2020 Reviews
February 1, 2020

Elevator PitchLinwood Barclay
Elevator Pitch (William Morrow 2019) begins when an elevator in a 40-story Manhattan office tower races to the top and then plunges back to the bottom of the shaft, killing four people. Barbara Matheson, a columnist at Manhattan Today, is peppering Mayor Richard Headley with questions about croneyism at a press conference when he leaves suddenly in response to a call. She arrives at the office tower just in time to see a gurney carrying her friend Paula to the ambulance. Meanwhile Detectives Jerry Bourque and Lois Delgado are called to the murder scene of a man whose fingertips have been removed and face battered beyond recognition. Their only clue to the man’s identity is a pair of shark socks and a cobra tattoo. The next day an elevator in a different Manhattan skyscraper malfunctions, killing a Russian scientist about to defect. A third elevator accident the following day removes all hope that the malfunctions are coincidental, and Mayor Headley is faced with the choice of causing a city-wide panic by announcing that the elevators are being hacked or shutting down all the elevators with a vague story of checking for safety. A bomb in a taxi outside one of the buildings leads the police to suspect Eugene Clement, head of the domestic extremist group Flyovers, whose mission is to educate those living in coastal cities about the real Americans living in the states they fly over and look down on. Bourque and Delgado discover that their dead man is a Russian-born elevator repair man, extremely talented with anything mechanical. Driven to find whoever is responsible for the elevator deaths, Barbara visits the relatives of the victims and discovers they have all been warned not to talk by a mysterious man who didn’t identify himself. This gripping thriller explores the frightening possibility of shutting down a modern city by targeting the elevators most inhabitants use at home and at work.

Fake Like MeBarbara Bourland
Fake Like Me (Grand Central Publishing 2019) begins in 1996, when an art school college sophomore travels to New York City to attend a sculpture exhibit by avant guard artist Carey Logan, part of the innovative Pine City collective along with Jack Wells, Jes Winsome, Tyler Savage, and Marlin Mayfield. Called THE BURIAL PROJECT, Carey is making plaster casts of body parts of attendees, with plans to age and bury them. The unnamed student painter feels an immediate connection with Carey, who encourages her to ignore the Academy rules and make the large scale paintings she dreams about. In 2008 the painter is sharing a New York live/work space, creating enormous paintings and beginning to make a name for herself when Carey, who had given up sculpture for performance art, commits suicide at the Pine City retreat in upstate New York. The shock of her idol’s death inspires the painter to finish her latest group of paintings, nearly half a foot deep in oil paint, which sell out in a week. Finally financially solvent, the painter begins a new project called Rich Ugly Old Maids, seven four-panel paintings for a gallery in Paris: Humility, Obedience, Chastity, Modesty, Temperance, Purity, and Prudence. Two years later, the series is nearly complete when the painter’s loft burns to the ground, destroying everything except two panels of Prudence. The Milot Gallery believes the six completed paintings are in storage, and stress they cannot postpone the opening or accept hasty remakes. The painter lies and says only Prudence, which has not yet been photographed for the ads, was destroyed, and the gallery reluctantly gives the painter three months to recreate the final painting. The painter desperately searches for studio space, but everything is booked for the summer. She barters a 20% discount on Obedience to an avid modern art speculator for an introduction to Marlin, and is given Carey’s old studio at Pine City for the next three months. The four remaining members of Pine City drop in to use their own studios, but the painter spends most of her time alone, working long frantic days to recreate the seven huge paintings. During their visits Marlin and Jack are friendly, Jes is hostile, and Tyler is sexually attracted to her. Strangely, none will talk about Carey, though the painter longs to learn more about the woman who inspired her. While trying to hide her own deception, the painter discovers strange items in the loft of Carey’s studio and begins to wonder what really did happen on the day Carey died. This beautifully written literary suspense thriller is full of fascinating details about the physical labor of creating art and the emotional toll on the artist along with brilliant parodies of artistic excesses.

NOthing More DangerousAllen Eskens
Nothing More Dangerous (Mulholland Books 2019) is set in 1976 Jessup, Missouri. Boady Sanden (15) is a lonely freshman at St. Ignatius, counting the days until summer vacation. In his current events class, Boady reads the news that Lida Poe, an employee of Ryke Manufacturing, by far the largest employer in Jessup, has been missing for a week along with a pile of embezzled money. Boady tries to escape notice at school, but when senior Jarvis Halcomb and his two friends plot to dump chocolate pudding over the head of the only black girl in the school, he trips them and runs. Boady helps his widowed mother Emma pay the rent by cleaning warehouses after school and working construction jobs in the summers. Boady’s father died when he was five, and his mother never recovered from her grief, retreating into herself and rarely interacting with others. Their neighbor Hoke Gardner, a scarred man who never talks about the past, keeps his eye on Emma and her son, teaching Boady to fish and take care of himself in the woods. The only other house in their remote area has been empty for years, and Boady is fascinated to see signs of life. Mr. Elgin, has just been sent to Jessup from Minneapolis to take over management of Ryke Manufacturing, replacing Cecil Halcomb, demoted when the embezzlement was discovered. The Halcombs and their allies are angry about the new manager, especially when they learn he is black. Jarvis offers to end his crusade to beat up Boady if he will spy on his new neighbors for their secret group CORPS — Crusaders Of Racial Purity and Strength. When the Elgin family arrives Boady gets to know their son Thomas, exactly his age and very unhappy about being uprooted from his friends in Minneapolis. Their growing friendship forces Boady to confront his own prejudice as they try to solve the mystery of the missing Lida Poe and evade the increasingly violent actions of Jarvis Halcomb and his friends. This powerful story of guilt and forgiveness, prejudice and hate, love and friendship, and the debilitating effects of grief is highly recommended.

The Paragon HotelLyndsay Faye
The Paragon Hotel (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2019) begins in 1921 when 25-year-old Alice "Nobody" James flees from the New York Mafia on a train to Oregon. Born in Harlem on the day the Raines Law was passed, intended to curb alcohol consumption by limiting Sunday sales to hotels, Alice grew up in a Raines hotel, a bar where her mother Catrin worked as a resident prostitute in the "hotel" rooms upstairs. Alice’s Italian father died before she was born, and she learned to fade into the background at a young age, earning the nickname “Nobody.” At the age of 15, threatened by impending work in the upstairs rooms at the Raines hotel, Alice was “adopted” by mobster Mr. Salvatici, who valued Alice’s ability to eavesdrop on secret conversations. Maximilian Burton, a black Pullman porter, realizes Alice isn’t well, but she refuses his offer of a doctor for her secret bullet wound. By the time they arrive in Portland she can barely stand and Max smuggles her into the Paragon Hotel. Serving African American railway employees and travelers, the Paragon Hotel is owned by Dr. Pendleton, a talented doctor who cannot legally touch white people. As she recovers, Alice gets to know Blossom Fontaine, a strikingly beautiful cabaret singer, and six-year-old mixed-race Davy Lee, a foundling raised by the hotel staff. The only other white visitors to the Paragon Hotel are the pair of cops who confiscate a percentage of the alcohol sold in the illegal basement gambling den and Evelina Vaughan, the wife of the local police chief, who runs Weekly Betterment classes for African American children. Alice, who can slip seamlessly in and out of different personas, pretends to be a spinster Suffragette writing an article about the Paragon Hotel in order to slip under the radar of the racist Oregon constitution, home of the biggest Ku Klux Klan organization west of the Mississippi River. When Davy vanishes at Elms Amusement Park and the local police aren’t inclined to search for him, Alice realizes that her experience surviving the Mafia is the perfect preparation for battling the KKK. This intense historical thriller set in the Prohibition era emphasizes the merciless Jim Crow environment in Oregon, the ruthless Mafia gangs in New York City, and the rapidly increasing empowerment of women in the 1920s.

The Second SleepRobert Harris
The Second Sleep (Knopf 2019) begins when Christopher Fairfax, a young English priest, travels on horseback from Exeter to the tiny village of Addicott St. George to conduct the burial service of the local parson, Father Thomas Lacy, who served 32 years before falling to his death from a cliff. Nervous about performing first eulogy, Fairfax can’t sleep and explores Father Lacy’s study by candlelight. He is shocked to discover an extensive library of antique texts, including a 12-volume collection of the minutes of the Society of Antiquaries, an organization declared heretical when Fairfax was a boy. He clearly remembers the huge bonfire the priests of the seminary of Exeter lit in midwinter, burning all the confiscated publications. As he is puzzling over the strangeness of discovering a pristine set of the Society’s works in tiny Addicott St. George he spots a cabinet with shelves of ancient glass filled with illegal artifacts, including a black rectangle made of plastic and glass featuring the ultimate symbol of the blasphemy of the ancients — an apple with a bite taken out of it. At the funeral, an anonymous voice from the crowd shouts that Father Lacy’s death was not an accident. After the service the locals explain that the man might have meant that Father Lacy was taken by devils since he fell from a spot known as the Devil’s Chair, where he often searched for treasures from ancient times. Lady Durston, a widow who owns a crumbling mansion, reveals that her husband also collected strange and delicate flasks and beakers of glass, presumably left behind by Peter Morgenstern, a Nobel scientist who owned the estate before the Durstans took over a thousand years ago. Fairfax and Lady Durstan become obsessed with searching for the treasure believed to have been hidden by Morgenstern when he fled London after civilization collapsed in the Apocalypse of 2025, caused by some sort of scientific failure. The cities were the hardest hit by starvation and disease, and it wasn’t until 129 years later that the calendar was restarted and parish records began once more with charcoal and homemade ink. The more he learns about the past, the shakier Fairfax’s faith in the Church becomes, and the more he fears being arrested for heresy himself. This dystopian thriller is clever and frightening.

The Family UpstairsLisa Jewell
The Family Upstairs (Atria 2019) begins when Libby Jones receives a letter just after her 25th birthday, the letter she has been waiting for as long as she can remember that reveals the names of her birth parents. The Henry and Martina Lamb Trust has granted her a mansion in Chelsea and the soliciter gives her a news article describing the discovery of a 10-month-old baby on the second floor of the mansion, the bodies of Henry and Martina Lamb and an unidentified man in the kitchen. All three died of poison, presumably a suicide pact. The 14-and 16-year-old son and daughter were missing, vanished without a trace. As the 25th birthdays of the two older children passed without a claim on the estate, the property passed on to Libby. The soliciter accompanies Libby to the mansion, dusty and falling into disrepair after 25 years. Libby returns to the house after talking to the police officer who found her, learning that someone had cared for her in the days following the deaths. She has the uncomfortable feeling that someone else is in the house with her and hears faint sounds. Meanwhile, Lucy is making a precarious living as a busking violinist in the Côte d’Azur with her two small children, debating what to do about the notification that appears on her phone, “The baby is 25.” Interspersed chapters written by Henry relate the gradual disintegration of the Lamb family after his mother Martina invited a young violin player to stay for a few days, followed by the charismatic and controlling David Thomsen. The days stretched into years as the temporary guests increased and the Lamb children became near prisoners in their own home. This disturbing psychological thriller is quite terrifying.

Just Watch MeJeff Lindsay
Just Watch Me (Dutton 2019) introduces Riley Wolfe, a master thief targeting the wealthiest 1%. After pulling off his latest impossible heist — stealing a 12.5 ton statue in the middle of the Chicago mayor’s dedication speech — Riley realizes he is bored and losing his edge. No theft is too hard; he isn’t challenged any more. So he sets out to find a truly impossible target, and settles on the centerpiece of the Crown Jewels of the Persian Empire — the Daryayeh-E-Noor (the Ocean of Light). Valued at $15 billion, the largest pink diamond in the world will be displayed in the United States for the first time in history, along with a selection of the other Crown Jewels, in the Eberhart Museum in Manhattan. A small private museum, the Eberhart has a huge endowment and state-of-the-art electronic security, perhaps the best in the world. The Crown Jewels will be guarded around the clock by Black Hat Security, all former members of America’s elite Special Forces, and a full platoon of the even more dangerous Revolutionary Guard of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Riley is a master of disguise — able to become a completely different person with a new appearance, walk, and voice — and an expert in the art of parkour, the ability to move through a complex environment without equipment, scaling walls and leaping between rooftops. With the assistance of Monique, a talented art forger who helps with his disguises, Riley sets a multi-layered plan in motion to steal the Daryayeh-E-Noor. Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent Frank Delgado, convinced that Riley Wolfe will try to steal the Crown Jewels, begins back-tracking from his one arrest record at the age of 16, determined to figure out why there is no record of his existence before then and discover the motivation that makes him seek out seeming-impossible challenges. This intense thriller caper is the first in a planned series featuring the multi-talented Riley Wolfe, willing to do just about anything to steal the Daryayeh-E-Noor.

The ScholarDervla McTiernan
The Scholar (Penguin 2019) begins when Detective Inspector Cormac Reilly gets a frantic call from his girlfriend Dr. Emma Sweeney, who has found the body of a young woman run over by a car outside her lab at Galway University late one night. The body is unrecognizable but Emma is sure that the 3000 euro Stella McCartney cardigan belongs to Carline Darcy, the granddaughter of John Darcy, owner of Darcy Therapeutics, Ireland’s biggest pharmaceutical company and funder for the lab. The pathologist finds a lab security swipe card in a pocket with Carline’s name and photo, and Cormac heads to her apartment to search for confirming DNA. At the penthouse apartment, Cormac is startled to discover Carline herself, who insists she has no idea who the dead woman is, why she had Carline’s ID, or what happened to her Stella McCartney cardigan. Cormac’s boss gives him strict instruction that Carline Darcy is untouchable and he should look elsewhere for the identity of the body. Emma tells him she has seen Carline at the lab doing research with another blond student, but Professor James Murtagh, director of the lab, refuses to share any information with the police for security reasons. Murtagh tells Cormac that Carline is an exceptional student, about to complete a four-year degree in two years, already working on her doctoral thesis, and just like her grandfather, the kind of talent that comes along only once in a generation. Now that Emma is a witness as well as the discoverer of the body, Cormac is removed from the case, but can’t let it go, convinced that Carline Darcy is somehow involved in the deliberate hit-and-run murder. This excellent second in the series featuring the complex Cormac Reilly is highly recommended.

The Last Good GuyT. Jefferson Parker
The Last Good Guy (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2019) begins when Roland Ford, a private investigator in Fallbrook, California, near San Diego, is hired by Penelope Rideout to find her missing 14-year-old sister Daley. Their parents died ten years earlier when Penelope was 18, and she took custody of her 40year-old Daley. Penelope married a career Marine pilot, the three moved every year or so, and have been in San Diego for about a year. Penelope doesn’t allow Daley to use social media and monitors her phone, but Daley pushes the boundaries as much as she can. She hangs out with Nick Moreno, a 20-year-old dog walker, and Penelope is worried they may have run away together. Visiting Nick’s condo, Roland discovers Nick shot through the forehead, and the neighbor says he saw Daley getting into a SUV with two men. Daley’s friends at her private school tell Roland they make frequent visits to a teen club, often driven by two of the security guards in their SUV with an emblem that sounds like the one Nick’s neighbor described. Roland researches Penelope and Daley’s background, finding frequent moves but not much else. He discovers that there is no record of Penelope’s marriage to Richard Hauser, and Roland’s Marine friend stationed at the base has never heard of him. Visiting the teen club, Roland follows two guards in a SNR Security SUV to the the Cathedral by the Sea, run by charismatic arch-conservative evangelist Reggie Atlas, and then to the Paradise Date Farm compound in the desert, protected by an electric gate, a ten-foot fence, and security cameras. Roland has no idea how the teen club, Cathedral, and Date Farm are connected, but he suspects that Penelope is lying to him about just about everything. This excellent third in the series featuring the clever and talented PI, perhaps the last good guy, is highly recommended.

The Secrets We KeptLara Prescott
The Secrets We Kept (Knopf 2019) is the story of three Cold War women. Olga Ivinskaya, a young Moscow mother with two children, is the mistress of Boris Pasternak. Arrested and interrogated about the content of Pasternak’s work in progress, Doctor Zhivago, Olga is sent to the Gulag in 1949, sentenced to serve five years of hard labor in the fields. Her term was cut short by Stalin’s death in 1953, when 1.5 million prisoners were released, but Olga and Pasternak remained under surveillance. In 1956 Irina Drozdova, the daughter of a Russian-born seamstress, is hired to join the typing pool at the CIA, joining the well-educated young women who hoped the secretarial job was the start of a career, and the older women who had served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency during World War II that preceded the CIA. Sally Forrester, a former OSS agent who managed to stay out of the typing pool, helps train Irina after hours in spy-craft and the art of invisibly carrying classified documents. After Russian publishers refuse to publish Doctor Zhivago, Sergio D’Angelo smuggles the manuscript out of Russia, and it is published in Italian by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Believing that books could be weapons, that literature and the arts could change the course of history, the CIA smuggled cultural materials into Russia, emphasizing that the Soviet system suppressed free thought, censoring and persecuting Soviet artists. Doctor Zhivago, revealing the effect of the Soviet system on a sensitive and intelligent citizen, was chosen as the perfect book to smuggle back behind the Iron Curtain. Based on the true story of a CIA plot, this fascinating debut historical thriller is narrated from the perspective of the three different women, each struggling to remain true to herself while finding her place in a world dominated by men.

This Poison Will RemainFred Vargas
This Poison Will Remain (Penguin Books 2019, France 2017) begins when Commissioner Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg reluctantly cuts his Icelandic vacation short to return to Paris for an important murder investigation. Adamsberg quickly spots a connection that identifies the murderer and then becomes fascinated with the death of an elderly man bitten by a brown recluse spider. The timid spider rarely emerges from its hole so bites are rare and usually harmless, but three elderly men have died from brown recluse bites within the last three weeks. The deaths appear to be accidental, but Adamsberg becomes convinced the men were murdered, though it seems impossible that anyone could gather enough of the spider venom to kill anyone — the equivalent of 200 spider bites. Commandant Danglard feels strongly that the brown recluse deaths are a waste of time, and the squad is soon divided with only Voisenet, whose grandfather lost his leg after being bitten by a recluse, Mercadet, who suffers from narcolepsy, Froissy, who hides food supplies in her office cupboard, and Veyrenc, Adamsberg’s childhood friend from the Béarn region in the Pyrenees, willing to work on the speculative investigation. Adamsberg’s intuitive thought process eventually connects the current deaths to decades-old incidents at La Miséricorde orphanage. This excellent mystery is the ninth in the series featuring the brilliantly odd Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his quirky team.

The Turn of the KeyRuth Ware
The Turn of the Key (Gallery/Scout Press 2019) begins when Rowen Caine finds an ad for a live-in nanny position in the Highlands of Scotland. Sandra and Bill Elincourt have an architecture firm, working partially from home but also traveling frequently. They need an experienced nanny capable of managing the care of their four children, ranging in age from 18 months to 14. Rowen is barely making ends meet with her job at a London daycare, sharing a flat with a woman she can’t stand, and quickly gets her CV off by email. Sandra responds with a generous salary offer, mainly a huge bonus at the end of a year’s service, admitting that rumors about the house being haunted combined with the remoteness of the location have caused four nannies to resign in the last 14 months. Arriving at Heatherbrae House, Rowen is surprised that Bill Elincourt is not at home for her interview, but likes Sandra and falls in love instantly with the luxurious bedroom and state-of-the art en suite bathroom. Sandra explains that she and her husband completely remodeled the old house, transforming it into a “smart” house controlled by phone apps with built in surveillance cameras in all rooms to make it easy to monitor the children. The oldest daughter Rhainnon is away at boarding school, so Rowen’s main responsibility will be Maddie (8), Ellie (5), and baby Petra. The two younger girls seem sweet, but Maddie refuses to make eye contact or talk to Rowen. As she is leaving to catch the train back to London, Maddie gives Rowen an unexpected hug, whispering, “Don’t come back. It’s not safe.” Rowen is offered the job if she can start within three weeks, and she quickly gives her notice to the day care, negotiating only two weeks more of work. Arriving at Heatherbrae House with all her worldly possessions, Rowen is startled to learn that Sandra and Bill are departing the next morning for a trade show. Rowen is left alone with three small children in an isolated house where she doesn’t even know how to turn the lights on and off, especially frustrating when she begins hearing strange noises coming from behind a locked door in her room in the middle of the night. This creepy psychological thriller masterfully integrates the perils of a remote gothic setting — including a walled poison garden — with the modern helpless feeling of being unable to master smart house controls.

January 1, 2020

The Gomorrah GambitTom Chatfield
The Gomorrah Gambit (Mulholland Books 2019) is the story of Azi Bello, an affable and social inept young London hacker known as AZ, who has spent most of his life alone with his technology in a small backyard shed. For the last 18 months, Azi’s obsession has been the creation of Jim Denison, a photogenic white man who has built trust in the online neo-Nazi community. Azi has built his own reputation in the hacker community, beginning with his 2012 takedown of a casino through a security hole in the filtration system of their trademark gigantic fish tank. He has been online friends with Sigma for about a year when she sends him a zip file of documents, including a selection leaked in 2013 from inside the Islamic Republic. Additional files provide proof that 50 Islamic martyrs have returned from the grave and are preparing a massive terrorist attack. A short note from Sigma explains that she has found Gomorrah, a secret marketplace on the dark web, and is fleeing for her life. She asks to meet in real life, but Azi refuses, offering online help but nothing in person. About five minutes later a woman calling herself Anna knocks on the door to his shed, revealing that they know everything about his hacking past and demanding that he immediately send Sigma a message saying he has changed his mind and wants to meet in exchange for not arresting him for hacking. Azi has no idea who Anna works for, but is horrified to learn that his secret identity is blown and knows he has no choice but to agree. All his own technology is confiscated, along with most of his online currency, and he finds himself tethered to a new phone that runs only one app: New Action Directives Issued Remotely (NADIR). Following the NADIR commands, Azi meets Sigma, Munira Khan in real life, who tells him she stumbled over the documents when a recruiter from the far right Islamic Republic inserted a thumb drive into a laptop she had loaned her cousin, who is now in Syria filming glorious deaths and gory executions for the Islamic Republic propaganda machine. Azi is frightened of Anna and the even scarier Odi, but follows their directions and flees London for Berlin with Munira. Azi uses his Jim Denison persona to infiltrate Gomorrah and discovers that the reality of the dark web is far more terrifying than anything he imagined. This alarming high-tech debut thriller combines non-stop action with dark humor.

The Never GameJeffery Deaver
The Never Game (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2019) introduces Colter Shaw, who travels around the US in his Winnebago, earning reward money by finding missing persons. Shaw has just arrived in Silicon Valley to talk to Frank Mulliner, who has offered a $10,000 reward for the return of his 19-year-old daughter Sophie, who vanished two days earlier. Frank admits that he and Sophie had a fight before she stormed out of the house on her mountain bike. Even working two jobs, he couldn’t make enough money to keep the family house in Mountain View, and had just listed it for sale. At the Quick Byte Café, where Sophie was last seen, Shaw talks the owner into showing him the security video, and he spots a hooded figure crouching down by Sophie’s bike before she peddles furiously off to the north. Guessing that she has a favorite place to burn off anger in San Miguel Park, Shaw finds the fragment of a bike reflector, a blood-stained rock, and Sophie’s phone. He heads to Santa Clara to talk to Detective Wiley, who took Frank’s missing person report, handing over the phone and his notes, hand written with a fountain pen and including a list ranked by percentage of the most likely scenarios. Wiley is suspicious of Shaw’s involvement and dismissive of his request for a search in San Miguel Park. The owner of the Quick Byte Café calls Shaw to report that the Missing poster featuring Sophie’s picture has been replaced by an odd black and white stencil of a stylized face, leading Shaw to a creepy video game called The Whispering Man. Shaw, raised with his two siblings in the wilderness by his paranoid survivalist father, has excelling tracking skills and self-defence skills, but little experience with computers or the gaming industry. Maddie, a professional gamer, offers to serve as his guide, taking him to the C3 Conference, an international video gaming extravaganza at the San Jose Convention Center. The cutthroat billion-dollar gaming industry moves to the top of Shaw’s motive list, the only question is who and why. This suspenseful thriller starring the uniquely talented Colter Shaw is the first in a planned series.

The Ninja DaughterTori Eldridge
The Ninja Daughter (Agora Books 2019) introduces Lily (Dumpling) Wong, the 24-year-old daughter of a Hong Kong Chinese mother and a North Dakota Norwegian father. Lily’s younger sister Rose was raped and murdered seven years earlier, and Lily has never forgiven herself for ignoring a text from Rose the night she was killed. Lily had studied Wushu, a blend of performance and martial art, for years, but switched to Ninjutsu, the strategy and tactics of ninja warfare, after Lily’s death. Now a modern-day kunoichi, a female ninja, Lily works for Aleisha Reiner, who runs a refuge for abused women and their children, helping women escape from bad situations and persuading their abusers to leave them alone. Lily lives above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Culver City in a small apartment containing her martial arts studio, helping in the restaurant and concealing her true work from her parents. A large Los Angeles Country Metropolitan Transit Authority map covers one wall, an aid for moving seamlessly through the traffic congested streets with a combination of her Merida road bicycle, mass transit, and ride-sharing as a final resort. Lily has just finished helping Kateryna and her four-year-old son Ilya escape from the abusive Dmitry Romanko, a lawyer for the Ukrainian mob, when she learns Kateryna, fearing retribution to her parents in the Ukraine, has returned home. Her other project is supporting Mia Mikkelsen, whose rape charge against J Tran has just been dropped for insufficient evidence. Mia fears that Tran will return to kill her, and after witnessing Tran kill two armed Korean gang members with his knife, Lily knows her fears are justified. This captivating debut thriller is the first in a planned series starring the compassionate, clever, dangerous, and constantly hungry Lily Wong.

The CurrentTim Johnston
The Current (Algonquin Books 2019) begins when college sophomore Audrey Sutter asks her friend Caroline Price for a loan for bus fare to visit her dying father, the former sheriff of a small town in Minnesota. Caroline has just broken up with her boyfriend, and offers to drive her instead, eager for any distraction. At a nearly deserted Iowa gas station late at night the girls are attacked and flee. When their car is found in the icy Black Root River the nearly frozen Audrey is taken to ICU; Caroline’s body is carried by the current and washes up later. This new death sparks the town’s memory of another young woman found dead in the same river — Gordon Burke’s daughter Holly. Rachel Young’s son Danny was arrested for the murder but released for lack of evidence. Danny swore he was innocent, but only his mother and disabled brother Marky seemed to believe him, so Danny left town. When Audrey wakes up she finds her father and her father’s former deputy Ed Moran, now the sheriff of Pawnee County, Iowa, at her bedside. Audrey can’t remember much about the two young men who attacked her, the gas station was not well lit and they fled after Caroline fought back with her mace canister. Sheriff Moran doesn’t seem to believe that their attackers followed them and pushed Caroline’s car into the river, watching from the bank as it broke through the ice and sank. Soon after Audrey is released from the hospital, her fractured arm in a cast, her father dies. Driven to find their attackers for Caroline’s sake, Audrey begins searching, and is warned off by Sheriff Moran. Gordon, who has never recovered from the grief of his own daughter’s death, offers support, and the two discover connections to Holly’s murder. This beautifully written thriller — narrated from the perspectives of Audrey, Gordon, and Rachel — explores the debilitating effects of grief and the near impossibility of escaping the suspicion of guilt.

Little VoicesVanessa Lillie
Little Voices (Thomas & Mercer 2019) begins when Devon Burges is rushed to the hospital, seven months pregnant and in terrible pain. An obsessive researcher, Devon tells the ER doctor that she is sure she has the symptoms of a detached placenta. As the anesthesia for her emergency cesarian takes hold, Devon hears the news reporting the murder of 27-year-old Berlina Cabrala, the friend she spent the afternoon with. Eight week later Devon is released, still recovering from the surgery that nearly killed her, pumping milk for premature baby Ester who cries and fusses constantly, and listening to the critical little voices in her head insisting she is a bad wife and worse mother. Devon’s husband Jack is the chief of staff for the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, his hometown they returned to after meeting at Georgetown University and continuing on together to law school at Georgetown Law. Jack’s controlling Uncle Cal is very involved in local politics, and hopes his nephew will become governor one day. After nearly being disbarred for stalking an accused pedophile released for lack of evidence, Devon specialized in identifying and prosecuting fraud until the she became pregnant and started investigating motherhood instead. Berlina worked as a nanny for their old college friend Alec, who is the prime suspect for her murder. Devon remembers that she found Belina’s day planner left on the bench that last afternoon, and finds it still stuck in the handbag Jack brought home from the hospital. Desperate to regain her old self-confidence, Devon analyzes the code she finds in the day planner, preparing a memo to present to Detective Ramos, who seems unwilling to investigate anyone other than Alec. Jack is concerned that Devon is becoming too involved with Belina’s murder, fearing that the blackouts and delusions that incapacitated her while working as a prosecutor of sex crimes and domestic violence will return. But Devon is determined to find justice for Belina, no matter what the cost, and doesn’t tell him the voices have come back. This debut psychological thriller exploring postpartum depression and the long reaches of past trauma is haunting.

The Truth Behind the LieSara Lövestam
The Truth Behind the Lie (Minotaur 2019, Sweden 2015) begins when Stockholm single mother Pernilla answers Kouplan’s ad offering his services as a private detective for cases where the police can’t help. Pernilla’s six-year old daughter Julia has been missing for three days, but she insists the police can’t be involved. Kouplan, a young Iranian immigrant, has been living outside the law since his asylum appeal was rejected three years earlier. Kouplan and his brother fled Iran after their involvement with a radical newspaper was discovered and deportation would be a death sentence. Kouplan’s brother hasn’t been seen for several years, Kouplan lives in fear, desperately missing his family. His journalism skills have taught him how to follow a trail of clues, and working as a private investigator is his only chance to earn enough money to live, though he cringes at the glance of every police officer. Living and working off the grid is excellent preparation for finding missing persons, but the disappearance of a child is something new. When Kouplan notices the scars on Pernilla’s arms, she explains that she suffered from depression before her pregnancy, and worried that social services would take her child. She pretended to have a miscarriage and has hidden her daughter for six years. Kouplan tracks their recent walks and visits to the library, searching unsuccessfully for a hint of anyone who might have taken Julia. A rumor on the street of a dangerous man called M.B. involved with human smuggling who is said to have added a young girl to his supply of young women terrifies him. Interspersed sections from the viewpoint of a kidnapped child ramp up the tension in this haunting debut thriller, the first in a planned four book series featuring the anguished young private investigator.

The Perfect SonLauren North
The Perfect Son (Berkley 2019) begins when Tess Clarke wakes the day after her son Jamie’s eighth birthday party sure of only four things: she is in the hospital, she’s been stabbed, she’s still alive, and her son is missing. Tess is sure that her brother-in-law Ian and her grief counselor Shelley Lange are somehow involved, but can’t quite make sense of everything through the morphine haze. Tess imagines that her husband Mark is at her bedside, but remembers he died in a plane crash two months earlier. Mark’s death sent Tess into a deep pit of dispair, barely able to take care of herself and their son. Tess didn’t respond to phone calls from her family, and her mother, who is too unwell to travel, arranged for a grief counselor to visit. At first Tess is comforted by Shelley’s visits, but she begins to worry that Shelley, whose own child died of leukemia at the age of two, is jealous of Tess’s own son, exactly the age Shelley’s son would be if he had survived. Ian visits and pressures Tess to begin the process of dealing with Mark’s estate, explaining that he lent Mark 100,000 pounds and needs the money to buy out his partner who wants to retire. Tess doesn’t remember anything about a loan, but never paid much attention to their finances. She notices a man following her during the rare occasions she leaves the house, receives a series of frightening anonymous calls, and catches Shelley and Ian talking furtively, though they insist they never met before. The only thing that helps Tess survive the grief of Mark’s death is the loving relationship she has with Jamie. Tess’s memories of the weeks leading up to the stabbing are interspersed with statements by Ian and Shelley, providing different viewpoints of the same events. This emotionally intense debut suspense thriller explores the debilitating effects of grief and loss.

The Fragility of BodiesSergio Olguín
The Fragility of Bodies (Bitter Lemon Press 2019, Argentina 2012) introduces Verónica Rosenthal, a magazine journalist in Buenos Aires. When a train engineer kills himself, leaving behind a letter asking for forgiveness for the crimes he committed, Verónica begins looking into the trauma caused by people throwing themselves in front of trains. Carranza’s suicide letter mentioned four deaths over a period of three years, three men and an unidentified child. She is introduced to Lucio Valrossa, another driver for the Sarmiento Railway Company, who explains how the engineers begin to hate the suicide victims who force them to become murderers since it is impossible to stop the train in time. Though they are told the deaths aren’t their fault, Lucio explains that it is impossible to stop thinking about the sound of the impact, the screaming, and the sensation of bones cracking under the train. But what really haunts the drivers are not the suicides, but the young boys playing chicken on the rails on the night runs. Lucio takes Verónica on a night run and two boys suddenly materialize on the tracks. Lucio applies the emergency brake, but Verónica is sure the boys will be crushed before first one and then the other throw themselves to the sides. The fear and adrenalin throw Verónica and Lucio together, and they begin a violent sexual affair. Meanwhile, 10-year-old El Peque is recruited by Rivero for his Spring Breezes soccer club. Rivero isn’t scouting for the best soccer players, instead searching for tough young fighters unafraid of injury. Rivero haunts the slums, looking for fatherless young boys desperate to earn a bit of money. Peque is thrilled to be noticed, and excited to learn there is an opportunity to earn 100 pesos (about $2) by competing against an other boy at night. Lucio, tortured by the six who died under his train, and Verónica, a self-destructive thrill seeker, begin trying to track down the boys and the men who gamble on their fate, facing danger along with their own demons in this intense noir series opener.

The Chestnut ManSøren Sveistrup
The Chestnut Man (Harper 2019, Denmark 2018) introduces Naia Thulin, a Danish police office unhappy with the boredom of her nine months’ work at the Copenhagen Major Crimes Division. Thulin is considering requesting a transfer to NC3, the national cyber crime department, when Mark Hess is suddenly sent back home in disgrace from his assignment at Europol’s headquarters in the Hague. The two are partnered on the murder of Laura Kjær, found tortured with her right hand amputated. Next to the body is a chestnut man, a simple doll made from two chestnuts with matchstick arms and legs. The forensic examnation of the chestnut man reveals a partial fingerprint matched to Kristine Hartung, the 12-year-old daughter of a government minister who was kidnapped and murdered a year earlier. Linus Bekker, a paranoid schizophrenic confessed to dismembering Kristine’s body and burying the body parts in different forest locations, but was unable to show the police any of the burial locations. Minister of Social Affairs Rosa Hartung and her husband Steen are close to signing the papers to declare Kristine dead, but the news of the fingerprint awakens faint hope that she may still be alive, though their daughter did sell chestnut dolls with her friend each autumn. Hess planned to just mark time while his Europol reprimand is being investigated, but the fingerprint on the chestnut man nags at him, and he digs out the Bekker files. He discovers that police didn’t follow up any other leads once the bloody machete was discovered in Bekker’s garage. No bone dust was found on the machete, and Hess is sure that Bekker was framed and coerced into confessing. The idea that Kristine’s killer may still be at large is not popular with Hess’s colleagues and superiors, but Thulin gradually comes around to his theory that Kristine’s case is connected to the Copenhagen killer who removes body parts and leaves chestnut men. This dark debut thriller featuring the complex Thulin and Hess leaves open the possibility of a sequel.

Theme MusicT. Marie Vandelly
Theme Music (Dutton 2019) is the story of Dixie Wheeler, whose father killed her mother and three brothers with an axe before slashing his own throat. Only 18-month old Dixie was spared, found eating Froot Loops in her high chair amidst the gore, the song “Baby Blue” playing at full volume, when 15-year-old neighbor Rory arrived to meet her oldest brother. Dubbed Baby Blue, Dixie was raised by her Aunt Celia and Uncle Ford, unaware of her infamous family history until she was eight and assigned homework of creating a family tree. Now in her mid-20s, Dixie is househunting with her boyfriend Garrett when an address pops up in her Zillow feed: 6211 Catharpian Road, Franconia, VA. As a child Dixie had asked Aunt Celia to take her by her family’s house, and interpreted her answer that there was nothing to see to mean the house was gone. Dixie arranges a tour of the house, recently upgraded and painted, and is consumed with a need to live in the house. They put in an offer, and it’s not until Aunt Celia forces her that Dixie tells Garrett the truth about the history of the house. He refuses to move in, but the sellers are so desperate to sell that they agree to let Dixie rent. Her Uncle Davis, who insisted his brother was innocent until his recent death, had stored the entire contents of the house, and her Aunt Charlene is eager to give Dixie all the boxes and furniture. Using the photo albums, Dixie begins to arrange the furniture, lamps, and knick-knacks into an faithful reconstruction of the home she doesn’t remember, hoping to spark memories of the family she has forgotten. In one of the boxes Dixie discovers a file about the mass murder, including crime scene photographs, and learns that Uncle Davis had continually pressured Detective Cullins to reopen the case. Noticing that many of the numbered crime scene photos are missing, she visits Detective Cullins, now retired, and learns that all the pictures featuring the axe propped in the corned near the refrigerator are missing. Dixie is determined to make sense of her past, but the longer she stays in the house the more dubious she is about her own sanity: she hears sounds in the night, objects are not where she left them, and the nightmares featuring her bloody family grow more intense. This intense debut thriller with dark supernatural elements is very disturbing.

Three-FifthsJohn Vercher
Three-Fifths (Agora Books 2019) is the story of Bobby Saraceno, a 22-year-old waiter in 1995 Pittsburgh. Bobby’s mother Isabel, a barely functional alcoholic, told him his father left her and then died, concealing the fact his father was black. They lived with his bigoted grandparents, and Bobby believed he was white until his mother told the truth during a fight with her father when Bobby was eleven. From that point on it was only the two of them struggling to make ends meet. Bobby continued to pass as white, hiding his true identity from everyone, including his best friend Aaron, bonded by their shared love of comic books since middle school. Aaron has just been released from a three-year prison term, hardened and covered with neo-Nazi tattoos, choosing to become a white supremacist to protect himself in prison. When Bobby picks him up outside the prison Aaron is clutching a brick and Bobby realizes that despite his new bulk, Aaron is terrified. They stop at the Original Hot Dog Shop to feed Aaron’s craving for non-prison food, and Aaron gets into an argument with two young black men, leaving Marcus Anderson bleeding in the parking lot with his head caved in from the brick. Bobby is frightened that his truck may have been caught on the security camera, and knows he can never tell Aaron the truth about his mixed-race heritage. Robert Winston, a black emergency room doctor, treats Anderson, and stops off at a bar to decompress before heading home to his unhappy wife. At the next barstool is Isabel, who recognizes him and decides it is time to introduce Bobby to the father who never knew he existed. This intense debut thriller, set during the non-stop news coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and reports of rioting in Los Angeles, explores themes of race, identity, and the overpowering need to fit in.

To the LionsHolly Watt
To the Lions (Dutton 2019) introduces Casey Benedict, an investigative reporter at the London Post. Casey traveled the world for years, following the heartbreaking stories of disaster and war before returning home to work with Miranda Darcey as the Post’s investigative duo, digging into the in-depth stories that take weeks or months to come to fruition. Their current project is an investigation of fraud at Cormium, one of the biggest commodity traders in the world. Tipped off by one of her bartender sources, Casey slips into her party-girl disguise and charms her way into a booth of drunken Cormium executives, including the chief executive Oliver Selby. When the men leave the table for a drinking game on the dance floor, Casey overhears scraps of conversation from the next booth, a Frenchman and an American taking about shooting from a hilltop into a camp into the middle of nowhere. The bartender gives Casey a copy of the credit card used to guarantee the drink order — Sebastian Azarola, one of the founders of Cyan Capital, a hedge fund company. Unfortunately his picture online doesn’t look like either of the two men Casey overheard. Miranda and Casey begin researching Cyan, hoping to identify the man with the American accent who sounded horrified, and begin speculating what the men might have meant by a camp. Perhaps a shantytown slum surrounding cities like Cape Town or Rio, or maybe a refugee camp in Lebanon or another war-torn area of the world? Using her ability to change personas as easily as her shoes, Casey follows a web of connections, becoming more convinced every day that something very dark is enticing the ultra-rich into deadly games. This intense debut thriller by a real-life investigative journalist was awarded the 2019 Steel Dagger Award.


Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers, some were discovered in Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon Book Bags, and many were checked out from our local public library. Our thanks to all who support our passion for reading!

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