Emily Bartlett Hines

Readers can expect major entertainment in two paranormal thrillers that bridge the gap between mystery and horror, starring a couple of detectives who are in way over their heads.

How do you fight evil when the evil is part of you? That’s the dilemma faced by detective Zach Adams in Andrew Klavan’s Werewolf Cop. Zach works for the Extraordinary Crimes Unit, a top-secret federal task force dedicated to stopping a shadowy crime syndicate that has caused chaos throughout Europe. To do so, Zach and his partner will have to take down reclusive kingpin Dominic Abend.

But Abend is no ordinary crime boss: He’s hunting down his old connections in search of an ancient dagger said to have otherworldly powers. When Zach travels to Germany to learn more, he gets a terrifying taste of what those powers involve. Deep in the Black Forest, he’s attacked by an impossibly huge and powerful wolf. He returns home convinced it was all a fever dream—but then the full moon rises.

Coping with a new alter ego is bad enough, but things get even more complicated: A months-ago act of infidelity threatens to destroy Zach’s marriage, and he’s starting to suspect that his trusted partner, Goulart, is taking bribes from bad guys. As Zach closes in on Abend, he struggles to control the appetite of the werewolf inside him—while knowing it may be the only thing that can stop the gangster’s rise to power.

Despite portentous themes of sin and redemption, Werewolf Cop is ultimately a fast-paced page-turner that delivers all the gory thrills its title promises.

Lupine sleuthing may be hard work, but it’s downright glamorous in comparison to the daily grind of Thomas Fool, the beleaguered everyman in Simon Kurt Unsworth’s debut, The Devil’s Detective.

This hardboiled thriller is set in a “frayed and dirty” hell—think less sulfur and lakes of fire, more Soviet-style bureaucracy. Food is scarce, violence is ubiquitous, and the legions of damned don’t even know what they’re being punished for. Humans exist as a permanent underclass, brutalized by the demons who were hell’s first inhabitants.

Fool is leading an especially uninspiring afterlife: He’s is an Information Man, tasked with solving the underworld’s many demon-on-human murders. But with no resources or training, his three-person crew doesn’t stand a chance.

The status quo starts to shift when a series of bodies turns up stripped of their souls. As Fool’s investigation gathers momentum, his self-doubt is replaced by hope that he could actually serve justice. He becomes a rather unlikely folk hero, which naturally places him in serious danger.

Unsworth has created a vivid subterranean world, a place where men merge with plants, skinless demons lay claim to dumped bodies, and a delegation of visiting angels is none too pleased with the accommodations. While its relentlessly dark tone may chill some readers, this is a vivid and wildly inventive look at the banality of evil.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Readers can expect major entertainment in two paranormal thrillers that bridge the gap between mystery and horror, starring a couple of detectives who are in way over their heads.

“I'm just a guy passing through. . . . [I’m] a coincidence.” That's how Jack Reacher explains his presence in the tiny Oklahoma town of Mother’s Rest. A laconic ex-military detective with no fixed address, Reacher got off the train with no deeper motivation than a desire to know the source of the town’s strange name. Once there, he finds a reason to stay—Michelle Chang, a private detective on the hunt for her missing partner. The sleuth disappeared shortly after calling her to Mother’s Rest for help on a case. But what mystery could he have been solving in the middle of nowhere? Was it really dangerous enough to cause his disappearance? And just why are the townspeople in such a hurry for Reacher to leave?

The pair team up to find answers. To do it, they’ll have to track down the mysterious client who hired Chang’s partner just before he went missing. Their search will take them to from Oklahoma City to Chicago to LA, and bring them into contact with strange characters, like a genius computer programmer who’s obsessed with searching the dark web. The closer they get to the truth, the more people want to keep them away from it—from Ukranian crime bosses to angry hog farmers. None of them particularly scare the effortlessly competent Reacher; his opponents may be armed and dangerous, but, as he points out, “only temporarily.”

Though this is the 20th Jack Reacher novel, newcomers will be won over by the pleasures of identifying with a noirish-badass hero who can outthink, out-punch, out-shoot and out-quip a bad guy at lightning speed. Lee Child is brilliant at generating suspense, but amid all the heart-stopping action scenes, Make Me also offers flashes of deadpan wit and captures the spare, dusty rhythms of Oklahoma farm life. The book’s opening coincidence is just the first of many ingenious plot devices, and a series of masterfully timed revelations will lay bare the chilling truth about Mother’s Rest.

“I'm just a guy passing through. . . . [I’m] a coincidence.” That's how Jack Reacher explains his presence in the tiny Oklahoma town of Mother’s Rest. A laconic ex-military detective with no fixed address, Reacher got off the train with no deeper motivation than a desire to know the source of the town’s strange name. Once there, he finds a reason to stay—Michelle Chang, a private detective on the hunt for her missing partner.

Most readers probably imagine their favorite author as thoughtful and deep—someone bursting with insight into life and empathy for all creation. From the outside, that’s what Henry Hayden appears to be. Modest despite the five-and-counting bestsellers that bear his name, he seems to be devoted to his wife, loyal to his friends and eager to sign books for the fans who travel to his remote village just to meet him. But he’s a fraud: Every word of his novels was written by his publicity-shy wife, Martha. His role is to take the credit—and enjoy the mansion, Maserati and mistresses that come with fame.

Then Henry’s girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. Desperate to protect his perfect life, he commits a violent act that turns out to be a huge mistake. Now Martha is missing, and he must prove he’s not to blame. To do so, he’ll have to use his manipulative charms on an entire cast of amoral schemers—including Betty, the mistress who hopes to wed him; Gisbert, the sad-sack ex-schoolmate who can’t forgive Henry’s childhood cruelty; and Obradin, the brooding Serbian best friend who’d do anything in the name of loyalty. As the carnage piles up, the truth about Henry’s past threatens to close in on him.

The Truth and Other Lies is told from Henry’s point of view and incisively presents the mind of a narcissist—a man who can commit murder, yet pat himself on the back for “doing good and feeling good at the same time.” Henry’s cynical worldview provides flashes of mordant humor: Fearing arrest, he takes the scenic route to the morgue because “he wanted to make the most of his last opportunity to drive the Maserati.” And his schemes result in ironic plot complications that rival those of “his” acclaimed thrillers. Henry may lack literary talent, but as a criminal he authors an unfolding catastrophe that readers will relish.

Most readers probably imagine their favorite author as thoughtful and deep—someone bursting with insight into life and empathy for all creation. From the outside, that’s what Henry Hayden appears to be. Modest despite the five-and-counting bestsellers that bear his name, he seems to be devoted to his wife, loyal to his friends and eager to sign books for the fans who travel to his remote village just to meet him. But he’s a fraud: Every word of his novels was written by his publicity-shy wife, Martha.

“I was too angry to take my own life,” muses the protagonist of Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. “Unless, of course, I could take Rachel’s first.” Readers expecting a conventionally likable heroine may be taken aback by Catrin Quinn, a woman too consumed by grief to feel much empathy for anyone around her. Catrin is a wildlife conservation expert in the Falkland Islands, a remote 2,000-person settlement in the south Atlantic. Until three years ago, she was a married mother of two. Then her best friend, Rachel, left her sons unattended in a car by the side of a cliff, allowing them to roll to their deaths.  

The tragedy ended Catrin’s marriage, as well as her affair with sexy ex-soldier Callum Murphy. It also left Catrin bitter, hopeless and preoccupied with revenge. When a visiting tourist’s young son goes missing, joining in the search brings her anguish even closer to the surface. She believes the child simply wandered away from his parent and drowned—but this is the third such disappearance in three years, and islanders are starting to wonder if there could be a killer in their midst. Then Rachel’s son disappears, and Catrin’s neighbors start to wonder if that killer might be her.

Lies evokes the wild landscape of the Falklands—a place where whale and seal sightings are common, wrecked ships lurk just off the coast and abandoned mines from the ’80s-era war still pose a threat. It also deftly portrays the mental states of its three narrators: Catrin; Callum, the ex-lover who still hopes to win her back; and Rachel, the accidental killer who uses pills and alcohol to numb her guilt. Each is deeply damaged and difficult to love, but this fast-paced and expertly plotted thriller forces readers to question whether any of them are capable of murder.

“I was too angry to take my own life,” muses the protagonist of Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. “Unless, of course, I could take Rachel’s first.” Readers expecting a conventionally likable heroine may be taken aback by Catrin Quinn, a woman too consumed by grief to feel much empathy for anyone around her.

As The Strangler Vine opens, William Avery is a typical young soldier in 1830’s colonial India: deep in debt, disdainful of Indian “barbarity,” stalled in his career and desperate to make it back to Devonshire before the cholera picks him off. His prospects change drastically when British East India Company officers give him a mission: He will accompany Special Inquiry Agent Jeremiah Blake on a 700-mile journey into the heart of India to find missing poet Xavier Mountstuart.

Avery idolizes Mountstuart, a Byronic figure who disappeared while researching a long poem on the murderous Thuggee cult. But he doesn’t exactly hit it off with his traveling companion. Blake is an enigmatic political operative and linguistic genius who has spent years “[living] as much as he could as a native.”  He’s unimpressed by Avery’s naive faith in the benevolence of British rule. And as the pair journey further into the countryside, they seem to have no leads. The Company members they encounter are mysteriously tight-lipped about Mountstuart’s fate. Did the writer fall victim to Thuggee ritual murder—or is there more to the story?

The Strangler Vine immerses the reader in an India of jungles, bandit attacks, tiger hunts and Rajahs’ opulent courts, but it’s also a meticulously researched portrait of an era. First-time novelist M.J. Carter depicts a cultural climate in which colonizers are increasingly contemptuous and hostile toward a civilization they once admired. A real historical figure even appears: Major William Sleeman, who led a brutal campaign to repress the Thuggee menace (and, in doing so, legitimate British power). This suspenseful tale of intrigue skillfully portrays Avery’s dawning realization that “everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.”

As The Strangler Vine opens, William Avery is a typical young soldier in 1830’s colonial India: deep in debt, disdainful of Indian “barbarity,” stalled in his career and desperate to make it back to Devonshire before the cholera picks him off.

Of the dramatic plot twists that routinely occur in suspense fiction, one character in Harriet Lane’s Her complains that they are “unsatisfying . . . nothing like life, which—it seems to me—turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” Lane’s novel, in which a vengeful woman infiltrates the life of an old acquaintance, features many potential shocks. But Her eschews cheap drama, instead building suspense by shedding light on two women’s inner worlds.

The story is set in motion when Nina Bremner, a 30-something artist, spots Emma Nash pushing a stroller down a busy London street. As a teen, Emma wreaked havoc on Nina’s life with a single thoughtless act. Now Emma doesn’t even remember her—but Nina is obsessed. Using a series of staged coincidences to win her trust, Nina finds the once-carefree blonde stressed and exhausted by the demands of new motherhood. Emma is dazzled by her new friend’s air of freedom and effortless glamour. But Nina’s friendship comes at a cost. She’s actually the ultimate underminer, rifling through Emma’s possessions, ruining her dinner parties and even staging the disappearance of her child.

Narrated in turns by the two women, the book subtly conveys the psychological currents that attract them to each other. Emma longs for a break from the endless small stressors of parenting a difficult toddler—“the headlong conscientious dawn-to-dusk rush to feed and entertain and bathe.” Meanwhile, Nina, whose own life isn’t as perfect as it appears, feels a queasy sense of triumph at seeing a former teen queen reduced to wiping up snot. As the two women grow closer, readers wait to discover the true reason for Nina’s hatred—and how far her revenge will go.

Of the dramatic plot twists that routinely occur in suspense fiction, one character in Harriet Lane’s Her complains that they are “unsatisfying . . . nothing like life, which—it seems to me—turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” Lane’s novel, in which a vengeful woman infiltrates the life of an old acquaintance, features many potential shocks. But Her eschews cheap drama, instead building suspense by shedding light on two women’s inner worlds.

Sometimes telling a story is all about retelling—tracing the thread of a long-ago series of events and finally getting it right. Minnesota student Joe Talbert discovers this when he is tasked with writing a senior citizen’s biography for a college English class. Short on options and time, Joe heads to Hillview Manor nursing home in search of potential subjects. There he meets Carl Iverson, a dying Vietnam vet who’s out on parole after serving a 30-year sentence for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Crystal Hagen. Joe dreads writing his story: “I had come to Hillview looking for a hero, and instead, found a villain.”

But the man whom his research reveals is far from a one-dimensional bad guy. Joe meets Carl’s army buddy, Virgil, who witnessed Carl’s acts of heroism and insists that his friend is no killer. Then Joe spots a telling detail from an old crime scene photo—one that was overlooked at the trial. He begins to suspect there’s much more to the story than the secretive old man is telling him. But if Carl didn’t murder Crystal, why did he never proclaim his innocence? What really happened to him in Vietnam? And is the real killer still walking free?

Joe turns amateur sleuth, aided by his attractive but standoffish neighbor, Lila. Then his mother is jailed for DUI, leaving him to care for his autistic brother. As his search for clues becomes more dangerous, he begins to wonder if he’ll have to choose between college and the claims of family. Allan Eskens’ compulsively suspenseful first novel reveals that guilt takes many forms—and that getting the story right is essential.

Sometimes telling a story is all about retelling—tracing the thread of a long-ago series of events and finally getting it right. Minnesota student Joe Talbert discovers this when he is tasked with writing a senior citizen’s biography for a college English class. Short on options and time, Joe heads to Hillview Manor nursing home in search of potential subjects. There he meets Carl Iverson, a dying Vietnam vet who’s out on parole after serving a 30-year sentence for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Crystal Hagen.

For most high school bullying victims, life eventually gets better. For Toni Murphy, her torment at the hands of a mean-girl clique turns into a nightmare she can’t escape.

As her senior year draws to a close, Toni is planning a future with her adored boyfriend Ryan. He’s the one bright spot in her life. At home, her overly strict mom disapproves of everything she does. Her “perfect” little sister Nicole always seems to make her look bad, while getting away with sneaking out and lying to their parents. And at school, she’s taunted by a popular girl group led by her ex-friend Shauna. Graduation can’t come soon enough

Then Nicole is found brutally murdered. Toni and Ryan are the only suspects, and Shauna’s crew testifies that they saw the two sisters fighting right before the murder.  No one believes Toni’s side of the story, and she’s sent to prison.

That Night takes up Toni’s story 17 years later. She’s paroled and back in her hometown, but starting a new life isn’t so easy: Shauna is still nursing a grudge and is eager to get Toni fired or worse. Meanwhile, someone has been talking about what really happened on the night of the murder. Ryan wants her to help him find out more.  Her parole decrees that she could be sent back to jail just for talking to him, but the lure of clearing her name is irresistible. Who killed Nicole? And what secrets was she keeping in the days before her death?

The narrative bounces back and forth between Toni’s post-parole and pre-prison life, deftly building suspense about Nicole’s fate. But it’s Toni’s richly depicted inner life that makes the book truly immersive. Chevy Stevens’ account of what it’s like to be powerless—whether as a grounded 12th-grader or a prison inmate—is pitch perfect (and relatable to anyone who’s ever been a teen). We see Toni grow from an impulsive girl to a guarded but good-hearted adult, and her desire for justice always rings true.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a behind-the-book essay from Chevy Stevens for That Night.

For most high school bullying victims, life eventually gets better. For Toni Murphy, her torment at the hands of a mean-girl clique turns into a nightmare she can’t escape.

Rafe Solmes is a Bath, England, literature professor who has just finished a book on fairy tales, but his interest in gruesome stories like “Bluebeard” and “The True Bride” is far from academic. When Clarissa, a university assistant, lets him walk her home one night, she discovers a sinister side to this seemingly harmless scholar. An obsessive master manipulator who won’t take no for an answer, Rafe is soon everywhere she is—lurking outside her apartment at all hours, sending increasingly threatening gifts and even turning her friends against her. 

Clarissa’s life is quickly consumed by the need to predict his next move. Then she’s selected to serve as a juror on a seven-week court case. In the jury box, she finds refuge from Rafe’s attentions, but the trial brings its own terrors. The victim’s testimony—she was kidnapped and raped as payback for a drug deal gone bad—offers a frightening premonition of Clarissa’s own future if she can’t escape her pursuer. As the trial plays out, the defense attorneys methodically pick apart the victim’s credibility, recasting her ordeal as a willing exchange of sex for drugs. Clarissa learns a chilling lesson: “That’s what happens when you press charges, when you complain. They just rape you up there all over again and say you’re a prostitute.”

Clarissa delays going to the police, even as her plight becomes more urgent. The Book of You, like many a fairy tale, features a heroine who’s naturally timid and mild-mannered. But as the weeks pass, this seemingly passive protagonist realizes she must act to save her own life, and she decides to bring Rafe down by finding out the truth about his past.

Clarissa’s burgeoning romance with a hunky fellow jurist provides a narrative bright spot. Still, The Book of You is a frighteningly intimate—and accurate—portrayal of stalking. Through Clarissa’s eyes, we see the ragged nerves, sleepless nights and paranoia brought about by Rafe’s “romantic” obsession. First-time author Claire Kendal draws readers into a taut, compulsively readable tale of pursuit and escape.

Rafe Solmes is a Bath, England, literature professor who has just finished a book on fairy tales, but his interest in gruesome stories like “Bluebeard” and “The True Bride” is far from academic. When Clarissa, a university assistant, lets him walk her home one night, she discovers a sinister side to this seemingly harmless scholar. An obsessive master manipulator who won’t take no for an answer, Rafe is soon everywhere she is—lurking outside her apartment at all hours, sending increasingly threatening gifts and even turning her friends against her. 

There’s a stranger in Claudia Morgan-Brown’s house. The Birmingham, England, social worker has what should be an enviable life: Newly married to a wealthy naval officer, she lives in a palatial house and is step-parenting his adorable twin boys. And after a string of heartbreaking miscarriages with her ex, she’s finally expecting a baby girl of her own. But there’s a problem: the new live-in nanny, Zoe Harcomb. Although this apparent super-nanny has a perfect resume, something about Zoe—a childless woman who “stares longingly at [Claudia’s] pregnant stomach”—just doesn’t seem right.

The tension ratchets up as Claudia’s husband prepares to leave on a long submarine voyage, and a series of brutal murders of local pregnant women stumps local law enforcement. The novel’s narration is shared among Claudia, Zoe and Lorraine Fisher, a police officer investigating the murders even as her marriage threatens to fall apart and her teenage daughter announces she’s leaving home. As these women’s lives become more entangled, the novel reveals the raw need and desperate yearning that often lie behind the idealized state of motherhood. Zoe wonders, “Would [Claudia] understand that I probably want—no, need her baby more than she does?”

Samantha Hayes, author of four previous suspense novels, builds tension skillfully, revealing and concealing just enough to keep readers riveted. The story’s twists and turns recall such female-focused suspense tales as Rebecca and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, culminating in a final revelation that is truly jaw-dropping. But it’s the novel’s use of iconic female fears—the loss of a beloved child, an intimate enemy under one’s own roof—that really get under the reader’s skin. The events of this plot may be lurid, but the emotions they’re grounded in are very real.

There’s a stranger in Claudia Morgan-Brown’s house. The Birmingham, England, social worker has what should be an enviable life: Newly married to a wealthy naval officer, she lives in a palatial house and is step-parenting his adorable twin boys. And after a string of heartbreaking miscarriages with her ex, she’s finally expecting a baby girl of her own. But there’s a problem: the new live-in nanny, Zoe Harcomb.

“Cryptography involves one genius trying to work out what another genius has done—it results in the most appalling carnage,” observes one Decoded character. In this debut novel from Mai Jia, eccentric math prodigy Rong Jinzhen is plucked from his studies at N University and recruited to China’s top-secret Unit 701. There he’s tasked with deciphering PURPLE, a fiendishly difficult code used by China’s enemies. In doing so, he’s involved in an intellectual race against a shadowy opponent who’s bent on deciphering PURPLE before he does. His rival turns out to be his trusted former university mentor—or so it seems.

Despite a plot based on high-stakes political intrigue, Decoded is hardly a straightforward thriller. Instead, it begins as a family saga, narrating the lives of such figures as Jinzhen’s grandmother, a pioneering mathematics professor. Events are told out of order, through a combination of narration and after-the-fact interviews with key characters. The reader must wait to the end to find out who is telling this story, and why. And the tale builds to a final crisis that reveals the fragile nature of genius.

Along the way, it offers a fascinating window into 20th-century Chinese history, including World War II and Mao’s Cultural Revolution (one character is subjected to public humiliation as a supposed traitor to the Party). And it sheds light on a mysterious profession, one that conceals sense within nonsense, “as if a sane person had borrowed the words of a madman to speak.” Evocative metaphors convey the seductiveness of Jinzhen’s calling to even the math-averse. While some of the novel’s factual questions are ultimately answered, its psychological portrait of a brilliant man suggests that the human mind is the deepest enigma of all.

“Cryptography involves one genius trying to work out what another genius has done—it results in the most appalling carnage,” observes one Decoded character. In this debut novel from Mai Jia, eccentric math prodigy Rong Jinzhen is plucked from his studies at N University and recruited to China’s top-secret Unit 701.

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