Hard-core grittiness and violence are now the norm in female-penned suspense novels; romance-laden cozies are no longer the province of the Women of Mystery—if indeed they ever were. So move over Andrew Vachss, step aside Lee Child: There's a new sheriff in town—and he's a she!
A WINNER FROM FLYNN
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s suspenseful new thriller, has generated more pre-release buzz than just about any other mystery this year, and deservedly so. It is a fiendishly clever tale of a marriage gone toxic, and revenge exacted to a disturbingly lethal degree. The story is narrated in alternating chapters by the husband/wife team of Nick and Amy Dunne, who offer up markedly contradictory accounts of events leading up to the violent abduction of Amy, and the police investigation that follows. Needless to say, the husband is always the first and primary suspect, and this time is no exception. Nick protests his innocence, both to the police and to the reader, but he is sparing with the truth; indeed, it seems he will only cop to his bad acts (an ongoing affair with a young student, for instance) when he has painted himself into a corner. Amy, for her part, is either manipulative and sociopathic—or the hapless victim of a closet sadist, a deviant exceptionally skilled at hiding his darker side. You be the judge—but be prepared to change your mind . . . again and again, right up to the very last page!
THE KING AND HIS GARDINER
Stephen King and I have one thing in common (a hint: it isn’t great wealth). Give up? OK, here it is: We are both big fans of Meg Gardiner. In fact, King went so far as to say that her books make up “the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last 20 years,” and who am I to argue with Stephen King? This time out, Gardiner departs from series novels with a stand-alone thriller called Ransom River. Rory Mackenzie thought she’d never return to her hometown of Ransom River, California; the small-town attitudes and prejudices conflicted too strongly with her more sophisticated worldview. Yet somehow, she’s back, and she has been drafted as a juror in a high-profile murder trial, a case with strong connections to organized crime and corrupt cops. When a video clip from a particularly bad day in court seems to show Rory colluding with masked criminals, she finds herself on the run from both the mob and the law, not knowing where to turn or whom to trust. And it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better! Gardiner continues to move from strength to strength; with a tightly crafted story and charismatic (albeit admirably flawed) new characters, Ransom River displays the talents of a top tier mystery writer at the top of her game.
Fans of Scandinavian suspense will find lots to like in Anne Holt’s Blind Goddess, the book that introduced European readers to the exploits of Oslo police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen back in 1993. Here in the colonies, we have gotten the Wilhelmsen books in a different sequence, starting with 1222, by which time Wilhelmsen has bitterly retired, paralyzed by a bullet lodged in her spine. In Blind Goddess, we get a flashback peek at an entirely different Hanne Wilhelmsen: sensual, upbeat, physically capable (graceful, even) and oh so enigmatic. Teamed with police attorney Hakon Sand, Wilhelmsen investigates the murder of a small-time drug dealer, followed in short order by the killing of a well-known—if decidedly sleazy—attorney. On the surface, the cases wouldn’t appear to have much in common, but before the investigation is brought to a close, it will expose an unthinkable level of corruption that permeates the Norwegian government to its highest echelons. That said, Blind Goddess doesn’t read like a political thriller, but rather a topnotch police procedural, one with an exotic and icy Nordic twist. After all, when it comes to solving a clever crime, it is not what you know to be true, but what you can prove that matters.
WHERE THERE’S A WILL
Special Agent Will Trent has to be one of the most fascinating suspense protagonists in recent memory: He is tormented by his childhood demons; dyslexic to the point of being barely able to read; uncomfortable to the extreme in relationships. On the plus side, he has one of the finest analytical minds in the entire Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Together with his partner Faith Mitchell, he has appeared in several of Karin Slaughter’s excellent novels, including her latest, Criminal. Trent’s current case is strongly evocative of a murder dating from 30-some years ago, in which the victim’s flesh was sliced open and then crudely sewn back together. It is a case with strong personal connections for Trent; he knows exactly who the killer was (and is), and there is little or nothing he can do about it. Legally, that is. And there is the rub: Does Trent operate outside of—and in direct conflict with—the legal system that has been such a cornerstone of his existence for many years? Or, can he somehow find a way to bring the perpetrator to justice within the confines of the law, and before he kills again? Criminal offers a look back at 1970s Southern culture (with all its gentility and warts), a dash of romance for its unlikely protagonist and a twist ending that few will see coming.
THE ANGLO/IRISH CONTINGENT
There’s an old joke that goes, “What do you call 100 dead lawyers?” Answer: “A pretty good start.” This is also the general mood of the London public in the case of three convicted pedophiles found murdered and mutilated—by person or persons unknown—in Irish author Jane Casey’s new thriller, The Reckoning. In the second installment of the series featuring Anglo/Irish DC Maeve Kerrigan (after last year’s The Burning), our conflicted heroine seems to be the only person truly concerned with bringing the perpetrator to justice. In her opinion, punishment should be left to the legal system, not meted out by vigilantes. Little does she realize the peril that viewpoint will hold for her. The Reckoning is written in the first person, with the sort of dry wit that often characterizes the best Irish crime fiction (think Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels). The dialogue is a true treat, engaging and intelligent as Kerrigan takes on the testosterone cowboys who comprise the rank and file of the London police department. My prediction: If The Reckoning is any indication, this young author has a long and successful career ahead of her.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
“Murder” and “Amish” are two words not typically found in the same sentence . . . unless, of course, you are referring to Linda Castillo’s brilliant suspense series featuring lapsed Amish police chief Kate Burkholder, of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. The latest installment, Gone Missing, finds Burkholder embroiled in not one, but three cases in which young people have disappeared, seemingly without a trace. The common denominator? All are teenaged Amish girls, each with a history of rebellion against their religion. Complicating matters is the fact that the Amish are notoriously insular; by the time the families get around to involving the police, the trails have grown cold. There is no shortage of suspects, however: a famous photographer once convicted of taking nude pictures of underage Amish girls; a halfway house operator expelled from the Amish culture for homosexuality; a rabid preacher trolling among the young Amish for converts to his controversial sect. Is it one of these people, or is the predator to be found closer to home, in the often misunderstood community of the Plain People? With its wonderfully conflicted protagonist, and its incisive look into a society most of us know little about, Gone Missing is the unquestioned high point of one of the most compelling series in modern suspense fiction.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a 7 questions interview with Castillo.