Bell Elkins is one of the greater creations in recent mystery fiction. A feisty, smart, no-holds-barred prosecuting attorney in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, each book is infused with both the love of the land and the tragedy of it, a shadow that’s deepened and grown darker through the course of the series. From the very first novel, A Killing in the Hills, Keller has had her finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. In that novel, the central event was a mass shooting at a fast food restaurant. In the most recent novel, Fast Falls the Night (2017), Keller focused on an alarmingly high series of overdoses related to opiods in one 24 hour period.
Laura Lippman’s ode to James M. Cain is masterful. As I began reading it, I thought it was going to be based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it is, but it’s also based on Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Cain’s ingenious, scathing stories were pure story, punctuated with the inappropriate yet raging desires on the part of the female characters, whether it was Cora, Mildred or Phyllis, and the somewhat clueless collusion on the part of the males in their orbit. All of Cain’s females have a burning idea of how to proceed. So does Lippman’s Polly – an understatement. She’s also expert at waiting for results.
In suspense fiction the setup is crucial, and, as one of its finest practitioners, David Bell knows how to start his tale with a bang big enough to energize the compelling universe that follows. His latest superior work, Bring Her Home, begins with a man rushing into a hospital trying to find his daughter, frantic but at the same time desperately trying to keep himself together in midst of the bureaucratic chaos. While many other suspense writers feature impossibly virtuous supermen or bland mannequins whose features are obscured by a blinding fog of plot, Bell brings a regular but not quotidian protagonist to his tale, a guy thrust into the middle of life and death events way over his head, but who is determined to find justice for those closest to him in the best way he can.
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.
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.
Mystery 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.
Laura 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.
A 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.
This 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.
As 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.