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STARRED REVIEW
June 17, 2024

The 17 best mysteries & thrillers of 2024—so far

The biggest takeaways from our case notes? The police procedural is enjoying a surprising renaissance, and thrillers of all modes are flourishing.
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Book jacket image for Where You End by Abbott Kahler

Where You End

A woman loses her memory and the only person she can trust is her twin sister in Abbott Kahler’s scary, tense and provocative debut thriller.
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Book jacket image for Ilium by Lea Carpenter

Ilium

Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.
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Book jacket image for The Princess of Las Vegas by Chris Bohjalian

The Princess of Las Vegas

Chris Bohjalian’s latest thriller, The Princess of Las Vegas is a thrilling symphony of run-down casinos, teenage hackers and royal impersonators with multiple mysteries at ...
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Book jacket image for Close to Death by Anthony Horowitz

Close to Death

Close to Death offers a supremely engrossing and expertly plotted whodunit that will challenge and delight even the most well-read mystery fans.
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Tell Me Who You Are by Louisa Luna jacket

Tell Me Who You Are

Louisa Luna crafts a boldly, unapologetically unlikable protagonist in Tell Me Who You Are—but is Dr. Caroline Strange also unreliable?
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The biggest takeaways from our case notes? The police procedural is enjoying a surprising renaissance, and thrillers of all modes are flourishing.
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Packed with nonstop action, globe-trotting adventure and laugh-out-loud humor, Rob Hart’s Assassins Anonymous is an absolute blast.

We open as main character Mark is celebrating a year of sobriety in his 12-step program, but as he cleans up after the meeting, he’s violently attacked by a Russian man he’s never met. For Mark, AA stands for Assassins Anonymous, and he was celebrating a year without killing anyone—a vow he manages to keep even after his unknown assailant stabs him in the side.

In his life before AA, Mark was a government assassin known as Pale Horse, and built a reputation as a ruthless and skilled killer. A terrible mistake led him to quit the game and vow to never take another life again. That’s a lot easier said than done when someone is trying to kill him. Mark needs to figure out who wants him dead, and the list is not short. Complicating matters, he’s determined to accomplish this without sacrificing his sobriety: He can’t kill anyone, even the people determined to annihilate him. 

Hart takes readers on a wild ride across the globe as Mark searches for the person behind the assassination attempt, reliving his former exploits along the way. He partners up with potential love interest Astrid, a trauma surgeon for the criminal underworld, and his much beloved cat, P. Kitty, is also in tow. The supporting cast really makes this novel shine, from Astrid’s wry reactions to Mark’s fellow Assassins Anonymous members to the colorful group of criminals and spies from his dark past. 

Assassins Anonymous is hilarious and irreverent (e.g., a hitman bringing his cat along on his adventures) without ever falling into the trap of being ridiculous. With his dry sense of humor and self-deprecating nature, Mark is a fantastic narrator. Add to that some global intrigue and a dash of romance, and this novel is an immensely satisfying read.

The story of a former hitman with a target on his back and a vow not to kill, Assassins Anonymous combines a fantastic narrator, global intrigue and dash of romance for a hilarious read.
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In the last two decades, the world of entertainment, books and beyond has been absolutely saturated with terrorism thrillers. The genre wasn’t exactly obscure before, but in the years since 9/11, we’ve seen an ongoing boom in a subgenre that, at this point, seems to have run out of surprises. Until, of course, the right storyteller comes along.

Sweeping, emotional and driven by a powerful ensemble of characters from all walks of life, Abir Mukherjee’s Hunted seeks to meld the personal and the political, the global and the local, and most importantly, the emotional and the procedural. It’s an ambitious offering, even for an acclaimed historical mystery author, which makes the book’s ability to meet its own high standards that much more impressive.

The narrative follows a group of disparate figures, all of whom have some connection to the bombing of a shopping mall in Los Angeles. Over the course of roughly one week, Hunted follows an FBI agent on the trail of the extremists responsible for the attack, a former U.S. serviceman who’s been radicalized in his own way, a young woman roped into a movement she might not fully grasp and, most powerfully, two parents from opposite sides of the world, both hoping to save their children from the grip of a terrorist plot of epic proportions.

That plot and its stakes are capably unspooled over the course of Hunted‘s 400 pages, and it’s clear from the beginning that Mukherjee knows how to marshal his talents as a seasoned mystery writer and bring them to bear on a narrative of this scope. His prose is sharp, brisk and moves at an appropriately breakneck pace, delivering the goods for anyone who’s looking for something that rockets them along with tight plotting and juicy twists.

But that plotting, solid though it is, is not what really makes Hunted work. That honor goes to the way Mukherjee is able to expertly blend action with genuinely emotional character work, even though not all of his characters are created equal in terms of the grip they have on the reader. Hunted is, at its core, a book about people who feel like the systems around them have let them down, and how they each respond to that disappointment. It’s a story of regrets, retribution and redemption, set within a truly epic thriller.

Abir Mukherjee’s sweeping, emotional and epic Hunted proves the terrorism thriller isn’t dead.
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Sally Hepworth’s Darling Girls is a feverish thriller rife with gaslighting and unreliable narrators, perfect for fans of Freida McFadden or Loreth Anne White.

Jessica, Norah and Alicia grew up in the same foster home, Wild Meadows, with a seemingly perfect foster mother, Miss Fairchild. When the novel opens, the now-adult women are all struggling thanks to what they endured in Miss Fairchild’s “care.” But when Wild Meadows is demolished and human remains are found underneath it, the ensuing investigation forces the three sisters to excavate their own complicated memories of what happened there.

Hepworth cannily builds this novel around the understanding that childhood trauma doesn’t always make sense to adult eyes. Each of the sisters’ experiences with Miss Fairchild are horrific in slightly different, almost inconceivable ways, leaving readers feeling like they are participating in some kind of collective hallucination. All three sisters have memories of babies being brought into the home, then disappearing at night. All three claim to have lived with a toddler named Amy—except the only Amy that existed in the house, according to police, was a doll. Hepworth’s deep dives into the point of view of each character keeps things feeling off-kilter and unmoored. As the tale of their spooky and bizarre childhood at Wild Meadows unfolds, we can’t help but wonder if the sisters’ odd experiences are a means of covering up their involvement in something dire. This is a novel where no one can be trusted at their word: Even as adults, the sisters are all still unreliable narrators. Jessica is addicted to Valium, Norah has severe anger issues that manifest as violence and Alicia has buried her past in a way that can only end in crisis. 

Extremely dark without ever showing violence on the page, Darling Girls portrays the horrors of psychological abuse, but the novel also offers catharsis. Jessica, Norah and Alicia survived a horrible ordeal. The discovery of the bones under Wild Meadows is the catalyst for them to be able to tell their story and begin to heal. 

With an emphasis on psychological versus physical terror, Darling Girls is a one-sitting read full of twists and turns.

With an emphasis on psychological versus physical terror, Darling Girls is a one-sitting read full of twists and turns.

Anyone who thinks we live in a post-racial world clearly hasn’t been paying attention. The highly justified anger over Black pain inflicted by white privilege is undeniable—but what happens when one grieving mother decides to exact revenge? With notes of Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Othello, Sara Koffi’s While We Were Burning is a searing debut with a complex and compelling dual narration that dares readers to question their own perspectives on everyday, casual racism.

In the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, Elizabeth Smith’s life looks perfect, but appearances are deceiving. Her marriage is hanging on by a thread, her lifelong struggle with insomnia makes even getting out of bed a challenge, and the other white women around her—including neighbor and co-worker Patricia—don’t feel like real friends. When Patricia is found dead, strung up in a tree while still wearing her Halloween costume, Elizabeth plunges even deeper into despair. Enter Brianna, a stunning and kind Black woman whom Elizabeth hires as her personal assistant, and who quickly becomes a close friend and confidante. But unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Brianna has her own agenda: After the death of her beloved teenage son due to a 911 call from Elizabeth’s neighborhood, she’s out for blood, and she’s certain Elizabeth can get her closer to her goal. Then there’s the unexpected twist of Brianna’s attraction to Elizabeth’s husband . . .

Author Koffi, who hails from Memphis herself, seeks to explore unlikable female characters and “humanize Black women by giving them space on the page to breathe.” Hopefully, this accomplished debut is the first of many books where she will have the opportunity to do just that. Both Elizabeth and Brianna are fully realized women, fighting personal and societal demons and, in Brianna’s case, trying to survive in a world that would rather have her dead, or at least quiet and submissive. Beginning and ending with a bang, with a host of grisly surprises in between, While We Were Burning provokes deep thought and frustration, posing the fervent, urgent question: When will justice truly be served?

Sara Koffi’s While We Were Burning is a searing thriller that dares readers to question their own perspectives on everyday, casual racism.

What happens in Vegas . . . never stays in Vegas. It’s no secret that the bright lights of Sin City just barely disguise a dark legacy of bad deals, gangsters and buried bodies. What happens when post-COVID craziness and cryptocurrency fads come on the scene, fatalities pile up and two estranged sisters are caught in the middle? Chris Bohjalian’s The Princess of Las Vegas is a thrilling symphony of royal impersonators, teenage hackers and run-down casinos with multiple mysteries at its core.

Actor Crissy Dowling has found her calling in the form of a long-dead princess. Her Diana Spencer cabaret act is the toast of the Buckingham Palace casino, and she enjoys every perk: a complimentary suite and cabana, a close friendship with her “Charles” and all the free avocado toast she can eat. So what if her pill-popping and bulimia make daily cameos, and her politician lover has gone back to his wife? But then Crissy’s bosses are both found dead, supposedly by suicide. At the same time, Crissy’s sister, Betsy, a wild child turned social worker, moves to Las Vegas to follow her new boyfriend into what promises to be a bright future in cryptocurrency, her newly adopted teenage daughter in tow. To make it out alive from the chaos that ensues, Crissy must evolve beyond the glamour girl persona she’s adopted on and offstage—and reconnect with the sister she blames for their mother’s tragic demise.

New York Times bestselling author Bohjalian is no stranger to quirky folks in increasingly twisted situations, as fans of his 2018 novel, The Flight Attendant, which was adapted into a buzzy, darkly hilarious HBO series starring Kaley Cuoco, already know. In Crissy, whose reverence for Diana has escalated into full-blown obsession, and Betsy, who strives to save everyone while also obtaining her own personal prosperity, Bohjalian has created two distinctively fascinating narrators that he then places in a setting where anything can happen, including copious violence. The Princess of Las Vegas will leave the reader with both a yearning for Sin City excitement and a deep sigh of relief at being exactly where they are.

Chris Bohjalian’s latest thriller, The Princess of Las Vegas is a thrilling symphony of run-down casinos, teenage hackers and royal impersonators with multiple mysteries at its core.
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STARRED REVIEW

March 12, 2024

9 true crime-inspired mysteries and thrillers

With the huge boom in true crime books, podcasts and documentaries has come a parallel wave of mysteries and thrillers that examine the pleasures and pitfalls of the genre. These books form a literary hall of mirrors, turning the voyeuristic gaze of true crime back upon the reader. You may not like what you find.

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Conviction

A true crime podcast leads a woman on a dangerous adventure across Europe in Denise Mina’s crackling new novel, Conviction.
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Devil House

In his shapeshifting, extraordinarily ambitious third novel, musician and writer John Darnielle proves his versatility yet again.
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catchherwhenshefalls

Catch Her When She Falls

Catch Her When She Falls is wildly suspenseful and almost gothic in tone, providing thrills without any gritty or gory aspects.
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The Last to Vanish

The latest from Megan Miranda is a perfectly balanced cross between a cold-case mystery and a psychological thriller that features a fascinating amateur sleuth.
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WAKE

Author Shelley Burr won the 2019 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger award for WAKE. After reading it, you’ll totally understand why.
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These books turn the voyeuristic gaze of true crime back upon the reader. You may not like what you find.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books for March 2024

The best new books of the month include highly anticipated follow-ups from Sloane Crosley, Sasha LaPointe and Juan Gómez-Jurado.
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Book jacket image for 49 Days by Agnes Lee

49 Days is an unusual, profoundly moving graphic novel whose elegance belies its complexity and whose emotional impact only grows upon rereading.

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Book jacket image for All That Grows by Jack Wong

In All That Grows, Jack Wong evokes the soft haze of childhood summers where a small stand of trees might be seen as a huge

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Book jacket image for Black Wolf by Juan Gomez-Jurado

The Antonia Scott series is hands-down the best suspense trilogy to come along since Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

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A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.

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Book jacket image for Mrs. Gulliver by Valerie Martin

In Mrs. Gulliver, Valerie Martin offers us an idyll, perhaps even a comedy. All’s well that ends well. We hope.

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Book jacket image for The Phoenix Bride by Natasha Siegel

Natasha Siegel’s beautifully written The Phoenix Bride pushes readers to reconsider what happily ever after looks like.

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Book jacket image for Thunder Song by Sasha LaPointe

Thunder Song is an essay collection full of sensitive meditations and powerful observations from Coast Salish author Sasha LaPointe.

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Book jacket image for The Unclaimed by Pamela Prickett

Gripping and groundbreaking, The Unclaimed investigates the Americans who are abandoned in death and what they tell us about how we treat the living.

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Book jacket image for The Great Divide by Cristina Henriquez

Cristina Henriquez’s polyvocal novel is a moving and powerful epic about the human cost of building the Panama Canal. It’s easy to imagine, in these

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Novelist, essayist, humorist and critic Sloane Crosley shows a remarkable willingness to face the dark questions that follow a suicide.

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The best new books of the month include highly anticipated follow-ups from Sloane Crosley, Sasha LaPointe and Juan Gómez-Jurado.
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The Boy Who Cried Bear

Building on the success of her Rockton series, Kelley Armstrong’s Haven’s Rock series is about a secret town in Canada’s Yukon wilderness, where people fleeing a dangerous situation can hide safely in the company of other, similarly afflicted residents. Think of it as a private witness protection program, with security provided by remoteness rather than hiding in plain sight. The latest installment, The Boy Who Cried Bear, has an absolute doozy of a setup. As you’d expect from the title, one of the residents, a preteen boy, sees a bear while on a hike. Or perhaps a yeti. Or perhaps it is just a tall tale, because he swears the bear had human eyes. But when the boy disappears into the forest, and bear fur is found near where he went missing, the search becomes a race against time to find him before the cold and the wildlife finish him off. His mother remains unconvinced.. She knows her son would not go off into the forest on his own, and she strongly suspects that one of the other members of the community is a pedophile. The truth of the matter is slightly more complicated. OK, a lot more complicated. And dangerous enough that a couple of folks will die violently before it becomes evident.

Hard Girls

J. Robert Lennon’s thriller, Hard Girls, is the story of Jane and Lila Pool, a pair of twins dealt a bad hand in life early on. When they were youngsters, their mother left one day and never came back. There were rumors about her departure, perhaps a clandestine lover or something altogether darker. Their distracted professor father didn’t keep much of a rein on them after that, and in fact paid them as little attention as possible. It wasn’t abuse, exactly, but it was certainly benign neglect. And as is often the case with twins, Jane and Lila were competitors as well as sibs, further egging each other on with each passing year, until one night a series of escalating events culminated in homicide. Justifiable? Arguably, but the actions they took after the fact muddied those waters significantly. They parted company with some recriminations, but with little choice in the matter. And so they remained for quite some time until out of the blue, their missing mother reappears in their lives, leading them on a merry chase across the continent and deep into Central America. I am just scratching the surface here: There are CIA-related complications, deadly expats, car chases, first-rate skulduggery and the weirdly resilient family ties that bind. All in all, Hard Girls is an original, multilayered and quite engrossing thriller.

★ Little Underworld

You could make a case for the prosecution that PI Jim Beely doesn’t mean to murder Vern Meyer in the opening scene of Chris Harding Thornton’s Little Underworld. It would be a hard sell, though, as Meyer molested Beely’s 14-year-old daughter, and Beely does, after all, hold Meyer’s head underwater rather longer than the world record for holding one’s breath. He thinks long and hard about how to dispose of the remains, and finally throws the body into the backseat of his car and heads back to town, with a plan to meet his undertaker friend who, for a fee, will help him dispose of the evidence. There he happens upon crooked cop Frank Tvrdik, who greets him with “Hate to break it to you—You got a dead guy in your backseat.” But Frank doesn’t much care about the body, except perhaps as leverage to get Beely’s help in taking down a corrupt politician. And nobody cares that the politician is corrupt, except that his corruption seems to be getting in the way of their corruption, and that cannot be allowed. Little Underworld is set in 1930s Omaha (of all places), with period-correct dialogue that is often darkly hilarious, reminiscent in tone of black-and-white gumshoe movies from the golden age of Hollywood. 

★ Black Wolf

The big news in mystery circles these days is Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Antonia Scott series, which has sold like panqueques (hotcakes) in its home country of Spain. Volume two of the trilogy, Black Wolf, has just been released. The temptation is strong to compare central character Antonia Scott to Stieg Larsson’s antihero Lisbeth Salander, but a) that has been done already by pretty much every reviewer up to now, and b) I think a much more apt comparison is to Keigo Higashino’s uber-talented police consultant Dr. Manabu Yukawa, aka Detective Galileo. Both Scott and Yukawa visualize connections that others miss, and both are in high demand with the police for their brainiac skills. Scott’s police contact is Jon Gutiérrez, a strong but slightly less than graceful gay man from the Basque Country. While Gutiérrez is trying (and failing) to fish a dead body out of a river in Madrid, a mafia figure is murdered in his home a half-day’s drive away on the south coast. The man’s wife is targeted as well, but she escapes, albeit barely. In hot pursuit is an assassin known as the Black Wolf (in Spanish, la loba negra). It falls to Antonia and Jon to track her down before the killer locates her. There is one area in which a comparison to Larsson is warranted: The Antonia Scott series is hands-down the best suspense trilogy to come along since Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Nothing else even comes close. The third one needs to arrive soon—make it so.

Our mystery columnist hails Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Antonia Scott novels as the best suspense series since Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Careful listening and watchful waiting are essential to every investigator’s toolkit, and the characters in award-winning Dublin Murder Squad author Tana French’s suspenseful, slow-burning thriller The Hunter elevate those skills to an art form—not just former Chicago detective Cal Hooper but also his neighbors in Ardnakelty, a tiny village on Ireland’s west coast.

Since readers met Cal in 2020’s The Searcher, he and 15-year-old villager Trey Reddy have established a close rapport and started a carpentry business. Cal is also dating Lena, who’s conflicted about remaining in her hometown: Ardnakelty is lovely, but the shadow of the mountain often feels foreboding, and its residents revel in gossip and grudges. 

The village can be a bit of a pressure cooker, and is especially so this summer: It’s exceptionally hot and dry, and the locals are edgy about the prospect of crop failure and financial hardship. The farmers are getting bored, and as Cal’s amusingly insouciant yet vaguely menacing neighbor Mart tells him, “Boredom makes a man’s mind restless, and then he tries to cure the restlessness by doing foolish shite.”

That’s when Trey’s father, Johnny, reappears after four years away doing who-knows-what. He’s quite charming, wholly unreliable and has a proposition for the farmers: There’s gold in the mountain, and some has washed down to the land—perhaps their land. Would they like to invest in a plan to extract that gold, as led by Johnny and his business partner, a Londoner named Cillian Rushborough? The farmers are intrigued, while Cal, Lena and Trey are skeptical. Their trepidation intensifies as the planning process stirs up hostility among the townspeople, and rises to a fever pitch when a man is found murdered. Who among them did it? And who might be next? 

The Hunter’s finely crafted internal monologues and nerve-wracking dialogues ably convey the unique tensions of living in a remote small town, especially when one is uncertain which neighbor (or neighbors) might’ve committed a crime. It’s an immersive, thought-provoking tale that revels in the quiet moments—whether that of conversational gaps more revealing than spoken words, or a place of natural beauty that offers respite but never promises peace.

Tana French’s immersive, thought-provoking The Hunter revels in the quiet moments, but knows true peace is elusive.

By the time she was 12, Ámbar Mondragón knew how to treat bullet wounds. When she turned 13, her father, Victor, gave her a sawed-off shotgun plus shooting and hot-wiring lessons. And as Nicolás Ferraro’s My Favorite Scar opens, 15-year-old Ámbar is tending to her father’s latest injury: He’s returned from a night out with a bullet hole in his upper chest and his murdered friend Giovanni’s body in the passenger seat of his car.

To Ámbar, this horrifying turn of events isn’t all that shocking. Rather, it’s just another terrible moment in the life she’s lived since the age of 9, when Grandma Nuria, who cared for Ámbar after her mother abandoned her, had a fatal heart attack. Dad came to get her, and Ámbar since adjusted to an existence rife with violence and loneliness, one where she wonders if she’ll ever feel happy or secure. After all, while the titular “favorite scar” refers to Dad’s tattoo bearing her name, “He might carry my name on his skin, but he never held me in his arms. He chose my name, but he was never around until he didn’t have any other choice.”

Now, Ámbar has to tag along as Dad embarks on a singularly vicious road trip, determined to exact bloody revenge on those who betrayed him and Giovanni. My Favorite Scar is a nihilistic road novel of unrelenting bleakness that takes readers on a hair-raising tour of Argentina’s criminal underworld. The duo stop at bars, burial sites and hideout shacks where Dad delivers interrogations, warnings and beatings as Ámbar plays lookout or getaway driver, often with sawed-off shotgun in hand.

As in Cruz, his first novel translated into English, Ferraro explores the effects of criminals’ choices on children who become unwitting and/or unwilling accomplices. His deftly created suspense builds with every mile driven, every fake ID used, every drop of blood spilled. Will the cycle of violence ever end? Will Ámbar ever be anything but “what other people have left behind”? My Favorite Scar is a pitch-black coming-of-age tale that reverberates with oft-poetically expressed pain and sadness—and maybe, just maybe, a hint of hope.

Nicolas Ferraro’s My Favorite Scar is a nihilistic, hair-raising road trip through Argentina’s criminal underworld.
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Tracy Sierra’s debut novel is so terrifying that it can easily be considered horror-adjacent. A claustrophobic examination of the “freeze” response to trauma (as opposed to “fight” or “flight”), Nightwatching follows a mother desperate to protect her two young children amid unthinkable circumstances.

We open with an unnamed single mother half-asleep during a blizzard, listening for signs that her sleepwalking daughter may be wandering their old farmhouse. What she hears instead is an intruder ascending their creaky staircase, and the next several scenes unfold with horrifying slowness. Our main character can barely see the intruder in the dark, but feels an eerie sense of familiarity with him. With exquisite care, she manages to smuggle her two young children downstairs and into a secret compartment built into the old house, where they wait like cornered animals.

We never learn the name of our narrator, but she pulls the reader into the story with a point of view so close it nearly lapses into stream of consciousness. As she waits silently, comforting her petrified children and trying to keep them quiet, we see flashes of her life. In the past, she has always responded to shock and crisis with silence, making herself smaller, invisible. When she’s startled by a college boyfriend playfully tackling her from behind, she collapses, unable to make a sound. When her abusive father-in-law slaps her while in a rage, she’s unable to sever their relationship, instead trying to find fault in herself.

Sierra argues that there is value and bravery in the freeze response, showing how her protagonist’s ability to stay small and quiet protects her children with as much valor as a confrontation. But when she’s pushed beyond her limits, our heroine goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her family and advocate for herself, even when the police later question her story. Gaslighting and misogyny, evidenced not only by law enforcement but by the broader society around her, threaten the narrator’s family almost as much as the intruder, who vanishes as mysteriously as he came. Convinced he will return, she tries to make the police see and believe the threat against her and her children, despite her wavering voice.

Nightwatching is best suited for the thriller reader with nerves of steel—while rarely violent, it is a truly scary book. The intense plunge into the main character’s traumatic experience feels incredibly real and immediate, and the suspense doesn’t let up until the last moments of the novel.

Nightwatching is best suited for the thriller reader with nerves of steel—while rarely violent, it is a truly scary book.
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STARRED REVIEW

February 6, 2024

Two thrilling new takes on noir

Grab your trenchcoat and a stiff drink—you’ll need it.

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Suppose, just for a moment, that the European colonizers of America hadn’t brought a whole host of diseases that wiped out a majority of the Indigenous population, and that Natives had thrived, rather than been decimated. What would Prohibition-era America have looked like, politically, economically and culturally?

In the alt-universe police procedural mystery Cahokia Jazz, Francis Spufford takes this premise and runs with it. It’s as if Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle met up with Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers in a 1922 speakeasy. 

Apart from the setting—the state of Cahokia, carved out of eastern Missouri and surrounding states—the story starts off in familiar, if somewhat gruesome, territory. Two detectives, Joe Barrow and Phineas Drummond, are investigating a murder in which the victim has had his heart cut out. On his face, the word bashli (from Anopa, the city’s Native lingua franca, meaning hit or cut) has been scrawled in blood. 

At first, the murder seems to have possibly been some sort of Aztec ritual sacrifice, but as the investigation progresses, it’s discovered that the deceased had links to the Ku Klux Klan, who very much want to replace Cahokia’s Native power structure with one of their own. 

The book’s debt to the likes of Raymond Chandler is evident throughout, as Detective Barrow steps into the hallowed role of the untarnished, unvarnished romantic who makes his way doggedly down these mean streets. And on occasion, Spufford’s language equals that of noir masters of yore: “He had opened the box at the city’s heart, and found it contained a secret, and a dark one, a grim sacrifice, but not a snake or a scorpion, not anything beyond the reach of the hope that every morning upholds hearts and cities. And now he was free to go. The city was done with him.”

There’s a bit of a learning curve for the reader, as unfamiliar language and culture weave through the intricately plotted narrative, but Spufford propels the Jazz Age action to a climax that is at once unanticipated and seemingly inevitable.

Visit an alternate America where European colonization never took place in this intricately plotted police procedural from Francis Spufford.

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