2021 Reviews
June 1, 2021

Without SanctionDon Bentley
Without Sanction (Berkley 2020) introduces Matt Drake, a Defense Intelligence Agency operative who barely survived a mission in Syria that left his best friend Frodo Cates severely wounded and their Syrian operative Fazil Maloof dead along with his wife Yana and young daughter Abir. Three months later Matt is back in Austin, Texas, fighting survivor’s guilt, haunted by visions of Abir, seeing Yana’s face instead of his own wife, and unable to control his constantly twitching fingers. Matt tries to quit, but DIA Branch Chief James Glass orders him back to work with Frodo. It’s four days before the presidential election when Beverly Castle, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, tells President Jorge Gonzales and Chief of Staff Peter Redmon that a CIA paramilitary raid on a suspected chemical weapons laboratory belonging to an ISIS splinter cell has gone badly, leaving four men dead and a Black Hawk helicopter destroyed. Captured video footage reveals a powerful chemical weapon created by a Pakistani weapons scientist for hire, code-named Einstein. Peter advises the President to bury the incident, fearing it will endanger his chances for re-election, but Jorge puts the country first and convenes a working group to neutralize the weapon of mass destruction. Matt attempted to recruit Einstein in the past, and now the scientist is willing to defect with the location of the lab producing the chemical weapon, but only to Matt. Though he knows he’s not fit for service, Matt agrees to return to Syria, half-hoping that the suicide mission of one man against an army of terrorists will end with his own death. Meanwhile, Peter is furious that the President has ignored his advice and placed his rival Beverly Castle in charge of the working group, and considers ways to undermine the mission to destroy her influence. This intense debut thriller is a finalist for the 2021 Thriller Award for Best First Novel.

In the Garden of SpiteCamilla Bruce
In the Garden of Spite (Berkley 2021) is the fictionalized story of serial killer Belle Gunness, the Black Widow of La Porte. Little Brynhild Storset was born in 1859 in Selbu, Norway, the youngest daughter of a poor tenant farmer. Sent out to work as a maid at a wealthy farm at the age of 14, Little Brynhild is seduced by Anders, the oldest son. She dreams of marriage when she becomes pregnant, but Anders laughs at the thought of marrying a maid, and beats the child out of her womb. Little Brynhild barely survives, but eventually returns to work at the farm. Months pass and then Anders dies, presumably of stomach cancer. Little Brynhild writes to her older sister in America, who has taken the American name Nellie. Much older than Little Brynhild, Nellie had been a second mother to the difficult child, and convinces her husband to begin saving for Little Brynhild’s passage to Chicago. Four years later, at the age of 21, Little Brynhild arrives, declaring she has also taken an American name — Belle. Nellie has endured many miscarriages, but has a seven-year-old son and hopes Belle’s help with the housework will help her bring her current pregnancy to term. Belle loves helping with the children, but longs for a better life, and marries Mads Sorensen, a night guard at a department store with a three-bedroom house. At first they are happy together, but Belle’s inability to get pregnant and her tendency to spend more money than they have cause trouble. She begins adding laxative or small amounts of poison to Mad’s food to punish him for criticizing her. After her husband’s death, Belle exchanges the Chicago house for a farm in La Porte County, Indiana, and pursues Peter Gunness, a widower who teaches her the skills of butchery. Discovering she has a taste for blood, Belle disposes of her second husband and the hired hands who question her decisions about running the farm have a habit of disappearing suddenly in the middle of the night. Interspersed chapters from Nellie’s perspective reveal her gradual realization that something is not right with her unlucky little sister, whose own chapters expose the rationalizations of a serial killer driven to kill those who cause her distress.

The SearcherTana French
The Searcher (Viking 2020) begins when Cal Hooper notices that someone is watching him at his remote home in a small Irish village. After 25 years in the Chicago police force and an emotionally wrenching divorce, Cal wanted a completely different environment, and bought the small house that had been deserted for many years. He has enjoyed the quiet and the beautiful wild country, spending his time hiking, fishing, and working on the house. After several days he finally spots the kid who has been skulking around, relieved it isn’t a gang. Cal takes an old desk he has decided is worth saving outside to begin repairing it, hoping the skittish kid will venture close enough to talk. Thirteen-year-old Trey is interested in learning carpentry and helps Cal, eventually admitting that he hopes Cal can locate his nineteen-year-old brother Brandon, who left the house one evening six months earlier and hasn’t been seen since. Trey is the third of six children Sheila Reddy is raising on her own after her husband deserted the family years earlier. The town doesn’t have much use for the Reddys, who shoplift and skip school. Cal tries to convince Trey that he has left police work behind, but Trey is sure Brandon wouldn’t have left without saying good-bye, and has probably been kidnapped. Trey insists that the police won’t spend time looking for a Reddy, and Cal begins asking a few questions, pretending he needs Brandon’s help re-wiring his house. Though he doesn’t get any answers, he suspects most of the people he talks to are concealing something, but he isn’t sure if they know something about Brandon’s disappearance or if there something else going on in the village. This beautifully written thriller is highly recommended.

The Night SwimMegan Goldin
The Night Swim (St. Martin’s Press 2020) begins when true-crime podcaster Rachel Krall arrives in the small beach town of Neopolis, North Carolina. In the first season of “Guilty or Not Guilty, the podcast that puts you in the jury box,” Rachel uncovered evidence proving a teacher had been wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder. Now at the start of season three, the podcast has competition, and Rachel hopes that covering a live high-profile rape trial instead of a cold case will put her back on the top — Scott Blair, a college swimmer on track for the Olympics, accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. Rachel finds a note on her car window begging her to investigate the death of Jenny Stiles 25 years earlier in Neopolis. Jenny’s death was ruled a drowning accident, but her younger sister Hannah is sure Jenny was murdered. In the next note Hannah explains she wrote to the show months ago, but received only a form letter in reply. Rachel is very protective of her privacy and nervous about being stalked, but begins looking into the old case between interviews for the current one, discovering that the investigation was rudimentary at best. Hannah refuses to meet in person, but continues to leave notes relating the story of that long ago summer that began with a group of predatory boys noticing Jenny at the beach and ended with her death. Everyone in town is talking about the Blair trial, a vocal group suggesting it was the girl’s fault for going to a party with alcohol and insisting Scott’s life should not be ruined over one dumb mistake. The girl’s name hasn’t been released, but everyone knows she is Kelly Moore, the granddaughter of the police chief. The prosecutor’s office insists that the Moore family refuse all media requests until after the trial, while Scott’s family and friends are holding interviews talking about his golden future being destroyed by the accusation of rape, the victim of an unstable teenage girl. Scott’s and Kelly’s fathers were classmates, graduating the summer Jenny died. Uncomfortable parallels between the experiences of the two 16-year-old girls emerge as Rachel investigates, revealing socio-economic and sexual bias that influences the way rape victims and their assailants are treated.

Dead WestMatt Goldman
Dead West (Forge Books 2020) begins when Minneapolis private detective Nils Shapiro is invited to Beverly Mayer’s Summit Avenue mansion in St. Paul to talk about her grandson Ebben, whose fiancée Juliana died the previous week of heart failure. Though Juliana was only 28, the police don’t suspect foul play, but Beverly worries that Ebben’s grief may cause him to make imprudent decisions about his trust fund. Ebben received $50 million on his 30th birthday five years earlier, and according to his grandmother behaved respectfully until he met Juliana Martinez and settled down in Hollywood, perhaps getting involved in the motion picture industry she believes preys on the rich. Beverly is an old friend of Nils’s partner Anders Ellegaard, and offers the firm $25,000 to confirm that Ebben is investing in show business. Nils agrees and takes Jameson White, the nurse practitioner who cared for Nils after he took a hunting arrow in the shoulder a few years earlier. A former football player now working in the ER, Jackson fell apart after seeing too many students and teachers die after a middle school shooting. Nils hopes the change of scene will help Jackson’s mental outlook. In Hollywood Nils quickly confirms that Ebben is involved in the film industry; he has founded a Creative Collective to produce independent movies. However, instead of "wasting" his trust fund money, Ebben has only invested $1 million of his own money, raising the other funds from investors. His mission for Beverly finished, Nils is about to return to Minnesota when he realizes that Juliana was more than likely murdered. The autopsy revealed that her heart failure was caused by an overdose of diet pills, but Ebben says she was very careful not to take too many and avoided all other caffeine. In contrast, Ebben himself consumes caffeine-laden energy drinks all day, and Nils suspects Juliana accidentally ingested something intended for Ebben with an overdose of caffeine that would go unnoticed in his system. Though anxious to return to his family, Nils feels compelled to protect the young millionaire surrounded by competitive agents, desperate screenwriters, and dangerous East European mobsters. This excellent fourth in the series places the midwesterner completely out of his element in dazzling Hollywood society.

A Shadow IntelligenceOliver Harris
A Shadow Intelligence (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020) introduces Elliot Kane, an MI6 operative specializing in the Middle East. Elliot has spent 15 years working overseas in the shadows, an expert at assuming new personas and then discarding them. Living a real life out of the shadows is much more difficult, and becomes more challenging after each mission. Elliot and fellow operative Joanna Lake talk about leaving the field while they still remember who they are, but then Joanna vanishes in Kazakhstan. MI6 is unconcerned, so Elliot takes on the task of tracing Joanna independently, discovering a video of himself meeting a Central Asian man in a hotel room he has never been in holding a Zippo lighter safely stored in his safe deposit box. A newspaper in Kazakh in the room is dated two weeks in the future. Though an expert in modern psychological warfare and the tricks of technology including steganography, the art of concealing a message within another message, Elliot finds it hard to prove the video is a fake. He knows it is meant to implicate him somehow, but can’t find a match for the stranger in the room using facial recognition software that tracks any online appearances anywhere in the world. Heading into Kazakhstan, Elliot finds that his training hasn’t prepared him for the brutal cold as he navigates the treacherous country trying to balance demands from China, Russia, and the West, all desperate to secure rights to a potential new supply of oil controlled by a powerful private company. This intense spy thriller leaves open the possibility of a sequel featuring the multi-talented Elliot Kane.

Never Far AwayMichael Koryta
Never Far Away (Little, Brown and Company 2021) begins when Nina Morgan, a pilot for powerful multi-millionaire Corson Lowery, is targeted by two hired killers after witnessing a crime. Nina outbids Lowery’s contract with the hit men, and they fake her death with forensic evidence. Nina disappears to protect her family: her husband Doug, toddler Hailey, and baby Nick. Ten years later Hailey is thirteen and Nick eleven when Doug is killed in a car accident. Now known as Leah Trenton and working as a wilderness guide at Moosehead Lake in Maine, the buzzing of her satellite messenger wakes her up in the middle of the night. It’s Hailey, telling her that her father is dead and she is following his directions to call her mysterious Aunt Leah that she has never met. Leah calls Doc Lambkin, an associate of Lowery’s who helped her escape, wondering if Lowery is still after her. Doc says Lowery never forgets anything, but offers to call someone who might be able to protect her children. His choice is Dax Blackwell, son and nephew to the two men who let her escape a decade earlier, both now dead probably at Lowrey’s orders. Unwilling to leave her two children to the mercies of the foster care system, Leah meets with Doug’s lawyer to activate the paperwork making her guardian upon Doug’s death. Hailey and Nick are dubious about moving to Maine with their father’s sister who has never been part of their life, but Leah hopes taking them off the grid to Moosehead Lake will keep them safe. Despite a name change and moving states, Lowrey has been watching Doug and the children, and arranges a jail break for Marvin “Bleak” Sanders and Randall Pollard, former employees of Lowery Group Security. It doesn’t take them long to figure out Doug’s “sister” has taken the children to Maine and to pick up her trail. Nick likes the rural area, but Hailey is miserable and wants to go home to Kentucky, ignoring Leah’s requests to keep their location private. Learning of the jail break and the sudden death of Doug’s lawyer, Leah flees deep into the wilderness with her children, hoping her survival skills will help keep them safe from the two urban hit men, unaware that the wildcard Dax Blackwell is also tracking her. This gripping thriller is relentlessly frightening.

The MindersJohn Marrs
The Minders (Berkley 2020) begins at a top-secret meeting with the Prime Minister in London in the very near future. Over the past two years a group of cyberterrorists calling themselves the Hacking Collective has taken over the the network controlling autonomous vehicles — killing 5,000 people — and has now begun a series of ransomware attacks. Fearing that the National Archives could be the next target, a new government initiative has been created to safeguard the country’s classified information. Five people with various forms of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense, have been selected through their ability to solve three-dimensional puzzles in what looks like an online game. Through a new medical procedure, information is implanted as a genetic code inside the heads of the five Minders. Years earlier scientists discovered each individual possessed a gene that was shared with just one other person in the world, the perfect soul mate identified by a simple Match Your DNA test. Each of the Minders is damaged in some way, and accept the five-year assignment as a way to leave their current reality behind, signing the Official Secrets Act and beginning a new life in a new location with a new name. Charlie is depressed and lonely, Flick has never recovered from being Matched with a serial killer as her perfect mate, Bruno’s wife recently died in a self-driving car accident with a lover he didn’t know about, Sinéad’s husband is psychologically abusive, and Emilia has just woken up from a coma with no memory of her past. The Minders are implanted with pain suppressors to prevent them from being tortured to talk if captured, and scatter around the country, finding jobs and apartments and forming new relationships. When their handler is killed, the government has no idea where the Minders are located, leaving them at the mercy of the Hacking Collective. This scary thriller feels all too possible.

The Rose CodeKate Quinn
The Rose Code (William Morrow 2021) begins in June 1940 when Mab Churt and Osla Kendall meet on the train to Bletchley Station. Mab is a nearly six-feet-tall poor girl with a secretarial degree, and Osla is a debutante who has been building Hurricanes at the Hawker Siddeley factory in Colnbrook while dating Prince Philip of Greece. Both have received mysterious letters instructing them to come to Buckinghamshire, recruited to Bletchley Park to break German codes. They are billeted in a requisitioned spare room at the Finch home, to the disapproval of Mrs. Finch, who doesn’t believe young women should be living away from their families. Her 24-year-old daughter Beth, tongue-tied and shy as a mouse, is considered a bit dim, though she can work through the daily crossword problem in 8 minutes flat. Mab is assigned to Hut 6, typing the encrypted messages into a Typex machine that feeds out five-letter chunks. Since Osla is fluent in German she is assigned to Hut 4, parsing the five-letter chunks into words and sending any messages that look like gibberish back to the code breakers. Mab and Osla feel sorry for poor Beth, whose every minute is controlled by her demanding mother, and recommend her at Bletchley Park when they discover her crossword skills. Beth is horrified when she is hired, sure that she is far too stupid to do the work. But Dillwyn Alfred Knox sees potential and whisks her away to his codebreaking hut to join Dilly’s Fillies working on cracking the Italian naval Enigma. After a few days of total confusion, Beth discovers she is able to see patterns and is soon one of Dilly’s top codebreakers. Interspersed chapters from seven years later in late 1947 find Osla trying to cope with the shame of being Philip’s discarded wartime girlfriend in the days leading up to the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Osla receives a coded message from Beth smuggled out of the Clockwell Sanitarium begging for help, and tracks down Mab, who hasn’t spoken to her for years. This fascinating thriller set in the strange Bletchley Park world of code-breaking explores the sacrifices made by those doing top-secret work they were never allowed to discuss with anyone or be guilty of treason.

Ghosts of HarvardFrancesca Serritella
Ghosts of Harvard (Random House 2020) begins when Cady Archer arrives at Harvard for her freshman year, what would have been her beloved brother Eric’s senior year if he hadn’t committed suicide. Cady’s father helps her move into her dorm, but her mother stays home, furious that Cady chose to attend the university she feels is responsible for her son’s death. But Cady is determined to figure out what drove her brilliant and loving brother to suicide, sure that there is more to the story than his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Cady visits physics Professor Mikaela Prokop, Eric’s advisor who recommended he apply for the prestigious Bauer Award. Eric was also Professor Prokop’s research assistant, helping with her top-secret research, and Cady hopes she has insight into her brother’s final weeks. Professor Prokop tells her that Eric became unreliable and unpredictable, especially after he dropped out of the competition for the Bauer Award. Cady knows that Eric often didn’t take his medication, which worked to control his paranoia but dulled his mental acuity, making physics work nearly impossible. Cady begins hearing voices — Bilhad, a slave owned by Harvard President Edward Holyoke in the mid-1700s; Robert, a star physics student in the mid-1920s with a passion for poetry; and Whit, a Harvard student in the early-1930s who dreamed of being a dirigible aircraft pilot — and fears she may be experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. Cady checks out all the books she can find from the library, discovering there is a genetic vulnerability for schizophrenia that can be triggered by emotionally traumatic experiences (the suicide of an idolized brother?) or toxic environments (the university that drove him to kill himself?). She neglects her classes to try and decipher a notebook sent home after Eric’s death. Labeled “Lab Notes,” the early pages are neat and orderly, becoming chaotic and full of gibberish, which Cady eventually realizes might be a code — like the ones he created for her when they were growing up — to disguise his fear that his life was in danger. This intricate debut is a finalist for the 2021 Thriller Award for Best First Novel.

May 1, 2021

WindhallAva Barry
Windhall (Pegasus Crime 2021) begins with the murder of a young art student, her body found posed on a patch of wild flowers, one arm draped over her forehead, a puncture wound through the breast of her dark green silk dress. Posed exactly like the 1948 murdered body of starlet Eleanor Hayes, discovered by movie director Theo Langley during a midnight game of hide-and-seek at a wild Hollywood party in the garden of Windhall, his Los Angeles estate. Investigative reporter Max Hailey has been obsessed with Eleanor’s murder for years, convinced that Theo was guilty and escaped justice. Theo was arrested and charged, but the case was thrown out before trial because of compromised evidence. This new murder occurred on the date Theo was released from all charges and disappeared, leaving Windhall to fall into ruin. Since Theo is now in his early 90s, Hailey knows Theo is far too old to have committed the new murder, if he is even still alive. Hoping to find a connection between the two murders, Hailey sneaks into Windhall, but is caught by two men who already know he is a journalist with an arrest record from his wild youth. Hailey escapes with a phone one of the men left unguarded, finding an email from Theo saying he will arrive soon to manage the sale of Windhall. Hailey’s editor kills his story and threatens to fire him if he keeps causing problems. The Laurel Canyon cottage Hailey inherited from his grandmother is falling apart, and the estimate to repair the roof is far out of his reach, so when Heather Engel-Feeny, the daughter of a deceased MGM producer, offers him $30,000 for advance warning of anything he discovers about Theo, he can’t say no. Eleanor and Theo were working on a new film when she was killed: The Last Train to Avalon, which Theo discovers was a controversial exploration of sexual exploitation in the Hollywood film industry. Though nearly completed, the film was banned by the studios and never released to the public. As Hailey digs into the past, he begins to wonder if the film was the reason for Eleanor’s murder, and perhaps Theo was framed after all. This debut thriller features dynamic characters and a complex set of motives originating in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Double AgentTom Bradby
Double Agent (Atlantic Monthly Press 2020) begins when senior MI6 officer, Kate Henderson is visiting Venice with her 15-year-old daughter Fiona and 11-year-old son Gus to visit with her ex-husband Stuart, who recently defected after being exposed as a mole for Russia, codenamed Viper. When Stuart and the children don’t appear at the designated meeting place, Kate is only slightly nervous until three armed Russians appear, promising the children won’t be harmed if she comes with them quietly. They take her to Mikhail Borodin, the son of Russia’s former intelligence chief, who tells Kate that he and his father Igor want to defect in order to survive a coup in Moscow. Igor’s hand-picked successor is now being interrogated, and the Borodins know they are next, facing hard labor in Siberia or execution. Mikhail offers evidence of large payments by Russia to Prime Minister James Ryan over many years, along with the videos of Ryan molesting underage girls used to blackmail him into spying for Russia for decades. Kate has no reason to trust Mikhail and is furious with the Russians for killing both a young nanny she recruited as well as her former deputy and close friend Rav, but knows she has no choice but to take the offer to Sir Alan Brabazon, head of MI6. Mikhail refuses to share the video until he has a confirmed offer, but provides news of an upcoming Kremlin-organized coup in Estonia as a sign of good faith. Sir Alan, Ian Granger, and Kate take the Estonia news to the Cabinet briefing. Ian suggests the news is a feint to get the UK involved, and the PM decides to check with Washington before sending troops to “a country few have heard of.” Mikhail agrees to let Kate view the video if his terms are accepted, but Kate worries this might indeed be an elaborate ruse to undermine British politics. Kate isn’t sleeping well, consumed by her husband’s betrayal of both her and their country, Fiona’s eating disorder, her own mother’s Alzheimer’s, and the possibility that Viper wasn’t the only spy for the Russians in MI6. This second in the Kate Henderson series is a finalist for the 2021 Barry Award for Best Thriller.

Girls with Bright FuturesTracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman
Girls with Bright Futures (Sourcebooks Landmark 2021) is the story of three mothers and their daughters who attend the exclusive Elliott Bay Academy (EBA) in Seattle, a prep school with a high admission rate to top colleges. Alicia Stone, a multi-millionaire in the tech industry, is a Stanford grad serving on Stanford’s Board of Trustees. She is determined that her daughter Brooke, only a middling student, will attend Stanford and has made a 15 million donation to the university to enhance Brooke’s chances. Kelly Vernon, a well-to-do stay-at-home mom who is the school’s ultra-volunteer to compensate for not being able to donate huge amounts of money, is also determined that her daughter Krissie will attend Stanford. Krissie is a double legacy since both Kelly and her husband attended Stanford. Maren Pressley, the barely-making-ends-meet personal assistant to Alicia, has supported her daughter Winnie, first in her class, in her decision to apply for early admission at Stanford. Then Ms. Lawson from EBA’s college counseling office calls Winnie and Maren in for a meeting. Four EBA student athletes have already committed to Stanford, and the Stanford admissions office has informed the school they will be accepting only one more EBA student for the incoming class. Ms. Lawson, who previously encouraged Winnie to consider Stanford because of her excellent grades and first-generation college hook, now strongly suggests that Winnie consider another college for her early admission application. Winnie is horrified that she is expected to not compete with Brooke, but Maren knows they don’t have a choice. Alicia doesn’t pay her much or provide health insurance, but has paid Winnie’s EBA fees and promised to help with college. If she loses her job Maren knows they may be homeless again. Krissie hopes that Winnie will choose another school, increasing her own chances, and falls back into trichotillomania, an anxiety disorder that causes her to pull out her own hair. Kelly spends money they don’t have on essay tutors while Alicia pays a professor to write Brooke’s essays for her, and both search for ways to discredit Winnie and Maren. The week before early admissions are due, Winnie is a victim of a hit-and-run that Maren is sure was arranged by either Alicia or Kelly. This debut thriller set in the cutthroat world of college admissions presents an over-the-top view of an all too real modern issue.

The Russian PinkMatthew Hart
The Russian Pink (Pegasus Books 2020) begins when Piet Louw and his partner vacuum a 1512-carat pink diamond out of the Chicapa River in northeastern Angola. Piet immediately murders his partner and sells the diamond to his fence for $12 million who sells it on to a Russian for $40 million. Liliana Petrovna Ostrokhova, a diamond thief known as Slav Lily working undercover for U.S. Treasury agent Alex Turner, meets a Brazilian courier in a New York City church to buy a stunning pink diamond. When the sting goes sour the courier is killed and the injured Lily disappears with the diamond. Alex, who opposed moving up the timeline to close in on Russian organized crime boss Sergei Lime, is furious. Alex’s end-game is to prove that Lime is involved with the trade in blood diamonds, enabling the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the Treasury to force the Antwerp banks to drop the Russian accounts. Lime, whose father was American, has dual citizenship and business ties with American billionaire Harry Nash through a hedge fund Nash used recently to buy the Russian Pink, a unique and extremely rare 464-carat diamond, for his wife Honey Li. As an associate to a known criminal, Alex should have been able to tap Nash’s phone and access his bank accounts, but Nash is running for President and his requests were denied. Before working with the Treasury, Alex, who grew up in South African diamond camps and had contacts on both sides of the law, was recruited by the CIA. Hearing that the White House has pulled his files from Langley, Alex realizes his investigation is caught in the middle of the American presidential campaign. This complex and exciting thriller set in the works of blood diamond trading is the fiction debut of a renowned diamond expert whose non-fiction book Diamond: The History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair was transformed into a mini-series.

Deep StateChris Hauty
Deep State (Atria 2020) introduces Hayley Chill, a 25-year-old Army veteran working as an intern in the West Wing, in Washington, DC. Hayley is older than the other interns, who look down on her for not having a college degree or expensive clothes. But Hayley’s work ethic far surpasses the other interns, and she is noticed by White House Chief of Staff Peter Hall, who is intrigued by her West Virginia accent and military background. Trained as a boxer in the service, Hayley is also a sharpshooter with an eidetic memory. Hall warns Hayley to beware of the “Deep State,” a powerful group composed of people from government, industry, and finance who effectively govern the country behind the scenes and are willing to preserve what they believe is rightfully theirs through any means, including assassination. Though she rarely leaves the Chief of Staff Interns office in the former janitor’s closet in the basement, Hayley is eventually given the job of dispersing the binders for a cabinet meeting. Becca Bryan, self-appointed intern leader, sabotages Hayley by “forgetting” to include an updated transcript of Chinese President Yii’s speech to the ire of recently elected President Richard Monroe, but Hayley quickly saves Hall from embarrassment by pointing out another document summarizing the speech and explaining the Chinese linguistic idiosyncrasies. Later that evening Secret Service Agent Scott Billings is flirting with Hayley as she leaves the building, when they notice two intruders who have jumped the fence. While Scott chases one, Hayley subdues the other, earning Monroe’s gratitude and respect. Very early the next morning, a group of six men with Rat Pack code names lead by “Sinatra,” invade Hall’s home, killing him with an injection that mimics a fatal heart attack. Arriving 15 minutes later to deliver the daily briefing, Hayley is surprised when Hall isn’t waiting impatiently at the door. Moving carefully around the house she spots Hall’s body through the kitchen window, and then a footprint in the snow outside that shouldn’t be there. She snaps a photo of the footprint before calling 911. The autopsy reveals a trace of GHB, the “date rape” drug, and the FBI begins investigating Hall’s death as a murder. Not knowing who to trust, Hayley keeps the footprint to herself, and quietly begins searching for Hall’s killer. Hauty’s screenwriter background is evident in this intense debut thriller, a finalist for 2021 Barry Award for Best First Novel.

We Are All the Same in the DarkJulia Heaberlin
We Are All the Same in the Dark (Ballantine Books 2020) begins when long haul trucker Wyatt Branson finds a one-eyed girl collapsed just off the highway on the baked ground, surrounded by a ring of dandelions. The girl gulps down the water Wyatt gives her, but won’t say a word. Wyatt calls the girl Angel and takes her home, though the ghost of his older sister Trumanell tells him it’s a bad idea. Odette Tucker, the town’s youngest cop, visits Wyatt when a neighbor reports a dress on Wyatt’s laundry line, and takes Angel to a safe house run by her cousin Maggie. When Trumanell disappeared a decade earlier at the age of 19, along with their violent father Frank, 17-year-old Wyatt was the prime suspect. That same night Odette, who was dating Wyatt, was in a car accident, losing one of her legs right below the knee. She didn’t know about Trumanell’s disappearance for three weeks, when her father finally told her Trumanell had vanished and Wyatt had been committed to a mental rehabilitation unit. Odette’s policeman father insisted Wyatt wasn’t guilty, but no culprit was ever identified. Odette left her small West Texas hometown for college soon after Trumanell’s disappearance, moving back after her own father died five years later. Odette inherited her father’s desk at the police station, undisturbed for five years, with a mysterious phone number inside the locked drawer. MISSING posters of Trumanell still decorate the station and the town, and most residents are convinced Wyatt was responsible, though he was found miles away, wandering by the lake and speaking gibberish. Angel won’t talk to Odette either, but decides to trust her after Odette displays her prothesis. Determined to protect the traumatized girl, Odette surreptitiously searches for her identity in order to safeguard her from whoever she is fleeing. When Odette discovers Angel’s father, who killed her mother, has recently been released from prison, she can’t stop thinking about Trumanell and begins investigating that cold case while trying to keep Angel safe. This atmospheric thriller examines themes of disability and strength, love and loss, and the long-reaching trauma of unresolved crimes.

SistersDaisy Johnson
Sisters (Riverhead Books 2020) is the story of July and September, two sisters born just ten months apart. After a traumatizing bullying incident, their single mother moves the family across the country from Oxford to an unused family home near the North York Moors in Yorkshire: The Settle House. They are all uneasy living in the long-abandoned and deteriorating house, frightened by the isolation, flickering lights, and noises within the walls. The teenage sisters have always been as close as twins, sharing and squabbling over everything, but now July finds that her older sister seems to be growing apart. Their father left the family when the sisters were very young, and died when September was barely five. The last time they came to the house years ago, their mother was ill and spent most of her time locked in her bedroom crying in a haze of pills. The sisters invented a game called September Says, a version of Simon Says where July was a puppet required to follow her sister’s increasingly dangerous orders. They haven’t played the game for years, but back in Settle House the game occupies most of their time since their mother has retreated to her bedroom and spends most of her time sleeping, leaving the sisters to their own devices. Living in their own private world, the two sisters have always appeared much younger than their ages, but September’s games are growing crueler. They go online to dating sites, seducing men and then pretending to be part of a police entrapment scheme. September convinces July to attend a night party on the beach with the neighbors who are bringing beer, and then vanishes leaving her compliant younger sister at the mercy of the older boys. This beautifully written and haunting psychological thriller explores the depths of sibling love, rivalry, and dependence.

The Thursday Murder ClubRichard Osman
The Thursday Murder Club (Pamela Dorman Books 2020) takes place in Coopers Chase Retirement Village, an upscale retirement community in Kent, England, built ten years earlier on the land surrounding the old convent of the Sisters of the Holy Church. The Thursday Murder Club meets weekly in the Jigsaw Room to investigate cold cases. Elizabeth, who doesn’t talk about her former top-secret job, formed the club with Penny Gray, a former inspector with the Kent Police, who provided files of unsolved cases. Ibrahim Arif, a psychiatrist, and Ron Ritchie, former trade union leader and rabble rouser, joined the weekly meetings that hosted experts of all kinds to help them analyze the cold cases. After Penny’s health necessitated a move to the attached nursing home, Elizabeth asked Joyce, a former nurse, some questions about how long it would take to die from stab wounds. Pleased with her response, Joyce was invited to the next meeting, along with Police Constable Donna De Freitas, there to present “Practical Tips for Home Security,” which the murder aficionados have no interest in, instead peppering her with questions about her job. The following day Coopers Chase owner Ian Venthan, hosts a community meeting to talk about the expanded development he is planning, which will require removal of trees and relocating the convent graveyard, not a popular idea with the residents or Father Matthew Mackie. After the meeting Ian severs his relationship with his builder Tony Curran, a former drug boss, who immediately plans to kill Ian. Instead, Curran is bludgeoned to death in his own kitchen, giving the Thursday Murder Club their first real-life case to investigate. Detective Chief Inspector Chris Hudson brushes off the septuagenarian sleuths, but Donna is eager for her first murder investigation, and goes along when they manage to get her added to his team. This clever and funny debut mystery is a finalist for the 2021 Barry, Edgar, Lefty, and Thriller Awards.

Ther Lost Apothecar`Sarah Penner
The Lost Apothecary (Park Row 2021) begins in 1791 London, when 12-year-old Eliza Fanning arrives at Nella Clavinger’s Apothecary Shop, hidden behind a movable shelf in a deserted room, to pick up an order for her mistress. While Nella’s mother was still alive, the shop behind Bear Alley was a respectable women’s apothecary shop specializing in female maladies. Nella continued after her mother’s death until being horribly betrayed by a man she trusted, shifting to providing desperate women with the means of removing dangerous men from their lives. For this order she has prepared two chicken eggs laced with poison for the abusive Thompson Amwell. Mrs. Amwell suffers from palsy, and has taught Eliza to read and write in order to take over her letter writing, and the curious Eliza prowls the tiny apothecary shop, asking questions about everything and offering to help write labels when she notices Nella suffers from arthritis. Nella shoos her away, but the girl returns a few days later, begging to be allowed to stay for a few days. Mrs. Amwell has gone to be with her family in the country after her husband’s death, and Eliza is frightened to remain in the house with only Mr. Amwell’s ghost. Nella is just ordering Eliza to leave when Lady Clarence arrives to pick up the poison she has ordered, a difficult one Nella has spent the last two days creating from roasted Cantharieds, tiny blister beetles. Nella is horrified when Lady Clarence reveals the poison is not for her adulterous husband, but instead for his mistress, and impulsively throws the jar of shimmering green powder into the fire, refusing to harm a woman. Lady Clarence threatens to report the secret shop to the authorities if Nella doesn’t provide the poison, and Nella has no choice but to accept Eliza’s help to collect 100 more beetles and create a new batch by the following evening. Eliza unwittingly packages the powder into one of the old jars Nella’s mother used, engraved with a small bear to identify her shop. In present day London Caroline Parcewell has just arrived alone for the 10th anniversary trip paid for before she discovered her husband was having an affair. Caroline planned to study history at Cambridge before their marriage, instead ending up in Cincinnati, working at the family farm. While walking off her jet lag, Caroline meets a group of mudlarkers sifting through the mud of the Thames for relics of the past. She finds a tiny vial with a rough engraving of an animal. The leader explains it is probably an apothecary vial, and quite old judging by the uneven glass. Caroline visits the British Library to learn more about her find, and discovers the scan of a note from 1816, describing a female apothecary in Bear Alley, a friend to all women whose “men are dead because of us.” The two interwoven storylines in this engaging debut follow Nella and Eliza in the past and Caroline in the present as her reawakened passion for historical research helps her deal with the pain of betrayal.

The MagestiesTiffany Tsao
The Majesties (Atria Books 2020; Australia 2018) begins when Gwendolyn Wirono wakes up in the hospital. Gwendolyn is in a coma, but hears the nurses sharing the news that her sister Estella has wiped out the entire Sulinado clan, around 300 members of their extended Chinese-Indonesian family, by adding poison to the shark’s fin soup at her grandfather’s birthday dinner. Gwendolyn is the only survivor. Gwendolyn and Estella were very close, almost like twins in their devotion and dependence on each other. As daughters of an extremely wealthy family, they were both indulged and controlled from birth. Because of their grandmother’s death, Estella put off college for a year, and they traveled to together to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Gwendolyn and Estella became fascinated by insects as children when their father brought home an ant farm from an overseas trip. Though discouraged by their mother and grandmother, the two girls never lost their passion for insects, and they both sign up for an entomology course. A trip to Monterey to see the overwintering monarchs increases Gwendolyn’s passion for beautiful insects. Then Estella meets Leonard Angosono, the spoiled son of an even wealthier Chinese-Indonesian family. Leonard pursued Estella aggressively, and both families promoted the marriage as an excellent business decision. Leonard discouraged Estella’s studies and his parents insisted that she give up college so they could marry and return to Jakarta immediately after Leonard’s graduation. After graduation Gwendolyn starts her own business — Bagatelle — rather than running a section of the Sulinado empire, the family reluctantly agreeing it would be good experience. The debut of Bagatelle’s signature line called Majesty during Paris Fashion Week was a huge success, especially the cape of living butterflies that flutter with a shrug of the shoulders. Gwendolyn tries to convince Estella to join her in the business, but the Angosono family doesn’t allow their women to work. As time goes on Estella becomes increasingly dominated by Leonard and his family, slowly disconnecting from her own family and Gwendolyn. This disturbing debut thriller explores the destructive power of extreme wealth and the dark secrets that can destroy a family from within.

The Devil and the Dark WaterStuart Turton
The Devil and the Dark Water (Sourcebooks Landmark 2020) begins in 1634 Batavia when the great detective Samuel Pipps, renowned for solving impossible crimes, is taken in chains to the Saardam, a United East India Company merchant vessel. Arrested for an unknown crime, Sammy is being transported to Amsterdam for execution. Sammy’s bodyguard Lieutenant Arent Hayes carries Sammy’s alchemy kit filled with tinctures, powders, and potions developed to assist in his detective work. On the docks a leper shouts that his demon master is aboard the Saardam and will destroy the ship and passengers before they reach Amsterdam. He then burst into flames and screams without a sound. Noblewoman Sara Wessel darts to the dying leper’s side and eases his pain with a drop from a vial she carries, asking Arent to use his sword to give him a quick death. They discover the leper’s tongue has been cut out, making it impossible for him to have delivered his speech of warning. Sara is traveling with her thirteen-year-old daughter Lia and her husband Governor General Jan Haan, who has also brought his mistress Creesjie Jens along. Haan has been called back to Amsterdam to present the Gentlemen 17, the Company’s ruling body, with the contents of a heavy box containing a mysterious contraption known as the Folly. Sara is desperately unhappy, constrained by society and her controlling and abusive husband to deny her gift for healing, and fearful that her scientifically brilliant daughter will be burned as a witch if anyone learns of her talents. Haan has filled most of the cargo hold with his own crates and boxes, causing Captain Adrian Crauwels to worry that they don’t have enough food stores for the eight-month voyage. Over the past few years Sara and Lia have become ardent fans of Samuel Pipps, trying to solve his cases themselves while reading Arent’s written reports, which have also been performed onstage. Since Sammy is manacled and kept in in a pitch-black fetid cell, Sara and Arent question the passengers and crew, trying to discover if the leper with distinctive hand injuries was once a carpenter aboard the Saardam. Sara sees the leper’s face outside her porthole, a strange symbol appears on the sails and carved into beams below deck, and livestock are slaughtered by an unknown hand while locked in their cages, frightening the crew into believing the demon is on board. Arent convinces the captain to allow midnight walks to give Sammy fresh air and food, but he cannot make his own observations, relying instead on Arent’s reports. A storm separates the Saardam from the rest of the fleet, leaving the ship very short on supplies and facing a possible mutiny. This excellent historical thriller features an intricate plot, a cast of vivid characters, a locked room murder, and the possibility that there isn’t a rational solution to the series of impossible events.

Confessions on the 7:45Lisa Unger
Confessions on the 7:45 (Park Row 2020) begins when Selena Murphy misses her usual train home from New York City on Thursday, preoccupied by watching her husband Graham have sex with their nanny Geneva on the nanny-cam in the playroom. The 7:45 is stalled because of a blockage on the track, and the woman in the next seat offers Selena a tiny bottle of vodka. Introducing herself as Martha, she confesses an affair with her married boss which she would like to end but fears getting fired. Selena is too ashamed to admit her secret filming, but reveals that she suspects her husband, who was laid off several months ago, is having an affair with the nanny her two young sons adore. Selena briefly imagines life without Graham, who has betrayed her before, but can’t picture going through a divorce and raising their two boys alone. Martha whispers that maybe the nanny will just disappear and Selena can pretend it never happened. At Selena’s stop Martha is sleeping, and Selena, regretting sharing even part of the shameful truth, exits the train hoping she will never see the stranger again. At home she confronts Graham with the evidence from the nanny-cam and he storms out of the house, returning late to sleep on the couch. On Monday two detectives appear at Selena and Graham’s door looking for information about Geneva, who was reported missing by her sister and hasn’t been seen since she left their house on Friday evening. After the police leave Serena’s phone buzzes with a text from Martha with an invitation to meet for drinks after work, which is startling since Serena didn’t share her phone number or her last name. Interspersed chapters tell the story of Pearl, a 15-year-old rescued ten years earlier from foster care by Charlie, one of her alcoholic mother’s ex-lovers. As the police investigate Geneva’s disappearance, uncomfortable truths about Geneva’s previous jobs, the shaky status of Selena and Graham’s marriage, and the events that precipitated the divorce of Selena’s parents are uncovered. This intense psychological thriller exploring the far-reaching events of infidelity and betrayal is a finalist fo the 2021 Thriller Award for Best Novel.

April 1, 2021

Take It BackKia Abdullah
Take It Back (St. Martin’s Press 2020, UK 2019) begins when 16-year-old Jodie Wolfe arrives at Artemis House, a sexual assault referral center in London. Her case is assigned to Zara Kaleel, a successful barrister who has left a high-profile career to work at Artemis House for the victims who need her most. Jodie tells Zara that she was raped five days ago by a group of fellow students. Jodie, who has facial deformities caused by neurofibromatosis, had gone to a party with her friend Nina, who quickly deserted Jodie to dance. Amir Rabbini, a handsome boy that all the girls are attracted to, sat by Jodie and complemented her kissable lips, leading her through the estate to an empty building. There she found three of Amir’s friends — Hassan Tanweer, Mohammed Ahmed, and Farid Khan. All except Farid participated in the rape. Ashamed and feeling guilty that she had willingly gone with Amir, Jodie left the party without telling Nina. At home her alcoholic mother is already asleep, so Jodie bags her clothes and goes to bed. The next morning she tells her mother about the assault, but her mother doesn’t believe her. Zara knows this is an explosive case: Muslim teenagers have raped a disabled white girl who is represented by a Muslim woman. She arranges for an immediate medical exam and a visit to the police the next day. During the police interview Zara is startled when Jodie omits Amir’s comment about wanting to kiss her, instead saying he invited her to an after-party that included Nina. When Zara challenges her later, Jodie says she knew no one would believe that Amir showed interest in her, but Zara is troubled by how easily she lied. The four boys are all from hard-working immigrant families, and Detective Constable Mia Scavo and her partner are impressed by their insistence on their innocence of any crime. While the police investigate their alibis, Zara asks Erin Quinto, the investigator for Artemis House, to see if she can get anything from Farid, the one boy not accused of rape. Zara is struggling with her own demons. After months of pressure from her father to submit to an arranged marriage, Zara finally agreed to marry the fifteenth suitor: Kasim Ali who expected her to become a docile Muslim wife. When Zara fled her controlling husband, her father threatened to send her brother to cut her into pieces, an honor killing to preserve the family name. Her father died before they could reconcile, and Zara is now addicted to the escape of alcohol and diazepam. As the trial approaches Zara becomes a media target, the four teenage boys find their lives changed perhaps irrevocably, and even Jodie begins to wish she could just take it all back and escape the limelight. This intense legal thriller and series opener presents the five teenagers as unique individuals with distinct personalities composed of hopes and dreams, strengths and flaws, truths and deceits.

The Chocolate CobwebCharlotte Armstrong
The Chocolate Cobweb (1948, American Mystery Classics 2020) begins when 23-year-old Amanda Garth discovers that a mix-up at the hospital the day she was born caused her to briefly be identified as the child of wealthy painter Tobias Garrison, whose wife gave birth around the same time. A budding artist, Amanda is fascinated by the idea that she may have been returned to the wrong family, and she heads off to the Peck Galleries to see the last day of a retrospective of Garrison’s paintings. She wanders through the rooms, admiring paintings drenched in light and color, ending up transfixed in front of his masterpiece: Belle in the Doorway. Tobias Garrison himself arrives, accompanied by a tiny woman with white hair and rosy cheeks, Mrs. Santa Claus in modern dress. Fanny Austin, the dowager queen of Hollywood, joins the couple along with a handsome young man called Thone that Amanda is certain must be the son she so briefly replaced. Unable to stop herself, Amanda tracks down the Garrison house and arrives that evening at their impressive house built on the side of a canyon outside Los Angeles, introducing herself to Tobias as the wrong child he met long ago. When Amanda gushes about the power of Belle in the Doorway an awkward silence falls over the room and Tobias looks stricken. Fanny explains that the current Mrs. Garrison is Ione, the first and third wife of Tobias. Belle was his second wife, mother of Thone, who died five years earlier. Ione offers to take Amanda downstairs to Thone’s room to see another portrait of Belle, and Amanda follows, shocked by Tobias’s despair. As she is gazing blankly out the dark window, Amanda sees Ione deliberately knock a thermos to the floor, shattering it and spilling the chocolate on the floor. Amanda mops up some of the chocolate while Ione goes into the bathroom for a towel, shoving the embarrassing paint and chocolate stained rag into her pocket and drying her hands on a clean handkerchief. Ione asks Mandy to give her the handkerchief to wash, insisting when Mandy tries to refuse. Back upstairs Tobias invites Amanda to return one day to show him some of her work. Puzzling over Ione’s actions, Amanda asks a chemist friend to analyze the chocolate on the rag. When she learns that it contained enough sleeping medication to kill someone, she knows she has to warn Thone, who assumes at first that Amanda is trying to worm her way into his family. Learning that Belle died in a suspicious accident, Amanda fears that Ione may have been responsible. After seeing promise in Amanda’s paintings, Tobias invites her to stay for a week of private lessons. Amanda mimics some of Belle’s mannerisms she learned from Fanny, hoping to confuse Ione about who is Belle’s real child and protect Thone, who she may be falling in love with. Sections from Ione’s perspective reveal her intense hatred for Belle, who stole her beloved Tobias away, and her resentment of any reminders of the woman who destroyed her happiness. This suspenseful and engaging mystery has been reissued as part of the American Mystery Classics series.

The Boy from the WoodsHarlan Coben
The Boy from the Woods (Grand Central Publishing 2020) begins when Naomi Pine, a relentlessly bullied 16-year old high school student, vanishes. Classmate Matthew Crimstein, who is ashamed he hasn’t defended the girl he’s known since Kindergarten against the popular crowd, asks his grandmother Hester Crimstein, a renowned New York City criminal defense lawyer, for help. Hester returns to Westville, New Jersey, to the family home she passed onto her son David and his wife Laila when they married and had Matthew. Ever since David died in a car accident, Hester has been reluctant to return to Westville, but agrees to see what she can find out about Naomi. Thirty years earlier, when David was a small child, Hester discovered that his "invisible friend" was a real boy living in the woods. Named “Wilde” by the press, the child had been living a feral existence for as long as he could remember, surviving by forging and helping himself to supplies and shelter from the summer cabins during the winter. Wilde graduated from West Point with honors and then served overseas before returning to Westville, living off the grid in an Ecocapsule micro-smart-house deep in the woods. After Naomi’s neglectful father tells Hester his daughter is with her mother, who hasn’t been part of Naomi’s life since she was very young, Hester asks Wilde to help locate the missing girl. The lead bully is Crash Maynard, son of wealthy Dash Maynard, a TV producer who records his entire life. Rumors are circulating that Dash videoed conversations in the dressing rooms of his reality TV show, and that some of those videos could destroy some powerful people, including former self-help guru Rusty Eggers, a megalomaniac tyrant now running for president. Dash’s head of security is Gavin Chambers, a former Marine colonel who interferes with Wilde’s investigation, determined to shield Crash from any suspicion of wrongdoing. A finalist for the 2021 Barry Award for Best Novel, this thriller leaves open the possibility of a sequel starring the talented and mysterious Wilde.

Blacktop WastelandS.A Cosby
Blacktop Wasteland (Flatiron Books 2020) begins when Beauregard “Bug” Montage of Red Hill, Virginia, bets $1000 that his Plymouth Duster can beat Warren Crocker’s ’76 Oldsmobile Cutlass in a street race. Beauregard hasn’t raced for awhile, but he is $800 short on the rent for his auto repair shop and his sons need new glasses and braces. The new mechanic shop run by white men underbid Beauregard on a much-needed contract, and he is desperate. After he is cheated out of his winnings, Beauregard’s wife Kia tries to convince him to sell the Duster, but the car is his only connection with the father who fled town when he was a boy. The next day the convalescent hospital where his mother lives calls to tell him about a problem with her Medicaid — since she didn’t declare a life insurance policy, Medicaid isn’t covering $33,000 of her bill. Then Ronnie Sessions appears with an offer of a jewelry heist that will earn them over $80,000 each. Beauregard swore he would never work with Ronnie again after their last job failed miserably, and managed to turn his life around and become an honest mechanic and reliable husband and father. But the money would get him out of debt, and Beauregard falls back into being “Bug,” the best getaway wheelman on the East Coast, despite Kia’s objections. Knowing Ronnie isn’t as careful as he should be, Bug takes over the planning for the theft, and finds himself energized by re-entering a world of danger and adrenaline. When everything falls apart, Bug is forced to confront his own nature and the possibility that his decisions to protect his family only make things worse. This intense thriller rich in regional language and description is a finalist for the 2021 Barry and Lefty Awards for Best Mystery.

Before She DisappearedLisa Gardner
Before She Disappeared (Dutton 2021) begins when Frankie Elkin arrives in the mainly Haitian Mattapan neighborhood of Boston to begin her search for missing teenager Angelique Badeau, who lived with her aunt Guerline and younger brother Emmanuel. Frankie, a recovering alcoholic, travels the country searching for missing people, particularly minorities, with only the clothes she can fit in a small suitcase and a cheap Tracfone. Frankie isn’t sure why she is driven to find missing people. She doesn’t charge for her services and isn’t interested in recognition but does have a talent for getting people to talk to her and the drive to bring closure to the families of the missing. Frankie gets a job as a bartender in the neighborhood, trading her services for meals and the small upstairs room that comes with a feral cat. Angelique, a talented 15-year-old student, left her high school at the end of the day as usual eleven months earlier and hasn’t been seen since. As usual the family is suspicious of Frankie, but the police haven’t found any leads and they don’t have anything to lose by talking with the skinny white woman who has located 14 missing people. Frankie learns that Guerline, who works as a nurse has a green card, but Angelique and Emmanuel have only the emergency visas issued after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that have already been revoked once and may be again. Detective Dan Lotham isn’t happy with Frankie’s involvement in the case, but reluctantly comes around to accepting her help when she learns new information after a brief conversation with Angelique’s best friends Kyra and Marjolie. Emmanuel appears early one morning at the bar with the family laptop, explaining that Frankie’s questions caused him to think back about his sister’s life right before she vanished. Knowing that a student visa would help her immigration status, Angelique had signed up for additional high school credit classes, hoping to be admitted to college before her visa expired. When he accessed one of her online classes, he discovered Angelique had logged in within the last month to submit her final paper. Angelique loved science and math and codebreaking, and Emmanuel discovers a message hidden in her paper: Help Us. Lotham tracks down the internet cafe the paper was submitted from, and obtains a photocopy of the license used by the black teenager featuring a blurry photo that is clearly Angelique. Frankie feels an unexpected spark of hope: though she has successfully located 14 missing people, none were alive. This gripping thriller features a unique protagonist: the troubled Frankie, who shakily maintains her sobriety by channeling her addictive personality into finding the missing.

The BurnKathleen Kent
The Burn (Mulholland Books 2020) finds Betty Rhyzyk, a narcotics detective in Dallas, Texas, recuperating both physically and mentally from the torture she endured while kidnapped by the Family, a doomsday cult of meth dealers headed by Evangeline Roy. Unable to take the long daily run that helped keep her sane, Betty is chafing at the boredom of desk duty and resenting the enforced therapy sessions to help her deal with her paranoia about being recaptured. Her wife Jackie is growing impatient with Betty’s bad temper, and she fears that her partner Seth may be addicted to the pain killers he was prescribed for injuries sustained during her rescue from the Family. Betty came from a Brooklyn cop family, but left after her older brother’s suicide out of guilt from the death of a child during a drug raid. Learning that both her brother and father were on the take, Betty, determined to be an honest cop, knew there was no future for her in Brooklyn and relocated. The Dallas Narcotics team is looking for signs of El Cuchillo (the Knife), rumored to have arrived from Mexico to head the security force for the Sinaloa cartel. An efficient and silent killer who makes boots from the skin of the men he kills. El Cuchillo’s presence in Dallas may signal the start of a drug war, so the police aren’t surprised when bodies of drug dealers are appear around the city. But the rumor on the street from drug users is that the shooter is a cop. When she notices signs of drug use in Seth along with unexplained absences, Betty worries that she can no longer trust him. Placed on each body is a Bible verse from Deuteronomy, the same one sent to Betty before forcefully abducting her: “When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries.” Ignoring orders to remain on desk duty, Betty activates her network of confidential informers, heading back out to the dangerous streets before she has been cleared for active duty, cringing every time she sees a woman who reminds her of Evangeline Roy. This second in the series featuring the irrepressible Betty is a finalist for the 2021 Sue Grafton Award honoring the best novel in a series featuring a female protagonist.

The Last HuntDeon Meyer
The Last Hunt (Atlantic Monthly Press 2020, Afrikaans 2018) begins when Captain Benny Griessel and his partner Vaughn Cupido of the Hawks elite police unit of South Africa are given the case docket for the murder of former policeman Johnson Johnson by their boss, Colonel Mbali Kaleni. Several weeks earlier Johnson was traveling as bodyguard for Mrs. Thilini Scherpenzeel, a wealthy Dutch tourist on the luxury Rovos Rail train from Cape Town to Pretoria. Johnson disappeared after dinner one night, and it was assumed that he left the train at a scheduled stop until his suitcase was discovered pushed deep under his berth. A week later his body was discovered next to the train track, the apparent cause of death a massive skull fracture caused by jumping or being thrown from the moving train. The last call on Johnson’s phone was to a former colleague at the VIP Protection Unit, who says Johnson told him he couldn’t contemplate a future after his divorce. Johnson’s wife insists he had no reason to commit suicide: their divorce was amicable and he adored his two young daughters. Mbali Kaleni is ordered to close the case as a suicide, through the discovery of an Okapi blade buried in Johnson’s skull makes that impossible. Corruption within the government and police is rampant, so Mbali Kaleni instructs Griessel and Cupido to continue to investigate quietly, searching for the two mysterious elderly men traveling on the train with false documents in the names of Faku and Green. Meanwhile in Bordeaux, France, former revolutionary sharpshooter Thobela Mpayipheli has settled into a quiet new life under the alias Daniel Darret. Now in his mid-50s, Daniel is enjoying perfecting his new furniture repair skills when he is contacted by an old comrade working with a group of Umkhonto veterans who have come to the conclusion that assassinating the now-corrupt president they put into power is the only way to save South Africa. Daniel at first refuses, but a letter from another old comrade describing the president’s defilement of his daughter convinces him to try and resurrect his old skills before the president’s upcoming visit to Paris. Back in Capetown Cupido is struggling to convince his girlfriend’s son that not all police are corrupt while Griessel contemplates proposing marriage to Alexa (once famous as the singer Xandra), a recovered alcoholic who has supported him through his own fight to stay sober. This excellent sixth in the series is a finalist for the 2021 Barry Award for Best Thriller.

The KeeperJessica Moor
The Keeper (Penguin Books 2020) begins when Katie Straw’s body is found washed up on the bank downstream from the old bridge in Widringham, England, a popular suicide spot. Katie’s boyfriend Noah has an alibi — in Glasgow for a weekend stag party — but Detective Sergeant Daniel Whitworth and Detective Constable Brookes aren’t happy that he didn’t report her missing when he didn’t hear from her for several days. The pathologist doesn’t find any signs of sexual assault or a struggle, but points out old scar tissue on the arms and thighs, probably self-inflicted. In her bathroom cabinet they find an arsenal of antidepressants, and suicide seems likely. Katie worked at a battered women’s refuge, and the chief executive Valerie Redwood is reluctant to allow the two policemen inside to question the women. Several weeks ago Val submitted a file to the police: emails and copies of posts from Facebook and Twitter attacking her for only protecting women, not men, and threatening violence. Val also reported strange cars parked across the street and the side gate found open at night. Whitworth brushes off her complaint: citing understaffing, suggesting she is over-reacting, and handing off her file of "evidence" to Brookes. The women at the refuge, terrified that the men they are hiding from will find their location and punish them for leaving, are reluctant to talk to the police, but Katie was kind to them and understood their fear. Interspersed sections from "Then" document Katie’s relationship with Jamie, who doesn’t pressure her to have sex, but gradually isolates her from her friends and family, eventually controlling every minute of her life. Whitworth, close to retirement, hopes to close the case quickly but a routine background check reveals that Katie Straw didn’t exist: no records at national health, the electoral roll, the university on her resume, no birth certificate or passport. No records at all before she appeared in Widringham two years earlier. This intense debut thriller exposing the political and social structures that allow violence against women to continue is a finalist for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Paperback.

The Forger’s DaughterBradford Morrow
The Forger’s Daughter (Mysterious Press 2020) finds reformed literary forger Will, his wife Meghan, and their younger daughter Maisie enjoying August in their family farmhouse in the Hudson Valley while their older daughter Nicole remains in their New York apartment finishing an art school summer internship. A scream in the dusk sends Will and Meg running down the country road to find 11-year-old Maisie limping and wheeling her bicycle, insisting that Meg’s brother Adam, who was murdered 22 years earlier, handed her a parcel for Will with a threat to deliver it safely. Later that night Meg discovers a mask made from an enlarged photo of Adam further down the road while Will opens the parcel to discover one of the rarest works in American literature: Edgar Allan Poe’s first published poem: Tamerlane. Only 12 copies of the pamphlet are known to have survived, and Will’s old nemesis and fellow forger Henry Slader demands Will make a copy or he will produce evidence putting Will at the scene of Adam’s murder. Will hasn’t forged anything for 20 years, instead working as an authenticator for a Manhattan auction house. As a hobby he restored an antique letterpress, and began typesetting and printing limited-edition chapbooks with Nicole as apprentice every summer. Slader has “borrowed” the copy of Tamerlane while its owner is away on vacation, and demands that Will print an exact duplicate to place in the owner’s empty morocco Solander box before she returns. Slader explains that Tamerlane copies were printed by an 18-year-old inexperienced printer, so small inaccuracies won’t be noticed, and he will provide period paper that will pass the closest inspection as well as the plates for the covers. Will reluctantly enlists Nicole’s help when she arrives that weekend. Now close to 60, Will’s ability to distinguish dark blues, grays, and blacks has diminished, and he knows Nicole’s sharp eye will be needed to mix the exact shade of ink, an apprentice task she enjoys. He tells Nicole he has been hired to make facsimile for a client, but she is clever as well as talented and knows something is fishy. Alternate chapters from Will’s and Meg’s perspectives reveal the secrets they are keeping from each other in order to protect their family in this excellent sequel to The Forgers.

Little CrueltiesLiz Nugent
Little Cruelties (Gallery/Scout Press 2020) begins at a funeral of one of the Drumm brothers, though which brother is in the coffin is not revealed. William, Brian, and Luke were born a year apart and manipulated from birth to compete for their narcissistic mother’s attention. Melissa Craig, a show band singer and actress, was the star of the family, and everyone catered to her moods. Melissa favored her oldest son William the most, giving him constant praise and the largest servings at meals. She was dismissive of Luke, the youngest, calling him a runt and threatening to leave him with the old woman who lives in the woods. Caught in the middle, Brian competed with William for everything but rarely won. Luke coped with his fear that he didn’t belong in the family by turning to the church as a small child, making up sins to confess and begging for Bible stories at bedtime. William knew he was his mother’s favorite, but her constant comparisons between the boys caused constant conflicts and little cruelties that got worse as they grew into men and began competing for women, success, and even each other’s children. Their father died of prostate cancer when the boys were in their late teens, but he had never been a strong force in the family. William becomes a successful film producer who secretly preys on women, Luke’s pop band earns him millions as he fights addiction and mental illness, and Brian, envious of both his brothers, schemes to become rich himself. Sections narrated by each son from 1977 to the funeral in 2019 reveal different perspectives of the same events, each brother’s view distorted by the mistrust of each other cultivated by their mother. This dark novel of psychological suspense presents a horrifying picture of the damage a mother can do to her children and the increasingly devastating cruelties they inflict on each other.

A Stranger at the DoorJason Pinter
A Stranger at the Door (Thomas & Mercer 2021) begins when single mother Rachel Marin gets an email from Matthew Linklater, her son Eric’s high school social studies teacher, asking for advice about an issue with some students he suspects are involved with the “wrong sort” of people. Rachel received the email while listening to her daughter Megan read her a story and put off responding until the next day. Linklater’s body was discovered in his burned home the next morning. As a forensic consultant to the police Rachel has access to the scene, and discovers three separate flash points, indicating arson. On the run from whoever murdered her husband five years earlier, Rachel has just started to relax after relocating her family to the small town of Ashby, Illinois. Seven-year-old Megan has only vague memories of her father and is happy in school, but freshman Eric hasn’t made friends and is still suffering through nightmares after the trauma of discovering his father’s dismembered body. When Rachel began dating Detective John Serrano six months earlier, Eric briefly emerged from his depression, but he is again spending most of his time in his room with the door closed. After Benjamin Ruddock, an 18-year-old high school senior, comes to Eric’s defense when he is being bullied at school, he finds Benjamin’s invitation to join a group of boys being mentored by businessman Bennet Brice irresistible. Brice tells the recruits, all troubled teenagers with family problems, that they have been selected for their potential, and promises the chance to earn more money in a month than their parents have made in a lifetime. Rachel suspects that Brice had something to do with Linklater’s murder, and sets out to find the evidence and protect her son and the other at-risk boys. Though Serrano and his partner respect Rachel’s talent for finding the truth, they are bound by rules that Rachel has no interest in following if a child’s safety is at stake. Two psychopathic brothers and a dangerous woman from Rachel’s past add to the tension in this scary second in the series featuring the talented vigilante.

Darling Rose GoldStephanie Wrobel
Darling Rose Gold (Berkley 2020) is the story of Rose Gold Watts and her mother Patty, who live in the small town of Deadwick, Illinois. Until she was in high school, Rose Gold believed she was chronically ill. She was allergic to just about everything, had a feeding tube implanted, and used a wheel chair. She was embarrassed by her appearance — her teeth decayed because of the constant vomiting and her mother kept her head shaved after her hair started falling out in clumps. Patty homeschooled Rose Gold after a bullying incident in first grade, and kept her isolated from others her age. Patty reluctantly allowed Rose Gold to use a computer with Internet access for her high school online classes, but only with close supervision. Rose Gold manages to find an online chat room and at the age of 16 makes her first friend: Phil. When Rose tells Phil that broccoli and turkey taste sickly sweet, he begins asking about her eating habits, learning that the meals her mother makes leave a bitter taste on her tongue, and that she never gets sick while eating hospital food during her many hospital stays. Rose Gold finds a bottle of Ipecac Syrup hidden in her mother’s sock drawer, and realizes her mother has been responsible for all of her maladies, not a mysterious chromosomal defect. Convicted of child abuse just as Rose Gold turns 18, Patty is sentenced to five years in prison. The neighbors who believed Patty was an excellent mother who dedicated her life to her sick daughter feel betrayed. When Patty is released, they are shocked that Rose Gold is willing to pick her mother up at the prison gates and welcome her into her home. Patty insists she has forgiven Rose Gold for testifying against her, and Rose Gold seems willing to put the past behind her. Alternating sections from the perspectives of Patty and Rose Gold reveal a woman obsessed with her role as a caring mother and a teenager grappling with the realization that the mother she adored ruined her childhood and maybe her life. Rose Gold now has a baby of her own, causing the neighbors to fear that that child’s health may be threatened. This disturbing debut psychological thriller is a finalist for the 2021 Barry and Edgar Awards for Best First Novel.

March 1, 2021

AmnestyAravind Adiga
Amnesty (Scribner 2020) takes place over the course of a long and stressful day in the life of Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, known as Danny, an illegal immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney, Australia. Fleeing danger faced by the Tamils in Sri Lanka and entering Australia with a student visa, Danny was denied refugee status and has lived the past three years in the storeroom of a grocery store, giving the store owner half his earnings to keep his secret. Traveling the city with a Turbo Model E portable vacuum cleaner strapped to his back like an astronaut’s jet-booster, Danny exudes the confidence of someone with legal papers, mimicking the posture of young Australian men and bravely wearing shorts in public. On this fateful morning he is cleaning the flat of Daryl the Lawyer, House Number Four, when a policeman in the hall asks if he noticed anything in the flat across the street. Knowing that flat belongs to former client Radha Thomas, House Number Five on his phone, Danny checks the news and discovers her murdered body wrapped in a red jacket has been found at a creek . Danny is sure the jacket belongs to another client Doctor Prakash (House Number Six), who was having an affair with Radha. Danny impulsively dials House Number Six, but hangs up without leaving a message. But Prakash has caller ID and calls Danny back, offering a large amount to come clean his flat one last time before he leaves for South Africa that evening. Radha and Prakash met at Gamblers Anonymous after she lost her job. Their affair was tumultuous; they gambled, fought, and had noisy sex while Danny waited outside. Danny was fond of Radha, who tipped well and often bought him a meal, but didn’t care for Prakash, who drank far too much and seethed with violence. But Danny knows that calling Crime Stoppers will reveal his illegal status and result in immediate deportation. He moves aimlessly around the city throughout the day, fighting with his conscience and making excuses to Prakash, who calls constantly. This sensitive thriller explores the impossible decisions illegal immigrants face every day, and the intense longing to belong to a community.

Murder Goes To MarketDaisy Bateman
Murder Goes to Market (Seventh Street Books 2020) introduces Claudia Simcoe, a computer programmer who has left San Francisco to open a farm-to-table market in the small Northern California coastal town of San Elmo Bay. Almost all of the stalls in the market feature local food items (Dancing Cow Cheese Company, Pak Family Pickles) but Claudia rented the final stall to artisan Lori Roth. An anonymous printout from a wholesale importer’s website reveals that Lori’s Hand Made Creations are really made in overseas factories. Waiting until the other vendors have left for the day, Claudia notifies Lori that she has violated the terms of her lease, and gives her three days to pack up and vacate her space. The next morning Claudia discovers Lori strangled with a cheese wire in the marketplace, a gigantic jar of kosher dills smashed in the aisle. Police Chief Bill Lennox, who has no experience with homicides and little tolerance for outsiders, quickly decides Claudia is his prime suspect and closes the marketplace indefinitely. Officer Derek Chambers, a handsome young transplant from the Northeast, is sympathetic to Claudia’s predicament — the marketplace hasn’t been open long and both Claudia and the vendors have taken a financial risk. Evidence found under the body further implicates Claudia and she begins her own investigation, sure that Chief Lennox’s experience with traffic stops and beach parking break-ins hasn’t prepared him to catch a killer. Claudia searches through Lori’s boxes before turning them over to the police, discovering a mysterious list with women’s names and incomprehensible notes like “young 5k cousin cancer Philly.” Uniquely prepared by her background in the tech industry, Claudia begins researching Lori’s past, searching for a motive that has nothing to do with Claudia or the marketplace. This very funny debut and series opener is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery.

No Bad DeedHeather Chavez
No Bad Deed (William Morrow 2020) begins when veterinarian Cassie Larkin is driving home in the rain late one night in Santa Rosa, California, and spots a man and woman fighting on the side of the road. She calls 911 but doesn’t follow the directions to stay in her car, heading over the embankment to protect the woman. The man standing over the woman’s unconscious body tells Cassie that if she lets the woman die he will let her live, but she throws rocks at him until he scrambles up the bank, stealing her car with her purse containing her address and the names of her husband Sam and children Leo and Audrey. Detective Ray Rico shows her some pictures, and Cassie is able to identify Carver Sweet, though she doesn’t understand when he asks if the number 3 means anything to her. The next day Cassie works late again and Sam takes six-year-old Audrey trick-or-treating. When they don’t return on time, Cassie walks through the neighborhood, finding Audrey with two women she doesn’t know, who tell her Sam asked them to watch Audrey for a few minutes and never returned. The next day Sam’s car disappears from their driveway, and Cassie gets a text saying he is sorry. On the nightstand by their bed she finds an origami dog and unfolds it do discover the numeral 2. After checking the hospitals and talking to Sam’s friends Cassie receives more texts from Sam’s phone, but she isn’t sure they are really from her husband. The texts report that he has been injured, and admit an affair. Cassie reports Sam missing to Officer Marisol Torres, but the texts indicate Sam left voluntarily. Cassie suspects he has been kidnapped by Carver Sweet because she saved the young woman’s life. Footage from a neighbor’s security camera reveals a large man who resembles Sweet driving Sam’s car away in the middle of the night. Cassie takes a copy to Detective Rico, who tells her they found a rock in Carver’s car painted with the numeral 3. More threats to her family cause Cassie to ignore Rico’s advice to leave the investigation to the professionals, putting her own life in danger as she tries to protect her family. This debut psychological thriller is frightening.

The Lions of Fifth AvenueFiona Davis
The Lions of Fifth Avenue (Dutton 2020) begins in 1913 New York City. Laura Lyons and her husband Jack, the superintendent of the New York Public Library, live in a seven-room apartment on the second floor of the library with their children Harry (11) and Pearl (7). Only two years old, the Library still feels brand new. The director approved Laura writing an article about their unusual living arrangements, including details about their nightly stomp and shout in the deserted building and the children’s devotion to the two lions at the Fifth Avenue entrance: named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after two of the library founders. Fiona dreams of being more than a wife and mother, and earns a scholarship to the Columbia Journalism School. She is disappointed when the 24 male students are assigned to cover politics while she and the other three women are sent to report on an announcement that the Women’s Hotel is no longer serving butter to hotel guests. While returning late from another insignificant assignment, Laura meets Dr. Amelia Potter, who invites her to the Heterodoxy Club, a radical group of women who speak freely about birth control and women’s rights. Laura is fascinated by this group of women and begins spending more time away from her family until a crisis occurs in the Library: a first edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and then a rare copy of Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe go missing. In 1993 the lions are now known as Patience and Fortitude. Laura’s granddaughter Sadie Donavan has just been appointed the interim curator of the Berg Collection, the library’s rare book collection which also includes ephemera like Charles Dickens’s letter opener made from the paw of his favorite cat. Sadie hasn’t shared her relationship with famous essayist and writer Laura Lyons, but leaps at the chance to research her life and work for an upcoming exhibit displaying the Berg Collection treasures, hoping to find something that survived the destruction of all Laura’s private papers and manuscripts after her death. While pulling other items to write the descriptions for the catalog, Sadie discovers that the final volume of Virginia Woolf diaries is missing from the box in the locked security cage. Sadie’s 87-year-old mother Pearl never talked much about her parents, and her memory is fading fast. Right before her death Pearl muttered something her six-year-old granddaughter heard as a “tambourine” stolen by her father Jack. Fearing that the news that her grandfather was a book thief will increase the suspicion that she is now stealing rare books herself, Fiona throws herself into researching her family, hoping that discovering the truth will clear her own name. Alternating sections from Laura and Sadie’s perspectives present two unique women struggling to find their place in the world while still protecting their families.

The Last ExitMichael Kaufman
The Last Exit (Crooked Lane Books 2021) is set in a near-future world devastated by climate change, rampant unemployment, and the inequalities caused by longevity treatments providing eternal life to the ultra-rich. Jen B. Lu is a 38-year-old Washington DC Elder Abuse Unit agent, supported by Chandler, her top-secret experimental 2-year-old synthetic implant. An epidemic of rapid onset spongiform encephalitis (ROSE) is killing 16% of people in their 50s and 60s. The fatal disease can be prevented only by a modified longevity treatment, including sterilization, available to childless adults only if their parents choose to “Exit” at age 65. Jen and Chandler are called to a domestic violence situation involving two parents and their two early-40s sons. Olive Ortega has attacked their neighbor, a low-level criminal, with a hammer for taking their life savings and not delivering an illegal copy of the modified treatment called Eden, which would have allowed the whole family to survive. Jen’s boyfriend Zach and his parents are struggling with making their own decision now that Raffi and Leah are six months away from age 65. Though they would prefer not to Exit, they are willing to end their lives to protect their son, who is increasingly reluctant to accept their sacrifice. Eden sounds wonderful to Zach. Within a week two people die suddenly after aging 50 years overnight, both victims of Eden. Jen wonders if Big Pharma, a consortium making trillions of dollars on the legal treatment, has salted the streets with a doctored version of Eden to prevent competition. Jen is warned by Captain Brooks not to continue asking questions about Eden, but she is beginning to doubt her own decision about signing Exit papers for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Chandler is unable to tell anything but the truth when questioned, so Jen begins to turn him off more of the time, leaving him to speculate about the missing gaps in time and why dangerous people are threatening Jen. This series opener is engagingly narrated from the perspectives of both Jen and Chandler, an odd-couple partnership for the ages.

Under PressureRobert Pobi
Under Pressure (Minotaur Books 2020) begins when an explosion at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City kills 702 people: everyone attending a private gala for tech company Horizon Dynamics plus pedestrians outside the building. The FBI mobilizes its entire team, but the amount of data about the victims is overwhelming. Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, knows that Dr. Lucas Page, an astrophysicist, university professor, and former FBI agent injured on duty, is the only person who can help identify patterns in the data in a timely fashion. Lucas is reluctant, and his wife and children worry about the danger, but he feels compelled to help protect his city. Within a day CNN receives a letter from the bomber taking credit for the destruction and calling for a revolution against technology, but Lucas is convinced the letter was written by an algorithm fed the Unabomber’s manifesto. The Machine Bomber catches the interest of the disenfranchised, who begin lighting bonfires to burn their cell phones, while starting Facebook and Twitter groups to spread their message against technology. Lucas is sure The Machine Bomber is a distraction from the real power behind the bombing, and begins tracing the financial network of the Hockney brothers of Horizon Dynamics. The next bombing destroys one of the two New York City internet hubs, and then a seemingly random group of young men. Lucas has no social skills and alienates most everyone he meets, but his unique spatial awareness that that automatically converts a scene into numerical values gives him the power to recreate the geometry of a blast site or other crime scene and pinpoint information others often miss. The adrenaline rush of the investigation is addictive, and Lucas can’t remove himself from the hunt even when his life is threatened. This excellent second in the series featuring the brilliant scientist with no patience for fools includes flashes of humor and witty social commentary.

These WomenIvy Pochoda
These Women (Ecco 2020), set in the West Adams neighborhood of South Los Angeles, is narrated from the perspective of five women living unstable and dangerous lives. Dorian runs the fish shack, and has spent the last 13 years serving the scraps left over at the end of the night to the women on the stroll. Fifteen years earlier 13 young women were found dead in the surrounding alleys, their throats slit and plastic bags placed over their heads. The police identified them as prostitutes, and no one much cared that someone was killing “these women” that cluttered up the corners. Dorian’s daughter Leila was the final victim in the series. Dorian tried to tell the police that Leila wasn’t a street walker, but since she was killed the same way no one listened. Julianna, known on the street as Jujubee, was the child Leila was babysitting the night she was killed returning home. Now a “dancer” at the Fast Rabbit club, Julianna avoids Dorian and her grief. Julianna documents her life with a series of selfies and surreptitious pictures of her friends. Marella Colwin, the daughter of Julianna’s neighbors, is a performance artist recently returned home after years away at school. Her mother Anneke rarely leaves the house, and Marella has never forgiven her for shipping her off to boarding school as a child. Ophelia (Feelia) has a 15-year old vivid scar running across her neck, an attempted murder that convinced her to give up the game. Dorian goes to the police station with a box of 31 dead hummingbirds that have been left outside the fish shack and her apartment, and the desk sergeant sends her talk with vice cop Esmeralda (Essie) Perry as a joke. For the first time someone really listens to Dorian’s story about her daughter, and her theory that the killer stopped because his final victim was not the prostitute he thought she was. Essie is a small Hispanic woman in a male-dominated profession, and understands only too well what it is like to be sidelined and ignored. The new murder of Kathy, a street-walker found with her throat slit and a plastic bag over her head, convinces Essie that the killer has returned, and she begins searching for patterns in the earlier killings and Kathy’s murder, soon followed by a second. This evocative thriller, a finalist for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Mystery, gives a voice to the desperate women society would like to pretend do not exist.

Thunder BayDouglas Skelton
Thunder Bay (Arcade Crimewise 2020, UK 2019) introduces Rebecca Connolly, an investigative reporter for the Highland Chronicle, in Inverness, Scotland. She receives a call from freelance photographer Chaz Wymark about news happening on Storim, an island off Scotland’s west coast. Fifteen years ago Mhairi Sinclair was beaten to death, and her live-in boyfriend Roddie Drummond was tried for murder. He was acquitted on a Not Proven verdict, the third option in Scotland, and released. Roddie’s mother died a few days earlier, and rumors are that he will be returning to Storim for the funeral, the first time since Mhairi’s death. Storim is a relatively small island with an area of 400 square miles and a population of 3,000, and the insular community is largely convinced that Roddie was guilty. Rebecca’s father was born and raised on Storim but she knows nothing about the island. He left after finishing high school, never returned, and refused to say anything about his life there to either his wife or daughter. Rebecca’s editor refuses to authorize a trip to Storim for budgetary reasons, but she jumps at the chance for a potentially big story plus the chance to learn about her father’s past. Calling in sick, she takes the ferry to Storim along with Roddie and retired Detective Sergeant William Sawyer, who arrested Roddie and never wavered in his certainty that Roddie was guilty. Rebecca begins asking questions of Mhairi’s friends and relatives, trying to find the truth about that fateful night. Mhairi’s last words were “Thunder Bay,” a secluded spot where Mhairi, her brother Ray, and friends played together as children and hung out as teenagers. A recovered drug addict, Donnie is now barely making a living running whale watching tours while Henry, who inherited his father’s title and castle, is organizing a community meeting to explain his plan to transform the estate into a whiskey distillery and luxury hunting hotel. When Donnie interrupts the presentation to object to the plan, insisting only Lord Henry will profit while the islanders will be evicted from their homes, Henry’s Russian investors suggest that both Donnie and “the mainland reporter” need to be silenced. This compelling series opener explores the power of secrets in a closed community determined to protect their own.

Take Me ApartSara Sligar
Take Me Apart (MDC 2020) begins when Kate Aitken is hired by Theo Brand to archive his mother’s personal effects. Miranda Brand was a renowned photographer who shot herself at the height of her fame, 24 years earlier when Theo was eleven. Kate worked as a journalist in New York until a career-ending collapse, and is grateful for the job across the country in the tiny beach town of Callinas in Northern California, where everyone is still speculating about what really happened the day Miranda died. Many believe that Theo, though only a child, had a hand in his mother’s death. Arriving at the beach house on a hill, Kate meets Theo and his young children Jemima and Oscar. On the phone Theo has warned Kate that his mother was a pack rat and her papers were “kind of a mess,” but she is horrified to find Theo has moved everything he found in the house into one room. Huge piles of negative files, prints, cardboard boxes, notebooks, letters, piles of paper, random receipts, and rubbish cover the entire floor. Theo hasn’t been in the house for 24 years, when he and his father moved out after Miranda’s death, and he has no interest in his mothers effects, only in a catalog of the contents so he can sell the collection. She spends most of every day sorting through the disorder, seeing little of the distant Theo but becoming friends with his children. Fascinated by the brilliant and larger-than-life Miranda, Kate defies Theo’s orders to stay out of the rest of the house, and begins exploring the upstairs rooms and the attic whenever he leaves with the children. She discovers Miranda’s diary, learning she was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis after Theo’s birth. Miranda was subjected to electroshock therapy authorized by her husband Jake, and emerged from the hospital with a regimen of medications that inhibited her creativity, transforming the once vibrant artist into a mere husk of herself. As the days pass, Kate finds herself becoming closer to Theo than may be sensible considering her own fragile state of mind. The interspersed sections with letters, news clippings, and the diary bring Miranda to life, and Kate begins interviewing people who corresponded with Miranda, trying to determine if the suicide was really a murder. This intense debut novel of psychological suspense explores the the effects of marriage and motherhood on the artistic personality.

Catherine HouseElisabeth Thomas
Catherine House (Custom House 2020) begins when Ines Murillo arrives at Catherine House, a crumbling castle behind a formidable iron gate in rural Pennsylvania. Catherine House isn’t exactly a college, instead a selective postsecondary school featuring experimental liberal arts study and a controversial research and development institute for plasm, the radical new materials science. Students must pass a rigorous interview process, and then commit to three full years without leaving the school, taking classes during the summer semesters as well. Room, board, clothing, and school supplies are provided, but students must leave all personal possessions behind. Ines, who was an excellent student until a traumatic experience in her senior year, is grateful for the opportunity, but finds it difficult to transform herself from a party girl dependent on pills and alcohol back into a dedicated student. Her roommate Baby Pearce is the complete opposite: nose down in a book at all times and terrified of breaking the rules. Not having anything to leave behind, Ines isn’t bothered by the isolation, Catherine House is the closest to a home she has ever had. Ines discovers that many of the other students also have families and pasts they aren’t eager to return to for a variety of reasons. By the end of the first year Ines and her friends are required to chose a major. Baby knew from the first day that she wanted to concentrate on New Materials Plasm Studies, but Ines is still finding it hard to focus on classes, eventually choosing History of Art and writing over 50 pages describing an off-white canvas by Agnes Martin. Ines notices that the New Materials students form their own group in the dining hall, all three years sitting together rather than grouping by years like the rest of the students. She becomes obsessed by the New Materials wing, especially the locked lab in a hallway wallpapered with umbrellas. She asks questions about plasm study, but no one is able to explain exactly what the mysterious substance is or what it can do. Threatened with expulsion if she doesn’t pass her courses, Ines reluctantly begins to study, continuing to explore the vast buildings. She watches the New Materials students, suspecting their course of study is far different than hers, and remembering news stories featuring parents claiming Catherine House had kidnapped their children, who did not return home after the stipulated three years. This intense debut thriller exploring depression and the longing to belong is a finalist for the 2020 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Winter CountsDavid Heska Wanbli Weiden
Winter Counts (Ecco 2020) introduces Virgil Wounded Horse, the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Federal investigators have jurisdiction over felony crimes on reservations, yet often decline to prosecute. When tribal members feel that justice has been denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, they turn to Virgil. After administering a beating to the gym teacher at the local school who molested his students, Virgil returns home to learn that tribal councilman Ben Short Bear is eager to talk with him. Ben explains that the recent death of a high school senior was the result of an overdose of heroin supplied by Rick Crow. Virgil knows Rick is a liar, thief, and sells weed, but is surprised that he has moved into hard drugs. Ben is frustrated since even if convicted by the tribal court the most they can sentence Rick to is one year, and the feds aren’t interested in anything short of murder. Virgil is reluctant, but the offer of five thousand dollars to stop Rick from smuggling heroin onto the reservation is more than he makes in a year, money he would love to save for his 14-year old nephew Nathan’s college fund. The next day Nathan nearly dies from his first shot of heroin, a dangerous free sample mixed with fentanyl. While waiting for Nathan to wake up in the hospital, Virgil talks to his ex-girlfriend Marie Short Bear, Ben’s daughter who also dated Rick Crow briefly. Marie believes the only way to stop drugs and gangs on the reservation is to teach children the values and traditions of the Lakota way, but offers to help Virgil track Rick down in Denver to deal with the immediate problem. Since breaking up with Marie, Virgil has given up drinking, and the two tentatively begin a new relationship. Virgil is even willing to try Marie’s new food enthusiasm inspired by casino guest chef Lack Strombow, leader of the new indigi-cultural food movement to fight diabetes by eliminating flour, dairy, and sugar with the motto “Put down your frybread.” The trip to Denver exposes Virgil and Marie to a scary drug cartel, which intensifies their determination to protect their people from heroin. This powerful debut thriller, a finalist for the 2020 Lefty and Edgar Awards for Best Debut Mystery, leaves open the possibility of a sequel featuring the complex Virgil Wounded Horse.

The TruantsKate Weinberg
The Truants (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2020, UK 2019) begins when 19-year-old Jess Walker arrives at college in East Anglia to study under Dr. Lorna Clay, author of The Truants, a book of essays with the premise that a hedonistic life is necessary for artistic brilliance. Jess is crushed to discover that she has been waitlisted for the course she set her heart on, and then thrilled to find she has been moved into Lorna’s other course on Agatha Christie along with her friend Georgie, a lush aristocrat who always has pills and alcohol to share. At the first seminar Jess is mesmerized by Lorna. Searching desperately for something clever to attract her notice, Jess brings up the time Agatha went missing after learning her husband was having an affair, leaving behind her crashed Morris Cowley, headlights still burning, fur coat in the back seat. When she reappeared eleven days later, Agatha claimed to have no memory of the missing days, and that time remained a mystery. Jess remembers running away as a child, speculating that Agatha just wanted her husband’s attention. All the boys are attracted to Georgie, but she falls for visiting-fellow Alec, a South African journalist on campus while writing a book. Though she knows Alec is off limits as Georgie’s boyfriend, Jess is attracted to him as well, despite her own growing friendship with Nick, a second-year geology student. The four spend all their free time together until Alex decides it might be time to return to Johannesburg to pick up his coverage the story of a massacre of miners. As the semester continues, all the students compete for the honor of becoming Lorna’s favorite student, which is Georgie at first, but then Lorna starts to favor Jess, both inside and outside of class. Several people warn Jess not to trust Lorna, but she is increasingly dependent on her attention, especially when betrayals and jealousies shatter the relationships between the four students. A death that seems accidental sparks Jess’s suspicions, and she examines the circumstances through the lens of her studies of Agatha Christie. This character-driven debut thriller examines the power of infatuation and the despair of betrayal.

February 1, 2021

What You Don’t SeeTracy Clark
What You Don’t See (Kensington 2020) begins when Chicago private investigator Cass Raines is asked by her former police partner Ben Mickerson to join him in a bodyguard job for Vonda Allen, the wealthy owner of a glossy magazine aimed at upwardly mobile Blacks, who has received several death threats along with flowers. Worried about damage to her brand, Allen is adamant that the police can’t be involved, but her assistant Kaye Chandler insisted she be protected. Cass is dubious about working for the controlling prima donna, but the single letter Chandler copied before shredding convinces her that Allen may be in danger. Allen says she has no idea who could have written the letters, and instructs them to provide her with unobtrusive protection, not investigate, but neither Cass nor Ben are capable of sitting quietly outside her door in the John Hancock building. The first day they witness Allen belittle both Chandler and young office assistant Kendrick, and overhear an argument between Allen and writer Philip Hewitt, who calls Allen a psychopathic bitch. Hewitt says the new show she is about to launch was completely his idea, which she refuses to acknowledge. Receptionist Linda Sewell explains that she reported Vonda Allen for unfair business practices, was fired, and then rehired after a pricy law firm took on her case. She came back only for the health insurance needed for her special needs son, but admits no one hates Allen more than she does. Early the next morning they do bodyguard duty while Allen visits the gym, arriving at her office to find the police waiting to ask questions about Philip Hewitt, who has been killed by a single shot through the head. Allen tells the detective she knows nothing that can help them, and Ben and Cass are bound by their NDA to say nothing about the death threats to Allen. At a book signing that evening Cass encounters the public Allen persona for the first time: polished, sparkling, and charming, the antithesis of the cruel bully behind the scenes. Ben is critically wounded by a fan carrying flowers, who escapes while Cass is trying to save Ben’s life. Sure that the solution lies in Allen’s past, Cass summons all her resources to find the truth. This compelling third in the excellent series featuring the engaging private detective is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Mystery.

LakewoodMegan Giddings
Lakewood (Amistad 2020) is the story of Lena Johnson, a Black college student whose grandmother is dying of cancer. Lena’s mother has been ill her whole life with a mysterious ailment that defies diagnosis, so her grandmother took over much of Lena’s upbringing. After her grandmother’s funeral, Lena discovers a mound of unpaid bills and begins interviewing for jobs to pay for her mother’s home health care. An unsolicited letter arrives in the mail with an invitation from the Lakewood Project to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. Lena applies and is offered a five-day pre-screening by a representative of the Great Lakes Shipping Company. She is searched, obligated to surrender her phone, required to sign a nondisclosure agreement with a $50,000 violation penalty, asked a series of strange questions about morality and race, presented with a group of random phrases to memorize, and given a series of injections and pills that make her sick. But the check for $3,000 on the final day is more that she could make working all summer. Offered a contract for employment, Lena hesitates when reading the new nondisclosure agreement threatening potential jail time and up to a million dollars in damages and the insurance policy listing payout amounts for sustained brain damage and neurocognitive issues, but the generous salary and complete health insurance for her mother and herself make the offer irresistible. There is a security gate outside the Great Lakes Shipping Company building in rural Michigan, where the Lakewood Project is housed, and Lena is provided with a cover story as a company employee along with the other five research subjects. Each day Lena is given a sheet with talking points for communicating with her mother and friends (your headset pinches, you are receiving training in Microsoft Excel). Each day the research subjects, all but one non-white, are given a new set of random phrases to memorize and undergo a new series of questions and pills or shots while being constantly watched by a group of observers, who are all white. The subjects have no idea what the experiments are about. Some are startling, like eyedrops that change Lena’s eye color to blue, and many are painful. This debut thriller explores the physical and emotional toll on research subjects and the lengths people will go to provide necessities like health insurance for those they love.

The Butchers BlessingRuth Gilligan
The Butchers’ Blessing (Tin House Books 2020) begins in 2018 when photographer Ronan Monks is preparing for a retrospective show and decides it is finally time to display The Butcher: a photograph he took 22 years earlier in rural Ireland of the body of a man hanging from a meat hook through his feet. Back in January 1996, 12-year-old Úna and her beautiful emerald-eyed mother Grá are preparing a farewell feast for her father Cúch, who travels around Ireland for 11 months of the year with seven other men: the Butchers. According to ancient Irish custom, the eight Butchers must be present at every traditional cattle slaughter, preventing a fatal curse by laying hands on the beast as it passes from this life to the next. The Butchers live in pairs around the countryside so that their wives can support each other during the eleven months alone, but Grá tells her husband she is not sure she can bear the loneliness another year. Rumors of mad cow disease are circulating, adding to Grá’s feelings of uncertainty. This year Úna’s parents decided to stop homeschooling and sent her to secondary school, and Úna was unprepared for the bullying. Raised to believe the Butchers played an integral role in Irish history, she is hurt and angry to be mocked as the Butcher’s daughter. She secretly begins trapping mice, determined to learn the skills of the Butchers in order to join her father’s band when the oldest man retires. During the summer young photographer Ronan Monks sees Grá bathing in the lake, and enlists her help finding spots to capture for his project on the borderlands. Grá’s older sister Lena ran away to marry a non-believer when Grá was 16, and the two sisters haven’t seen each other since. On a dairy farm in the next county Lena is recuperating from chemotherapy to halt the progress of her brain tumor while her husband Fionn McCready begins cattle smuggling on the borderlands to raise money for more treatment. She reminisces about the importance of the Butchers in her early life, and Fionn arranges for the Butchers to visit and slaughter a cow, changing their lives and the life of their son, Davey, a misfit hoping to do well on his exams and escape to university in Dublin. Narrated from the perspectives of Grá, Úna, Fionn, and Davey, this atmospheric debut thriller explores the importance of tradition, the weight of family expectations, and how far people are willing to go to achieve their personal desires.

Moonflower MurdersAnthony Horowitz
Moonflower Murders (Harper 2020) finds former London book editor Susan Ryeland running the Polydorus, a small hotel on Crete, with her partner Andreas Patikis. Lawrence and Pauline Treherne arrive explaining their lawyer suggested Susan might be able to help them. Eight years ago Frank Parris was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his room at Branlow Hall, their hotel in Suffolk, on the eve of their daughter Cecily’s wedding to Aiden MacNeil. Stefan Codrescu, a young Romanian maintenance man working for the hotel, was charged and convicted with circumstantial evidence. Lawrence and Pauline are semi-retired, passing the work of running the hotel on to Cecily, Aiden, and their older daughter Lisa. Two days ago Cecily called Lawrence in their home in the South of France, insisting that Stefan was innocent, the proof in a book she had just mailed: Atticus Pünd Takes the Case by Alan Conway, who stayed at the hotel six weeks after the murder. Susan, who edited Conway’s series before his death, vaguely remembers that the murder mystery was set in a hotel, but in 1953 Devon rather than current day Suffolk. Lawrence and Pauline have read the book, but though nearly all the characters are based on people Conway met at Branlow Hall (Moonflower Hotel in his book) they can’t spot any proof of Stefan’s innocence. Cecily disappeared from the hotel grounds shortly after the phone call. They offer Susan ten thousand pounds to come stay at Branlow Hall, re-read the book, and hopefully find the clue and their missing daughter. The Polydorus needs new wiring and plumbing, so Susan agrees and is given a roomy suite in the Moonflower wing of Branlow Hall. She observes the interactions at the hotel and asks questions of everyone, putting off reading the book by her distasteful former client as long as possible. Inserted in the center of Susan’s investigation is the entire novel in question: Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, featuring half Greek, half-German private detective Atticus Pünd and the murder of Hollywood actress Melissa James, who has bought a Regency house and the Moonflower Hotel. After re-reading the novel, Susan still doesn’t have a clue what Cecily saw in the book, considering herself completely unqualified to solve the mystery that Atticus Pünd would have found a simple task. But Susan is determined to figure out what the devious Conway hid in the book, and continues to ask uncomfortable questions. This clever homage to classic British crime fiction is the second featuring the tenacious editor who can’t stop until all dangling ends are resolved.

The Last Story of Mina LeeNancy Jooyoun Kim
The Last Story of Mina Lee (Park Row 2020) begins in 2014 when 26-year-old Margot Lee arrives at her mother’s apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, to find her mother Mina dead. Raised by her single mother in the tiny apartment, Margot never knew anything about her father or her mother’s life before she came to America illegally. By the time Margot was in high school the two often argued. Margot was ashamed of her mother, who never completely mastered English and worked seven-day weeks in her small clothing store until it was destroyed in the riots, then renting a swap meet space. Margot considered herself completely American, never became fluent in Korean, and resented spending after-school hours and weekends working in her mother’s shop. Margot hoped to be an artist, but ended up in an administrative role in Seattle, missing the constant Los Angeles sun and growing further apart from her mother. Mina’s landlord tells Margot he occasionally saw a boyfriend earlier in the year, and overheard arguing the last night he saw Mina, but retracts his statement when the police question him, worried about too much attention to the run-down apartment building. Interspersed sections from Mina’s perspective in 1987 tell the story of her first year in America, barely surviving by stocking shelves in a Korean grocery store. The illegal Mexican immigrants she works with are kind to her, as is Mr. Kim, who manages the front of the store for owner Mr. Park, whose close scrutiny makes Mina uncomfortable. Mina bonds with another Korean woman in the boarding house she lives in that first year, sharing the Korean food they cook in the shared kitchen and stories of their pasts. Mina was a Korean war orphan whose husband and young daughter were killed in an automobile accident in Seoul. While cleaning her mother’s apartment, Margot discovers a photo of her mother’s first family she knew nothing about, and tries to locate Mr. Kim, who she suspects might be her father, the mysterious boyfriend the landlord mentioned, and perhaps her mother’s killer. This evocative debut novel explores personal identity, the things that bind families together and tear them apart, and the overwhelming need to belong.

Murder at the Mena HouseErica Ruth Neubauer
Murder at the Mena House (Kensington 2020) introduces Jane Wunderly, an American widow in her early 30s, staying with her wealthy Aunt Millie in 1926 at the Mena House in Cairo. At the hotel bar Jane meets some British hotel guests: Colonel Justice Stainton traveling with his beautiful flirtatious daughter Anna, handsome Mr. Redvers who looks far too dangerous to be a banker, and young golf fanatic Lillian Hughes traveling with her friend Marie Collins who serves as caddy. While Jane is talking with Redvers, Anna Stainton deliberately spills a drink on Jane’s blouse, forcing her to return to her room to change. The following night Anna appears in a scandalous gauze dress before vanishing into the garden with a young man in a pinstripe suit. In the morning Jane meets the Colonel and a hotel staff member hurrying up the corridor. The Colonel explains that Anna didn’t come down to breakfast and he hasn’t been able to locate her. Worried that she may be in a compromising position, he asks Jane to use the staff key to enter her bedroom and check to see if she is there. The room is quite dark until Jane opens the bedroom curtains to discover Anna’s dead body splayed across the bed, still wearing the scarlet gown from the night before, the silver beading matted with blood. While searching Anna’s room the police discover Jane’s scarab brooch, which went missing the first night. After hearing about the spilled drink, the unpleasant Inspector Hamadi suspects that Jane killed Anna in a fit of jealous rage. While not golfing with Lillian or drinking far too much, Aunt Millie tries matchmaking and encourages Jane to spend time with Redvers. Amon Khanum Samara also pays Jane attention, but she doesn’t trust the smarmy womanizer. American newlyweds Deanna and Charlie Parks are much more agreeable companions, though Jane wonders how the vaudeville performers can afford to stay in the exclusive Mena House. With the help of Redvers, Jane sets out to discover the truth about Anna’s murder. This enjoyable romantic traditional mystery starring the intrepid young widow with a troubled past is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery.

Zero ZoneScott O’Connor
Zero Zone (Counterpoint 2020) is set in the late 1970s. Jess Shephard is a Los Angeles artist who creates immersive exhibits of color and space. As a child she almost drowned in the ocean, and has been searching ever since for euphoria she felt in that transformative space of bubbles of light and swirling sand that created a vast underwater room. Her unique projects attract critical notice and many people return over and over to relive the intense sensory experience. In 1977 a photographer friend travels to Northern New Mexico, returning with pictures of an old army base where the atomic bomb was tested, next to land owned by a rancher and a hiking trail through the desolate land. Fascinated by the stark landscape, Jess visits the rancher who shows her a wispy shimmering of light caused by lingering radiation in the air. He gives Jess permission to build a small concrete room with rectangular openings to frame the changing light from sunrise through sunset. She calls the structure “Zero Zone.” In the summer of 1977, bullied 16-year-old Isabel Serrano runs away from home with a friend to Las Vegas. They lose all their money gambling, and casino cocktail waitress Martha Reed takes pity on Izzy, giving her a place to stay after her friend leaves with a stranger. Grieving the death of her sister, Martha is ready for a change, and decides they should hike the trail through the New Mexico desert her sister read about in a New Age magazine but wasn’t able to complete before dying of cancer. Charismatic Tanner Helm, covered with growths all over his body, meets rootless Danny Aquado in county jail. After they are released, Tanner convinces Danny to join him on the desert hike he read about in Modern Pilgrimages, hoping for a life-changing experience. The four are surprised to find the Zero Zone structure, but when Izzy sees a vision of light, Tanner is convinced she has found a passage into another world and barricades the door. Interspersed sections from Light + Space, an unreleased documentary film made after Zero Zone was shut down, reveal Jess’s breakdown after the extreme reaction to her art, which resulted in a death. Two years later those who survived Zero Zone are released, and Jess is forced to confront her her fear that the violence may continue and her nagging guilt that she was somehow responsible for the events that occurred in a place of her making. This haunting thriller explores the desperate loneliness of those living in the margins of society and the power of art to transform reality.

InterferenceBrad Parks
Interference (Thomas & Mercer 2020) begins when Brigid Bronik gets a call that her husband Matt has just been has been rushed to the hospital after a seizure in his lab at Dartmouth College Department of Physics and Astronomy. When Brigid arrives at the hospital, Matt is given fluids and norepinephrine but is still thrashing, and the doctors have no idea what caused his seizure. Brigid began losing her hearing a decade earlier and struggles to understand the doctors even with the help of her hearing aids and lip reading. They have ruled out a heart attack or stroke, but can’t do an MRI to check for a brain tumor until Matt can be safely sedated. Luckily her sister Aimee steps in to care for their nine-year-old son Morgan so Brigid can sit by Matt’s bedside as he gradually comes out of his coma. All the tests come back negative: no tumor or brain damage, no botulism or any other common poisoning, no cause of any kind for his collapse except perhaps stress. Everyone hopes it was a one-time event and Matt returns to work, cautioned to take it easy. Two weeks later Matt tells Brigid he has received an amazing job offer from Sean Plottner, a multi-billionaire Dartmouth alumni who believes Matt is close to a world-changing breakthrough in his field of quantum mechanics: a million dollars a year to work for Plottner Investments. The salary is unbelievable, but Matt worries the job will increase his stress, and is uncomfortable moving away from the open exchange of ideas in academia to total control of his work by a business. The next day Matt has another seizure, this time coming back to consciousness after 12 hours. Again the tests turn up nothing, and the doctor asks about two similarities of time and place: the same time of day in Matt’s lab. Matt explains that his work is top secret since some of his funding comes from the Department of Defense, but explains he has been working with viruses, specifically trying to alter the common tobacco mosaic virus at the quantum level with a microscopic laser, a guaranteed Nobel prize for anyone who succeeds. Matt chose the tobacco mosaic virus because it doesn’t infect humans, but admits no one knows how a virus mutated at the quantum level will change. A few weeks later Matt is kidnapped from the lab. Brigid and her sister, a forensic accountant, work with the police while Plottner mounts his own search, offering to pay the ransom if Brigid signs a work contract on Matt’s behalf. Brigid doesn’t trust Plottner, but there are plenty of other suspects: rival researchers at Dartmouth, the Chinese government, and the Department of Defense. This science-infused character-driven thriller is riveting.

Mrs. Mohr Goes MissingMaryla Szymiczkowa
Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (Mariner Books 2020, Polish 2015) is set in 1893 Cracow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the bored wife of Ignacy, a medical professor. Having done all she can to advance her husband’s career, Zofia has entered the cut-throat arena of charitable fund-raising, competing against other society women to acquire titled patronage. When her cook Franciszka asks for the morning off to visit her grandmother at Helcel House, a retirement house run by nuns, Zofia escorts her in hopes of obtaining prizes for a raffle to benefit scrofulous children from the needlework and other crafts produced by the charity cases living in the lower floor dormitories. They find Helcel House in an uproar, the nuns and staff dashing about madly in search of a missing resident: Mrs. Mohr, the wealthy widow of a high court judge living on the top floor. Three days later Zofia returns to finalize her raffle plan and discovers no sign has been found of the missing Mrs. Mohr, a puzzle since she could barely walk. Impatient with the inefficient search, Zofia sets herself up in an empty room with the help of Sister Alojza and begins to interview the staff and top floor residents. She meets Countess Matylda Zeleńska de Zielonka, the most distinguished resident, and convinces her to sponsor the raffle to benefit scrofulous children while asking about her missing neighbor. Discovering the watchman didn’t search the trunks in the attic, Zofia discovers Mrs. Mohr’s body, still rosy-cheeked. The doctor decides she fainted and then died of exposure, and no one is willing to grapple with the fact that the invalid could not have ascended the attic steps by herself. Determined to figure out the true cause of death, Zofia arranges a dinner party with Ignacy’s toxicologist colleague, and establishes only cyanide would result in flushed cheeks. “In which Zofia Turbotyńska shows no interest in the digestive tract of the salamander, lurks in a gateway, and brings up topics at table that a woman of propriet should not discuss while eating catfish.” The watchman is arrested for the murder. Zofia is sure he is innocent, but the police don’t pay any attention to a woman whose only experience with crime is catching a housemaid who surreptitiously helped herself to the sugar bowl. The witty chapter summaries add to the fun in this clever and funny debut mystery written by Polish partners Jacek Dehnel, novelist and poet, and Pietr Tarczyński, historian and translator.

Skin DeepSung J. Woo
Skin Deep (Agora Books 2020) introduces Siobhan O’Brien, a Korean-American adoptee, whose boss has just died, leaving her his New York City private investigation agency. As she is debating selling the agency, Josie Sykes, the younger sister of an old friend, calls asking for help finding her adopted daughter Penelope Hae Jun Sykes, who has vanished. Josie reported Penny’s disappearance to the police, but since she is 18 and there was no sign of kidnap or struggle the police didn’t do much more than take a report. Though Josie and Penny had been very close, talking every day when she started college, Penny asked her mother to give her some space a month earlier. After phone calls, texts, and emails weren’t returned, Josie visited Llewellyn College, tracking Penny down at a safe house for students needing emotional support. A green-haired student supported Penny while she read from a card telling her mother she felt manipulated and needed time alone. Two weeks later the dean called to report Penny had taken a leave of absence. Siobhan has spent most of her life explaining her name to strangers and understands that Penny may be working out her own issues, but agrees to visit the small college in upstate New York and ask some questions. She finds Llewellyn in the midst of a crisis: male students have been admitted for the first time in the college’s 200 year history, and The Womyn of Llewellyn, a small but very vocal group, are angry and feel betrayed by the “manvasion.” President Vera Wheeler, a former fashion model, insists the change was necessary to address financial shortfalls. Siobhan attends a meeting of The Womyn of Llewellyn and locates the green-haired student, Sister Faith, who agrees to help with the search for Penny, who may be at the Krishna Center for Yoga and Wellness, if Siobhan investigates the mysterious new Travers Hall, being constructed behind a guarded security fence. This series opener featuring the endearing novice PI is a finalist for the 2021 Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery.

January 1, 2021

The Opium PrinceJasmine Aimaq
The Opium Prince (Soho Crime 2020) begins when Afghan-born American diplomat Daniel Abdullah Sajadi and his American wife Rebecca are driving near Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 1970s. A young Kochi girl named Telaya runs in front of their car and dies in Daniel’s arms. They take the body of the child to the small gathering of goatskin tents near the road. The villagers call upon Taj Maleki, a well-dressed man carrying a revolver, who takes them to the police. Since Telaya is part of a nomad tribe not recognized by the law, Daniel is given a minimal fine, but placed in the debt of the powerful opium khan. Daniel, the son of an Afghan war hero and an American mother, has been posted to Kabul to head the American opium poppy eradication efforts. Taj’s fields are slated to be sprayed with Agent Ruby, a new herbicide promoted as not as harmful as Agent Orange, and replanted with corn and wheat. Taj attempts to blackmail Daniel into switching the destruction to a neighboring poppy field. Interspersed chapters reveal Taj’s backstory from his early childhood with a single mother, life on the streets after she dies, and work in the poppy fields along with the nomadic tribe and the poorest of the poor. Daniel is haunted by visions of Telaya and Rebecca sinks back into the depression following a miscarriage the year before. Daniel’s childhood friend Laila, a pro-communist doctor, helps care for Rebecca. Meanwhile, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is growing in power and preparing for the coup d’état that will become known as the Saur Revolution. This intense debut thriller explores the complex relationship between politics and criminals through the eyes of two tormented men trying to make sense of their place in the world.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple LineDeepa Anappara
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Random House 2020) is narrated by nine-year-old Jai, who lives with his parents and older sister in the Mumbai slum area known as the Bhoot Bazaar, at the very end of the Purple metro line next to the rubbish dump. Jai is a fan of reality police shows, so when his classmate Bahadur goes missing and the police don’t seem to be taking his disappearance seriously despite the gift of Bahadur’s mother’s only gold chain, he decides to start his own investigation. Fearing the police will demolish their settlement of tin-roofed shacks as troublemakers if Bahadur’s mother keeps visiting the police station, Jai enlists his friend Pari, who gets the best grades in their class, and his Muslim friend Faiz to help him create lists of people to interview and places to visit. Modeling himself on Byomkesh Bakshi and Sherlock Holmes, Jai imagines himself the leader though Pari’s wide reading gives her a perspective he lacks and Faiz’s job at the bazaar is perfect for gathering useful gossip. When the second boy goes missing, they decide to widen their search. Faiz believes the stories about soul-snatching djinns, and refuses to accompany Jai and Pari to the city on the Purple Line to investigate the possibility that Bahadur really did run away from home. At the Mumbai station they are offered candy by a woman, but rescued by the leader of a gang of street children who explains the sweets will put them to sleep so her boss can kidnap them. The street children don’t recognize the picture of Bahadur but tell them about the spirit of a man who protects them, advising them to look for a similar spirit in their own neighborhood who might help protect them from whoever is snatching children fron the Bhoot Bazaar. Interspersed chapters from the perspectives of the disappearing children juxtapose the cheerful optimism of Jai and his friends, which wavers as the disappearances continue and the Hindu majority begins to suspect that the someone from the Muslim minority may be the culprit. This moving fiction debut by an Indian journalist, based on real disappearances of poor children from metropolitan India, gives a voice to the victims rather than the perpetrators.

Nine ElmsRobert Bryndza
Nine Elms (Thomas & Mercer 2019) introduces Kate Marshall, a detective constable in London. In 1993, Kate was assigned to Operation Hemlock, working the third murder by the “Nine Elms Cannibal,” a name coined by the press because the killer chewed off pieces of his victims. No progress was made on the the third murder either, and after eight months Kate was reassigned to the drug squad. A call from Detective Chief Inspector Peter Conway, Kate’s secret lover and former boss, takes her to the scene of the fourth murder. When Conway drops her back home after an exhausting night, she finds his thermos and keys inside her bag. The keys are tied with a distinctive knot called the monkey’s fist, the same knot found securing the rope around each of the Nine Elms Cannibal’s victims. When Conway returns for his keys, she barely escapes becoming his next victim, instead knocking him out with a lamp. Fifteen years later Kate is an alcoholic university lecturer in criminology on the coast of Devon, when she gets an email from the parents of Caitlyn Murray, a 16-year-old girl who went missing in 1990. They recently met with Megan, one of Caitlyn’s schoolmates who emigrated to Australia a few weeks before Caitlyn went missing, and now believe Caitlyn was Conway’s first victim. Megan didn’t know anything about Caitlyn’s disappearance until she returned to England, and immediately told the Murrays that Caitlyn had been secretly dating a policeman. Conway was stationed in Manchester at the time, and Megan thinks the man she saw Caitlyn with might have been Conway. Kate is just about to write back saying she can’t help when the local pathologist calls her to the morgue to ask her opinion about the body of a young woman found strangled with bite marks. Kate recognizes the distinctive monkey’s fist knot, and panics. Has Conway somehow escaped from prison or is there a copycat killer on the loose? With the help of her research assistant Tristan Harper, Kate sets out to catch the killer and perhaps regain her self-worth in this frightening series opener.

The Constant RabbitJasper Fforde
The Constant Rabbit (Viking 2020) is set in alternative 2022 England, 55 years after the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event that transformed a few rabbits, foxes, and weasels. There are now 1.2 million human-sized Rabbits, and fear is spreading that the Rabbits will soon out-populate humans even though there is no evidence the Rabbits are exceeding the litter per Rabbit guidelines. As the Rabbit population increased, public opinion shifted from finding the Beatrix Potter clad Rabbits amusing to threatening. Laws were passed denying Rabbits human status, though Foxes were granted British citizenship since the Home Secretary liked “the cut of their jib.” Peter Knox lives with his adult daughter Pippa in the small village of Much Hemlock, and works for the Western Region Rabbit Compliance Taskforce. Though officially working in Accounting, Peter is a Spotter, one of the few humans able to distinguish between individual Rabbits. The only person Peter ever told about his real job was his wife, who left him soon after. Much Hemlock is a conservative village, with the dubious distinction of having convicted and burned more witches than any other English town in history. Currently in competition for the coveted Spick & Span Award for the best-kept village, Peter’s neighbors are horrified when the house next door is rented by a Rabbit family: Major Clifford and Constance Rabbit and their two grown children. At college Peter became friends with a Rabbit named Connie before it became illegal for Rabbits to attend, and he is startled and pleased to discover his new neighbor is his old friend. Unfortunately Peter was partially responsible for the death of her previous husband, pressured by his colleagues to rubber stamp a false identification when the wrong Rabbit was arrested. Peter’s boss, the extremely scary Senior Group Leader Ffoxe, forces Peter to spy upon his new neighbors, convinced Constance is a leader in the Rabbit Underground opposing the new plan of Rehoming all Rabbits to a fenced colony in Wales. Though Peter and Pippa begin their acquaintance with the Rabbits as “harmlessly indifferent,” the rapidly increasing prejudice against Rabbits — their frontal incisors are classed as a deadly weapon, making it a crime to be a Rabbit in possession of teeth — force them to examine their own preconceptions and choose a side. This satirical thriller is clever, funny, and a very disturbing commentary on human distrust and fear of those who are different.

Dear ChildRomy Hausmann
Dear Child (Flatiron Books 2020, Germany 2019) begins when 13-year-old Hannah travels with her mother in the ambulance after Mama was struck by a car. At the hospital Hannah answers most questions with word-for-word quotations from the “thick book that knows all the answers.” She says her mother’s name is Lena but doesn’t know her last name, says her Papa has no telephone, and when asked her address whispers “Nobody must find us.” Hannah defines “hit and run” but says the man driving the car was nice, gave Hannah his coat, and arranged for the ambulance. She explains that it wasn’t his fault, that “My Mama sometimes does silly things by accident. She wanted to kill Papa by accident.” Fourteen years ago a 23-year-old student named Lena Beck disappeared in Munich. Lena’s father Matthias Beck comes to the hospital hoping the woman is his missing daughter, but though she is also blond and has the same distinctive scar, the woman in a coma is not Lena. When she wakes up, the woman gives her name as Jasmin Grass, missing for four months. The police locate the remote windowless cabin in the woods near the German-Czech border, finding Hannah’s 11-year-old brother Jonathan, the chains that constrained Jasmin, and the body of a man. Neither Hannah nor Jonathan have ever been out of the cabin, though Hannah whispers stories of traveling with Mama to Paris and other exotic locales, and find the stimulation of normal life overwhelming. Released from the hospital, Jasmin cowers in her small apartment, too frightened leave. Chapters from the perspectives of Hannah, Jasmin, and Matthias gradually fill in the truth about what happened in the isolated cabin in the woods in this chilling debut thriller.

This Is My AmericaKim Johnson
This is My America (Random House 2020) is the story of 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont and her family. Seven years earlier Tracy’s father James was convicted of the murders of Mark and Cathy Davidson, a white couple working with Black business partners James Beaumont and Jackson Ridges to build a new housing development in Houston. When the police came to arrest Jackson, he resisted and was killed, his son Quincy hit by a stray bullet. Mrs. and Mrs. Evans hired Tracy’s mother as bookkeeper and online sales manager for their antique store after the conviction, and Tracy became friends with their son Dean, though his mother makes it clear with every look that she disapproves of her son’s friendship with a Black girl. Faithfully every week for seven years, Tracy writes a letter to Innocence X, a legal firm representing wrongfully convicted people on death row, begging them to take on the case of her father, now only 275 days away from execution. Tracy has collected boxes of evidence about the case, including statements from witnesses who swear her father was somewhere else at the time of the murders. Tracy’s older brother Jamal is a senior, a star on the track team. Her younger sister Corinne wasn’t born when their father was convicted, and knows him only from their weekly prison visits. Tracy organizes monthly "Know Your Rights" workshops and writes a weekly column for her school newsletter highlighting racial injustice, sure she will become editor next year and hopefully qualify for an early college internship. Current editor Angela Herron, a popular blonde, tells Tracy she has an exposé idea for her next column and arranges a meeting for early the next morning. That night Angela is murdered and Jamal’s letterman jacket is found next to her body. Jamal runs before the police arrive to arrest him, sure that he will be framed for the murder just as his father was. The backlash is immediate: Tracy is removed from the school paper and once again an outcast at school, losing all her white friends except Dean. Reluctantly shifting her focus from her father to Jamal, Tracy begins her own investigation, searching for the exposé Angela was working on that may be a motive for her murder. This debut young adult thriller is a powerful exploration of systemic racism and police brutality.

ThreeD.A. Mishani
Three (Europa Editions 2020, Israel 2018) begins when Orna, a middle-aged Tel Aviv woman with a young son, decides it’s time to move past her divorce and begin dating again. Through an online dating site for divorced singles she meets Gil, divorced with two teenage daughters. Gil seems nice enough, but Orna isn’t swept away. But she is grateful for the distraction from her grief about her ex-husband leaving her for another woman. They continue seeing each other every few weeks throughout the spring and then begin talking on the phone every few days. She finally tells her friend Sophie about her sort-of relationship with Gil, admitting they haven’t yet had sex or even kissed. Sophie searches for Gil online, but can’t find anything, not even a Facebook account. Orna and Gil begin meeting once a week or so for sex at a small hotel. Orna doesn’t want Gil to meet her son Eran yet, and she is nervous about meeting in his flat since his daughters often drop by unannounced. Eventually she asks her mother to babysit so they can go away for a weekend in Jerusalem, which is a bit awkward. Three days later she and Eran meet Gil outside a movie, accompanied by his daughters and a woman who introduces herself as his wife. Orna realizes Gil has been lying to her, but doesn’t care enough to end the affair, which provides some escape from loneliness. This tense psychological suspense novel explores the vulnerability of those whose lovelife has collapsed, leaving them forlorn, desolate, and ripe for exploitation.

A Royal AffairAllison Montclair
A Royal Affair (Minotaur Books 2020) begins in 1946 London, when Miss Iris Sparks and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, proprietors of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, are visited by Gwen’s cousin Lady Matheson, who works for the Queen. A blackmail note has arrived at the palace, hinting at a scandal in the family of Greek Prince Phillip, suitor to Princess Elizabeth. Since they are in the business of arranging marriages and vetting potential mates, Iris and Gwen are experienced at working quietly behind the scenes and take the job, though they don’t believe Lady Matheson is telling them the whole truth. It seems that Phillip’s mother Princess Alice left something behind in Corfu in 1922, when the family fled the Greek Revolution aboard the HMS Calypso with the help of King George and Sir Gerald Francis Talbot, a naval attaché working with British Intelligence. Iris and Gwen discover that Talbot returned to the Corfu villa several years later when it was leased to Princess Alice’s brother Dickie Mountbatten, presumably retrieving whatever Princess Alice left behind, but can’t figure out who has the mysterious item now. In this top-secret investigation Gwen’s connections to the titled and wealthy are just as important as Iris’s past service with the War Department and current relationship with Archie Spelling, a London gangster. Witty banter balances the ever-present reality of people trying to put the horror and sorrow of war behind them in the engaging second in the series.

Long Bright RiverLiz Moore
Long Bright River (Riverhead Books 2020) is set in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, the center of the city’s deaths by drug overdose. Mickey Fitzpatrick grew up in the neighborhood and is now a beat cop, all too familiar with the users and dealers and addicts selling their bodies on the street. Her sister Kacey is one of them. Raised by their grandmother Gee after their mother died of an overdose when Kacey was a baby, the two girls were very close throughout their childhood until Kacey fell in with a bad crowd and was thrown out of the house at the age of 16. Mickey thrived in the free afterschool program run by the Police Athletic League, learning to play chess and befriended by Officer Simon Cleare, who encouraged her to join the force when Gee refused to sign the applications for college scholarships, sure that the colleges would only humiliate a poor child. Truman Dawes, Mickey’s mentor and partner for 10 years is out on medical leave, and her new partner Eddie Lafferty drives her crazy with his constant monologue and evident disdain for the Kensington residents. Called to the discovery of a body of a young woman, Mickey panics, fearing it might be Kacey, but the skinny young woman is not her sister. Lafferty assumes an overdose, but Mickey spots the small pink dots that signify strangulation. Though they haven’t spoken in years, Mickey begins searching for her sister on the streets, back alleys, and flop houses, learning that no one has seen Kacey for weeks. As more women are killed, Mickey convinces Truman to help her search for Kacey, endangering first her job by changing out of her uniform during work shifts, and then the safely of her young son when she attracts the interest of the killer. This powerful thriller exposes the dark reality of living with addiction, the ease of preying on addicts by those in power, and the flip sides of love and hate that bind families together and push them apart.

Home Before DarkRiley Sager
Home Before Dark (Dutton 2020) begins when Maggie Holt discovers she has inherited Baneberry Hall, a Victorian mansion in the woods of Vermont, from her father, along with the warning “It’s not safe there. Not for you.” Twenty-five years earlier, when Maggie was five, her parents Ewan and Jess bought the deteriorating mansion the town believed was haunted at a cut-rate price since the previous owner smothered his daughter before killing himself. The Holts lived there only 20 days before fleeing in the middle of the night, taking only the clothes on their back and never returning. Ewan wrote a memoir called House of Horrors describing the family’s frightening ordeal, which became a best-seller. Now 30, Maggie restores old houses and doesn’t believe a word of her father’s book, especially the parts describing her own experiences with three ghosts only she could see: a girl with no name, Miss Pennyface — a woman with pennies covering her eyes, and Mister Shadow — a terrifying man who warned Maggie they would all die in Baneberry Hall. Three years later Maggie’s parents divorced, and neither would ever discuss the experience or House of Horrors, referred to only as the “Book.” Accepting the keys to Baneberry Hall, Maggie travels to Vermont, planning to restore and sell the mansion built by William Garson, who sold it after his 16-year-old daughter Indigo’s suicide 1889. As Maggie explores the house she barely remembers, interspersed chapters from House of Horrors describe those fateful 20 days from her early childhood. Though she has spent the last 25 years not talking about the Book, Maggie finds herself questioning the residents of the village and reluctantly talking to the reporter from the Bartleby Gazette who first broke the story, hoping to separate the truth about her past from fiction. She is surprised to discover that some things from the Book actually happened, and horrified to find herself reliving some she was sure were fabricated, like the record player blasting the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” at precisely 4:54 in the morning. This creepy supernatural thriller is riveting.


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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