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Posts Tagged ‘psychological suspense’

Laura Lippman’s new stand-alone Sunburn (Morrow/HarperCollins, digital galley) is a slow burn noir set in a scruffy Delaware town on the way to the beach from Baltimore. It’s 1995, which means Polly Costello and Adam Bosk can’t Google each other when they meet at the High-Ho diner. Their secrets are layered and many; that Polly has just walked away from her husband and daughter, and that Adam is a private investigator is only the beginning. Lippman’s homage to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice works wonderfully as she twists the classic conventions to her own ends. Redheaded, hard-to-read Polly is not your usual femme fatale, and Adam more than a good-looking lunk. The waitress and the short-order cook begin an affair, but neither counts on falling in love. There’s a suspicious death and possible arson. Deceit, betrayal, unexpected revelations. Who is playing a long game, whose motives are mixed? The suspense is exquisite, the end to die for.

Kelley Armstrong’s atmospheric Rockton novels are set in an off-the-grid community in the Canadian wilderness, an isolated haven for people with pasts and secrets. Armstrong introduced police officer Casey Duncan in 2016’s City of the Lost, following up with last year’s An Absolute Darkness. Now, in the equally gripping This Fallen Prey (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Rockton’s town council agrees to house accused killer Oliver Brady against the advice of Sheriff Eric Dalton. His and Casey’s misgivings are affirmed by Brady, who tries to charm his way out of his makeshift prison and divides the townspeople as to his guilt or innocence. Tempers flare, violence threatens, and then Brady escapes into the wilderness with inside help. Finding him means braving the fierce Yukon elements, as well as figuring out the identity of the traitor(s) and the exact nature of Brady’s past crimes. The romantic relationship between Eric and Casey ups the ante, as does the fact that Eric’s brother is a member of the nomadic survivalists in the area who have a tenuous truce with Rockton’s residents. Remember, there are killers among them who have paid dearly for their pasts to be forgotten, if not sins forgiven.

Scorching heat and drought plagued an Australian community in The Dry, Jane Harper’s first thriller featuring Aaron Falk, a Federal police agent. His hands still bear the burn scars from that last case in Force of Nature (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), although this time pervasive cold and damp hinder his search for a woman missing in the Giralong mountain range. Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper are working a financial fraud case, and the missing woman is their informant Alice Russell. She and four other women from a Melbourne accounting firm were on a team-building corporate retreat when they got lost and separated. Harper alternates between scenes of the current search and the past actions of the women, not only on the hike but also in their personal lives. Two women have teenage daughters; several went to the same private school; two are sisters. Harper adds an extra frisson by having Falk recall that this is the same area where a serial killer stalked his prey twenty years ago. That man is dead, but there’s an eerie similarity to this new case. Harper eventually ties up the loose ends for a satisfactory conclusion, but the harrowing story reminded me why I traded in camping for glamping. Leaky tents, wet clothes, blistered feet — and one of your fellows could be a killer. I’ll just read the book, thank you.

Precocious girl detective Flavia de Luce, kicked out the Girl Guides for an excess of high spirits and recently booted out of boarding school, is truly depressed at the beginning of Alan Bradley’s The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley). In the wake of a tragedy at the crumbling family home Buckshaw, devoted servant Dogger proposes a boating holiday for 12-year-old Flavia and her two older sisters. Flavia perks up a bit when they pass near the church where a vicar once poisoned the communion wine with cyanide, thus ridding  himself of three pesky parishioners, and she’s downright delighted to next discover a dead body floating in the river. When the corpse man is identified as the vicar’s troubled son Orlando, Flavia has the opportunity to investigate crimes old and new. The landlady at the inn is full of gossipy information, a coffin-maker’s son provides further insight, and Dogger is an able and invaluable assistant when Flavia runs afoul of local law enforcement. They just don’t recognize her genius, poor souls. After nine previous books, readers know better.

A few more recommendations. Inspired by the Ted Bundy case, Meg Gardiner’s chilling Into the Black Nowhere (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley) finds rookie FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix on the trail of a serial killer, who is also a charming psychopath. This UNSUB, kidnapping and killing young women in central Texax,  uses some of Bundy’s tactics — pretending to need help, for example — to lure his victims into his car, where he snaps on the handcuffs. He also manages a daring escape at one point, as did Bundy. But Gardiner adds some twists of her own invention, and Caitlin has enough flaws to make her an interesting continuing character. Laura Powell’s The Unforgotten (Gallery Books) has a retro vibe and reminded me of the 1987 British film Wish You Were Here, in which Emily Lloyd played a teenager willingly seduced by an older man. In this story set in a seaside community in 1956 Cornwall, 15-year-old Betty is drawn to one of the out-of-town reporters staying at the Hotel Eden, run by her unhappy and unbalanced mother. In the news is the search for “the Cornwell Cleaver,” who is murdering young women in lurid circumstances. This storyline alternates with one 50 years later, where an older woman named Mary is intent on reconnecting with someone from that long-ago summer. The title character of Lexie Elliot’s involving debut The French Girl is the beautiful and enigmatic Sabine. After insinuating herself with a group of British students vacationing in the French countryside, she inexplicably disappeared. Ten years later, her remains are discovered, upsetting the lives of five of the former friends, especially legal recruiter Kate. Realizing that her jealousy of Sabine makes her a prime suspect, obsessive Kate begins to wonder how well she knew the others, including her ex-lover Seb and his cousin Tom. Neil Olson’s The Black Painting (Hanover Square/Harlequin, digital gallery) features such Gothic elements as a creepy old house, a tyrannical patriarch, and a stolen painting that supposedly carries a curse. Alfred Arthur Morse’s body is discovered by his granddaughter Therese, who along with her cousins, has been summoned to his Connecticut coastal home where they spent childhood summers. The last time they were all there, the painting by Goya that hung in Morse’s library was stolen. It still has not been recovered, although the accused thief recently got out of prison. There’s enough weirdness going on that one of Morse’s sons hires PI Dave Webster to uncover the truth about the theft, and he is soon enmeshed in sordid family secrets. An unlikely but entertaining tale.

 

 

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tresspasserThis time last week I was reading up a storm. That’s because Hurricane Matthew was knocking on the door, and my action plan called for a flashlight, batteries and books. (Also chocolate, but that’s another story). So, while the wind whipped the trees outside and the rain went sideways, I read and read, and then I read some more.

Like Tana French’s previous five novels in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser (Penguin, digital galley) is wonderfully immersive. Detective Antoinette Conway, who appeared in The Secret Place, takes the lead this time, telling how she and partner Steve Moran catch what appears to be a slam-dunk case of domestic murder on a frozen January dawn. Aislinn Murray, 26, looks like Dead Barbie lying on her sitting room floor, the dinner she was cooking for her new beau, Rory Fallon, still on the stove. A mild-mannered bookseller, Rory is the prime suspect, even though he insists Aislinn never answered the door when he arrived for dinner. And he sticks to this story despite intense interrogation by Conway and a more experienced detective, Breslin, brought in on the case by the chief. Conway feels pressured by Breslin to arrest Rory, even though the initial investigation turns up little evidence and a suspicion that more was going on in Aislinn’s life than her new fellow. Or is Conway, the only woman on the squad and carrying a chip on her shoulder the size of an oak tree, just being paranoid? How much does her past shape her perspective? Layered like a fancy cake, The Trespasser is a classic case of misdirection and deceit encased in a police procedural. In a recent New York Times story, French said she loved “character-based books with beautiful writing, plenty of atmosphere, secrets and mysteries.” Me, too, which is why I love Tana French.

daisyAnother writer who can make me forget the outside world is Sharon Bolton, who also has written as S.J. Bolton. The suspense is so intense in her Lacey Flynt series that I have to fight the urge to skip to the end of a book. Daisy in Chains (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) is a stand-alone, but it also left me breathless trying to figure out who was playing who in a very high-stakes game. Hamish Wolfe is a handsome, charming surgeon imprisoned as a serial killer. Maggie Rose is a lawyer and true-crime author who has made a reputation overturning killers’ convictions. Hamish has always proclaimed his innocence, before and after trial, and his mother and a small group of odd followers beg Maggie to take his case. Against the advice of a friendly police detective, Maggie agrees to meet Hamish in prison. It’s an unnerving experience, but Maggie is intrigued enough to do some more research on the lonely, overweight women who fell victim to a killer who disposed of their bodies in treacherous caves. Bolton intersperses the narrative with letters, police documents, e-mails, excerpts from Maggie’s drafts for a book. Clues point one way, and then another, and then another. Resist the urge to flip to the end. Expect the unexpected. Keep calm and keep reading.

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knowmeI’ve read so many books this summer focusing on the secrets lives of women and girls, I’m having trouble remembering which is which. The titles sound similar; the narrators tend to be unreliable. Still, several stand out. Megan Abbott gracefully conquers the balance beam of believability and then sticks the landing in You Will Know Me (Little, Brown, review copy), set in the competitive world of elite gymnastics. Katie and Eric Knox are totally invested in their 15-year-old daughter Devon’s Olympic dreams, but even Devon’s laser-like focus is threatened when a young man from the gym is killed in a hit-and-run. Ryan was something of a heartthrob, and his death rattles the girls — and their mothers. With much of the story told from Katie’s perspective, Abbott flexes her narrative skills. Always good  with adolescents’ roiling emotions, as in Dare Me and The Fever, she explores similar anxieties, obsessions and desires among the grown-ups. Who killed Ryan? The answer lies in the greater mystery of love and family, how we can never really know another’s hidden heart.

cabin10In Ruth Ware’s tense and intense The Woman in Cabin 10 (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), travel writer Lo Blacklock is on a luxury cruise in the North Sea when she hears the sound of a body going overboard in the darkness. By the time Lo raises the yacht’s security officer, the blood smear she saw on the glass veranda has vanished, and there’s no record of any passenger in adjoining Cabin 10. But Lo saw a young woman there earlier in the evening when she borrowed some mascara. Why doesn’t anyone believe her? Is it because she drank a lot at dinner and is still nervous about a recent intruder in her London flat? Or is it because of other events in her past that a spurned boyfriend aboard decides to reveal? Ah, betrayal, deception, a disappearing body, a crime that never was. Sounds like Hitchcock. Or maybe Christie. How about Ware herself, who proved skilled at ambiguity in last summer’s In a Dark Dark Wood? Here, she misdirects readers with interspersed news stories and e-mail transcripts, but the story’s at its best when Lo’s at sea.

allmissingMegan Miranda doesn’t invent the wheel in All the Missing Girls (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), but she does put quite a spin on it by telling much of the story in reverse chronological order. High school counselor Nicolette leaves her fiance Everett in Philadelphia for a summer visit to her small North Carolina hometown, where she helps her brother ready the family home for sale. She visits her dementia-plagued father in a senior home, runs into high school boyfriend Tyler, remembers the still-unsolved disappearance of her best friend Corinne at 18. And she’s there when another girl goes missing. Each chapter reveals more details past and present, building suspense and raising more questions. Then it’s over — and you’ll probably want to read it again to try and figure out just how Miranda did it.

goodasgoneAmy Gentry also proves to be a clever reverse plotter in Good as Gone (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), which reminds me of the Elizabeth Smart case, as well as the recent BBC-America series Thirteen. Narrator Anna Davalos’ daughter Julie was abducted at 13 from her bedroom by a man with a knife, while her scared younger sister Jane peered from a closet. Eight years later, Julie reappears at the front door with a harrowing tale of captivity by drug dealers. But is Julie telling the truth? What is she hiding? And, for that matter, is she really Julie? Anna has her doubts, and so do readers as another narrative voice chimes in. As Gretchen, she’s a singer in a dive bar band. As Starr, she’s a pole dancer. She’s a runaway, a foster child, odd girl out in a group home. Was she ever good girl Julie, or someone else entirely? The final revelations, mired in a lot of rigmarole, are not entirely unexpected.

gardengirlsTwo more. Lisa Jewell uses multiple perspectives to explore the mysteries of family and friendship in The Girls in the Garden (Atria, digital galley). It begins with young Pip discovering her teenage sister bloody and unconscious in the community garden behind their London rental. Grace recalls nothing of the assault, and suspicion falls on everyone from her maybe-boyfriend to a neighborhood father to other attendees at the summer barbecue. Jewell ups the suspense by using flashbacks to flesh out her assorted characters — jealous teens, single moms, observant oldsters — and reveal many motives.

lostgirlsTwo women — one past, one present — are linked by a dark family mystery in Heather Young’s The Lost Girls (HarperCollins, digital galley). Before she dies, elderly small-town librarian Lucy writes about the summer of 1935, which ended with the disappearance of her 6-year-old sister Emily at their Minnesota lake house. Lucy’s story alternates with that of her great-niece Justine, a California single mom with two young daughters, who upon learning she has inherited the lake house, uses it to escape her abusive and controlling boyfriend. Justine’s attempts to make a home in wintry and lonely Minnesota contrasts with Lucy’s account of the seemingly idyllic life of privileged summer people. Still, all the women and girls in the book are lost in one way or another, and the secrets that haunt them are sad indeed.

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afterthefireA friend is off to Great Britain for a couple of weeks and another is already there, posting lovely pictures on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am muttering, “Oh, to be in England,” drinking tea and reading a stack of atmospheric mysteries that make me think I’m there — almost.

The London where police detective Maeve Kerrigan works isn’t a tourist attraction, and Murchison House isn’t a stately home. Rather, it’s a concrete tower on a rundown public housing project that turns into a deathtrap for some poor souls when a fire breaks out. In Jane Casey’s After the Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Maeve and her fellow coppers discover mysteries among the victims. What was a conservative anti-everything MP doing there in the first place? Are the two unidentified women victims of human trafficking and murder? Why is the hospitalized mother living under an assumed name? Casey writes an absorbing procedural, but her sympathetic characters propel the series, especially Maeve, who is determined to stop the stalker who keeps her up at nights, and DI Josh Derwent, who doesn’t play well with others.

womanblueAs a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway is usually concerned with old bones. But she is drawn into a current case in the picturesque medieval town of Walsingham when her old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, reveals she has been getting threatening letters from someone against women in the clergy. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 5-year-old daughter, is investigating the murder of a young woman in a white dress and blue cloak whose body is discovered a day after the druid Cathbad thinks he has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby churchyard. The plot of Elly Griffth’s clever The Woman in Blue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) pivots on the past, linking to both long-ago foster children and a missing religious relic. The personal relationships among the characters are just as complex, with Nelson dismayed to find a crack in his longtime marriage, and he and Ruth continuing to deny their mutual attraction.

quietneighborsNursing a broken heart and fearing she may be implicated in a crime, librarian Jude flees London for a Scottish village. There, she finds refuge working in a dusty bookstore presided over by eccentric Lowell Glen, who also offers her housing in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage nearby. Catriona McPherson’s new standalone Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, digital galley) is awash in busybody villagers, old secrets and suspicion. Jude doubts that pregnant Eddy, who turns up out of the blue, is really Lowell’s longlost daughter, and is disconcerted that Eddy has her own suspicions about Jude’s motives. Neither has much use for gossipy Mrs. Hewston, who worked as a nurse for  Lowell’s father, old Dr. Glen, but what of the troubling postscripts left in old books by gravedigger Todd Jolley? A threatening letter and a fire in the night have Jude looking over her shoulder, even as her past comes calling. McPherson’s twisty tale is not as cozy as its quaint setting and quirky characters suggest, but I’d love to get lost in Lowell’s bookstore.

writtenredAnnie Dalton introduced Anna Hopkins and her dog Bonnie in last year’s The White Shepherd, and they return in Written in Red (Severn House, digital galley). Also back are the dogwalking friends Anna met during a murder investigation, vibrant young Tansy and retired Oxford professor Isabel Salzman. When professor James Lowell is attacked at the college where Anna works as an administrative assistant, she and Tansy are surprised at how devastated Isabel is at the news. Turns out she and James were part of the Oxford Six back in the mid-1960s, recruited as anti-communist spies by the manipulative Tallis. The unsolved murder of glamorous Hetty led to the group’s dissolution back then but not the secrecy surrounding it. Anna, still emotionally fragile from a family trauma, comes to Isabel’s aid when the older woman is assaulted, even as she makes plans for Christmas and time spent with Jake, the American soldier who rescued Bonnie in Afghanistan. It’s a busy, somewhat uneven book, but Dalton still leaves room for a third in the series. More dogs, please.

keepyouThe dreaming spires of Oxford take on a nightmare cast in Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Keep You Close (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley). Rowan Winter hasn’t seen her best childhood friend, Oxford artist Marianne Glass, since a misunderstanding drove them apart 10 years ago. Still, she doesn’t believe Marianne’s fatal fall from the rooftop of the Glass family home was an accident, and her suspicions are heightened when she receives a one-sentence letter from Marianne mailed before her death: “I need to talk to you.” So Rowan returns to Oxford from London and begins piecing together Marianne’s recent past and last days, talking to her nearest and dearest, from her gallery owner fiance to a controversial artist who was painting her portrait. Whitehouse reminds me of Ruth Rendell in the way she artfully withholds information and misdirects readers. The result is suspenseful and unsettling.

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travelersRemember TV doctor House’s mantra: Everybody lies? It’s something to keep in mind while reading Chris Pavone’s brisk, globe-trotting thriller, The Travelers (Crown, digital galley). Will Rhodes, a writer for classy magazine Travelers, is reporting on American expats when he’s lured into a honey trap by an Australian blonde calling herself Elle. Before he can say “I’m married,” Will finds himself involved in covert operations as a CIA asset. At least that’s what case officer Elle tells him. Meanwhile, readers are introduced to Will’s boss, secretive Malcolm Somers, who has a hidden office and unknown agenda that includes Will’s wife Chloe, whose cell phone keeps going to voicemail. Will dodges danger in Dublin, Paris, aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, back home in Brooklyn, and on a lonely road in Iceland. The action is cinematic — twists, turns, lies, spies. As in his previous novels, The Expats and The Accident, Pavone proves himself an assured and entertaining tale-teller. Sure, The Travelers hurtles over the top, but who cares? Bring your parachute. And a lie detector.

passengerWho is Tanya DuBois? That’s the question that runs throughout Lisa Lutz’s fast-paced The Passenger (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), an accomplished departure from her comic Spellman Files series. When introduced, Tanya’s husband Frank has just taken a header down the stairs, and Tanya figures the Wisconsin police will finger her for the crime. After all, it’s happened before. Huh?! Soon, Tanya’s called in a favor from the mysterious Mr. Oliver, who provides her with a new identity as Amelia, and she’s on the lam. In Austin, she falls in with a bartender called Blue, who is hiding from an abusive husband. Or so she says. When he comes looking for her, and two of Mr. Oliver’s henchman come after Amelia, the two women make a Strangers on a Train kind of pact, and Amelia becomes schoolteacher Debra in small-town Wyoming. But big trouble’s on her trail, and narrator Tanya/Amelia/Debra is again switching up IDs, dying her hair and hitting the road, this time to upstate New York. She lives off the grid, wondering when her luck is going to run out. Winter is coming. Lutz intersperses her resourceful heroine’s story with e-mails between someone named Jo and a man from her past, Ryan, which adds to the intrigue. I couldn’t put The Passenger down. What a ride.

allthingsA farmhouse in the upstate New York town of Chosen is the scene of crime and tragedy in Elizabeth Brundage’s chilly All Things Cease to Appear (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). In 1978, failing dairy farmer Calvin Hale and wife Ella commit suicide in their upstairs bedroom, leaving three sons to grow up with relatives nearby. A local real estate agent –“purveyor of dreams and keeper of secrets” — later sells the picturesque farmhouse to college professor George Clare, his pretty wife Catherine and toddler daughter Franny. Catherine, unhappy in her marriage, senses the house is haunted, not realizing that her teenage handyman and babysitter Cole Hale used to live there. When George discovers Catherine brutally murdered in their bedroom, both he and Cole come under suspicion, as do others, but the crime remains unsolved for years. The real mystery here is not the killer’s identity, but how people react to circumstances, and how appearances deceive. Brundage, a precisely lyrical writer, knows her characters inside and out, including the psychopath at story’s center.

janesteele“Reader, I murdered him.” Yes, you read that right. This is not Jane Eyre who married him, but rather Jane Steele, the title heroine of Lyndsay Faye’s clever homage to the Bronte classic. Jane Steele (Penguin Putnam, digital galley) reads like a Victorian thriller as its plucky protagonist, a Jane Eyre fan, takes up her pen to recount her adventures. Orphaned as a young girl, Jane Steele is at the mercy of penny-pinching Aunt Patience and her loathsome son, who soon meets his fate at the bottom of a ravine. Jane is then shipped off to a Dickensian boarding school whose students are routinely starved by the tyrannical headmaster. Jane escapes to London, eventually learning that her aunt has died and that Highgate House — Jane’s rightful inheritance — is in the hands of Mr. Charles Thornfield, who is in need of a governess. Jane, of course, applies for the position. Faye, author of several historical thrillers, subverts Bronte’s plot enough to keep readers wondering what her self-professed serial killer will do next. Thornfield and his Sikh butler have secrets aplenty left over from the Anglo-Indian wars, but Jane fears her own “dark heart” and past misdeeds will thwart any romance or road to happiness. Hmmm. What would Jane Eyre do?

redcoatIn The Girl in the Red Coat (Melville House, digital galley), British author Kate Hamer uses child abduction to write both a psychological thriller and a moving exploration of the bonds between mother and daughter. Single mom Beth has always had a premonition that she will lose her dreamy daughter, Carmel. Then one day at an outdoor festival, the eight-year-old wanders away in the fog and is rescued by an older man who claims to be her grandfather. Convinced that her mother has been in a bad accident, Carmel goes with the man to a secluded cottage where his female companion awaits with other children. Frantic Beth and the authorities mount a massive search, but Carmel is gone. Hamer alternates the perspectives between Beth and Carmel, both of whom struggle to hold on to their memories as the years go by. Taken to the United States by her fake grandparents, Carmel has a rag-tag childhood with the itinerant faith healers, while Beth keeps the faith back home even as her life changes. A far-fetched premise, perhaps — the American scenes are sketchy — but the pages practically turn themselves.

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darkcornersI tried to take my time with Ruth Rendell’s Dark Corners (Scribner, digital galley), knowing there aren’t going to be any more books from the prolific British crime writer. Rendell, who also wrote as Barbara Vine, died in May at age 85, and it’s fitting that this final novel of psychological suspense offers a trademark tricky plot. So much for savoring every sentence — I was too busy flipping pages as Carl Martin’s life spirals out of control.

Carl’s a writer in his early 20s who has inherited a big house in an up-and-coming London neighborhood. Somewhat lazy and a little greedy, he rents the upstairs to the very first applicant, Dermott McKinnon, who seems a nice-enough fellow. Carl not only neglects to throw out his late father’s homeopathic remedies, he also sells some of the pills to an actress friend, who is then found dead. Carl feels bad, but he feels a lot worse when Dermott starts blackmailing him by withholding his rent. Even as Dermott further insinuates himself into Carl’s life, a young woman named Lizzie is taking advantage of her actress pal’s death, moving into her flat and wearing her wardrobe. Tsk, tsk. There will be consequences.

Rendell, always more interested in why than who, expertly juggles  her parallel plots, upping the ante with a murder and a kidnapping. We know her guilty characters are going to collide around some dark corner, but which one? Creepy.

banquetElizabeth George’s new doorstop, A Banquet of Consequences (Viking Penguin, review copy) features one of those poisonous characters you love to hate. Caroline Goodacre is a middle-aged meddler, an overprotective mother, spiteful wife and hypocritical friend, always ready with the withering put-down in hopes of wrong-footing her perceived adversary. But did she poison her employer, a famous feminist author, or was the fatal dose meant for her?

That’s the puzzle facing aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard and his workaday sidekick Sgt. Barbara Havers, who is threatened with transfer after haring off to Italy in the last book. But a Havers on good behavior is a less-effective detective, as Lynley points out to his boss (and former lover). Still, it takes Havers a while to shake off the short leash, which allows George time to digress on a number of subjects, from dogs trained to treat anxiety to Havers’ deplorable taste in T-shirts. Also, depression, abuse and suicide. If you like your books leisured and detailed with many, many characters, A Banquet of Consequences proves richly satisfying.

prettygirlsBack in the summer, Karin Slaughter wrote a nifty novella — Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes (HarperCollins, digital galley) — about a pretty college newspaper reporter looking into the disappearances of pretty women near the University of Georgia campus in 1991. Turns out that was the prequel to her hard-hitting fall thriller Pretty Girls (HarperCollins, digital galley). The Carroll family has never gotten over the unsolved disappearance of eldest daughter Julia some 20 years while a UGA student. The elder Carrolls’ marriage dissolved, sister Lydia turned to drugs, estranging herself from her sister Claire, who made a safe marriage to steady Paul. But after Paul is killed by a mugger in an alley with Claire as witness, Claire discovers nasty computer files hinting at her husband’s hidden life. Paul’s business partner wants the flash drive, as does the FBI. Claire is forced to ask Lydia for help, and the two show considerable ingenuity and guts confronting an unexpected foe and revelations about Julia’s disappearance.

Pretty Girls is not for the faint of heart nor weak of stomach. It’s grisly and twisted, and it grips like a hand from the grave.

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rendellSometime back in the 1980s, I called Ruth Rendell “a literary Hitchcock,” and the phrase stuck. It was picked up in blurbs on paperbacks, sometimes attributed to me at the Orlando Sentinel, sometimes to other papers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune — where my reviews also ran. I repeated it myself, or variations thereof, as in this 1989 review of  The House of Stairs, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym: “Again we see how Rendell/Vine has become the Hitchcock of the literary thriller, approaching her subjects from unexpected angles and finding the odd twist that throws readers for a loop.”

Oh, I’m going to miss her. Ruth Rendell died Saturday in London, age 85. She wrote more than 60 books, both traditional detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and chilling novels of psychological suspense. She wrote the latter under the Rendell name, and she further transcended the genre with the Vine books. The first was A Dark Adapted Eye in 1986, and she once told me in an interview that she knew from the beginning which book would be a Ruth Rendell and which a Barbara Vine. “Barbara,” she said, “was more serious,” and the crimes depicted were more sensational, the kind that captured public attention and might result in a dramatic trial or a family scandal.

All of her novels were intricately plotted, less interested in the “whodunit” and  more in the how and why. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all, including the collections of short stories and the frosty novella Heartstones. Many of her characters were outsiders, perhaps mentally disturbed or caught up in strange obsessions. She was interested in questions of identity, especially in the Vine novels, and her narrators tended toward the unreliable. She wasn’t afraid of the sordid, the grotesque, the downright creepy.

In person, Rendell was pleasant and thoughtful, somewhat reserved. She took her writing seriously, she said, but not herself, and she had more ideas than time to write. Her most recent Rendell was The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about in the post “Scare Tactics” in November of last year. Its mystery centered on a pair of severed, skeletal hands — one male, one female — found in a tin box by construction workers. The last Wexford was 2013’s No Man’s Nightingale, in which the aging detective  came out of retirement to investigate the murder of a vicar. But this is no armchair cozy, I wrote, because the strangled vicar is a single mother, whose race, gender and progressive views divided her congregation. (After 2004’s The Babes in the Woods, the 19th Wexford, Rendell told me she thought it might be the last unless she had a really good idea. She then wrote five more Wexfords).

Vine wasn’t quite as prolific as Rendell. There are just 13, including 2013’s The Child’s Child, a book within a book. I wrote that whenever Rendell assumes her Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. The Vine novels still can surprise me on rereading because I never can remember all the secrets of The Minotaur, say, or Asta’s Book (published in the U.S. as Anna’s Book).

The New York Times obituary states that Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is to be published in October. I don’t know if it’s a Wexford, a Rendell stand-alone or a Vine. I know I can’t wait to read it, and that I’m sorry it will be the last.

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