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Posts Tagged ‘Riley Sager’

It’s no secret that I spent my vacation reading assorted crime novels, chilling out in the summer heat.  Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman (Knopf, digital galley) is both a Cold War spy tale and a contemporary murder mystery. In 1979 West Berlin, young CIA recruit Helen Abell is frustrated by an old boys’ club, relegated to watching over safe houses where field agents secretly meet their sources. Then one day, she inadvertently tapes a coded conversation between two unknown men, and is warned off by her older lover, an experienced agent. Returning to the safe house, she interrupts a vicious agent “Robert” sexually assaulting a young German woman, who later turns up dead. When Helen tries to implicate Robert in the crime, she becomes a target, but two other women in the CIA offer covert help. Fesperman splices this tense tale with one playing out 35 years later on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A farmer and his wife are shot in their bed, and their developmentally disabled son Willard is arrested. His older sister Anna refuses to believe her gentle brother guilty, and hires Henry Mattick, a former Justice Department investigator who just happens to be renting the house next door.  Their search for clues to Anna’s mother’s hidden past alternates with Helen’s spy adventures, the two narratives running on parallel tracks that inevitably converge. Fesperman (The Double Game, Lie in the Dark) knows his spy stuff, and Safe Houses is a clever, intelligent thriller with a couple of neat twists. I also like how the two stories echo one another. Why did Anna’s mother hang on to a tacky Paris snowglobe? It’s also a timely book, in light of the MeToo movement and the current swampy political scene. We all want a safe house.

Rosalie Knecht’s  wry Who is Vera Kelly? (Tin House Books, digital galley) also is told in two alternating narratives of almost equal interest. Growing up in the 1950s with an alcoholic mother, Vera Kelly has a rough time, separated from her best girlfriend and then deemed incorrigible and sent to reform school. Ten years later, she’s a fledgling CIA spy in Buenos Aires, pretending to be a student to blend in with campus radicals with supposed Soviet ties, as well as eavesdropping on government bureaucrats. But then she’s betrayed during a coup and forced into hiding, eventually fleeing the city. Her gritty coming-of-age in  New York is what brings her to the attention of the CIA, but her early years can’t really compete with her double-life exploits in Argentina. Throughout, however, Vera Kelly is a scrappy, resourceful outsider looking for a life in which she belongs.

Venice provides the atmospheric backdrop for the latest adventures of the intrepid Mary Russell and husband Sherlock Holmes in Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad (Bantam/Random House, digital galley). The year is 1925, and Russell is on the trail of a friend’s aristocratic aunt, who recently vanished from the Bedlam lunatic asylum with her nurse. Holmes, meanwhile, is on a secret diplomatic mission to observe the rising Fascist scene for brother Mycroft.  Mingling on the Lido with the likes of society hostess Elsa Maxwell and composer Cole Porter leads to a locked island asylum, a Mussolini-backed conspiracy and a grand costume ball. Russell commandeers a gondola, and Holmes inspires a Porter classic. A good time is had by all, except the villains, of course.

 Gatsby meets Tom Ripley meets the movie Metropolitan in Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (Doubleday, digital galley), a cut-glass crystal tale of obsessive friendship. Louise is a poor aspiring writer when rich socialite Lavinia decides they’ll be new best friends. Before long, Louise is caught up in the endless party of Lavinia’s life, drinking champagne under the stars and deliberately ignoring signs that’s she’s just another plaything of Lavinia’s. Besides, Louise likes Lavinia’s money and all that it buys, from the clothes to the makeovers to the glam friends with names like Athena Maidenhead. Still, all this can only end in tears. The question is whose tears and just what will be recorded for posterity on social media. Louise or Lavinia? Which one is bad, mad and dangerous to know?

Maybe I’ve read too many boarding school/secret society novels, but Elizabeth Klehfoth’s All These Beautiful Strangers (HarperCollins, digital galleys) seems overly familiar. Charlotte “Charlie” Calloway’s mother Grace Fairchild vanished when she was seven, presumed to have run away from her difficult marriage to wealthy Alistair Calloway. Rumors that Alistair might have had something to do with Grace’s disappearance were quickly squashed by his influential family. But when Charlie, now 17, begins the initiation process to become an “A,” the secret society at her New England boarding school, she discovers that the A’s history intersects with her own. Flashbacks in Grace’s voice and then Alistair’s reveal Charlie is on the right track, although her quest to discover the truth is hindered by the senior As’ sway over the school — and some ponderous and improbable plotting on the author’s part.

If you liked Riley Sager’s Final Girls — which I did, mostly — you’ll be pleased with The Last Time I Lied (Dutton, Penguin). I was, mostly. Painter Emma Davis is haunted by her short stint at Camp Nightingale 15 years ago. Her three cabin mates disappeared one night, never to be seen again, and the camp had to close. Now she paints her lost friends’ likenesses in every large canvas, but then hides the girls with brushstrokes of dark forest scenes. When Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, decides to reopen the camp for scholarship students, she hires Emma as a painting counselor — and puts her in Dogwood Cabin with three teenage campers. Eventually, they also disappear, and Emma’s truthfulness and mental health, then and now, is called into question. Flashbacks to her first stay at Nightingale and many games of Two Truths and A Lie show Emma to be a most unreliable narrator. Sager strikes some false notes with his summer camp setting, which is more like the camps I knew back in the day than those circa 2003. One of his supposedly big revelations is no surprise, but a later one is, as was the case with Final Girls. In the end, Sager proves adept with campfire smoke and mirrors.

 

 

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I needed a night light after reading Meg Gardiner’s scary good UNSUB (Dutton, digital galley), which was inspired by the infamous Zodiac Killer. This “unknown subject” was dubbed the Prophet when he first terrorized the Bay Area 20 years ago with a series of grisly killings, mutilating 11 corpses with the sign of Mercury. When he vanished before being caught, he also claimed Detective Mack Hendrix’s sanity and career. But now, when new bodies with the Mercury sign are discovered in an Alameda cornfield, Mack’s daughter Caitlin gets herself reassigned from narcotics to homicide. She may be the rookie on the squad investigating the case, but her resolve and research prove invaluable when the Prophet strikes again. Or is this a copycat? The narrative moves swiftly as the detectives try to discern the cryptic clues left for them, and it’s to Gardiner’s credit that the fast pace continues once a pattern emerges. Caitlin may know the Prophet’s playbook, but that doesn’t stop the killer from toying with her and those closest to her. The countdown to the finale is a nail-biting nightmare. There will be blood. But also a sequel, so keep the lights on.

Young men for whom money has never been a problem discover otherwise in Christopher Bollen’s silky The Destroyers (HarperCollins, digital galley), which brings to mind both Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. A shocking prologue kicks off the action, but then Bollen moves into a more digressive mode. Disinherited by his father, Ian Bledsoe skips out on the funeral, helps himself to some family funds and flees to the Greek island of Patmos, where his childhood pal Charlie Konstantinou, heir to a shipping fortune, is living with his movie star girlfriend and other hangers-on. It takes Ian a few hedonistic days in the hot glare to realize Patmos has its dark side: A monastery whose monks hold silent sway over the tourists and pilgrims; religious hippies on the beach who take in wide-eyed wanderers; the blackened remains of a taverna near the ferry dock, where a springtime bomb killed two Americans. Charlie hires Ian as an assistant for his island-hopping yacht business, then disappears. Many people come looking for Charlie, including his older brother. There’s a fatal accident, and then a murder. The police take more than a polite interest. Ian reflects on his shared past with Charlie and the boyhood game where they concocted perilous scenarios and risky escape plans. He is distracted by his college girlfriend, on vacation in Patmos before law school. He still can’t find Charlie. Look for The Destroyers to be a movie.

Looking for a tricksy plot and an unreliable narrator, something like Gillian Flynn or Megan Miranda might cook up? Then check out Riley Sager’s Final Girls (Dutton, digital galley), a well-constructed thriller whose title comes from the old horror film trope where one girl survives a mass murder. In Sager’s tale, Quincy Carpenter has rejected the tabloid moniker and moved on in the years since her college friends were massacred in a cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. She has a successful baking blog and a live-in lawyer boyfriend, and it helps that she has almost no memory of the murders and appeases her survivors’ guilt by regularly checking in with Coop, the cop who saved her life. But then another Final Girl — Lisa, who survived a sorority house attack — is found dead, believed to be a suicide — and Samantha Boyd, who fought off a mass murderer in a Florida motel, shows up at Quincy’s door. As troubled Sam provokes Quincy to tap into her buried anger and memories, interspersed chapters flash back to the fateful Pine Cottage weekend, generating menace and suspense. Readers may think they know where the story is headed, and maybe they do, but they also may be in for a shock. Quincy sure is.

The first buried secret that propels Fiona Barton’s  new novel of domestic intrigue, The Child (Berkley, digital galley), is an infant’s skeleton found by workers tearing down London houses. Barton quickly connects four women to the old bones and then alternates perspective among them. Kate Roberts is the seasoned reporter who writes the initial story, “Who is the Building Site Baby?” Emma is the book editor who struggles with depression and who used to live on the street where the bones were found. Both she and her narcissistic mother Jude, still looking for Mr. Right after all these years, see the story, as does Angela, whose baby was stolen from the maternity ward years ago. She’s convinced the skeleton is her daughter, Alice, but she’s been wrong before. As Kate diligently tracks clues to the baby’s identity, more secrets surface, leading to the book’s other question: How long can you live with a lie that has shaped your life in untoward ways? Like Barton’s previous novel The Widow, this one offers interesting answers.

Remember when “active shooter” wasn’t part of our everyday vocabulary? I didn’t think I was up for Laurie R. King’s new standalone Lockdown (Bantam, digital galley), no matter how timely, having seen way too much of the real thing on the evening news. But King delivers more than a tick-tock countdown of Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School, which begins with the high hopes principal Linda McDonald has for her diverse student body. The school bubbles with “hormones and suppressed rage, with threats all around it,” and is currently troubled by a murder trial involving student gang members and the mysterious disappearance of a seventh-grade girl. Readers are aware of a more ominous hazard headed toward the school — a heavily armed white van — but not who is driving. As the minutes go by, King switches among many perspectives — various students and teachers, the principal, her husband, the school janitor, a cop on duty at the school, parents preparing to participate in career day — and a number of backstories emerge. Perhaps there are too many, given that several could have made books on their own. Still, by the time the action really begins, readers are invested in a handful of sympathetic characters who may not survive lockdown.

Hallie Ephron goes Southern Gothic in You’ll Never Know, Dear (William Morrow, advance copy), disguising the Lowcountry South Carolina town of Beaufort as Bonsecours, where the Spanish moss-draped live oaks hide dark secrets from the past. The reappearance of a homemade porcelain doll may hold the clue to the 40-year-old kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl. Her mother, dollmaker Miss Sorrell, has always believed Janey would come home, and when Janey’s long-lost doll turns up, she just knows Janey will be next. Her daughter Lis and her next-door neighbor and fellow dollmaker Evelyn, are not so easily convinced, but then a kiln explosion sends Miss Sorrell and Lis to the hospital, and Lis’s grad student daughter Vanessa returns home to help out and do some detecting. Coincidences pile on, complications ensue, plausibility departs. Oh, dear.

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