These six thrillers will take you from New York to Copenhagen, and points in between, and are sure to have you turning pages late into the night.
Nine Lives, Peter Swanson (HarperCollins, Canada, 336 pages) Peter Swanson is emerging as the king of the classic mystery revival. His last two books, Every Vow You Break and Eight Perfect Murders, were deservedly bestsellers and received many awards. His latest work, Nine Lives, lives up to all that and more. This is his best book yet.
The premise is near perfection. Nine people receive a list with their names on it. No other information is included. Shortly thereafter, two of the people die. A much-loved local elder drowns in Kennewick, Maine, and a family man is shot while jogging in his quiet suburban Massachusetts neighbourhood. Nothing connects the two except they are both names on the list. It’s clear that someone, somewhere, is a serial killer with a plan. But the names are in places across the country. The people seemingly have nothing in common and range from an oncology nurse to an FBI agent named Jessica Winslow. But Jessica is barred from the investigation because she is a perceived victim. Still, she puts her talents to work hunting for the smallest clue to what connects her to the other eight people on the list. It’s clear that the secret lies in the lives of the nine. How and why the list is compiled is the heart of this novel and Swanson never lets the reader down. As Jessica searches, small clues are revealed and ultimately the solution arises. While reading, though, you won’t be able to stop. Save this one for the weekend you have nothing to do but read. You won’t put it down.
The Heretic, Liam McIlvanney (Europa Editions, 528 pages) Those of us who raced through McIlvanney’s first novel, The Quaker, have been eagerly awaiting this sequel and it delivers the goods. This chapter in the life of Glasgow detective Duncan McCormack is as good as, possibly better, than its predecessor.
It’s 1976, seven years since the events of Quaker where McCormack brought down a gaggle of corrupt cops and politicians. He’s been in London as part of the Metropolitan investigations unit but now he’s back in Glasgow, head of the newly established Serious Crimes unit with his own investigative team. But there are those who haven’t forgiven him for airing the force’s dirty linen. The first two investigations on his plate involve a vicious local crime boss and a dead body on the trash heap. Then there are the killings in the poorer parts of the city, people whom few mourn.
As in Quaker, Glasgow itself is part of the story. The city is changing, erupting: expressways are ripping through neighbourhoods; the old Victorian buildings are giving way to more modern and expensive commercial haunts. Across the pond, the Troubles are blazing in Ireland, a place closer to the heart of Glasgow than many want to admit. Against all this change and upheaval, there are the police, who have their own secrets and crimes to bear.
All this plotting and characterization and description and background make this book at 528 pages a long read but I found it mesmerizing. McIlvanney is a superb writer with an easy elegant style that lends itself to what is now being called “Tartan Noir.” I can’t wait for the next installment of the McCormack team.
The Harbor, Katrine Engberg, translated by Tara Chace (Scout Press, 342 pages) From Tartan Noir to Scandi Noir, we move to Copenhagen and the third novel featuring Anette Werner and Jeppe Korner. We know by now that Engberg’s plots run to family secrets and psychological suspense. The Harbor delivers on all counts.
It’s late spring and Werner and Korner are enjoying a day off when they’re called in because of a missing child. Oscar Dreyer-Hoff is 15 and has been missing overnight and at first Werner and Korner are skeptical. Kids – especially teenagers – drift off but often turn up. But, with a strange message left for them, the parents are convinced that something dangerous is going on. Werner and Korner call in the troops and the hunt for Oscar gets moving.
Fans of Engberg know that secrets will emerge from the family’s seemingly perfect framework but this time is a bit different. There are family secrets galore but the clues to Oscar’s disappearance are external. We also get the latest episode in the lives of Korner and Werner and their families. This is an essential bit of her books and I always look forward to it.
The Long Weekend, Gilly Macmillan (HarperCollins, 342 pages) Three couples, one isolated Northumbrian farm, a weekend away from work, kids and cares – that’s the setup for what’s seemingly in store for Jayne, Ruth, Emily and their husbands. But plans go awry. The men get last minute delays and the three women head out alone. Once ensconced at Dark Fell Barn, with a heavy storm bearing down and no internet or cell service, the women are greeted with a package and a message: One of their husbands will die tonight at the hands of Edie, an old friend whose husband, Rob, drowned recently. Edie’s message sets all three women into turmoil. Emily, young, beautiful, self-absorbed wants to be away from this place and these two women she hardly knows. Ruth, a new mother, lets her serious drinking problem out of its restraints. Jayne, ex-army intelligence, has her own demons to hide. All three are about to explode and we still don’t know who or why someone is dead.
The plot, which does owe a bit to the old film A Letter to Three Wives, lets each of the women expose her fears and foibles. The men, held off for most of the book, are seen through the lens of their marriages, which can be perfect harmony (Emily) or serious fears (Ruth). There is a twist in the first third, which means Macmillan has to resort to a batch of contrivance to keep the suspense going. I found it tiresome but I kept reading anyhow. I think you will too.
Our American Friend, Anna Pitoniak (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages) Should Melania Trump ever decide to hire someone to write her biography, she should look first to Anna Pitoniak. Our American Friend is fiction but Melania’s sphinx-like gaze is there, leaving us wondering just what she really is thinking (or if she is thinking at all.) Pitoniak is a first-rate writer who has crafted a thriller that lacks a lot of thrills but serves up a sizeable load of imaginary backdrop to the former unlamented POTUS.
The narrator is Sofie Morse, once a small cog in the Washington press corp. We open in Croatia as Sofie has resigned from her job when President Henry Caine is re-elected for a second term. Caine is a repulsive character deserving of nothing except scorn. Sofie is considering her options when she gets a surprise communiqué. Caine’s wife, Lara, an inscrutable Russian émigré, wants her to write her biography. It’s a chance no writer would refuse (well, some would) and Sofie returns to the White House. Lara’s only request is that the story start “from the beginning” which is in Paris an the 1970s, where she’s the pampered daughter of a high-ranking KGB spy.
Just what Lara has in mind for the book and why she’s chosen Sofie to write it are part of the plotline here and, while there’s not a lot of examine, Pitoniak’s images of a woman caught between two worlds is a fun tale. I didn’t find it too thrilling but I did find Lara’s story engaging and, from early love to the White House, that kept the story moving.
Pitoniak, who lives in New York but originally hails from Whistler, B.C., is a writer to watch.
Vladimir, Julia May Jonas (Avid Reader Press, 256 pages) While this book is presented as a crime novel, it’s more of a psychological suspense book, not a true mystery. Still, the opening got my attention. A young man is restrained in a chair asleep. Why he’s there and what is happening is unknown. The narrator is musing on her love for older men and yet, here is this gorgeous specimen of youth. How and what?
From the prologue we flip to the real tale. Our narrator is at a life crisis. She is a professor of literature at an upstate New York college. Her husband, head of the English department, has been charged by a number of former students as a serial sexual harasser. The narrator doesn’t care about his profligacy. They’ve had an open marriage for decades. She’s furious with the women who’ve come forward and cut into her cozy world. How dare they? As the crisis deepens, she drifts into a romantic reverie over Vladimir, a young author who is writer in residence with his wife and child. She gets toned, tweaked, tanned, ready for the day when Vladimir will be hers.
In this debut novel from Jonas, all this is done in a lively prose that had me laughing despite my utter disgust for the narrator and her self-centred life.
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