where the Bishop is concerned, either out of fear or respect. Kate thinks it’s a mix of both things. As she herself is drawn into a more and more dangerous situation—and Castillo expertly uses winter weather as an added foe in Kate’s struggles—the level of corruption in the community turns out to be high.

Castillo is a thriller writer but she’s also a flat out mystery writer, so her plot structure, clues, and suspect pools are almost traditional. It’s an interesting and enthralling mix. I especially enjoyed this novel as we finally get to understand some of Kate’s roots in the Amish community, the reasons she loved it and the reasons she left it. It serves to flesh out her character even more, and at this point, seven books into a terrific series, Kate Burkholder seems like she should be a real living, breathing human being. And isn’t that why so many of us love series fiction?—the characters, the “what happens next” to them as people. The great stories are the bonus cherry on the cupcake to books that reconnect us with fictional characters who feel like old friends.

David Bell: Since She Went Away

27190380If you want a compelling reading experience, just pick up a David Bell book. Reading the first page can be like leaning over a suspense generating machine—the gears of the story will grab any loose time you have and draw you in irresistibly. Take, for instance, the first few lines of his latest, Since She Went Away:

Five police cars. Three news vans. And one coroner’s wagon.

Boom. There’s obviously something intriguing going on here and the reader will want to know what it is.

Bell’s developing story is anything but mechanical, however, but powered, as most good stories are, by realistic, multifaceted characters. It alternates between two viewpoints; that of Jenna Barton and her son Jared. Jenna is a nurse and single mother who can be a little too candid at times. Her main concern these days is her best friend Celia who has been missing for three months. Since the perpetually late Jenna was supposed to meet Celia at the park the night she disappeared, Jenna has been wracked with guilt and obsessed with the search:

Jenna wondered once again how her life had ended up like this—having to tell her son and her best friend’s daughter she was at a crime scene where a part of a woman’s body had been found.

Her son finds that his life has changed too.

It was a first for Jared Barton: a beautiful girl in his bedroom.

But even this teenage dream has its disconcerting edges. His girl has only recently moved into town and has a very controlling father and an extreme reluctance to discuss her past. Jared is as impetuous as his mother, but he tends more to charge headfirst at his problems rather than talk about them. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to figure out these two mysteries are going to converge, but I defy anyone to predict exactly how things play out.

The plot twists are adroit and believable, but within the mounting suspense there are also important themes about contemporary society. Nowadays a crime, especially one against an attractive woman is almost inseparable from the ghoulish media din that surrounds it, and Jenna is both provoked and captured by the endless scrutiny and speculation, as well as the lower key, yet just a sinister, online chatter that inevitably proliferates.

There’s also a class aspect, as Celia’s husband Ian is the scion of their small Kentucky town’s reigning family, the rich kid who was Jenna’s biggest high school crush, a relationship even more tantalizing because it never developed into anything after the glamorous Celia swooped in to claim him. Yet now the previously indifferent Ian is reaching out to Jenna, even as his mean girl daughter Ursula is trying to connect with Jared in a not so friendly way.

In short, this book has it all—suspense, character, a mousetrap plot and supple prose, all constructed by the masterful Mr. Bell. Just don’t  get sucked into it if you’ve got a pressing obligation. (Jamie)

Owen Laukkanen: The Watcher in the Wall

9780399174544This is the first one of Laukkanen’s books I’ve read – the subject interested me – and now I know what to say when someone has read every Harlan Coben title. Give Owen Laukkanen a try. This is a thriller with a heart and a brain, a difficult combination to resist. Laukkanen’s series characters are Minneapolis FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, and Stevens is caught off guard early on when one of his daughter’s classmates commits suicide.

Windemere has her own issues with a classmate’s suicide many years ago and she takes a personal interest in this young man’s death, which, upon examination, appears to have been encouraged by someone else. While the FBI agents are on a tech trail trying to figure out what happened and find the instigator, the parallel story shows the reader just what’s going on.

Laukkanen takes us back in time to when nerdy Randy Gruber has been taken by his mother to live in a doublewide owned by a violent, abusive man who regularly beats Randy up. His only solace is watching his new stepsister through a hole in his bedroom wall, and later, systematically destroying her life.

Gruber’s adult pattern of encouraging teens to kill themselves is laid down there, but the author’s concern is also with those who feel alienated, depressed – suicidal – and seem to have nowhere to turn to figure things out. He’s firmly on the heartbreaking side of the outsider.

As this tightly coiled plot unspools, with a do or die situation at the end that’s almost hard to read (even though I was pretty sure it would be OK), you won’t be able to stop reading or when finished, to stop thinking about the kids (and adults) in this novel. Laukkanen has an end note about his own struggle with depression, asking anyone who feels they need a hand to reach out. It gave the whole book more resonance as far as I was concerned. Aside from that this is a simply terrific thriller by a smart writer who creates characters you care about and remember.