When you launch your search for a chilling suspense novel to read on vacation, why limit yourself to the tried-and-true favorites? Many new authors are trying their hands at whodunits this season, and I’ve found four whose debuts are great candidates for your summer reading list.
You have to love a story that sets its entire tone in the first sentence: “The shovel has to meet certain requirements.” And, in a mystery novel at least, where there is a shovel, can a burial be far behind? With his debut novel, Bad Things Happen, author Harry Dolan has channeled the great noir mystery novelists like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. He has crafted a sly and suspense-filled tale set in the environs of a mystery periodical, Gray Streets. The stories in Gray Streets follow a simple formula: plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die. But then real life for our protagonist David Loogan starts to look a lot like a plot for a story in Gray Streets when he gets roped into helping his boss dispose of a corpse. And quickly, plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die. And let me say this: the characters in Bad Things Happen are masters at telling lies. There are layers upon layers of deceit, several murders, a veritable Pike’s Place worth of red herrings and a convoluted storyline guaranteed to intrigue. Oh, and if you can guess the culprit(s), you’re better at this than I am!
Escaping the past
By most measures, it would be difficult to like a character, who, by page 13, has shot and killed his longtime friend and mentor simply to save his own skin. Still, even if you don’t exactly like Paul Dark, you cannot help but be drawn into his machinations as he desperately tries to cover his tracks and distance himself from treason charges in Jeremy Duns’ cracking debut thriller, Free Agent. The tale begins in the closing days of WWII, when Dark was a young secret agent tasked with the clandestine execution of Nazi war criminals. Seduced by a comely young Georgian (that’s Georgia as in “Back in the USSR,” not as in “Georgia on My Mind”) nurse, Dark is recruited as a double agent for Mother Russia. Fast-forward 20 some years: a KGB officer, eager to defect to the West, has a piece of valuable information to trade for asylum—the identity of the British double agent embedded all those years ago. Dark must go into cleanup mode, and fast. All the players seem to have agendas within agendas, leaving the reader to wonder just who is playing whom, and how, and why. A diabolically clever novel that will keep you guessing until the final moments.
Be careful what you wish for
It is easy to look at the lives of others and think, if I could be like them (or have their stuff or date their girlfriend), then I would be happy. For Jay Porter, the protagonist of Attica Locke’s debut thriller Black Water Rising, the pie-in-the-sky dream was to be a lawyer, no easy feat for a young black activist in the 1970s. He has pulled it off, but it isn’t bringing him the recognition and financial security he had hoped for. His clients are “B-list” at best: his major case at the moment involves a young escort allegedly injured while plying her trade in a moving car, resulting in an epic denouement featuring a crash into a phone pole. It is not the sort of case of which dreams (or careers) are made. It scarcely matters, though, because Porter’s life is about to take a turn he could not have anticipated in a hundred years: he saves a drowning woman, and in doing so, unwittingly becoming a pawn in a deadly game involving a warring union, some good-old-boy oilmen, and the power elite of Houston. Locke could easily be compared to T. Coraghessan Boyle, Walter Mosley or Dennis Lehane: for one thing, she is in their class as a wordsmith, but more than that, she locks into a tumultuous period of American history, reflecting the social class structures and their attendant injustices through the eyes of her protagonist. Black Water Rising is an excellent book by any measure, but as a debut, it is nothing short of astonishing.
Fighting crime in a sleepy Amish town
I almost didn’t read Linda Castillo’s debut suspense novel, Sworn to Silence—a novel about an Amish cop in Ohio, penned by a former romance novelist, for heaven’s sake—until I happened to glance at the back cover, where I found exceptionally complimentary blurbs from Alex Kava, Lisa Scottoline and C.J. Box, three writers I admire greatly. I’m afraid I am as much a sucker for a good blurb as the next guy, so I decided to give the book a try. Painter’s Mill police chief Kate Burkholder is a “lapsed” Amish woman living outside the enclave, shunned by the Amish community for having embraced modern ways. She is a good choice for police chief, however, with strong law enforcement skills and an insider’s knowledge of the Amish language and people. When a series of murders rock sleepy Painter’s Mill, they strongly resemble four unsolved rape/murders of 16 years before, even down to details—which were suppressed in the original case. But that cannot be, for that killer is long dead—Kate knows that for a fact. Or does she? Kate will have to dredge up (literally) a skeleton from her distant past if she is to have any hope of solving the current batch of murders, and keeping the perpetrator from killing again. With high suspense, just a bit of romance and a very clever villain, Sworn to Silence is a rare example of a book that can be judged by its (back) cover.