7 New Thrillers to Read This Summer – The New York Times
There’s something for everyone in this summer’s crop of thrillers.
After the alarming winter and the weird spring comes the escapist summer. A little murder, a little blackmail, some psychological suspense, an epic battle to the death in a corner of Australia: There’s something for just about every mood in this season’s tasty batch of thrillers.
All is calm in the Boston Public Library reading room when a woman’s terrified scream pierces the air. (A body will eventually be discovered, crumpled at the bottom of a staircase. ) Drawn together by this exciting event, four strangers talk late into the night, “and I have my first coffee with a killer, ” relates Winifred Kincaid, a. k. a. Freddie, the budding novelist who narrates Sulari Gentill’s THE WOMAN IN THE LIBRARY (Poisoned Pen Press, 265 pp., paper, $16. 99).
They were all together, so who did it? Besides Freddie, the group includes Whit, a Harvard law student with an eye for the ladies; Marigold, a tattooed psychology student; and Cain, a writer bristling with secrets that will be meted out like sweets as the story goes on.
Gentill is an Australian writer with a long-running detective series set during World War II. This is her second stand-alone novel, following “After She Wrote Him, ” the ingenious tale of a twisted pas de deux between the crime novelist and one of her characters, who seems to have a mind of his own. “The Woman in the Library” relies heavily on conversational exposition — too often characters offer information we’ve heard already — but shares with its predecessor a teasing hall-of-mirrors quality.
The most intriguing character, Leo, lurks offstage. After each chapter, he sends an email with his editorial comments to someone named Hannah, supposedly the real author of this novel. (That’s three authors by my count: Freddie, Hannah and Gentill herself. ) At first his suggestions are helpful. But when Leo starts attaching contemporaneous photographs of crime victims, including the mangled body of someone he describes as a “murdered middle-aged woman, ” you start to wonder: Who’s really telling this story?
Louise Leithauser, the main character associated with Caroline Woods’s sly plus delightful THE LUNAR HOUSEWIFE (Doubleday, 306 pp., $28) , is also a struggling writer, making her way through the sexist, martini-sozzled New York literary scene in the 1950s. This was a time when men were men, women were “girls” and Communists — or at least the fear of them — lurked around every corner.
Joe, Louise’s attractive and possibly untrustworthy boyfriend, occasionally lets her write for Downtown, his new, Paris Review-esque magazine. As befitting the era, its parties are full of inebriated name-droppers propositioning the waitresses and debating issues such as “how to punctuate poetry properly in print. ” (“That’s a lotta ‘p’ words, ” Louise observes. )
But Louise begins to suspect that the government is using the magazine as soft propaganda to promote anti-Communist values — something that actually happened during the Cold War. “They’re watching, ” Joe’s partner, Harry, slurs drunkenly at a party one evening. “They’re listening. They have bugs everywhere. ”
“You can’t go around saying things like that, ” Joe hisses at him. “You could get us in a lot of trouble. ”
After Louise interviews Ernest Hemingway, one of several historical characters who wander into the tale, she is horrified to discover that almost all of his politically provocative statements have been excised from her article. Nor do her editors run their changes by her. (Welcome to the business, Louise. ) Lucky for us, we are treated to snippets of the novel she is secretly writing, “The Lunar Housewife, ” about an American woman and a Soviet astronaut who fall in love on the moon. “What within the hell would make you think that was a good idea? ” Joe shouts.
Someone is murdered. Maybe the C. I. A. made it happen. Will anyone dare publish Louise’s novel? Woods occasionally hits us over the head with her characters’ views on racism, sexism and class-based snobbery. But mostly the book is the equivalent of a flinty, modern dame holding her own in a room full of condescending men.
Ruby Simon, a Miami Beach therapist, has committed three murders in the course of her life, 1 per decade. (She’s 30. ) Each seemed like an accident, no one ever suspected the girl of anything and all the particular victims deserved it. “I’m not a sociopath, ” she declares. We’ll be the judge of that.
But now Jason, her beloved husband, has died of insulin shock brought on by his diabetes. Ruby ends up in the last place she expected to be: the wrong side of the table in a police interrogation room. Sascha Rothchild’s terrific BLOOD SUGAR (Putnam, 328 pp., $27) makes us root for this flawed but compelling character. Can she convince the cops, as she has us — in the classic “I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy” defense — that she didn’t do it?
As she uses her superior psychological acuity to spar with the lead detective — he attacks, she parries, he sets traps, the girl evades them — Ruby muses on the story of her life. And what an entertaining story it is. The murders are almost incidental, sandwiched between accounts associated with her extreme study habits at Yale, her complicated relationship with her brilliant platonic friend Roman, the girl job, her spicy really like life and her batty mother-in-law, Gertrude. “You better not be trying to get into the brain, little missy, ” Gertrude snaps at her. (Oh, but she is. )
This is the first novel by Rothchild, a screenwriter and producer whose past projects include “GLOW” and “The Bold Type. ” She nimbly hops between past and present, introducing multiple cliffhangers that will she lets dangle for long stretches before treating us to their resolutions. You might come for the mystery, but you’ll stay for the sheer energy of Ruby’s electric presence.
Only a few pages into Dervla McTiernan’s excellent THE MURDER RULE (Morrow, 292 pp., $27. 99) , it’s already clear that the main character, Hannah Rokeby, is skilled in the art of deception. But while they don’t fully trust her, her co-workers at the Innocence Project, a group that helps exonerate the wrongfully convicted, admire Hannah’s sharp mind and eyes-on-the-prize focus. What exactly the prize is will take some time to emerge.
McTiernan, a good uncommonly fine mystery author, has moved this book out of her native Dublin plus into the American South, where a man named Michael Dandridge is doing time for the rape and murder of a young mother. Hannah inveigles the girl way onto the legal team, where she proceeds to … actually, it’s unclear what she’s doing, or why.
The explanation surely lies in part in the chapters we read from Hannah’s mother’s well-thumbed diary, recounting the transformative summer that led to Hannah’s conception. Scarred by her experiences, her mother, Laura, has become a needy, manipulative alcoholic. One of Hannah’s tasks will be to square Laura’s account of the past with what the team is learning about the Dandridge case. “Questions she’d pushed aside over the years were now demanding the girl attention, ” McTiernan writes.
The book is part legal thriller, part detective story, part analysis of the small-town reign of terror and part excavation from the secrets and lies of the past. The author has constructed the edifice so solidly that it’s a shame to see some of the bricks come loose toward the end. I’m all for forgiveness, yet I’m not sure Hannah would have been able to get away with all the things she did, especially in the very climactic courtroom picture. But we’re not here for the realism. What a thrilling book this is.
Hasn’t anyone learned the No . 1 lesson of fictional motherhood? Your nanny is a psychopath! Judging by the recent crop of child-care-themed thrillers, the mental illness suffered by the young woman unpacking her meager suitcase in her tiny room upstairs will begin to manifest itself the first day she is alone with your child, after which all bets are off. Decent help is so hard to find.
THE CARETAKERS (Morrow, 337 pp., $27. 99) , by Amanda Bestor-Siegal, plunges us into this familiar, brackish pool, but takes an uncommonly subtle approach. Though the book begins luridly, with an arrest — Alena, a “quiet, obedient” American au pair working for a French family in an upscale suburb associated with Paris is being carted off by the police following the death of a young boy in her care — it is less interested in crime than in how past trauma informs present dysfunction.
For the most part, the au pairs hired by the rich families of the neighborhood are underpaid, misunderstood, sad and lonely. Bestor-Siegal describes them as “culture-shocked, desperate for friends, ” unsettled by the jumpy atmosphere in Paris following the 2015 terrorist attacks.
Their employers have troubles of their own — financial, sexual, status-related — and the au pairs are just pawns in their larger preoccupations. The language barrier creates a chasm of miscommunication: “Anything could be true when the words were jumbled, approximations anyway, ” one of the girls says.
Bestor-Siegal switches perspective among a group of characters — the au pairs, the families and Madame Géraldine, a local French teacher who has inserted herself into their lives — with tenderness and intimacy. “The Caretakers” can be frustrating in its rejection of normal mystery conventions. It’s as if it began as one thing and then decided midway to become something else.
But the writing is smooth as honey. As a study into the complex psychology of a bunch of damaged people, it’s utterly absorbing.
It’s hard to walk past the thriller section of the bookstore without being assaulted by gangs of books about rich women scheming and betraying one another. (Hello, “Big Little Lies” and all your friends. ) At first, Seraphina Nova Glass’s ON A QUIET STREET (Graydon House, 318 pp., $16. 99) seems like any one associated with dozens of such novels. Its main characters are three women living in Brighton Hills, an exclusive community on the Oregon coast where sparkling surfaces conceal tragedy and heartbreak.
If the women behave in unsympathetic ways, they have good reasons. One, Paige, suspects that someone in the community is responsible for the hit-and-run accident that will killed her son, Caleb, a year earlier. Another, Cora, is saddled with a swinish husband who tries to gaslight her whenever his chronic infidelity is exposed. (“She’s the cool lesbian through Accounting” is his lame explanation for a text saying, “Hey, babe, can’t wait to see you tomorrow. ”) Then there’s Nicola, a beautiful young mother who seems too snooty to socialize with the neighbors — plus who turns out to harbor unsettling secrets.
The plot takes perhaps one turn too many; new mysteries come out even as things seem to be getting clearer. The three women’s stories are unexpectedly connected, and it will take all their collective ingenuity and bravery to fix their own broken lives. It’s the hoot to follow along as they come up with their gonzo scheme.
Oh, how unappealing Adrian McKinty’s new book sounded, with early publicity revealing that it had some sort of “Mad Max” vibe, people battling for their lives using rusty arsenals of weapons in the wilderness. That is not our sort of thing at all.
So what a shock it was to discover how deeply invested I became in the fate of the characters of THE ISLAND (Little, Brown, 375 pp., $28) , a propulsive, insane story about an all-out struggle for survival between an Australian family and a group of American interlopers. On a trip to Australia, the Baxters — Tom, an entitled 44-year-old orthopedist whose wife passed away a year earlier; Heather, a 24-year-old massage therapist who recently married him; and his two surly, resentful children — bribe a couple of locals to take them on a side excursion to Dutch Island, a tiny spot a short ferry ride away.
Inhabited by the feral O’Neill family, whose members appear to have emigrated from the movie “Deliverance, ” the place is normally off limits to visitors. “It’s not safe. You all need to go. Now! ” warns an emaciated man who appears to be guarding the particular ruins of a deserted prison barracks on the island. No kidding. The mere fact that the 70-something matriarch from the family is named Ma and wears an eye patch and a bright copper wig should be reason enough to dissuade them from continuing the trip.
Perhaps Tom should not have insisted on renting a Porsche S. U. V. either, because the car is the proximate cause of all the trouble. Soon the Baxters and the humorless Dutch couple who unwisely joined them are running for their lives, pursued by the evil O’Neills. Weapons in the epic battle that ensues include cars, horses, dogs, guns, a drone, a machete, an animal trap, exploding tanks of diesel and — in a particularly grotesque scene — the hill of man-eating ants.
Why did I like this book so much, when I detest violence, gore and drawn-out scenes of sadistic mayhem? Maybe because Heather, who starts as a clueless young bride who expects her older husband to take care of her and has no love for their children, becomes not just a Charlize Theron-worthy badass but also a great stepmother who helps two damaged kids come into their own. How lucky that her father was an Army sniper, and that he taught the girl all his secrets.