Posts Tagged ‘suspense’

zigzagSo many mysteries the last month or so. A popular author kicks off a new series, while another chooses to end a longtime favorite. Star turns by trusted detectives, past crimes leading to present-day puzzles, procedurals, capers, a serial killer — or two.

Elly Griffiths, whose Ruth Galloway series is known for its engaging characters, introduces another memorable cast in The Zig Zag Girl (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), set in 1950 Brighton. Police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto both served in a special ops/disinformation group known as the Magic Men during World War II and reteam as sleuths when someone starts killing people by restaging famous magic tricks. Atmospheric, clever and appropriately tricky. Encore, please.

longlandWith the evocative Long Upon the Land (Grand Central, library hardcover), Margaret Maron brings her long-running Deborah Knott series to a close by circling back to Deborah’s complicated family history as bootlegger Kezzie Knott’s daughter. She marries a contemporary mystery about a dead man found on Kezzie’s North Carolina farm to one with roots in World War II, when Deborah’s mother Susan befriended both a young soldier and widower Kezzie. In both cases, Deborah needs answers from her many older brothers, her aunt and her father, as well as others with long memories. Sweet and bittersweet.

raggedLand is also at the heart of Last Ragged Breath (St. Martin’s Minotaur, advance reading copy), Julia Keller’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring prosecutor Bell Elkins. A native of the hardscrabble West Virginia mountain town of Acker’s Gap, Elkins is familiar with the area’s history, even if the disastrous 1972 Buffalo Creek flood was before her time. Royce Dillard was only two when he survived the rushing waters that claimed the lives of his parents and more than a hundred other souls, but now the solitary dog-lover’s life is imperiled once again. He is on trial for the murder of an outside developer on his land. The circumstantial evidence points to Dillard, but Elkins has her doubts, well aware of the passions aroused by the dead man and his plans that could forever change Acker’s Gap. Like her protagonist, Keller knows the landscape and its residents. Unlike Elkins, though, she also knows dogs. I fell hard for Goldie.

natureofA boy cries wolf once too often in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), a stunning addition to her Inspector Gamache series. I was disappointed by the last one (choppy writing, digressive plot), but this one took my breath away as the isolated Quebec village of Three Pines is invaded by suspicion and betrayal with far-reaching moral consequences. All the familiar characters are on hand, including Henri the dog and Rosa the duck, as Gamache resists peaceful retirement in his search for answers. What little Laurent finds in the woods is real and fearsome.

xgraftonThe only problem with Sue Grafton’s X (Penguin Putnam, digital galley) is that it means we’re nearing the end of her alphabetically titled series starring PI Kinsey Millhone. As always, it’s a treat to watch Kinsey using the old-fashioned tools of the trade circa 1989 to catch criminals. Here, knocking on doors, using library reference books and looking at public records in person has Kinsey figuring out frauds large and small, even as the private files of a late colleague lead to a trail of missing women and a serial killer. Yikes! The colorful characters include a wily divorcee, a slick sociopath and annoying new neighbors for Kinsey and her elderly landlord Henry.

susansThe plot of Julia Heaberlin’s thrilling Black-Eyed Susans (Random House/Ballantine, digital galley) reminds me of an episode of Criminal Minds but minus most of the gory details. In 1995, 16-year-old Tessa was found buried alive under a blanket of black-eyed Susans in a Texas wheat field that served as a grave for three other girls. Tessa, who only has flashes of memory of her traumatic experience, nevertheless testified at the trial of the presumed killer, who was sent to Death Row. Now, with his execution only days away, Tessa reluctantly agrees to help a defense attorney and a forensics expert trying to free the condemned man by finally identifying the other victims. Heaberlin alternates between past and present, piling on the red herrings, and Tessa struggles to recover her memory. The ending’s a bit muddled and unevenly paced, but Heaberlin’s third book will keep you up all night.

marrykissWith its snappy dialogue and cinematic scenes, Marry Kiss Kill (Prospect Park Books, digital galley) reads like a rom-com caper TV movie — no surprise since author Anne Flett-Giordano’s writing and producing credits include Frasier and Hot in Cleveland. With the glitzy Santa Barbara film festival as backdrop, police detective Nola MacIntire and her partner, Tony Angellotti, try to solve the case of a murdered street artist while also looking into the suspicious death of a wealthy businessman. Nothing especially original here, but appealing characters and a spritz of name-dropping make for fast-paced fun.

pargeterKeeping up with so many series means I hardly ever run out of new mysteries to read. A shout-out to the Witness Impulse imprint that introduced me to several excellent writers from across the pond, including Brian McGilloway, whose Lucy Black series is set in Northern Ireland; Mari Hannah, whose Kate Daniels series takes place in Northumbria; and Alison Bruce, whose Gary Goodhew procedurals are set in Cambridge. I also count on British publisher Severn House for witty new tales from Simon Brett, who writes the Charles Paris series and the Mrs. Pargeter books. Severn also publishes new mysteries from American writers (and Facebook friends) Clea Simon and Sarah Shaber.  Recommended all.


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brushbackThe heat is on, so I’m hibernating in the AC under the ceiling fans. But I really can’t complain about summer. There’s almost always a baseball game on TV, a friend just brought me one of her delicious peach pies and I’ve been binging on crime novels. Sara Paretsky knocks it out of the park with the aptly named Brush Back (Putnam’s, digital galley), No. 18 in her V.I. Warshawski series. Never one to be intimidated, Vic is only encouraged by the threats she receives after taking a case in her old South Side Chicago neighborhood. Her 80-year-old client even takes a swing at her, and that’s before she begins digging up secrets about a 25-year-old murder case that possibly implicates her late cousin, Boom-Boom, a star player for the Blackhawks. Finding the real culprits leads Vic to rigged construction sites, corrupt politicians, local fixers and territorial cops, as well as to the bowels of Wrigley Field. Real inside baseball, tense and action-packed.

speakingbonesKathy Reichs’ involving Speaking in Bones (Bantam, digital galley) is also the 18th novel featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan who, this go-round, follows the lead of a websleuth on a cold case. Brennan is initially skeptical of Hazel “Lucky” Strike’s claim that the remains found in rural North Carolina are those of young Cora Teague, whose ultra-religious family thinks ran off with her boyfriend. But it’s the delusions of true believers that prove especially dangerous for Brennan and her colleagues.

murderdcFor more nitty-gritty city crime, check out Neely Tucker’s Murder D.C. (Viking, digital galley), set in the nation’s capital, and Ingrid Thoft’s Brutality (Putnam, library hardcover), set in Boston. In Tucker’s follow-up to The Ways of the Dead, metro reporter Sully Carter’s investigation into an apparent drug-related death has him dealing with low-life power wielders  and high-up power brokers. Street-smart dialogue and details boost a plot complicated by race, class and money.


brutalityThoft’s Fina Ludlow, investigator for her family’s infamous law firm, takes on a case of her own in the third book in the series. When Liz Barone, a former collegiate soccer player, is assaulted in her kitchen and left with life-threatening injuries, her mother hires Fina with the grudging consent of Liz’s husband. Fina, as snarky as ever and downing more junk food than Brenda Johnson of The Closer, suspects the attack on Liz may have been motivated by her lawsuit against New England University, where Liz played soccer and now works as a researcher. She’s not wrong, but many people have a stake in Liz’s allegations that her recent memory loss resulted from playing soccer with a concussion.

PrettyisWhen it comes to novels about kidnap survivors, Laura Lippman’s 2010 I’d Know You Anywhere is the gold standard for me. But Maggie Mitchell’s first novel Pretty Is (Henry Holt, digital galley) captured my attention with its insights about the secret life of girls and female friendship. When Carly May and Lois are 12, they are kidnapped by a handsome stranger they call Zed and are held for two months in a remote mountain cabin before being rescued. Some 20 years later, spelling bee champ Lois is a college professor and junior beauty queen Carly May has become Hollywood actress Chloe Savage. They are eventually reunited after Lois writes a thriller about two kidnapped girls, and Chloe accepts the part of a detective in the movie based on Lois’ book. Before that, though, a creepy student stirs up Lois’ memories about that summer, while Chloe dwells on the differences between Lois’s book — part of which is embedded in Pretty Is — and what she remembers. But it isn’t until they are together again that they are forced to confront the truth of their shared experience.

bradstreetThe slippery nature of memory also is explored in Robin Kirman’s lushly written Bradstreet Gate (Crown, digital galley), in which the murder of a Harvard student affects three of her classmates and the professor who becomes the prime suspect. Yes, it did remind me a bit of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but Kirman apparently was inspired by the 1998 murder of Yale student Suzanne Jovin. The victim in her story is Julie Patel, and the history professor Julie challenged in class is Rufus Storrow,  a Virginia aristocrat and West Point grad with a background in military intelligence. Georgia Calvin is the beautiful, privileged student who has a furtive affair with Storrow. Charlie Flournoy, who struggles to bury his working-class roots, has a crush on Georgia and regards Storrow as a mentor. Their brilliant and fierce friend Alice Kovac, the daughter of Serbian immigrants, is the unpredictable, secretive outsider. Kirman concocts a heady mix of youthful ambition, desire and deceit, following her characters in the decade after the murder as suspicion shadows their lives in surprising ways.

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readingwomanWhen I first read in British novels about Oxbridge students’ reading parties, I was disappointed that they were really talking about study groups. “Reading party” sounds much more elegant, with everyone sitting around comfortably, inside or out, sipping an appropriate beverage, communing with their book of choice. My vision is no doubt influenced by the beautiful paintings reproduced in The Reading Woman calendar, which I gave my mother for Christmas.

I thought about reading parties when I heard that that this Saturday has been designated National Readathon Day by the National Book Foundation, with fundraising activities going on at bookstores, libraries, schools and universities across the country. The hosts are providing quiet areas where participants are asked to read from noon to 4 p.m. Oh my — what punishment! Please, please don’t throw me in that briar patch!

Still, four hours of non-interrupted reading time seems quite lovely, even for people like me who read like we breathe. A readathon sounds too much like work, though, or that you have to read while walking on a treadmill. So I’m planning my own reading party for Saturday afternoon, when I hope to make a dent in my towering TBR stack. Maybe I’ll invite some friends to join me. I have comfy chairs and, goodness knows, I have books, including these two involving novels.

traingirlThe hype regarding Paula Hawkins’  The Girl on the Train (Riverhead/Penguin, purchased e-book) is mostly well-deserved. It’s fast-paced, well-written psychological suspense with three unreliable narrators — hence the comparisons to Gone Girl — but I saw its twists coming, and you will, too, if you know your Hitchcock films and Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine books.

The titular narrator, Rachel Watson, is a mess: lonely, alcoholic, divorced, still in love with her ex, Tom. Although she was fired from her London job months ago, she still travels back and forth from the suburbs to London on the train, passing her old home where she sometimes sees her husband’s new wife Anna and baby. Just down the street are a golden couple that she imagines are everything she has lost, but her fantasies are shattered when she sees the pretty blonde wife kissing a dark, handsome stranger. Rachel’s drink-fortified decision to see what’s going on results in her waking the next morning with no memory of the night before, only to hear the news that the blonde woman, Megan, has gone missing. Megan is the book’s second narrator, and Anna is the third. Hawkins neatly splices their stories together, time-shifting so as to increase the suspense, piecing out what everyone is up to before and after Megan’s disappearance. Rachel, in hopes of recovering her memory, inserts herself into the investigation, which brings her into contact with the police, Megan’s husband Scott, a mysterious man who keeps showing up on the train, as well as Tom and Anna, who want no part of her. Rachel is undeterred.

“I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected,” she thinks to herself. “I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose. I want Megan to turn up safe and sound. I do. Just not quite yet.”

pariswinterUnlike Hawkins’ tale, which hooks you from the first page, Imogen Robertson’s historical thriller The Paris Winter (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) takes awhile to build up a head of steam. Young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is having a tough time in 1909 Paris as she struggles to pay the fees at a school for women artists. Her paintings won’t feed or clothe her during the coming winter, but she is befriended by the model Yvette and fellow student, Tanya, a Russian heiress. They direct her to a charity that helps her find a job with a French gentleman, Christian Morel, who needs a companion for his fragile sister, Sylvie. All is more than well, even after Maud discovers that Sylvie is addicted to opium, and she vows to keep the Morels’ secret while Sylvie tries to wean herself from the drug. But the Morels are playing a long game, and Maud becomes a pawn in a plot involving stolen jewels, secret identities and murder.

If the book’s first half is a leisurely stroll through belle epoque Paris, the second half is an action-packed adventure when Tanya and Yvette again come to Maud’s aid. As floods threaten to engulf the city, the three friends seek revenge in a fight for their futures. Hawkins is very good at evoking both the romance and squalor of the City of Light’s dark side.


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octoberI don’t care if the suspense is killing you. Do not — I repeat, do not — skip ahead to the finish of Jeffery Deaver’s oh-so-clever The October List (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley.) Not only will you ruin the end, you’ll also ruin the beginning — because Deaver tells his story in reverse.

So to begin with the end: A woman named Gabriela waits nervously in a Manhattan apartment for word that her kidnapped daughter Sarah has been safely rescued. A man named Sam waits with her; two of his colleagues, Daniel and Andrew, have gone to deliver the ransom money and “the October List” that kidnapper Joseph has demanded. Gabriela stares at a newspaper on the coffee table and tells Sam she has finally figured out what the October list means, but before she can say much more, the door opens. It’s not Daniel and Andrew. It’s Joseph. And he has a gun.

Ok, I’m not giving anything away here, but I expect after you finish the book, you’ll read this first-last chapter again, and maybe several more, marveling at how Deaver has manipulated his puzzle so that you have to reassess the facts over and over again. You’ll learn about a computer nerd who crushes  on Gaby, about two cops who question her about her boss Charles Prescott’s sudden disappearance with company funds; about Joseph’s telling Gabriela he’s got 6-year-old Sarah; about Gabriela meeting movie-star lookalike Daniel in a bar; about a shooting, a fatal accident, a robbery, the blood on Gabriela’s lip, something nasty in a stained plastic bag.  Maybe, just maybe you’ll figure it all out before Deaver pulls the last (or first) rabbit out of his hat. Maybe not. Either way, you’ll have fun. Tricks and treats.

identicalGreek mythology informs Scott Turow’s latest, Identical (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley), so if you’re familiar with the story of twins Castor and Pollux, you’ll be ahead of the game.

In 2008, attorney Paul Gianis is running for mayor of Kindle County while his twin brother Cass is being released from prison after serving 25 years for the murder of his girlfriend, Dita, party-hearty daughter of local tycoon and family friend Zeus Kronen.  But then Zeus’ son, Hal, decides that unlike his late father, he’s not satisfied with Cass’s guilt; he believes Paul was also involved in Dita’s death. Paul sues Hal for defamation, while Hal hires ex-FBI agent Evon Miller and retired homicide cop Tom Brodie to reinvestigate the killing. This unlikely but likeable pair are distracted by personal issues — Evon’s troublesome girlfriend, widower Brodie’s age and health — but prove discerning detectives. The narrative shifts back and forth in time as modern-day forensics and DNA testing mix with family drama and secrets a la Greek tragedy. Classic entertainment.

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It’s not so much a case of “he said, she said” in Gillian Flynn’s stellar Gone Girl (Crown, digital galley via NetGalley) as “he lied, she lied.” Nick admits early on that he favors lies of omission, while his wife Amy is an expert revisionist. Maybe. That’s the marvel of this twisting tale that explores the old question of how well we ever really know someone, even our nearest and dearest. Nick begins by describing the disappearance of Amy on their fifth anniversary from their suburban Missouri home and how he quickly becomes the prime suspect. Amy, a native New Yorker and the inspiration for her parents’ best-selling series of “Amazing Amy” picture books, counterpoints with excerpts from her journal, detailing the couple’s courtship and marriage. Both are likable and credible, at least at first. Flynn’s first two novels were Sharp Objects and Dark Places; Gone Girl is both sharp and dark. It reminded me a bit of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, but Flynn has her own audacious spin.

About two thirds of the way through an S.J. Bolton thriller, I get this almost-irresistible urge to flip to the last page and find out how she’s going to end things. I remember having to stop reading both Blood Harvest and Now You See Me and catch my breath, and the same thing happened with Dead Scared (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley via NetGalley). Oh, the suspense! Who or what is frightening  Cambridge University students to death? DC Lacey Flint of Now You See Me goes undercover as a vulnerable psychology student at DI Mark Joesbury’s behest, working with psychiatrist Evie Bolton of Blood Harvest to find possible links among a rash of gruesome suicides. Maybe it has to do with social networking or cyberbullying, but what of the vivid night terrors that the victims reported? The finely orchestrated finale — and don’t you dare skip ahead — is shattering in its evil ingenuity.

Wit and wickedness are both in play in Christopher Fowler’s The Memory of Blood (Bantam, digital galley via NetGalley), the most recent in the winning Peculiar Crimes Unit series headed up by the elderly and eccentric detective duo of Arthur Bryant and John May. This time, the puppet character Mr. Punch is at the center of a bizarre locked-room death involving the cast and crew of a murder play at the New Strand Theatre. As more bodies turn up, Bryant and May’s investigation takes on theatre history and curses, Victoriana, and the National Secrets Act. All in all, another stylish black tragicomedy. Bravo! Encore!

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Grace Covey appears asleep to family and friends at her hospital bed. To the doctors, Grace is in a coma after the traumatic injuries she suffered when she ran into a burning school to find her teenage daughter. To Grace herself, she apparently is having an out-of-body experience, aware of what’s going on around her but unable to communicate except with comatose daughter Jenny, who also is mysteriously out-of-body.

Don’t believe me? Fine. But in her compelling new novel Afterwards, Rosamund Lupton makes it easy to believe in Grace’s narration of events past and present.  First, the fire at the private school. She was outside for her 8-year-old son Adam’s sports day when the alarm sounded. But as soon as she realized Jenny was trapped on the third floor, Grace ran into the building.

“And as I dragged her, step by step, down the stairs, trying to get away from burning heat and raging flame and smoke, I thought of love. I held on to it. It was cool and clear and quiet.”

Love, of course, is at the heart of Lupton’s high-wire act of a novel: Grace’s love for her children and her husband, as well as her prickly sister-in-law Sarah, a cop investigating the fire; her own mother, who comforts young Adam; and her best friend Maisie, whose daughter is also in the hospital.

The book has as many or more narrative twists as Lupton’s first novel Sister, itself a roller-coaster of psychological suspense. Just when Grace thinks she has figured out who set the fire and why, another suspect and motive appears in an equally credible scenario. Increasing the tension is Jenny’s increasingly worsening condition. And will Grace ever wake up?

Open Book: I raced through a digital galley of Rosamund Lupton’s Afterwards (Crown Publishing via NetGalley),  then went back two weeks later and read it again.

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The headline writer in me wanted to call this post “Catch and release,” but I realized I was diminishing the subject just to get your attention. “The one who got away” doesn’t really work either because Laura Lippman’s new novel is not just about a woman who survived a serial killer’s abduction as a teenager.  It’s also the story of Elizabeth Lerner (then), Eliza Benedict (as she’s now known), her family, her abductor, his advocate, the mother of a girl who didn’t get away. It’s about how we all shape our memories, and how we are shaped by them. I’d Know You Anywhere is its perfect title.

Lippman, too, is pitch-perfect. She has honed her storytelling skills with her long-runnning Tess Monaghan series and with a handful of stand-alone tales of psychological suspense, including the superior What the Dead Know. This new book is right up there with that 2007 novel as she again explores questions of truth and identity through the prism of the perceived past.

“I’d know you anywhere.” That seemingly innocent, even cheery phrase takes on creepy, possibly menacing overtones when it appears in a letter to Eliza from Walter Bowman, who abducted her the summer she was 15 and held her hostage for almost six weeks. Walter has been on Virginia’s death row for the last 22 years for the rape and murder of another teenage girl, Holly Tackett, his final victim.

That Walter wants to talk to her before his impending execution turns Eliza’s carefully ordered suburban life upside down. Of course, her husband Peter knows about her past — she refuses to sleep with the windows open — but her own touchy teenage daughter Iso and sweet-natured son Albie don’t know. Eliza would like to keep it that way. But she’s afraid if she ignores Walter, he, or his odd advocate and go-between, Barbara, will keep up the pressure, perhaps bring in the media. Walter hints that he’s still witholding information about other girls he killed. Eliza is being forced back into “Elizabethland.”

Once Eliza cautiously responds to Walter’s overtures, the pace picks up as Lippman fluidly moves between past and present, and the perspectives of  the main characters — Eliza, still wondering why Walter let her live; Walter, whose years in prison have given him time to think; Barbara, who believes Walter’s real agenda  meshes with hers; Trudy Tackett, whose grief for her dead daughter occupies her every waking moment and who blames Eliza for Holly’s abduction; and fact crime author Jared Garrett, who has always been skeptical about Eliza’s testimony and victimhood.

All are convincing because they are so sure of their own motives and narratives. What Eliza fears most is that “her past would become present, truth and lie would mingle, and she would spend the rest of her life explaining herself.” Her older sister Vonnie already is reminding her of some truths of their shared girlhood she has forgotten, or chosen to forget. How reactive she still is, how willing to relinquish control. And Eliza does remember how it was with Walter:

 “She dreamed of rescue, hoped for it, prayed, but she believed it would have to be something that happened to her, not because of her.”

Lippman writes in an author’s note that this book, like others she has written, was inspired by a true crime, but not one she is going to detail and turn into a guessing game. “The bottom line is that there once was a man who raped and killed his victims, with one exception, and that man was put to death for his crimes.” Lippman started thinking one day about the exception, “the sole living victim.” 

I’m pretty sure she then asked herself, “What if?” That’s what novelists do. Inspiration leads to imagination, the search for the truth in fiction, the mystery of memory.

Open Book: I knew Laura Lippman from her books and mutual friends before we met some years ago. We keep in touch these days mostly through Facebook. Her publisher sent me an uncorrected galley of I’d Know You Anywhere (William Morrow/HarperCollins) earlier this summer. I’ve read it twice now, and in between, I reread What the Dead Know.

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