Archive for Suspense/Thriller – Page 3

Jenny Milchman: As Night Falls

AsNightFallsJenny Milchman’s third novel is the scariest yet – so creepy, I had to keep setting it aside periodically, though that didn’t make me stop reading. And I was well rewarded in my perseverance. As the book opened, I feared it was a standard prisoners escape, hold family hostage type story, but it evolved into something far more. Milchman carefully describes the beautiful home of the Tremont family – Sandy, Ben and daughter Ivy. Thanks to an inheritance, they’ve built a gorgeous, isolated house in the Adirondack woods, a house it appears Ivy and even Sandy were reluctant to move to, though Sandy now embraces the peaceful solitude.

The other thread of the story – and the two are naturally going to collide – concerns a planned prison outbreak on the part of Nick, who appears to be the brains, and the giant Harlan, Nick’s willing sidekick and for want of a better word, tool. The break goes as planned on the end of a highway workday for a small, trusted group of prisoners. Nick and Harlan hijack a car and the ensuing violence leaves them in possession of the car, which Nick unerringly drives directly to the Tremont’s house.

While much of the story is kind of standard (if terrifying) suspense novel type stuff – i.e., will the daughter alone in her room on her headphones and computer ever sense there are intruders in the house? – and what will Sandy do to protect her family as night and a snowstorm prevent the men’s chance to escape through the woods? I will say Milchman is very, very good at suspense, and this is a very scary book.

However, she then begins to back track into Nick’s childhood, following his growth with a mother who worships him and never calls the boy – prone to tantrums and violence, kicked out of many schools – on any of his behavior. His mother thinks he is “gifted” and “creative.” She is alone in her belief.

While the rest of the family dynamic is teased out throughout the book – including the reason Nick was sent to prison in the first place – we follow the Tremonts in their journey to hopefully escape Nick and Harlan’s clutches. While I always like for a writer to be able to make any character appealing, Nick is an unredeemable bad guy. Milchman, though, tries to explain why. I think that’s what sets her books apart, and she’s certainly developing as a writer as she goes.

As the reasons for Nick’s (and Sandy’s) behavior become clear, and the family withstands and witnesses all kind of terrible things, the end is more or less a happy one. At the end, I was left thinking about Nick and his relationship with his mother. A suspense novel with food for thought is a real achievement.

Olen Steinhauer: The Tourist and All the Old Knives

TheTouristThe world of the spy novel can be a fascinating one. In the mystery universe murder is always lurking below the surface of our quotidian world, but it’s an anomaly, a rent in the social fabric that must be repaired. To a spy, murder is protocol, simply business as usual. Spies are soldiers fighting a patriotic war, but the battlefield is everyday life and no one wears a uniform. Only a tiny fraction of the people an agent encounters are actually hostile, but it’s the most unlikely ones that are the most deadly, especially if you’re under the impression that they are your friends.

Olen Steinhauer has established himself as a twenty-first century master of espionage. John Le Carre and Graham Greene are the gold standards with their works that emphasize humanity and ambiguity in a field that only too easily gives way to a terrestrial supermen fighting cartoon evil (yes, I’m talking about you, James Bond), but Steinhauer is a worthy heir, writing complex tales for a complex age. For one thing, the battle is no longer between two monolithic heavyweights slugging it out in the shadow of the H-bomb, but a fractured menu of all kinds of groups, agendas and tactics. And, as Steinhauer demonstrates in my favorite of his books, the first Milo Weaver installment The Tourist, the true danger could very well come from agencies that are nominally on your side.

As the book begins, Milo, after a botched mission, has transitioned from a field agent, known as a Tourist, to a desk-bound analyst searching for an assassin known as “The Tiger.” (It’s a measure of Steinhauer’s keen self-awareness and wry sense of humor that every time a character refers to the Tiger they say something about how corny a name it is.) Milo had reached the end of his rope, his sanity fraying, in the adrenalin-soaked world of the field, and has painstakingly attempted to rebuild something resembling a normal life with a wife and step-daughter. When the Tiger is finally trapped, it’s Milo who finds himself in the most danger, and he must throw all that away in order to ensure his own survival, even fleeing the most comfortable fantasy of all, Disney World, to find himself on the run, a Tourist again.

AllTheOldKnivesThe Tourist has everything expected in a spy book: colorful foreign locations, a fast pace, violence and shoot-outs, but it is the lack of all those things that makes Steinhauer’s latest book All the Old Knives so interesting. It’s much more of a set piece, the narrative revolving around a single encounter between Henry Pelham, a C.I.A. Operative, and Celia Harrison Favreau, a former agent and also Henry’s former lover. Their conversation in a California restaurant seems friendly enough, but below their banter lies the specter of a colossal failure from their time together, the death of one hundred and twenty hostages in an plane on the tarmac of a Viennese airport.

Although the narrative moves back and forth in time and perspective, the action is remarkably static for the usually breakneck spy genre, a sort of “My Dinner With Andre” with death for dessert. Another movie that comes to mind is Coppola’s “The Conversation,” with its masterly dramatization of how a series of apparently innocent words can have differing and sinister meanings.

Henry still loves Celia, and doesn’t understand why she left him or the Agency.At the same time he’s trying to pin the responsibility for the massacre, which was evidently aided by a traitor from within their office, on her:

Despite the knowledge that this is the night that will truly end everything between us,  I’m swept up in mawkish romantic thoughts. How can this be? It can be because in each man’s life there are only a few women who can turn him inside out, who can cripple him with a smile. These are weaknesses, but they’re also a sign of humanity. Without these flaws, a man doesn’t really live.

This confusion between the fact that their job demands inhuman efficiency and ruthlessness and the fact that the agents are humans is a theme that Steinhauer mines in much of his work. In regular life being vulnerable can result in a broken heart – in the spy world it can result in the heart actually stopping. All the Old Knives is a fascinating tour de force, a stripped-down distillation of Steinhauer’s concerns, but fortunately one element he didn’t remove was his gift for twisty, unexpected plots, and the ending packs the usual wallop. (Jamie)

Mike Lawson: The Inside Ring

The Inside RingIt’s always been a puzzle to me why the talented Mike Lawson isn’t a superstar, and his first book, The Inside Ring, is so good it really begs the question. I’m always in the mood for a thriller this time of year, and went to the Lawson part of the alphabet and grabbed this one on Christmas Eve. I’ve read others in the series but never the first, and it joins my ongoing mental list of terrific first novels that hit every mark out of the gate.

Lawson’s series character, Joe DeMarco, is a “fixer” for the Speaker of the House and works very much under the radar. His office is even in the basement of the House of Representatives alongside the janitorial staff. Whenever the speaker – long-time pol Mahoney – needs a task done that can’t see the light of day, it’s DeMarco he puts into motion. This gives DeMarco a lot of power and not quite enough as his official title and credentials are slightly nebulous. Because of DeMarco’s family background – his father was in the mob – he doesn’t carry a gun and tries to avoid violence. It often finds him anyway, though.

This novel begins with an assassination attempt on the President, who was on a weekend with his best friend, a well known writer. The writer is killed and the President is wounded. After a confession from the killer, things seem to be wrapped up, but the Secretary of Homeland Security isn’t happy and Mahoney asks DeMarco to look into it. As DeMarco zeroes in on one of the Secret Service agents who were surrounding the President, his investigation takes off in all kinds of unexpected ways. I figured out only one twist of the story, but the final one is a doozy that truly surprised me.

As a first novel, Lawson does introduce a couple characters who re-appear in the rest of the series, especially DeMarco’s powerful, lethal buddy Emma, a beautiful woman who has connections seemingly everywhere. While much of this set up sounds off-the-charts absurd, Lawson tells his stories in such a matter of fact, nicely detailed way that it never seems over the top. DeMarco is very likable – you’re rooting for him to get some furniture in his empty townhouse (his ex has taken everything) but even more, you’re rooting for him to get the bad guy.

Lawson utilizes all of my own “thriller rules”: he has a situation with interesting specifics (Washington DC, the secret service); he has a reliable main character, and he starts with a story where you as the reader know what happened but you don’t know why. As with any good thriller, the “why” is the journey. Lawson’s straightforward storytelling gets you there every time.

Elizabeth Heiter: Hunted

huntedThis is a neat first thriller with a really interesting main character. Evelyn Baine is a star profiler for the FBI, and it’s obvious Heiter is interested not just by the FBI jargon but by the whole business of profiling, and it’s a fascinating field, one not covered all that extensively in mystery fiction, with a notable example being Val McDermid’s Tony Hill. It’s odd there isn’t a greater profiling “presence” though there are some; lots of the FBI characters in mysteries are special ops or forensic experts.

More remarkably the main character is a petite, mixed race woman, not so great with people skills but instead a serious workaholic with a backstory. I never felt Heiter was cramming too much in though she was obviously setting up a series – the reason Evelyn became a profiler is very personal.

She’s called in to profile a case where the killer buried the bodies of his victims up to the neck. It’s a tricky and unusual case and very early on Evelyn herself is abducted, and it’s here that I almost closed the book, never to return. But have faith, dear reader – in true kick-ass fashion, Evelyn gets away and the title refers not just to the killer’s hunt for more victims but to Evelyn’s relentless hunt for him.

Thankfully, the book turned out to be far less gory and graphic than I had first anticipated. I liked that Heiter was turning the tables – Evelyn takes care of herself, refusing (sometimes foolishly) offers of help but proving she is a real survivor. This book was a well told story with a really good main character – I’m looking forward to more in the series.

Andrew Grant: Run

runAndrew Grant at last returns – after a change in publishers – with a new thriller, Run. Grant uses a fairly conventional thriller set-up and twists it to his own devices through the use of perspective and a possibly untrustworthy narrator, something he leaves the reader to figure out for themselves. I always appreciate an author assuming intelligence on the part of the reader and while I may not be as intelligent as Andrew, I appreciated the leeway he gave me as a reader to figure things out.

A good thriller often presents readers (and the central character) with moral conundrums the character must respond to on the fly. Grant’s book is filled with many such moments, where his character, IT expert Marc Bowman, must make a choice leading down one path or the other. In the first chapter he’s summarily fired from his consultant job at a company called AmeriTel, where he worked as a data analyst. The firing comes just as the company is about to make a big move on the stock market which could either go very, very well or very, very badly.

He leaves – accidentally – with two of the company’s computer memory sticks in his pocket. He consoles himself by heading first to his favorite art gallery. The techie Marc’s favorite artist is Roy Lichtenstein, whose graphic compositions are made up of dots. The pattern and order of the dots, forming a picture, make sense to his computer analyst brain, and all through the book, the Lichtenstein he owns is high on his list of favorite things, along with his wife, Carolyn.

His day really sucks, however, because when Carolyn gets home she demands the memory sticks and they have a huge fight when he denies having them. For Marc, that’s moral crossroad number one, leading him down a path involving thugs, burglary, murder, car theft, and fire. He can see so easily a new program he can create with the AmeriTel data on the memory sticks and when Carolyn storms off, he sits down and gets to work. To him, it justifies his actions. However, when Marc wakes up the next morning he finds his hard work stolen and his front door wide open. He calls the cops who don’t seem to believe him, and that’s where things really go off the rails.

As Marc continues to make choices, as a reader you might say to yourself, why not turn in the memory stick? Why not call the police? Why not cooperate with Homeland Security? As a reader you slowly begin to doubt that the central character you are following might actually be, if not outright evil, at the very least morally ambiguous. As you are with Marc in his head seeing his view of things, you can understand how he justifies each move he makes, but the sliver of doubt in your mind sinks in deeper and deeper the further you read.

The story is assembled like a neat piece of machinery that would satisfy even techie Marc, I think, who often reacts to things like the guys on “The Big Bang Theory” – kind of like a guy not completely familiar with human behavior. Grant makes the computer stuff easy enough to follow even for the computer illiterate (or close to it, like myself) and provides a slam bang, non stop read that will have you both breathing a sigh of exhaustion at the end of the story but thinking back over Marc’s path of behavior. There’s really nothing better than a thriller that also makes you think.

Michael Koryta: Those Who Wish Me Dead

thosewhowishmeI’m not a big fan of those headlines that read “The Best Writer You’ve Never Heard Of,” mostly because I often have heard of said writer. It’s a tidy formulation, however, and it scans much better than, say, “Here’s a Fantastic Writer Who’s Much Better Than Most of the Crap on the Best Seller List.” But say it any way you like, Michael Koryta is such an criminally underappreciated author.

He began his career while still in college with a superior private eye series set in Cleveland. The Lincoln Perry books started strong and only got stronger, ending not (as so many readers believe) at the artist’s whim, but simply because for whatever reason they failed to sell enough copies. Fortunately, publishers can see beyond a track record to discern true quality, and Michael was “relaunched” with three novels that mixed suspense with the supernatural.

Although they worked for me in a way that most of the far too many books inspired by Stephen King do not, I was glad when Michael returned to pure crime with 2012’s The Prophet, a masterful exploration of family, guilt, courage, football and small town Ohio, all propelled by a white knuckle plot.

His new book Those Who Wish Me Dead is another powerful stand-alone, a straightforward action thriller that hits the ground running and never lets up. Jace Wilson is a young man who has witnessed a killing by two very scary guys that is at the heart of a massive police cover-up, and when no official form of protection seems to be effective, he’s placed incognito in a wilderness program for troubled teens run by Ethan Serbin, a survival expert. Of course, this stratagem fails to throw the creepy hell-hound killers off the scent, and the chase is on in the midst of the Montana mountains, replete with snakes, lightning strikes and forest fires.

Koryta has all the tools of an All-Star, and he displays them in this compelling book. The prose, the setting, the pace, the characters – particularly Hannah Faber, the fire lookout and former fire fighter with her own demons to contend with – are exemplary, and make Those Who Wish Me Dead virtually unputdownable. Robin wants the ten best list this year to be all women but I’m inviting Michael to crash the lady party – this book is that good. (Jamie)

Lev Raphael: Assault with a Deadly Lie

assaultwithadeadlylieIt’s been a few years since Professor Nick Hoffman has made an appearance (Hot Rocks, 2007), and he fills a nice gap. There are few academic based mystery series, and this is an engaging one, set on the fictional campus of “SUM” or State University of Michigan in “Michiganopolis,” a town that sounds suspiciously like East Lansing, where Raphael teaches classes at MSU. His central character, Nick, and his partner, Stefan, live a peaceful life on a bucolic street with their Westie, Marco, enjoying books, movies, food, wine and each other.

Until. And this feels like a story Raphael had pent up inside him and had to tell. Until one terrible night a SWAT team storms into Nick and Stefan’s home, handcuffing both of them on their front lawn in full view of the neighbors, taking Stefan away to jail and questioning before Nick knows what is happening. Luckily, one of their new neighbors, Vanessa, turns out to be a lawyer and she swoops in with reassurances for Nick and more practical assistance for Stefan as she follows him to the jail.

Nick is left at home to wait and wonder and it’s almost dawn before an obviously traumatized Stefan returns home, heads to bed without a word, and leaves Nick and Vanessa in the kitchen to talk. SWAT had gotten a tip and thanks to the heightened paranoia and militarization of the police since 9/11, they are empowered to follow up on tips. No charges were brought against Stefan but before Vanessa leaves she cautions Nick not to talk to anyone.

As Nick and Stefan try to clumsily and uncomfortably reclaim their lives, they find they are both paranoid, and with good reason as more incidents follow the first. Though none are as terrible, they are still deeply disturbing. Raphael also turns an eye on the constant surveillance all of us are under in one way or another, with cameras literally everywhere. The recently reconfigured Department of English where both Nick and Stefan teach has them wondering if they are being filmed and/or bugged. And as readers (and US citizens) we are jittery enough to buy into their paranoia and the idea that we are all being watched and recorded.

I guess the theme of this book is how far is too far? What does it take to make any of us feel safe? Nick explores that by buying a gun and going to the shooting range to learn how to protect himself. And the unease comes between him and Stefan as each man feels uncharacteristic rage and an urge for revenge and safety. As Raphael winds up his story, cleverly making use of several threads he’s pulled though the novel, the conclusion seems, sadly, all too possible and believable. This book questions our assumptions and our behavior and the ways society is trying to remedy the violence we all live with. That’s quite a punch to pack into a brief 176 page volume.

I was also delighted to reconnect with Nick and Stefan, two of the more appealing mystery series characters around. I love the snark and snap of the academic setting, something Raphael appears to have nailed. All in all, a nice return of an old favorite.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Truth Be Told

truthbetoldThis is Hank Ryan’s third novel in her series featuring reporter Jane Ryland, and this one is by far the strongest of the three, as I can see Ryan’s skill as a writer deepening. She’s always had the story part down pat – she’s a reporter in “real life” – and she’s a reporter in her bones in that she’s able to tell a good story in a to the point way that gets your attention and holds it. No small feat.
What’s even better here in book three than in book one are the details of reporting that Ryan has folded into her story, making the whole thing more authentic and grounded.

Ryan has an issue she builds her story around in each novel, in this one, it’s home foreclosures and she gets the reader from the very first chapter when Jane and her photographer, TJ, covering a foreclosure for a bigger story, stumble into a murder when a dead body is found in the empty house. Ryan skillfully ties the foreclosure story back to the banks and to some degree the real estate industry and peels back the onion of corruption as she goes.

What I especially liked about this novel were the dueling relationships, and I suggested to Hank that it reminded me of the old Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracey film “Adam’s Rib” in that her two main romantically entangled protagonists are both professionals in professions that sometimes don’t mesh. They clash and cause trouble. Jane is a reporter; her boyfriend is a detective. He’s scrupulous to the point where he doesn’t give Jane any special treatment and they warily ignore each other in public.

As in “Adam’s Rib” there’s a mirror, dysfunctional relationship between a newbie banking executive and a higher up exec at the bank, too handsome for the newbie to resist though the reader can see he’s a sleazeball. In the film the “mirror” couple was a husband and wife triangle where the wife shoots the dastardly cheating hub; the film is a bit lighter than this novel but the sparkly tone, the fun back and forth, is present here.

Jane and Jake’s relationship believably teeters on their professional obligations, though they obviously love one another. The real world situations both encounter lend a feeling of authenticity to their romance and make it an important part of the fabric of the story which is also, by the way, a terrific thriller. I was tricked by the bad guy’s identity but Ryan had totally set it up, I just missed the clues. One of my favorite things any writer can do at the denouement is to make the “aha” moment when the killer is revealed a shock and at the same time a well laid out solution. Another writer who is very good at that is Laura Lippman, also a reporter turned novelist.

Ryan seems to have hit her stride as a writer. The sparkle she brings to her storytelling buoys up her whole enterprise and leaves the reader happily wanting more.

Michael Connelly: The Gods of Guilt

The Gods of GuiltOther writers must gnash their teeth – does Michael Connelly have to be the best all the time? His Harry Bosch books are one of the greatest police series of all time, and he’s now working on a similar level with his Mickey Haller legal series. To me, these books blow most other legal thrillers out of the water. The series started strong with The Lincoln Lawyer, and the excellence continues. I especially liked the early in the series reveal that Harry and Mickey are half brothers.

These books can be enjoyed also on an individual level, though you’ll miss some of the connections the ongoing characters in the books have to one another and the ways their relationships change. However, the thing in these books is plot, and that never gets old or needs an explanation.

In this novel, Mikey is asked to represent someone on a murder charge, at the recommendation of the victim. When Mickey hears the victim’s name, he’s not sure who she is, but he does figure it out pretty quickly and agrees to take the case of Andre LaCosse, digital pimp.

The dead woman, Giselle, turns out to be a prostitute Mickey thought he had rescued and gotten out of town long ago. He’s heartbroken to find she returned to the life, and he knew her as Gloria, or as she was known as a prostitute, Glory Days.

As Mickey unpeels the layers of the case, which involves a corrupt DEA agent, police investigator, and an incarcerated Mexican cartel drug lord as well as an incarcerated attorney who works things from the inside through his inept son on the outside, it becomes clear to both Mickey and the reader that Andre is probably innocent.

The fact that Mickey is a defense attorney gives Connelly wide leeway as far as examining issues of morality, guilt, and justice. In his detailed and realistic courtroom scenarios, he makes it clear that the law often hangs on both the leeway of the judge, as well as the competence of the lawyers and the jury, whom he refers to as “the gods of guilt.”

These themes have always concerned Connelly as a writer, and justice in its purest form – i.e., what is right – is always at the top of his agenda, however it’s arrived at. Mickey’s methods of arriving at that destination are often creative and a bit twisted, and always smart. He sometimes leaves a path of unintentional destruction in his wake, and this novel is no different.

There are several twists in arriving at the ending of this novel, which at this point in Connelly’s career, is almost to be expected. I thought the ending was excellent. After you finish though there’s a note from Connelly explaining that he’d had a different ending in mind, but thought it hadn’t worked. That ending is also included, and it’s a fascinating look inside the working mind of a writer who is, to my mind, one of the best pure narrative storytellers in the business.

Michael Palmer: Resistant

ResistantMichael Palmer, one of my very favorite guilty pleasure writers, unfortunately passed away last winter, and I can’t tell you how much I will miss his books. This one joins a fledgling series featuring Dr. Lou Welcome, coming after a long string of successful stand-alones. Stand-alone or series, Palmer’s formula rarely varied and it’s so crazy enjoyable I had a hard time putting any of his books down. There’s always a misunderstood doc at the center of the action, oppressed by whatever evil force Palmer came up with for a particular book, and the odds are always stacked against the doc. (Also, a clue: whenever another character calls him “doc,” that character is to be trusted).

In this novel, Dr. Lou Welcome, a recovered addict who now works with other doctors in recovery, is on a work junket. His boss’ wife is in the hospital and he’s been elected to take over and give a speech for his boss. Lou has brought his best friend (and AA sponsor) Cap along for the trip, a trip that begins each day with a rigorous trail run. Cap runs a boxing gym and is always pushing Lou to work harder.

On one of the mornings Lou is lucky enough to get a tour of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) as part of his trip and he gets a front row view of all the nasty bacteria being fought by the scientists at the CDC. The book has an opening segment with a young woman fighting off just such a bacteria, and, not being a Palmer newbie, I knew she was toast (I was right). This serves Palmer’s purpose though: it made me invested in the outcome.

Then the unforeseeable happens – Cap and Lou are out for a run and a terrible accident shatters Cap’s leg. It’s not a difficult leap to figure that Cap will get infected with the very same bacteria that killed the girl, putting Lou in a race against the clock. His foe, though he doesn’t know it, is a group called the 100 Neighbors, who are trying to bring down what they feel in an unnecessary government by any means, including the spread of a deadly virus that only they can cure. Unfortunately the virus has mutated and spread a little more quickly than they had planned, with no cure in sight.

The various characters and paths it takes for Lou to come to the rescue are both imaginative and entertaining. Palmer’s narrative genius is a combination of compelling characters and impossible situations, with a very real medical knowledge behind his writing. Michael Palmer was in real life a doctor and recovered addict, and he brought those things to bear on his writing. From all I can tell his death was a loss in every way to both the mystery community, to his family, and to the world in general. I am very grateful for his books and hope they will continue to enjoy a lengthy shelf life. (Michael Palmer, Oct. 1942-Oct. 2013).