Three new serial killer thrillers approach their murderous subjects in vastly different ways. One is a game of cat and mouse, another probes the psychological makeup of a killer, and a third is disarmingly funny.
Peter Swanson sets Before She Knew Him in a charming Massachusetts neighborhood. Two young couples live next door to one another, and at a casual dinner they hope will lead to friendship, Hen notices something in her neighbor’s studio that alarms her. It appears to be evidence in an unsolved murder. Worse yet, she can tell her neighbor, Matthew, saw her react. She fudges a reason to go back and double-check, and suddenly the item has disappeared. What now?
Hen must act with caution—she has a history of mental illness that led her to fixate on the very case she suspects Matthew of being connected to, and her husband, Lloyd, is adamant that she not pursue the matter further. But it’s not long before she’s an eyewitness to something horrible, and now both she and Lloyd are at risk.
Swanson artfully plays the tension in this story. The details of Hen’s job as an illustrator and printmaker are fascinating, and the dynamic between both couples who can’t quite get along lull the reader into forgetting that one of the four might be a murderer. There’s a neat twist at the end, but the real surprise is the way characters are allowed to grieve their losses, a luxury not always allowed in stories of this type. For a fast-paced thriller, Before She Knew Him achieves an impressive significance in its pauses.
The Devil Aspect is Scottish author Craig Russell’s American debut, and it’s a knockout. Set in Czechoslovakia in 1935, it tells parallel stories that converge in an explosive conclusion. Viktor Kosárek, a psychiatrist, has come to work at an asylum for the criminally insane that is housed in a castle and contains just six patients, the most dangerous killers in the country. In Prague, police are trailing a serial killer who seems to be imitating Jack the Ripper. And over the border in Germany, Nazism is on the rise. Welcome to the pressure cooker.
Kosárek is interviewing the asylum’s inmates to try and identify the “devil aspect” that leads them to kill, and their stories are terrifying and extravagantly gory. Prague police eventually appeal to the doctors at the asylum for help with their own case—catching the murderer they’ve nicknamed “Leather Apron.” The combination of research and investigation takes place while people gradually take sides in the new political climate, adding up to an edge-of-the-seat suspense tale and Gothic tragedy in one.
The fine details of the investigation (part of it hinges on a single glass bead), and a romance between the doctor and a Jewish hospital administrator who is thus on constant guard, are given space to breathe and described in lush detail. Even characters that appear only briefly are memorable and realistic. Russell sets up these converging stories, then adds a twist that could give a reader whiplash. It’s no wonder the film rights have already been snapped up. Read it now, though, before the spoilers get out. The Devil Aspect is the best of its kind.
A serial killer is targeting pairs of best friends in Sophie Hannah’s latest, The Next to Die. Police can’t nail him down, though they’ve helpfully given him the nickname “Billy Dead Mates.” A radical feminist columnist is using the killings to highlight misogynist violence while pointedly ignoring that one of the victims was male. And comedian Kim Tribbeck would find this all hilarious—that is her job, after all—but for the fact that she might be next on the killer’s list. The killer’s calling card is a tiny white handmade book with a bit of verse inside. Kim received one but has no best friend or desire for one. Police are left to wonder if it was a mistake, or if the killer might be moving on to solo targets.
Woven into the investigation is a subplot particular to two of the detectives on the case who are married, which Kim inadvertently gets involved in, and which adds to the story’s extended meditation on relationships, be they friendly, familial or maybe just a thing on the side.
Told in a mix of memoir excerpts, newspaper columns and narration from varied points of view, The Next to Die will keep you guessing and also, perhaps unexpectedly, laughing. Hannah lets the line slacken then pulls it back in with a jolt as needed. The shifts in narration demand close attention and add to the suspense, though the police seem to take the most roundabout path possible to finally solving the case, including a road trip to Kim’s prior performance venues to find the one where she was given the book. Playing freely with the conventions of the genre, The Next to Die is a funny, philosophical, reflective and taut whodunit.