Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
Knopf • $24.95 • ISBN 9780307959966
On sale February 12, 2013
You know that feeling when you pick up a book, read the first few pages—and realize you're in for the long haul? (And oh, by the way, whatever plans you had for that weekend are officially out the window.) That's how I felt when I started reading Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, a debut thriller that was written while the author was a student at Reed College.
The story starts with a bang—or several bangs, really, as a couple of criminals botch a heist at an Atlantic City casino. So then our main character, a "fixer" named Jack, is summoned to clean up the mess.
It's a given that this story is suspenseful and zippy, but devoted thriller readers will be happy to hear that it's also stylishly written, thoroughly researched and tightly plotted. Reading Ghostman, you get the sense that you've just discovered an author who may become a favorite for many years to come, and that is an exciting feeling indeed. In fact: Here at BookPage, we liked the novel so much we decided to interview Hobbs for our February issue—so be on the lookout for that in about six weeks.
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the novel:
It takes months of planning to take down a casino. Luckily for them, Ribbons had done this sort of thing before. Ribbons was a two-time felon out of Philadelphia. Not an attractive résumé item, even for the kind of guy who sets up jobs like this, but it meant he had motive not to get caught. He had skin the color of charcoal and blue tattoos he'd got in Rockview Pen that peeked out from his clothing at odd angles. He'd done five years for his part in strong-arming a Citibank in Northern Liberties back in the nineties, but had never seen time for the four or five bank jobs he'd helped pull since he got out. He was a big man. At least six foot four with more than enough weight to match. Folds of fat poured out over his belt, and his face was as round and smooth as a child's. He could press four hundred on a good day, and six hundred after a couple of lines of coke. he was good at this, whatever his rap sheet said.
Hector Moreno was more the soldier type. Five and a half feet, a quarter of Ribbons's weight, hair as short as desert grass, and bones that showed through his coffee-colored skin. He was a good marksman from his days in the service, and he didn't blink except when he twitched. His sheet showed a dishonorable discharge but no time served. He got back home and spent a year cutting chops in Boston and another browbeating protection money out of dope dealers in Vegas. This was his first big job, so he was nervous about it. He had a whole pharmacy in the Dodge with him, just to get his nut up. Pills and poppers and powders and smokes.
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
Minotaur • $24.99 • ISBN 9781250003485
On sale August 21, 2012
Before I even cracked the cover, it was obvious that Julia Keller's debut novel, A Killing in the Hills, has a lot going for it. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune journalist, and her book has received advanced praise from four of the best suspense novelists around: Dennis Lehane, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman and Tom Franklin. I'd call that a pre-publication publicity home run . . . wouldn't you?
Fortunately, the story that's inside the cover holds up to the hype. It's a spooky and atmospheric tale of what happens after three men are murdered in a coffee shop in the small Appalachian town of Acker's Gap, West Virginia. A teenaged waitress sees the murders, but she's not just any old witness: Her mother is the county prosecuting attorney. Turns out both mother and daughter have a stake in catching the killer . . . who may not be done with his rampage.
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of this suspenseful story:
The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cubs of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.
Then sipping. Then blowing again.
Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.
Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half-visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You can't hide a thing in here.
She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was The line.
Because at this point, she would realize later, these three old men had less than a minute to live.
What are you reading today?
And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman
Morrow • $26.99 • ISBN 9780061706875
On sale August 14, 2012
I am a huge fan of Laura Lippman—her smart thrillers make me think, stick with me for days and (best of all!) keep me turning pages long into the night. Her newest novel, And When She Was Good, is no exception. It's also now officially tied with I'd Know You Anywhere as my favorite Lippman thriller.
The story is about Helen, a smart girl from an abusive family who eventually turns to sex work to make ends meet. She risks her life to sneak away to the library, but she never receives a formal education. She ends up pregnant by her pimp, who eventually goes to jail for a series of illegal deeds. Fast forward more than 15 years, and Helen—now Heloise—has a relatively normal life. She lives in a nice house on a quiet street, and her polite son excels in school. Only thing out of the ordinary is that she's actually an efficient and successful suburban madam (and working call girl), catering to the beltway's elite. She's got a clever cover for her business and a foolproof method of destroying her paper trail—but her situation starts to get increasingly dire when a madam from the next county over winds up dead. Here's a taste of the plot:
When the Suburban Madam first showed up in the news, she was defiant and cocky, bragging of a little black book that would strike fear in the hearts of powerful men throughout the state. She gave interviews. She dropped tantalizing hints about shocking revelations to come. She allowed herself to be photographed in her determinedly Pottery Barn-ed family room. She made a point of saying how tough she was, indomitable, someone who never ran from a fight. Now, a month out from trial, she is dead, discovered in her own garage, in her Honda Pilot, which was chugging away. If the news reporters are to be believed—always a big if, in Heloise's mind—it appears there never was a black book, no list of powerful men, no big revelations in her computer despite diligent searching and scrubbing by the authorities. Lies? Bluffs? Delusions? Perhaps she was just an ordinary sex worker who thought she had a better chance at a book deal or a stint on reality television if she claimed to run something more grandiose.
A woman's voice breaks into Heloise's thoughts.
"How pathetic," she says. "Women like that—all one can do is pity them."
The woman's pronouncement is not that different from what Heloise has been thinking, yet she finds herself automatically switching sides.
What are you reading today? Have you read any good thrillers lately?
Working in collaboration with Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, Jon writes the best-selling series of Body Farm novels. The latest—The Inquisitor’s Key—came out today. In the May issue of BookPage, Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney called the novel "both thought-provoking and eminently plausible as the book races toward its unexpected (and highly original!) resolution." Read an excerpt of the novel on the authors' Facebook page.
The importance of setting
guest post by Jon Jefferson
I must be the world’s slowest learner. It took me seven novels to learn what is surely Rule #1 of book research, at least in the rulebooks of smarter writers: Set your novel in a fabulous place, so you can take a fabulous research junket!
Consider novel #1 in the Body Farm series of mysteries, Carved in Bone. Setting: Cocke County, TN, beautiful but hard-scrabble hill country in East Tennessee, where anyone driving a car with an out-of-county license tag is considered fair game—and where hunting season opens at sundown. I set one scene of Carved in Bone at a cockfight, and because I knew nothing about cockfighting, I arranged, through a friend of a friend, to take a Cocke County field trip—with a veteran cockfighter named Rick—to the Del Rio cockpit, one of the oldest and biggest cockfighting operations in the nation. (“But wait,” you might be thinking, “isn’t cockfighting illegal?” Yes, dear reader; yes it is. But the Del Rio cockpit had apparently forged a special, decades-long friendship with the Cocke Co. Sheriff’s Office.)
The fights took place in a gymnasium-sized building, with a large central arena—the pit—surrounded bleacher-style seating for 300 or so. Tucked at one end of the building was a concession stand selling drinks, burgers, fries, and—with no apparent sense of irony—chicken fingers. I spent a deeply disturbing afternoon in Del Rio, watching roosters tear one another to tatters, their natural spurs augmented with strapped-on knives and spikes. Before and even during each fight, spectators would call out amounts they wanted to wager on one or the other of the roosters (“50 on the red!”; “hunnerd on the white!”). After an hour or so, I’d seen all I needed to see—and all I could stand to watch. On the way back to my car, I passed a pickup truck whose bed was filled with the bodies of dead roosters.
Fast-forward six books and six years, to April 2011, when I found myself standing on a rooftop in France, looking down on the lovely city of Avignon, the setting for novel #7. The book, The Inquisitor’s Key, weaves together the stories of a heretic-obsessed medieval Inquisitor and an Apocalypse-obsessed televangelist, both of them driven to murder in the name of God. The conservator of the Palace of the Popes—the biggest Gothic palace in Europe—had agreed to give me a private tour of the place, which was built to house a series of French popes in the 14th century. She took me up winding spiral staircases to the tops of battlement-topped towers; down into the treasure-chamber, with its false floor; through bedchambers and chapels whose frescoed walls were adorned with scenes of miracles and saints—and falconers, fishermen and stag-hunters. In the days that followed, I threaded the labyrinthine streets within Avignon’s medieval city wall for hours on end. I knew the trip to Avignon was only a beginning; I knew I’d be spending months poring over books on Avignon, both medieval and modern: its popes and inquisitors, painters and poets, cops and killers.
Leaving the Palace that first day, I exited through the gift shop and wine-cellar. There, I drank a toast to the architectural, artistic and narrative treasure-trove of Avignon—and to my new-found skill in the art of choosing book settings.
Next stop? Florence and Venice. What’s the story? I’ve no idea . . . but I won’t leave Italy until I find it!
Watch a book trailer for The Inquisitor's Key:
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157899
March 29, 2012
Some of suspense fiction's finest—writers like Lee Child, C.J. Box and Jonathan Kellerman—have sung this novel's praises. It's no surprise, then, that the pages practically turn themselves, and all you can do is hang on for the ride once the action gets going.
Here's an excerpt about the ringleader's philosophy on kidnapping:
Of all his worries, it was greed that kept Arthur Pender awake at night. It wasn't his own greed that bothered him; Pender was happy with sixty-thousand-dollar scores. He worried, though, that the long grind would wear on his team.
Most would-be kidnappers treated the job like a Hail Mary. Tried to knock down some CEO, some pop star, tried to make ten million and disappear after one big haul. One shot for all the glory. To Pender, that kind of thinking was stupidity, plain and simple. Those heroes who aimed for the big scores always attracted the big crowds. Police. Feds. TV cameras. Publicity like that made it impossible to remain anonymous. Publicity like that meant investigations, manhunts, Wanted posters. Ultimately, publicity like that meant jail or death. Nobody got away from the Big American Machine.
Far better, then, to pull quick scores. Lower numbers, but higher volume. The Pender method. Snatch guys like Terry Harper, Martin Warner. Midlevel executives, hedge-fund managers, guys with enough cash to make the job worthwhile, with families to pay the ransoms, but with no glamour to their names. No romance. Anonymous upper-class fellas who just wanted to see things return to normal.
The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman
Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780061706516
on sale August 23, 2011
In general, I prefer stand-alone suspense novels to series, so I was thrilled to learn that Lippman has a September book coming out that is indeed a stand alone—and not part of her series about Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan.
The Most Dangerous Thing alternates between the present and the 1970s. It's about five childhood friends who come together again after one of their group dies in a car accident . . . and a secret comes out.
Here's an early scene from the friend's funeral:
Gwen was spared funerals as a child and accepted this practice, as she accepted so many of her parents' practices, as the inarguably right thing to do. Certainly, it never occurred to her to bring Annabelle to Go-Go's visitation, and she is shocked to see how many young children are here. More disturbing, they are gathered around the open casket, inspecting Go-Go with a respectful but palpable excitement. A dead person! This is what a dead person looks like! In the fact of their bravery, how can Gwen not come forward and look as well?
A dead person this may well be, but it is not the boy she remembers and not only because he is thirty years older than the Go-Go who lives in her memory. This person is too still, his features too composed. Go-Go was never still.
"Gwen." Doris Halloran holds her hands tightly, peers into her face, as if nearsighted. "Pretty little Gwen. You look wonderful."
She does? She doesn't feel as if she looks wonderful. True, she is thin. She has no appetite as of late. But she is pretty sure that the lack of food has made her face gaunt, her hair dull and dry. Then again, maybe it's all relative. She looks better than Go-Go, for example. And better than Mrs. Halloran, whose face is white and puffy in a way that cannot be explained by mere grieving. Her eyes are like little raisins deep in an uncooked loaf, her mouth ringed by wrinkles.
The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
Pamela Dorman • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670022403
On sale January 10, 2011
In this excerpt, Karen has just met and agreed to tutor the captivating Biba, sister to Rex, and they've gone to seal the deal in the university bar. Kelly sets the scene while maintaining suspense, never letting the reader forget that the book is moving toward a dark revelation:
"Can you buy a bottle of red, darling? A Merlot if they've got it," she said, and I wondered how someone whose voice and bag suggested an expensive education and a credit card could be too poor to afford student bar prices. "It's so much cheaper than by the glass, and we won't have to keep going to the bar." Red wine had always given me headaches, but I ordered it then, and because Biba and Rex drank little else, I trained myself to like it that summer. I have never had a sip of it since, though. For me, the bouquet of rich red wine is now indivisible from another smell, metallic and warm and meaty all at once, one that summons up a slideshow of frozen images in my mind like a series of photographs in a police incident room.