THE GOOD SON By Michael Gruber, Henry Holt, 383 pages, $31
The prophet was asked: Whom should you befriend most? He replied: "Your mother. Then your mother. "Then your mother." "Then your father."
That epigram is the start for one of the best new espionage thrillers of the year. Michael Gruber's The Good Son has it all: brilliant, inventive characters, a chillingly realistic plot, believable action and spies, spooks, and black ops galore.
Sgt. Theo Bailey is an army lifer. He's a member of a tactical unit that officially doesn't exist. These are the soldiers who parachute into places the army isn't supposed to be in order to carry out operations we don't admit happen. Bailey, whose father is a Pakistani professor, is fluent in the languages of the new theatre of war, Pashto, Dari, Hindi and, of course, death.
Just how Bailey comes to his profession is part of the mystery of his life. His story for us begins with his mother, Sonia Bailey Laghari, a famous authoress who disguised herself as a boy and made the haj to Mecca, recording the journey in a book. This led to a fatwa against her, but that didn't stop Sonia. Of late, she has been living in Colorado, practising Jungian psychotherapy. But she calls Theo to tell him that she's making a trip to Lahore for a conference. She'll be travelling as simply Mrs. Laghari, wife of an American academic. She is, after all, a devout Muslim. No problems.
When Sonia and the entire group of people at the conference are kidnapped, Theo moves into action. Just who has them and why are only the smallest edge of this complex and very fine plot. We are taken into Pakistani history, the country's complicated relations with Afghanistan and Punjab, and the edgy world of nuclear proliferation, and we are introduced to a woman as memorable as John le Carré's George Smiley. As Theo considers how to arrange for the United States to invade Pakistan, Sonia uses all her considerable intelligence, psychological skills and pure charm to keep her fellow captives alive and her captors off balance.
Gruber never loses the narrative here. He slips in nuggets of the past life of both Sonia and Theo, including Sonia's ability to be, simultaneously, a good Muslim and a devout Catholic. We learn that a catastrophe occurred that tore apart their lives, but just what and when? More important, why? The crack in the world of the Bailey-Lagharis is woven into the plot as we navigate the treacherous world of intrigue and scary U.S. secret power. This is the perfect weekend escape novel.
TRUTH By Peter Temple, Random House Canada, 387 pages, $32
Inspector Stephen Villani is back. For anyone who read the brilliant and unforgettable novel The Broken Shore, that's fabulous news because fans have been waiting impatiently for Villani's return. The even better news is that this sequel to The Broken Shore is every bit as good.
The setting is Melbourne in a roasting Australian summer. Not only is it hot, it's dry, and wildfires are raging outside town. Villani is now head of the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, with all the responsibilities. "For my sins," he says.
Those currently include a dead woman in the bath of a penthouse apartment in Australia's most expensive condominium project. The woman is unknown and the building's management wants the crime handled as quietly as possible. Part of the sales pitch is airtight security for the rich and pampered. That a woman managed to get in, much less get killed, is bad for business.
As with the first novel, Villani's complicated personal life is woven into the plot, along with lots of local lore, and the backstory is as good as the mystery. The first few chapters are a bit of a slog until you get the hang of Temple's dialogue, which incorporates memories, arcane references and a lot of Aussie slang. It's rhythmic, though, and after a few pages, it seduces you. This is a wonderful book, one of the best of the year.
SO COLD THE RIVER By Michael Koryta, Little, Brown, 512 pages, $29.95
Michael Koryta gets better with each book. So Cold the River is as chilling a psychological thriller as you can wish for, with a great setting and a clever, well-developed plot.
Alyssa Bradford is beautiful and rich. She wants filmmaker Eric Shaw to make a documentary about her father-in-law, the rich, powerful and very old Campbell Bradford. She tells Shaw what she knows about Bradford: his name, his hometown and the fact that he keeps an antique water bottle with him at all times.
At first, it seems we're off in Stephen King land here, as Shaw enters Bradford's rural world and strange visions come to him, but Koryta's story is more nuanced and clever than just an otherworldly evil.
BROKEN By Karin Slaughter, Delacorte, 402 pages, $31
Readers who haven't already discovered this terrific series, featuring Georgia physician Sara Linton, shouldn't begin with this book. They should go back at least five of her 10 thrillers, to Faithless, say, and work forward. That way, you can see just how Dr. Linton, happily married pediatrician, ends up a widow working in an Atlanta trauma centre. Each novel is a chapter in Linton's life, and each one is as good as the one before.
We enter here as Sara returns to her hometown for the first time since her husband's murder. It is a melancholy event, and she finds herself called to assist the police once more when a body is found. Worse, she has to face the woman she's convinced caused her beloved husband's death. Can she find some relief from grief by forcing a dirty cop's exposure?
This book also marks the return of Agent Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, one of Slaughter's most intriguing characters. And there's a twist at the end that no one will see coming.
FREE FORM JAZZ By Lee Lamothe, Dundurn, 376 pages, $11.99
At first glance, this is a mismatched-team story. Ray Tate is a cop with problems. He takes chances, makes trouble. Djuna Brown is calm, controlled and organized. They are a team in a Midwestern town with a sexual sadist on the loose and a two-bit career criminal flooding the town with poisoned ecstasy pills.
A less talented writer could turn this into a series of one-liners and run the cliché-cop bit into the ground. Lamothe takes the time to turn Tate and Brown into characters with depth, not just habits, and then lets them follow the evidence and build the case. Lamothe's novel The Finger's Twist, which eerily predicted events last weekend in Toronto, was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award. This one is even better.
ICE COLD By Tess Gerritsen, Ballantine, 322 pages, $31
This is absolutely the best novel yet by Tess Gerritsen. It features Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Iles. Early on, Maura is on a ski trip to Wyoming and comes upon a strange hamlet called Kingdom Come. It's clear from the outset that something horrible and sudden happened here, but when word comes back to Jane Rizzoli in Boston that Maura's body has been found, she vows to head west and uncover the truth about Maura's death and events in Kingdom Come. Ice Cold is creepy, smart and full of solid writing. Gerritsen always has a great plot based in real science, and this book is no exception. Don't start reading unless you plan to stay up until you're done.
AGENTS OF TREACHERY Edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 430 pages, $18.95
The Black Lizard imprint of Vintage Crime continues to be one of the showcases for fine writing and this stellar collection of new espionage short fiction edited by the redoubtable Otto Penzler is simply wonderful. Not only does it include works by new masters like Lee Child and Olen Steinhauer, it showcases work that deals with the here and now, nice people who think their Persian neighbours are up to no good, and hot-shot special ops teams in action. These are slick, smart stories, chosen with Penzler's usual eye for both style and content. Whether you're an action fan or a lover of the intellectual spy tale, there's a short story here for you.