Think Catwoman in plain clothes. Lisbeth Salander sans dragon tattoo. Jack Reacher with an extra X-chromosome. Whatever—Vanessa Michael Munroe has to be among the cleverest, fightingest and all-around baddest heroines in contemporary suspense fiction. Gifted with a lithe, athletic stature, Munroe (who typically goes by “Michael”) can easily pass for a man, but add some makeup and a party frock, and she will turn heads in any crowded room. Her latest adventure, The Catch, by award-winning author Taylor Stevens, finds her in Djibouti of all places, where she inadvertently becomes a key player in one of the infamous acts of piracy for which the Somali coast is well known. As is the case with previous Munroe novels (The Informationist, The Doll, The Innocent), The Catch is all action, all the time. Back-story? Not so much. Touchy-feely moments of introspection? Nope. A tender romantic subplot? Nah, not really. Just a straight-up adventure tale about a woman who thinks on her feet (that is, when she is not using them to kick bad-guy booty) and always stays one step ahead of her adversaries. My prediction: This will be one of the summer’s most popular beach reads.

A MENTOR’S MYSTERY
After establishing himself as the king of the travel thriller genre with his series featuring Bangkok-based travel writer Poke Rafferty, author Timothy Hallinan made an abrupt change in direction and embarked on a new series featuring L.A. cat burglar (and occasional private eye for crooks) Junior Bender. Junior’s latest escapade, Herbie’s Game, pays homage to Herbie Mott, Junior’s mentor in his life of crime. When Wattles, a well-known local hood, discovers that an incriminating list of contacts has been stolen from his safe—yet all the other valuables remain untouched—he knows just whom to blame: Junior Bender. Except that Junior didn’t do it. But he has a pretty good guess as to who did: Herbie Mott. Threatened with stick, bribed with carrot, Junior agrees to look into the case for Wattles. Then, one by one, people on the list begin to turn up dead, including Herbie. With complex characters, spicy dialogue, clever plot devices and a liberal dose of humor—as is always the case with Hallinan—Herbie’s Game is a fine read.

IN THE DOGHOUSE
Following The Summer of Dead Toys, Inspector Hector (I love the sound of those two words together) Salgado is back for an encore in Antonio Hill’s atmospheric The Good Suicides. Set in and around Barcelona, the story begins with a gruesome email sent to the inboxes of a group of cosmetics industry managers on an executive retreat. The message is cryptic: “Never forget.” Attached to the message is a photo of dead dogs hanging from a tree. Bizarre though that may be, things get weirder in short order, as one by one the executives creatively commit suicide. The connection between the suicides and the message is unmistakable—albeit baffling—and it falls to Salgado to unravel the mystery, preferably before the next suicide takes place. Meanwhile, another storyline—this one much more personal to Salgado—underlies every move he makes: the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of his wife. Hill cuts deftly back and forth between these two disparate tales, keeping the reader on seat’s edge throughout.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a 7 questions interview with Antonio Hill about The Good Suicides.

TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Let me say this at the outset: The Saints of New York were anything but. A good argument could be advanced that these corrupt cops—charged with combating the Mafia in the ’80s—were among New York’s leading sinners, and policeman John Parrish was a key member. If there was an illegal pot of gold to be found within the five boroughs, there was a good chance that the Saints had dipped their fingers into it. Nonetheless, 30-odd years later the group remains revered for having broken the backbone of the Mafia, a legacy that Parrish’s son Frank, also a cop, must live up to (or down to) every day of his life. Faced with the choice of administrative leave or daily consultations with a shrink after a badly botched hostage negotiation, Frank grudgingly opts for the therapist. Naturally, questions are raised about his childhood, most particularly his relationship with his father, and he responds by launching into a narrative about the Saints, a decades-spanning story of the Mob, police corruption and the arcane interactions between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that reached the highest levels of government. Meanwhile, Frank’s investigation into the murder of a teenage girl becomes more convoluted. And so author R.J. Ellory weaves these two tales together, in what can only be called a “big novel”—big in the manner of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River or T. Jefferson Parker’s Silent Joe—that may well be the standout suspense novel of the summer. Or the year.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with R.J. Ellory for Saints of New York.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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