In Meg Gardiner’s latest thriller, The Liar’s Lullaby, forensic pathologist Jo Beckett is called upon to consult on what must be the highest-profile case in recent memory: the decidedly suspicious death of the ex-wife of the president of the United States. Tasia McFarland, the feisty first wife of sitting President Robert McFarland, is a down-but-by-no-means-out country singer, on the comeback trail thanks to “The Liar’s Lullaby,” a self-penned and politically charged anthem seemingly directed at her ex. Then, in front of 30,000 cheering concertgoers, Tasia is struck down by a bullet to the neck, as stage pyrotechnics backlight the bloody and horrific scene. Did the bullet come from Tasia’s own prop gun, a stuntman’s trick gone lethally awry? Or are there forces in the government who wanted Tasia McFarland silenced before she could embarrass (or even torpedo) the president, and by extension, his powerful political allies? Gardiner, true to form, has delivered an original premise, developed it to a tee and populated it with believable and morally complex characters. Jo Beckett, a well-drawn protagonist in her own right, is aided by a strong supporting cast: wisecracking cop Amy Tang; hunky boyfriend Gabe Quintana; and, for a bit of comic relief, neighbor Ferd the nerd, with his pet monkey, the mischievously riotous Mr. Peebles.

Pray for Silence, Linda Castillo’s highly anticipated follow-up to her best-selling Sworn to Silence, once again features lapsed Amish police chief Kate Burkholder, holding down the fort in rural Painter’s Mill, Ohio. An Amish family of seven has been found brutally murdered, evidently the victims of ritual (and graphically described) torture. The two teenage daughters, in particular, met with a gruesome end, their battered bodies dangling from the roof beams of the family barn, a sickening tableau not soon to be forgotten by the investigating of- ficers (nor, for that matter, by the reader). As awful as this seems, it is but the beginning. As the investigation progresses, it becomes appar- ent that one of the girls has lived a secret life, well away from the strict plainness of Amish culture: She had been the perhaps unwilling star of a series of fetishistic Internet porn films, and at the time of her death, she was several months pregnant. Driving Burkholder inexorably forward in her investigation is a series of strange parallels to a much earlier case that has never entirely released her from its tenacious grip. Pray for Silence is a troubling novel, violent and earthy, and completely impossible to put down.

In Tess Gerritsen’s latest chiller, Ice Cold, pathologist Maura Isles is out of her Beantown element, half a country away in rural Wyoming. Attending a medical conference, she hooks up with an old college classmate and, on a whim, embarks on an impromptu trip into the mountains with a group of his friends. Their GPS prompts them to take a wrong turn, and they wind up getting stuck on a snowy road, basically miles from nowhere, as night is closing in. In the valley below, they spot a small gathering of houses, and make their way toward it. There, in a scene reminiscent of a Stephen King novel, they find the village has been hastily abandoned: cars still parked in the garages, half-eaten meals on the kitchen tables, but not a soul in sight. And there is no help on the horizon, to say the least. Stir in a bizarre polygamous religious cult, an unhealthy amount of toxic waste, a bent cop or two, a feral wolf-boy and a violently libertarian rancher, and you have a convolutedly compelling storyline, a seamless melding of an Old West tale and a thoroughly modern thriller.

Fans of Karin Slaughter’s Jeffrey Tolliver/Sara Linton series need to queue up now at their local bookstores in anticipation of Broken, the best Slaughter novel since her groundbreaking Beyond Reach. GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) Special Agent Will Trent is summoned to rural Grant County, Sara Linton’s stomping grounds, ostensibly to investigate the suspicious death of a homicide suspect incarcerated in the county jail. The police force wants to write it off as the suicide of a remorseful killer, thus closing two cases neatly. Trent, with only minimal scratching of the surface, is convinced that a) slow-witted Tommy Braham would have been a very unlikely murderer, and b) there is a good chance that his so-called confession was coerced. Quickly Trent becomes embroiled in the ages-old dirty politics of the small-town police force and the intense animosity between two women he admires for markedly different reasons: medical examiner Sara Linton and policewoman Lena Adams. There are secrets inside secrets in Grant County, and unearthing some of them can be lethal, even if you carry a badge. Broken is superbly crafted, relentlessly plot-driven and populated with admirably flawed characters; it is perhaps the best of the series thus far, and that is high praise indeed!

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