Elyse Discher

Conflicting memories of the past converge like a fever dream in Flora Collins’ riveting debut thriller, Nanny Dearest.  

Though only in her mid-20s, Sue Keller is an orphan. Her mother died when she was a child, and after the loss of her father, Sue descends into a depressive funk.  She struggles to leave the house, relying on delivery and work from home options. On a rare outing she meets a woman named Annie, who recognizes Sue and claims to have been her childhood nanny—but Sue has no memory of her at all. Craving a connection to her lost parents, Sue continues to meet with Annie, desperate for stories about a period of her childhood her mind has mysteriously blacked out.

Toggling between Sue’s present and Annie’s past, Nanny Dearest explores how the need for family and connection can become toxic, even deadly. Annie longs to escape her abusive father, so a live-in nanny position with the Keller family seems like the perfect escape. Mr. Keller is a successful novelist, sequestered away as he works on his latest book, and Mrs. Keller is focused on a career of her own, as well as her position as a socialite. So Annie and young Sue are left largely to themselves, leading Annie to bond immediately with her young charge, to the extent that she will do anything to remain with the Kellers indefinitely.

Decades later, Sue can’t figure out why she has no memory of Annie. Her former nanny’s photographs and stories confirm she was Sue’s caregiver, but Sue obviously can’t ask her late parents why Annie left almost immediately after Mrs. Keller’s death or why her father never talked about Annie in the years after her mother’s death. When Annie’s grasp on Sue’s life begins to feel suffocating, Sue launches to research her past in a desperate search for answers.Collins, a lifelong New Yorker who based her story partially on her own experience with a childhood babysitter, leans on the intense psychological drama of the caregiver-child relationship to keep the reader turning pages, never depicting violence on the page. The perfect choice for those who want thrills without the gore, Nanny Dearest is as compelling as it is unnerving.

Conflicting memories of the past converge like a fever dream in Flora Collins’ riveting debut thriller, Nanny Dearest.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale tackles everything from abortion to sexual abuse in The Ballerinas, an unflinching, unapologetically feminist glimpse into the world of professional ballet.

The daughter of a famous ballerina, Delphine studied ballet intensively for most of her life at the famous Paris Opera Ballet. Along with her friends Lindsay and Margaux, she was poised to become a star—until she suddenly left France for Russia and gave up performing in favor of choreography. 

Now Delphine is 36 and has returned to Paris to stage a ballet of her own creation with Lindsay as its star. Delphine feels she and Margaux wronged Lindsay somehow, and flashbacks to their teenage years reveal how these three young women were stretched to the breaking point by a demand for perfection from their teachers, peers and, in Delphine’s case, her mother.

Kapelke-Dale, who studied ballet herself, grants readers rare insight into a grueling world that, despite being largely female, is still dominated by men. Male teachers, choreographers and dancers hold power over their female counterparts, and gendered violence is embedded in the culture. Ballet is portrayed as an institution that fails the women it supposedly celebrates. For example, Delphine is betrayed at one point by a fellow dancer in a particularly horrific way, and he is immediately protected by the institution. 

The patriarchal structure of ballet prizes youth and beauty, which affects Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux in new ways in their mid-30s. Lindsay is nearing an age at which she will have to retire from performing to make way for the teenagers coming onto the scene. Kapelke-Dale shows how these women’s bodies are breaking down due to years of demanding dance training, making the pressure to appear thin, glowing and youthful feel even more cruelly ironic.

Despite all of this, The Ballerinas is not a bleak novel. Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux begin to push back against the system that has oppressed them, coming to terms with their past and moving forward into a world in which they have agency over their bodies and careers. It is to Kapelke-Dale’s credit that this empowering ending feels earned, rather than naively optimistic.

Rachel Kapelke-Dale tackles everything from abortion to sexual abuse in The Ballerinas, an unflinching, unapologetically feminist glimpse into the world of professional ballet.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries expose the corruption and abuse that exists after the shine of spotlights go out. But even more than that, they examine critical periods during which women’s roles were shifting as they demanded more freedoms.

As a teenager, Willowjean “Will” Parker literally ran away to join the circus. Stephen Spotswood’s Murder Under Her Skin (the sequel to 2020’s Fortune Favors the Dead) finds her as an adult in 1946 New York City, working at a detective agency with her mentor, the brilliant Lillian Pentecost. Fresh off an arson investigation, Will gets a telegram that her friend Ruby Donner, the tattooed lady of Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus, has been murdered and that another performer, Valentin Kalishenko, has been arrested for the crime. Will believes Valentin is innocent, and she and her boss set off for small-town Virginia to meet up with the circus and clear Valentin’s name.

Hart and Halloway’s Travelling Circus allowed Will to escape her abusive father and safely explore her sexuality as a lesbian. Now that she’s returning as an outsider, some of that closeness is gone and, in a melancholy but emotionally realistic twist, Will finds herself trapped between two worlds: She’s no longer completely trusted by her former peers, and she’s still working to gain the approval of her intrepid boss. 

As they work the case, Will and Lillian find the world in flux around them, which Spotswood ably explores without distracting from the central mystery. In the wake of World War II, U.S. veterans are dealing with displacement and PTSD, women are being shunted into more restrictive roles now that GIs have returned, and movie theaters are filling up while circus arenas are emptying. None of the characters in this mystery quite know how to cope with these seismic cultural changes, setting Murder Under Her Skin apart from more simplistic stories set in the same time period. Despite the cultural angst swirling around them, Will and Lillian focus on finding justice for Ruby, a woman many of their contemporaries don’t consider respectable or worthy of their compassion.

Elly Griffiths jumps ahead a few decades (and across the pond) in her snappy new Brighton mystery, The Midnight Hour. It’s 1965, and when theatre impresario Bert Billingham is murdered with rat poison, his wife, actress Verity Malone, is a natural suspect. Worried that the police will look no further than her, Verity hires PIs Emma Holmes and Sam Collins to clear her name. Among their suspects is magician-turned-actor Max Mephisto, who is filming a remake of Dracula along with Billingham’s son and is rumored to have had a fling with Verity.

Much like Murder Under Her Skin, this mystery focuses on a tightknit group of performers. Many of the actors, directors and costume designers in Billingham’s orbit worked together during the war, and everyone seems to have a story illustrating Billingham’s nastiness, giving Emma and Sam no shortage of suspects. 

As they navigate the complex showbiz web around Billingham and his family, Emma and Sam team up with 20-year-old rookie police constable Meg Connolly, which allows Griffiths to explore the experiences of three women at very different stages in life. The growing feminist movement has created more opportunities for women like Meg, but her male-dominated workplace still treats female sleuths as novelties. While Meg is just starting out, Emma struggles to balance her career with being a wife and mother, and she is frustrated that her detective work is treated like a hobby rather than a profession. Sam, meanwhile, worries that her own romantic interest in Max Mephisto could be clouding her judgment.

The sixth book in a series, The Midnight Hour is also full of secondary characters who have appeared in previous Brighton mysteries, so readers may want to start at the beginning before taking a stab at this one. But those who are already fans of the Brighton mysteries will be well satisfied with this installment, which tracks the evolution of Emma and Sam’s characters and careers without sacrificing one bit of Griffiths’ wit and charm.

Beyond being tantalizing whodunits, both Murder Under Her Skin and The Midnight Hour feature dynamic, complicated female characters who unapologetically stand up to and outshine their male contemporaries.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries examine two critical periods during which women demanded more freedoms.

Straddling the line between suspense and historical fiction, Lori Rader-Day’s Death at Greenway is an unsettling murder mystery that gives readers a nuanced look into life on the British homefront during World War II. 

Student nurse Bridget “Bridey” Kelly made a horrible mistake on duty, resulting in the death of an officer in her care. Her only hope for redemption is to take an assignment caring for 10 children who are being evacuated from London and sent to Greenway House, the country home of Agatha Christie. Christie makes only the briefest of appearances, although her library of books on murder makes for a chilling backdrop.

Like the children, Bridey experiences the effects of PTSD, so she struggles to care for them, especially when her fellow nurse, Gigi, proves to be less than enthusiastic (or knowledgeable). From the moment they settle into Greenway House, things feel amiss. Items go missing, and one of the children reports seeing a man lurking outside at night. After a body washes up in the quay, Bridey is asked to help and realizes the victim’s injuries were the result of homicide, not accidental drowning. All the while, the mysterious Gigi’s stories of her life before Greenway House fail to add up. When she goes missing, Bridey knows something foul is afoot.

Told from multiple perspectives (even those of individual children), Rader-Day’s novel is in many ways a portrait of grief and trauma. Each character is suffering due to displacement, rationing and German bombings. There are no real monsters, just people forced into circumstances they never thought possible. Bridey is a particularly compelling character—the reluctant detective, longing to move on with her life, but unable to let sleeping dogs lie.

Far from a cozy mystery, Death at Greenway is as taut as a bow string, with every character capable of snapping at a moment’s notice. 

Far from a cozy mystery, Death at Greenway is as taut as a bow string, with every character capable of snapping at a moment’s notice.

Cottonwood Estates seems like an idyllic neighborhood to raise a family in. It’s affluent, populated by overworked dads and over-involved moms, and thanks to the gossipy monthly book club, everyone knows everyone else’s business. In The Neighbor’s Secret, author L. Alison Heller scratches away at this suburban facade to reveal secrets that are slowly bringing the small community to the verge of collapse.

Through brief, interstitial passages, the reader learns that not only is a murder about to be committed, but also that another one was covered up years ago. The question remains: Who are the killers?

Annie is harboring a secret from 15 years ago and worrying that her eighth grade daughter, Laurel, might be destined to repeat it. Laurel is acting out, getting drunk with friends at the annual Fall Fest and keeping secrets from her ever-vigilant mother. Jen is similarly worried about her young son, Abe, with good reason: Abe has been expelled from school and diagnosed as a sociopath. Jen struggles with fear of her own son and guilt over her abilities as a parent, all while hiding his diagnosis from the teachers at Abe’s new school as well as from her friends and neighbors. Finally, there is Lena. A widow and empty nester, Lena watches the neighborhood but keeps apart from it socially. She understands that nothing in their peaceful community is what it seems. When a vandal begins targeting homes, the petty property crimes set off a chain of events that will end in one explosive, deadly night.

Heller excels at the complex characterization required to engage readers, resulting in a book that’s truly impossible to put down. The myriad anxieties her characters feel—fear for their children, their reputation, their community—are entirely relatable. A sense of dread and foreboding permeates the narrative. We know a murder is coming; Laurel, Abe and Lena all seem on the verge of imploding. With such a wonderful buildup and a truly surprising finish, The Neighbor’s Secret is a delight to read.

Cottonwood Estates seems like an idyllic neighborhood to raise a family in. It’s affluent, populated by overworked dads and over-involved moms, and thanks to the gossipy monthly book club, everyone knows everyone else’s business.

College freshman Chloe Sevre has two secrets: 1) She’s a psychopath, and 2) she’s plotting to kill frat boy Will Bachman. Chloe has no sense of empathy or remorse, but she is acutely aware of being wronged.

Chloe thought Will was her friend, but he hurt her in an especially devastating way when she was just 12 years old, and she’s spent years plotting her revenge. Chloe got into Adams University, the same college Will attends, by enrolling in a special study. Along with seven other students who have been diagnosed as psychopaths, Chloe will get a free ride if she agrees to group therapy and biometric monitoring. For Chloe, this is purely a means to an end—access to Will—until someone begins murdering the students in the group. Suddenly, Chloe is in a cat-and-mouse game with a killer, even as she continues with her own murderous plot for justice.

While Chloe isn’t empathetic per se, she is vicariously fun to read about in a way that brings to mind Villanelle from “Killing Eve,” and author Vera Kurian gives readers two equally suspenseful plotlines to follow. First is Chloe’s mission to kill Will. Even though her actions are illegal and morally wrong, Will’s crime is so heinous that it’s not hard to understand why Chloe would resort to murder rather than turn to an unreliable justice system.

And then there’s the catch-me-if-you-can secondary plot of Chloe trying to discover who is killing members of the study she belongs to. She aligns with two other members of the group to flush out the killer, but her companions are as untrustworthy as she is. The fact that Never Saw Me Coming has multiple characters that lie and manipulate without issue makes detecting its central killer all the more challenging. All of this adds up to a unique reading experience: Even though there aren’t necessarily any “good guys” to root for, Kurian compels her readers to be deeply invested in Chloe’s success regardless.

With a satisfying (if bloodthirsty) quest for vengeance and a twisty mystery to solve, Never Saw Me Coming will tempt readers into staying up all night to get answers.

College freshman Chloe Sevre has two secrets: 1) She’s a psychopath, and 2) she’s plotting to kill frat boy Will Bachman. Chloe has no sense of empathy or remorse, but she is acutely aware of being wronged.

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