The phrase “summer thriller” tends to conjure up a specific sort of book, but our favorites for the season run the gamut from meditative mysteries to relentless page turners.
Killer line: “My head swam in a sudden rush of understanding. I moved the branches of the bushes aside to be sure: the shape of a torso; arms; the back of a head.”
Arden Maynor was sleepwalking when a flash flood swept her away. The country breathed a sigh of relief when the 6-year-old was found—and on every anniversary of that day, the media’s spotlight has returned to Arden and her mother. In Megan Miranda’s The Girl From Widow Hills, we get to know the Arden of two decades later. Now 26, she goes by Olivia Wells and lives in North Carolina. She’s beginning to feel secure in her life’s rhythms, but one horrible night, she sleepwalks and awakens with a bloodied body at her feet. Is the looming 20th anniversary stirring up tamped-down trauma? Or is someone from the past trying to torment her anew? Step by suspenseful step, Miranda lays a path for readers to follow as Olivia tries to separate dreams and reality, fear and fact, with a tenacious local detective not far behind. The Girl From Widow Hills is a creepy, compelling portrait of a life forever warped by unwanted fame—a timely theme in this era of internet celebrity and the fall from grace that often follows.
—Linda M. Castellitto
Killer line: “When I turned around, I could no longer see the road. We were all alone in the woods.”
Sarah Stewart Taylor’s simmering The Mountains Wild is the first entry in a new series featuring homicide detective Maggie D’arcy. A divorced mother living on Long Island, New York, Maggie felt called to become a detective after her cousin, Erin, vanished in the woods of Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1990s. At the age of 23, Maggie traveled there to look for Erin, but neither she nor the Irish Guards, the national police, could locate her. After Erin’s scarf is found by investigators searching for a different woman, Maggie returns to Ireland to do some sleuthing, reentering a maze of painful memories. Taylor moves nimbly through the decades, flashing back to Maggie’s earlier trip to Ireland and providing glimpses of her friendship with Erin. Featuring a memorable cast that includes cheeky Irish Guards, sinister suspects and a not-to-be-messed-with female lead, The Mountains Wild makes for perfect summer reading. Maggie is a first-class protagonist—an ace investigator and appealing everywoman with smarts and heart. Suspense fans are sure to welcome her to the crime scene.
For fans of: Thrillers by David Baldacci or James Patterson and ripping through the pages of a good FBI search.
Author and screenwriter David Klass turns the serial killer mythos on its head in his new novel, Out of Time, in which the killer is intent on saving humankind through his inconceivable deeds. The Green Man, so dubbed by the media and the FBI pursuing him, doesn’t kill for the sake of some insatiable, perverse sexual desire but out of an acute calling to save the environment. His terrorist acts are meant to call attention to climate change and heighten awareness of its adverse effects. But FBI data analyst Tom Smith—not exactly a memorable name, he admits, adding, “I didn’t choose it”—and a task force of 300 FBI agents only see a killer who must be stopped. So begins a fast-paced game of cat and mouse as Smith zeros in on the Green Man’s identity and tries to stop him before more lives are lost. Klass writes with terse, straightforward prose, alternating between Smith’s and the Green Man’s points of view to allow readers a close-up perspective of each character’s motivations and desires. The fun is in the thrill of the chase, and in that respect Klass delivers.
—G. Robert Frazier
★ The Mist
Killer line: “ ‘Oh, the nights here are something else,’ Erla said quietly. . . . ‘I hope you’re not afraid of the dark.’ ”
The Mist is the third and final book in Ragnar Jónasson’s electrifying Hidden Iceland series. These labyrinthine murder mysteries, set against the bleak backdrop of Iceland, feature Hulda Hermannsdóttir, detective inspector with the Reykjavík Police Department. It’s Christmas in 1987, and Erla and Einar Einarsson are preparing for the holiday. In their region of Iceland, winter days don’t begin to brighten until 11 a.m., brutal blizzards are a regular occurrence, and skiing is easier than walking or driving. In the midst of a pummeling snowstorm, a stranger named Leó shows up at the farm looking for shelter. Leó claims to have gotten lost during a hunting trip with friends, but Erla doesn’t believe his story. She’s frightened of him from the start, and her fears worsen after the electricity goes out, leaving the farmhouse in darkness. Two months later, Hulda is asked to look into a pair of murders that occurred at the farm. Jónasson turns up the tension to a nearly unendurable degree as the novel unfolds. His complete design isn’t revealed until late in the book, when the story’s multiple threads coalesce in a surprising conclusion. Masterfully plotted and paced, The Mist is atmospheric, haunting and not for the faint of heart.
For fans of: Keeping calm and carrying on, drinking tea with a bit of fortification and maintaining a stiff upper lip until such time as a therapist can be seen.
In their second adventure, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge would like nothing more than to get back to running their business, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But in Allison Montclair’s A Royal Affair, their reputation as crime fighters precedes them, so in addition to pairing off various lonely hearts, they’re also working for Lady Matheson, who herself works for the queen. Discretion is required as Gwen and Iris search for a cache of letters that could derail Princess Elizabeth’s engagement, and they quickly realize this is information that people will kill for. The balance Montclair strikes between humor and hard truths is arresting. Postwar England has raucous parties and a lot of can-do spirit, but the entire nation is still reeling—and rationing, for that matter. (Can a birthday party be any fun if the cake has “tooth powder frosting”?) Have faith, though: There’s not much that can stop this pair, and the climactic scene laying out the whodunit (and why) is like a maraschino cherry in a complex cocktail. Here’s to the return of these formidable women, and to many more chances to enjoy their company.
Killer line: “It takes longer than you might think, for a man to burn.”
The small town of Lovelock, Nevada, is nestled in brush-dotted hills that crouch under unending blue sky—an eerie desert landscape that sets a tone of creeping dread in Heather Young’s The Distant Dead. Sixth grader Sal Prentiss goes to the fire station to report that he’s found a burned body while, in another part of town, social studies teacher Nora Wheaton is wondering why her colleague Adam Merkel hasn’t shown up to work. He’s a math teacher, and it’s Pi Day; surely he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to have math-centric fun with his class? No one else seems very concerned, as the enigmatic Adam has always kept to himself and doesn’t engage in gossip, but Nora can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. Alas, her instincts are validated when she learns that Adam is the victim Sal found. Young takes the reader back and forth in time as she unfurls the characters’ relationships and life paths, with all their secrets and hopes and disappointments. The suspense is slow and steady in this meditative, artistic take on the murder mystery. Young’s language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient in this unusual, compelling portrait of a people and a place.
—Linda M. Castellitto
For fans of: Bullitt, The Fast and the Furious and gritty Elmore Leonard-style noir.
Beauregard “Bug” Montage thought he was out—out of the rackets and the crimes that dominated his early life. He opened his own garage, settled down with a loving wife and had several children. But the past and the demands of the present have a way of catching up with people. In Bug’s case, mounting expenses leave him with nowhere else to turn. So, when an old associate, Ronnie, approaches him about a job that could set everything right, Bug reluctantly agrees. Author S.A. Cosby quickly establishes Bug’s financial burdens and emotional dilemma in his new novel, Blacktop Wasteland and never lets up on the gas. The result is a high-octane, white-knuckle thriller that will have readers whipping through the pages at breakneck speed. Needless to say, not everything goes to plan. Bug and Ronnie’s “simple” heist of a jewelry store goes horribly awry in more ways than one. Bug’s skills as a wheelman—and the Plymouth Duster he inherited from his father—enable him and his crew to get away with their lives, but it’s not enough to keep greed, betrayal and vengeance from closing in at every turn. Cosby’s tightfisted prose fuels this story with heart-pumping (and often brutal) action that begs to be adapted for the big screen but never loses its compassionate edge.
—G. Robert Frazier