Archive for Suspense/Thriller – Page 2

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.

Steve Hamilton: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Nick_Mason_final2-194x295One of the things crime novels excel at is investigating morality. The most common investigation in a more or less classic mystery involves absolute right and wrong. A noir novel tends to investigate the trickier edges of morality, as Steve Hamilton does brilliantly in his new novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason. The book opens with Nick walking out of prison, always a good start to any book.

Then the story backtracks – how did Nick get out? How did he get in? This is a true noir novel – Nick is in no way an innocent though he seems to have some inner core of decency, and he certainly has formulated a set of rules that help him get through each prison day. It’s this formulation that snags the attention of Darius Cole, who has a virtual office set up in his cell, along with a couple body guards and a couple prison guards who serve as his lackeys.

Spending time with Nick, Mr. Cole tells him that prison is just “geography” – he may be in Terra Haute, Indiana, behind bars, but in his mind he’s back home in Chicago, where Nick comes from and where he helped commit the crime that landed him in prison. Mr. Cole has the power to get Nick out, set him up in a fancy north side townhouse, and all Nick has to do is answer the phone when it rings and do what he’s told. He won’t be free, he’ll just be mobile.

Creating this kind of constrained character set up is also something crime novels excel at, and this is a great set up. Hamilton is one of the most effortless and clear voiced of storytellers, and his books move with a true undeniable energy.

And to be honest I was equating Nick somewhat with Hamilton’s other creation, reluctant PI Alex McKnight, but when Nick goes off the rails his resemblance to Alex ends. And yet, despite the very horrible things Nick does, I was still on his side to a degree. A scene with his daughter even brought me to tears. I’m not sure what alchemy is at work here, but I ended the novel both horrified by his actions and feeling some affection for him as a person.

That’s a pretty difficult juggling act, and Hamilton nails it. Hamilton sets this one up for a sequel, and leaves many threads hanging. I was fascinated and compelled enough by Nick to want to keep reading, and to want to know more. Time spent reading a novel by Steve Hamilton is always worthwhile, from his first one, A Cold Day in Paradise, to this one. The thing that maybe sets the two books apart is that now Hamilton has the undeniable true voice of an author who knows where he’s going and what he wants to accomplish. In other words, a writer at his peak. I’d advise getting out of his way and enjoying the ride.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: What You See

whatyouseeFour books in, Hank Phillippi Ryan has hit a sweet spot with her latest Jane Ryland mystery. A perfect mix of plot, suspense, emotion and character, Ryan takes a crazily snarled few days in the lives of Jane and her boyfriend Detective Jake Brogan and makes you live through them right alongside the characters. She layers her story so that she shifts between what’s happening to Jane and what’s happening to Jake, often cutting away just as she’s gotten to a reveal or plot twist, which only serves to sharpen the suspense.

This is a many faceted story. One thread concerns a stabbing in Boston’s Curley Park; the chaotic aftermath leads the police to an alley where they find one man on the ground and one man holding him there. They send the one of the ground to the hospital – is he the stabber? – and the other one, who may be a witness or maybe more than that, is also hauled to the police station for questioning.

Jane, in the course of a job interview at Channel 2 (yes folks, she might be headed back to TV after a visit to print journalism) is asked to step in as a freelancer on the park stabbing during her interview. She’s handed a video camera and she’s on her way, savoring the feeling of being back where she feels she belongs. Of course the park case belongs to Jake, which is complicated, and when Jane in approached by a young wanna be photographer who says he has the incident on tape, it becomes more so. When the young man’s camera is smashed by the man in the alley, the two plot threads become hopelessly intertwined.

Meanwhile Jane is anticipating the wedding of her sister Melissa and Melissa calls her frantically, saying her fiancé’s nine year old daughter, Gracie, has disappeared. Jane is now torn: help her sister? Try and get a job? It’s a conflict with her boyfriend’s job (cops and reporters are not supposed to date) but she needs to work. On the other hand – her sister. Throughout, Ryan balances the ethics of protocol and legality with the right thing to do, not always the same thing. All of her characters are struggling with this central concept.

Few writers are as skilled as Ryan at portraying the hectic pace of a work day, and in this outing, Jane is not only trying to balance her work life, her romantic life with Jake and her family responsibilities as her sister seems genuinely frightened, trying without total success to have none of them be the loser. Choices must be made and none of them are simple ones. Jane reluctantly leaves the park scene telling her possible new boss she has a family conflict and rushes to her sister’s side. Gracie’s mother is alternately hysterical and then reassured, as Gracie’s stepfather keeps calling in with updates. But the updates are bizarre and something seems off about the whole thing.

Jane is pulled back and forth between the two crises and with barely more than a chance to nod at Jake, and neither really knows what the other is up to. Meanwhile there’s another story thread involving a young woman, Tenley, who has a job monitoring the city via video (it’s her summer job) and she’s mindlessly bored by it until she notices something is actually happening on her video screen. Her ethical choice: to record what she sees, or not?

As Ryan layers Tenley’s family story into the rest of the plot she has a large number of balls in the air which she then proceeds to juggle with author-ly perfection. With each snap and turn of this crisp plot, not only are you often surprised, you’re emotionally engaged. This book had me in tears several times as Ryan explicates this complex story and the complex family relationships surrounding all of the incidents, not least the one involving Jane’s own family. I had a breathless feeling myself as I flipped pages, trying to keep up with Jane and Jake as they went about their business; Ryan breathes reality and suspenseful tension into the whole novel. It’s flawlessly done – one of the best and most resonant thrillers of the year.

Chris Holm: The Killing Kind

Killing-Kind-CoverThis is a tight, smart, no hold barred thriller – I’d compare it to the Bourne Identity movies (alas, I haven’t read the books) in that the action is so organic and well staged it’s about impossible to look away. Holm’s premise is also a great one: his main character, Michael Hendricks, is a hitman – who only hits other hitmen. It has some of the joyful precision of Prizzi’s Honor, which, fans of the movie will recall, was also about hitmen (or a hitman and woman).

Hendricks only kills people who are about to kill other people. The people he’s saving aren’t always the most worthy types, but they are innocents of a kind, and Hendricks is seeking atonement for various wartime events that are revealed in the novel. His only ties to society are a fellow army buddy, Lester, a genius hacker who has been left wheelchair bound by an IED in Kandahar; and his former girlfriend, Evie, who, thinking Hendricks is dead, has made a life with another man.

However, there would be no real story without a worthy opponent, and Holm supplies one in the form of Englemann, an equally gifted (though far more twisted) hitman. While it takes a couple chapters for all the story threads to knit together – there are several – once they do, there’s no looking back. This is a thriller that takes no prisoners, through action, rather than suspense. That’s hard to do in a book rather than a movie, and Colm effortlessly pulls it off. While Hendricks and Englemann are killing machines, Holm is apparently a storytelling machine. Don’t start this one too late in the day – you won’t get any sleep!

P.J. Parrish: She’s Not There

shes-not-thereWe all know how masterfully P.J. Parrish (actually the sisters Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols) can create suspense. What is amazing to me—considering that my sister and I can hardly write a joint grocery list without getting all Cain and Abel—is how seamlessly all the elements of a great mystery come together in a satisfying whole in their collaboration. Their new book, She’s Not There, a departure from the Louis Kincaid series, hits the ground running, with a set-up reminiscent of the great noir thrillers of the past.

A woman wakes up in the hospital, and learns that not only does the doctor have no idea of her name. but, even more alarmingly, she doesn’t either. She has only a few disturbing memories to go on, along with the firm certainty that she is in grave danger and had better start running at once. She does so, showing great resourcefulness and intelligence, learning a little bit more about herself every step of the way.

And soon there is a tenacious pursuer after her, one Clay Buchanan, a preternaturally gifted finder of people who don’t want to be found. His method is largely based on understanding the nature of the pursued, so as the woman rediscovers her identity and history, Clay is on a parallel track, leading to several collisions. What seems to be a missing persons case triggered by an anxious, loving husband shades into something much more sinister, and Clay himself into a hard examination of his own nature, history and limits.

She’s Not There has it all: great suspense, great characters and a crackling pace, equal if not superior to any bestseller you might name. I felt a little disappointed as the book concluded when I realized, that, although this story was wrapped up, several loose ends in the characters’ lives remained loose, but this disappointment turned to gratitude when I figured out that this was the first installment of a new series which hopefully will continue for a long time. (Jamie)

Stefanie Pintoff: Hostage Taker

HostageTakerUnfortunately, Stefanie Pintoff is no longer writing her wonderful (and Edgar winning) series set in turn of the century New York; fortunately, she’s turned her hand to thrillers and she’s very, very good at it. I wasn’t so sure when I saw the title (which is kind of generic) but I don’t think Pintoff as a writer is actually capable of writing anything approaching generic. She’s too good, and too smart, of a writer. The book I was most reminded of as I was reading was Deaver’s The Bone Collector, both for the intelligent storytelling and for the memorable main character.

The main character, Special FBI Agent Eve Rossi, is recalled from compassionate leave to take over an enormously front and center hostage situation. There are few more iconic or beloved structures in the United States than St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, and that’s where Pintoff has set her story. A “hostage taker” has sealed off the cathedral, wired it to explode, and as Eve arrives on the scene is demanding to speak to her, though her higher up decides to start off with an NYPD negotiator instead. This turns out to be a terrible mistake.

While the body count in this novel is far from minimal, Pintoff’s historical series was actually at times more gruesome than this tightly wound thriller. As Eve attempts to forge a connection with the hostage taker, she recalls her own “Vidocq” team, named for the French thief who turned himself in to the Surete in 1809 and in exchange for a clean record, offered to help catch thieves. Eve’s team are an amalgamation of thieves, high end computer hackers, former drug dealers and others who were on the wrong side of the law and have now turned their out of the box thinking skills to solving crimes.

Pintoff takes the time to establish each of the characters, so she’s invested you as a reader from the first with the setting, and then continues to do so through her skillful use of character development. Interspersed through the narrative are the thoughts of the hostage taker as well as background reports on each FBI agent, describing their strengths and weaknesses. Eve is also requested by the hostage taker to assemble some disparate witnesses and she sends her team out to find them, as not agreeing to the hostage taker’s requests seems to result in death.

There are some excellent threads involving a priest who disapproves of any sort of damage to St. Patrick’s, a missing teenager, and an Iraqi war vet suffering from PTSD forced to go back into a dark, confined space to attempt to breach the unbreachable. All in all, this is a very well thought out, suspenseful read that sticks with you. Pintoff has definitely set things up for a sequel, which I hope will be forthcoming.

Brian Freeman: Season of Fear

Season-of-FearTaking the detective from his excellent stand-alone, The Bone House, Freeman brings the eccentric Cab Bolton to Florida and lands him in the middle of an unholy mess. The novel begins with a shooting at a political rally, where the candidate and a couple others were shot and killed. The shooter escapes and a later capture and imprisonment leaves some folks not so sure the right person is in jail for the crime. Flash forward 10 years and the dead candidate’s wife, Diane, is in the race for Florida Governor as a third party candidate. She’s supported by her best friend, Tarla, who also happens to be Cab’s mother. Cab has been asked by a campaign operative to look into possible threats to Diane as the 10th anniversary of the shooting approaches.

Incredibly timely, Freeman’s book is a look at the backstage part of politics, set during a hurricane. Along with Cab, the book focuses on Peach Piper, a political operative who does “opposition research.” Peach was far and away my favorite character in the novel, as she’s incredibly nuanced. She’s fierce and smart but also damaged by the shooting of her brother, who died along with Diane’s husband in the incident that opens the book. She’s also recently lost her boyfriend to murder and while cops and others are saying his death was drug related, she isn’t buying it.

While she continues her work for the campaign she’s also working on her own to find her boyfriend’s killer and exonerate his name. She’s not sure who to trust, and neither is the reader, though all through I was certain Peach and Cab were OK. Everyone else was a question mark.

This is a tightly wound thriller that climaxes with a hurricane – a very Florida occurrence, and as the book draws to a close there are a number of surprising twists and turns of plot. One in particular was especially neat and surprising. This is a book you won’t be able to stop reading as you race to find out the ways Cab and Peach help each other figure out the truth.

Ruth Ware: In a Dark, Dark Wood

in-a-dark-dark-woodThis is the first novel by Brit Ruth Ware, and it’s that rare thriller that is also a mystery. In a straight thriller, you may know whodunnit, and the thrill is catching or finding that person in time. But combining the best parts of the thriller—pacing, suspense—with the best parts of a mystery—whodunnit?—is a rarer skill. It’s shared by such writers as Jeffery Deaver and Lee Child. Heady stuff for a first timer.

This is a completely gripping story—I read it straight through in one sitting, just about—and you won’t forget it anytime soon. The central character is Nora, who lives alone in a London flat. She’s contacted out of the blue by someone named Flo who is throwing a bachelorette party (or in Brit lingo, a “Hen Do”) for Clare, Nora’s childhood best friend who she hasn’t seen in a decade.

As the book opens Nora is running through the woods, and then wakes up in the hospital with no memory of what has happened. Piecing it together is the book’s narrative arc, and as Nora starts to remember, the reader gets a clearer picture of what transpired at what sounds like the world’s most uncomfortable house party.

For starters the bride is marrying an old friend, James. There’s something between Nora and James, something the reader isn’t privy to until the end of the novel, but it seems clear Clare was afraid to tell Nora who she was marrying. As the disparate group gets to know each other—partly through the corny games Flo has put together and partly through a great deal of drinking—it becomes more and more obvious that something terrible is going to happen.

That feeling of dread is whipped up by the house itself, a modern and incongruous glass and steel concoction in the middle of the countryside, and by the dusting of snow that appears on the first night, making everything that much more uncomfortable and somehow more isolated. The author refers to Christie’s And Then There Were None but I was more strongly reminded of Agatha’s creepy psychological thriller, Endless Night, which focuses on an unwanted house in the middle of nowhere and also, true golden age style, has a very tiny suspect pool.

As Ware unspools her concise, tightly plotted story—with, yes, a tiny suspect pool—I was impressed by her feat of keeping the reader guessing until almost the very last page. While Ware fits into a newfangled tradition of British psychological thrillers, she’s avoided the trap of writing too long, and she also appears to embrace a classic mystery structure. It looks to all appearances like this new talent is going to settle in for a long career.

Joseph Finder: Suspicion

Suspicion_paperbackThis is the first book I’ve read by the talented Joseph Finder, who really writes a killer thriller. Some parts of this book were so suspenseful I had to remind myself I was only reading about fictional characters. There, I’ve said it, disclosed my wimp-hood, but Finder really knows how to crank up the suspense in a simple scene where a character is someplace he really, really shouldn’t be.

The story grabbed me from the opening as we join writer and single father Danny Goldman feverishly wondering how he can afford the pricey Boston private school his daughter attends, much less the $5,000 trip to Italy all the juniors go on. His tuition is late and the headmistress is happy to wish his daughter, Abby, good luck at her new school. It seems there’s no answer, until Danny discovers that Abby’s fabulously wealthy new bestie has a dad willing to foot the bill for Italy. One problem solved.

The family invites Danny and Abby over for dinner and he’s disarmed by their normal niceness despite their huge gated mansion and chauffeur. Danny is more than bemused when the father, Tom – from a working class background in South Boston, just like himself – turns out to be such a regular guy. Over drinks in his study he offers Danny a personal loan large enough to cover his Abby’s tuition and pay his bills. With a book deal that’s going south Danny accepts, but the relief he feels at meeting his obligations is short lived.

Not long after the wire transfer appears in his account, Danny is contacted by the DEA who inform him that either he inform on his new friend for them or go to prison. The wire transfer is all they need to prove he’s connected to a drug cartel. Reeling, Danny agrees, and the rest of the novel is an incredibly suspenseful ride as Danny tries to balance his fledgling friendship with Tom with spying on him and attempting to slip listening devices into places he shouldn’t.

Finder manages to create a great deal of suspense with minimal violence (though there is some, this is after all a novel about a drug cartel) by telling a great story and keeping the plot – and characters – just a twist ahead of you as you’re reading. Danny is such a decent everyman type you’ll no doubt be wondering how you would behave in his shoes, but hopefully you’ll never have to find out. You will, however, probably want to pick up another Joseph Finder novel.

Linda Castillo: After the Storm

AfterTheStormApparently, mystery writers don’t think like other people. They can see things in the mundane that create horror. As I was reading Linda Castillo’s new book, I was reminded of a store visit from Thomas Cook years ago. He was recounting the experience of watching “Little Women” with his daughter. He said when it came to the scene where one of the girls goes through the woods to deliver some cookies, he thought to himself, “Oh, this is the rape scene!” Then he remembered he was watching “Little Women.” The cookies get delivered. Cook was disappointed by the lack of drama.

Linda Castillo, like Thomas Cook, is able to find drama in the ordinary – in the case of this novel, that most Midwestern of disasters, a tornado – but also pigs, dandelion greens and a baby deliver a wallop. While on one hand she describes the beauty of the Ohio countryside – and I can attest that the rolling Ohio hills where her stories are set are gorgeous – she can also plunge her characters into extreme danger at the drop of a hat.

As I was reading along I thought the sometimes brutal Castillo had forgotten to include an initial crime, but then I remembered, oh, someone was eaten by pigs in the first scene. Somehow Castillo finds the balance that makes the extreme violence she describes in the bucolic countryside believable. I think it may be because her central character, Kate Burkholder, is so grounded.

Kate is a former Amish who now serves as the police chief in tiny Painter’s Mill, where she grew up. Many of the Amish she encounters are familiar to her, and she easily slips into Pennsylvania Dutch when talking to them. This book centers on a childhood love and the discovery of some old bones by some boy scouts who are helping to clean up after the tornado.

While Kate is warily respected, she takes no prisoners when she’s on a case and this one gets to her as she works to identify the bones of someone who has now been missing for thirty years. While the identity of the person belonging to the bones isn’t a surprise, as is the story surrounding him and the complex layers of family loyalty and affection that surround his disappearance take until the end of the novel to be solved.

Typically for a Linda Castillo book I was flipping pages faster and faster as I neared the end.

The other thing that saves her books from sheer, bleak brutality is that the world is righted at the end of each novel. Kate ends up happy and grounded and you’re left hoping that it will continue to hold when she encounters her next case.

This has long been a vivid and original series with an unusual setting and it’s been a fun ride to see how Castillo has handled Kate’s long journey to adulthood and command not just of her police force but of herself. This is another well done effort from the talented Castillo.