The femme fatale is beautiful, desirable and, above all, a survivor. While she was often villainized for that last trait in her film noir heyday, these modern takes on the figure celebrate the ferocious resilience at her core.
★ Stone Cold Fox
The wily narrator and antiheroine of Rachel Koller Croft’s Stone Cold Fox introduces herself as Bea—but that wasn’t the name she was born with. As a child, Bea changed her name as she moved from place to place and her mother moved from husband to husband, teaching little Bea the ways to ensnare both the right men and the money and privilege that come with them. Bea’s mother may be out of the picture now, but Bea still seeks to one-up her in every way possible. Thanks to faked credentials, Bea is a high-powered advertising executive who recently became engaged to a former client, the dull but old money wealthy Collin Case. It’s a union Bea knows will set her up for life. But when Collin’s loyal best friend, Gale Wallace-Leicester, and his flirtatious old pal Dave Bradford arrive on the scene, Bea fears that her web of lies and her greedy motivations will come to light.
Alternating between Bea’s precarious present and her checkered past as the young and vulnerable tag-along to a truly wicked woman, screenwriter Koller Croft’s stellar debut novel is a meticulously crafted thriller that will keep the reader wondering whether Bea’s actions are horrendous or aspirational.
★ A Small Affair
Vera, the results-driven narrator of Flora Collins’ A Small Affair, has a similarly aspirational lifestyle. She has a lucrative position at an up-and-coming fashion label, an enviable Instagram feed full of striking photos and unique style, a fun and supportive roommate/best friend and, most recently, an exciting older lover named Tom, a tech guru with a mouthwatering Brooklyn brownstone and wild prowess in bed. But after Vera breaks off the relationship, Tom’s body is found alongside that of his pregnant wife, Odilie, and Vera is named in a note as the cause of the murder-suicide. The story goes viral, and Vera loses it all, with no choice but to slink off to the upstate abode of her controlling hippie mother. One depression-filled year later, Vera seeks to clear her reputation and regain her position as a Manhattan scene queen. Could the late Odilie’s Instagram be the key to solving the mystery of her and Tom’s deaths?
Vera is a fascinating contemporary femme fatale who will stop at nothing to claw her way back to the top, even if it means faking a friendship with Page, Odilie’s naive younger sister who may have secret ambitions of her own, and deep diving into Tom’s sordid life, which is full of grisly secrets that only money can protect. Collins’ second novel (after 2021’s Nanny Dearest) rotates among the perspectives of Vera, Tom and Odilie, a trifecta of complicated personalities desperate to make it in the cutthroat city that never sleeps. The result is a twisted tale of multiple femmes fatales who will use everything they’ve got to get what they want.
Two thrillers celebrate the ferocious resilience of an iconic female archetype.
Meagan Jennett’s You Know Her is a crackerjack debut thriller. A book about a serial killer is not necessarily notable; there are many of those on the racks at bookstores. Books about female serial killers are in somewhat shorter supply, and a book in which said female serial killer is a narrator is fairly unusual. But here’s the kicker: You kinda want her to get away with it. Our soon-to-be-murderer Sophie Braam is a bartender when You Know Her begins. She has seen it all, and most of what she has seen has not been pretty. And then one day, a minor grievance becomes the proverbial backbreaking straw. A stolen glass of wine should not be a death sentence, you might argue, but if you had that argument with Sophie, there’s a good chance she would bring you around to her way of thinking. Sophie’s new best friend (although it is a somewhat guarded friendship) is police officer Nora Martin, one of the investigators of the first of Sophie’s murders. Nora has also seen it all, or so she thinks, but nothing can really prepare her for Sophie. Which brings us to kicker number two: You also kinda want the skillful, hardworking Nora to solve the murders. She deserves a big win to help her rise to the rank of detective, which would be a reward to be savored in her toxic, good-ol’-boy, small-town police department. Only one can win—let the games begin.
The Last Heir to Blackwood Library
Hester Fox’s The Last Heir to Blackwood Library contains romance, fantasy, the occult and religious zealotry gone off the rails; in short, it’s not your standard whodunit. However, fans of supernaturally tinged mysteries from authors such as T. Jefferson Parker and John Connolly will be intrigued by this historical spin on the subgenre, and other readers will be enticed by Fox’s first-rate writing, which is engrossing from page one. In 1927 London, the fortunes of one Ivy Radcliffe have radically changed. One day, she is sharing a drafty bed-sit apartment with her best friend and living hand to mouth. The next day, she is anointed Lady Hayworth, complete with manor house, staff, motorcar, income and a couple of handsome potential suitors. However, the solicitor who informed Ivy of her windfall neglected to tell her about the previous title holders, all of whom met with a premature and mysterious death. The Last Heir to Blackwood Library hews more closely to the mystery and suspense genre than to any other, I would say. And even though it’s more of a “whatdunit” than a whodunit, mystery readers of all types will enjoy it.
So Shall You Reap
There are series that readers return to again and again for nonstop action or a “ripped from the headlines” vibe. And then there are series that readers devour because the protagonist is a person of evident strength of character. Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoit “Bruno” Courreges, for example, or Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti would emerge close to the top of any such list as well. As So Shall You Reap opens, Leon’s Venetian sleuth visits a lovely, albeit somewhat neglected, old palazzo to inquire for a friend as to whether the property is for sale. A Sri Lankan man answers the door and informs him that the house is not on the market. It will not be their last interaction: The following evening, Brunetti will identify the man’s body after it is pulled from a canal. The subsequent investigation unearths inflammatory political screeds both from Sri Lanka and Italy in the man’s personal effects, which seem to be at odds with his devout Buddhism and calm demeanor during his interaction with Brunetti. It tosses Brunetti’s thoughts back to his time at university, when he was somewhat more radical in his politics than he is now as a world-weary policeman approaching retirement age. Italy in Brunetti’s younger days was plagued with bombings, kidnappings and murders, some of which are still unsolved. But one of them is about to be solved, in part by the dogged persistence of Brunetti, and in part by the almost humanlike persistence of a dog. This is the 32nd book in the series, and if it is your first Commissario Brunetti mystery, you will most likely turn immediately to the other 31.
Heart of the Nile
Although many readers regard Will Thomas’ Barker & Llewelyn mysteries as an homage to those starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I would suggest that they more closely resemble Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mysteries. In both cases, the main sleuth’s assistant is the narrator, with both Goodwin and Llewelyn taking a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, especially in regard to the vicissitudes of their curmudgeonly senior partners. Both teams regularly run circles around the cops, be it NYPD or Scotland Yard, engendering awe (occasionally) and annoyance (much more regularly). Thomas’ latest mystery, Heart of the Nile, is the 14th installment in the series. It deals with the discovery of a mummy in the British Museum’s collection of ancient artifacts, the treasure trove of looted antiquities fondly known as “England’s Attic.” This particular mummy, however, may be the remains of Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra. Supporting that notion is an immense uncut ruby laid in the chest cavity once occupied by her heart. The ruby disappears, people start to meet untimely and violent deaths, and Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn are summoned to unravel the mystery. This is an exceptionally entertaining series, jampacked with Victorian arcana and 19th-century London history, anchored by the quick wit and pithy observations of narrator Llewelyn.
In this month’s Whodunit column, Meagan Jennett’s crackerjack debut thriller tracks that doomed friendship. Plus, read all about the latest Commissario Brunetti mystery.
In The Soulmate, New York Times bestselling author Sally Hepworth follows two women who each thought she’d found once-in-a-lifetime love. One relies on memories to reconcile the partner she thought she knew—who is now suspected of murder—while the other speaks from beyond the grave, bereft of her beloved. As you would expect, the women’s stories are more intertwined than is immediately apparent.
Pippa has it all: a successful career, two gorgeous little girls, an adoring husband, Gabe, and a gorgeous new waterfront house situated on a cliff. There’s just one macabre drawback: The cliff is a frequent location for suicides. Shortly after they move in, Gabe becomes something of a guardian angel and talks multiple people out of killing themselves. But one fateful night, a woman approaches the cliff and, despite Gabe’s entreaties, jumps to her death. At least, that’s what Gabe claims, though the local authorities think otherwise. As Pippa reflects on her relationship with her soulmate—a dramatic saga full of lost jobs and sudden moves—so does Amanda, the woman at the cliff. Past and present collide as the reasons for Amanda’s journey to the cliff, and the extent to which Pippa has worked to protect the man she loves, become clear.
Hepworth is a master of suspense, teasing out a complicated and deadly tale as well as she teases out the complicated and occasionally deadly individuals behind it. None of the four “soulmates”—Pippa, Gabe, Amanda and Amanda’s husband—are all good or bad. The reality is far more interesting and intense, rife with professional ambition, struggles for power in the boardroom and bedroom and, for Pippa and Amanda, a never-ending quest to understand the men to whom they’re devoted. One character deals with severe mental illness, which Hepworth reveals and analyzes in ways both sensitive and true to life, and another holds onto a family secret with disturbing consequences. From its inciting incident to its final shocking twist, The Soulmatewill keep readers in its thrall, making them wonder how well someone can really know their partner.
From its inciting incident to its final shocking twist, Sally Hepworth’s The Soulmate keeps readers in its thrall.
Blood Will Tell by Heather Chavez zeroes in on the complicated relationship between Frankie Barrera and her younger sister, Izzy. Frankie always stands by her sister, even when Izzy makes questionable decisions, but things change when Frankie is wrongfully implicated in a child abduction case—a crime that may involve Izzy. When a dark incident from the past resurfaces, Frankie is forced to face difficult truths and the sisters’ bond is tested to its breaking point. Enriched by themes of family, duty and commitment, this captivating thriller will spark lively dialogue among readers.
Rita Todacheene, the protagonist of Ramona Emerson’s Shutter, is a crackerjack forensic photographer with the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police. Brought up on the Navajo Nation Reservation by her grandmother, Rita has become disconnected from her past, in part because the ghosts of crime victims torment her. While Rita is photographing a suicide case, the victim’s ghost reveals that she was murdered and urges Rita to find the culprits. Things take a dangerous turn when Rita is targeted by a violent cartel. A multilayered work of crime fiction, Shutter will electrify readers.
In Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule, Hannah, a law student at the University of Virginia, lives with her troubled mother, Laura. Hannah works for the university’s chapter of the Innocence Project, researching cases in which people were convicted of a crime but maintained their innocence. As the novel unfolds, McTiernan incorporates entries from Laura’s diary that describe the death of her lover years ago, with a connection between that incident and a case Hannah researches adding a chilling twist to the narrative. Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this complex novel, such as the difficulties of true justice and the nature of memory.
Chris Pavone turns up the tension in the compelling Two Nights in Lisbon. During a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, Ariel’s younger husband, John, vanishes without a trace, leaving her alone in a strange country. John can’t be reached by phone, and the authorities are unable to find him. Frantic and frightened, Ariel comes to realize that John himself is a mystery, and his disappearance draws her into a web of danger. A consistently suspenseful tale, Two Nights in Lisbon explores the secrets that can separate husband and wife
Bring some suspense to your reading group with these impossible-to-put-down titles.
Police procedural novels set in China often have a decidedly different feel from their European and American counterparts. As public servants are paid so poorly in the Middle Kingdom, there is a thriving shadow economy of grift and clandestine deal-making. The rule book is scarcely more than a fairy tale, broadly ignored by law enforcement and the criminal element alike. Case in point: Brian Klingborg’s The Magistrate. His protagonist, Deputy Chief Inspector Lu Fei, is one of only a handful of honest cops, and thus he is roundly despised by most of the higher-ups. However, on the rare occasion when a fact-driven investigation is required, Lu is the go-to guy. As The Magistrate begins, someone is targeting corrupt officials and subjecting them to excruciating torture and/or death. It soon becomes evident that a series of medieval interrogation methods are being utilized, all on the orders of someone calling themself the Magistrate. When his longtime nemesis, Mr. Xu, a corrupt fellow cop, succeeds in sidelining Lu with a trumped-up murder charge, it will take some clever planning and more than a little assistance from some supposed bad guys for the canny policeman to prevail. With its nonstop action, suspense galore, fascinating locale and compelling characters (even/especially the nefarious ones), The Magistrate ticks all the boxes.
Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River
Since last we checked in on plucky Viviana Valentine, she’s been promoted from girl Friday to full-time sleuthing partner in the private investigation agency of Tommy Fortuna, allegedly the Big Apple’s number one gumshoe. Oh, Tommy is still the boss, but Viviana proved her mettle in her first outing (Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man), and Tommy is practically a sensitive, New Age guy as 1950s male bosses go. Emily J. Edwards’ follow-up, Viviana Valentine Goes Up the River, is clever and witty, and it features some of the snappiest narration and dialogue in modern whodunits. This time out, Viviana and Tommy investigate some mysterious happenings in and around the home laboratory of Buster Beacon, a wealthy socialite/inventor. Their stay at Buster’s estate in upstate New York is punctuated by an evening gathering of neighbors and investors, all blissfully unaware of the impending snowstorm that will keep them imprisoned for some time in their gilded cage. This would not be so bad, were it not for the inconvenience of a locked-room murder in their midst, which will bring their jolly gathering to a screeching halt. The mystery has a pleasingly convoluted Knives Out vibe, Agatha Christie-esque but with a modern overlay of dry humor, much of it provided by Viviana’s narration. It’s good fun from beginning to end, with a surprise or two for even the most jaded suspense-o-phile.
The Eden Test
An upstate New York setting also figures prominently in Adam Sternbergh’s cinematic psychological thriller The Eden Test, even though it’s set seven-odd decades later. Daisy and Craig’s marriage seems, if not on the rocks, at least headed firmly in that direction. One of them has taken a lover, and there are more secrets bubbling not far beneath the surface. So Daisy takes matters into her own hands and books a week at a couples therapy retreat built on the concept of seeking seven answers to seven relationship questions in seven days. Phones are forbidden, and sometimes it appears that honesty has been proscribed as well. It doesn’t take long for things to go slightly off the rails, and then more than slightly. The counselors are a bit weird, as are the staff and the townspeople, and the whole scenario is filled with the sort of unease that you might find in “Twin Peaks” or at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, minus the supernatural component. And just when you think you have anticipated the big reveal, author Sternbergh delivers “the big nope,” forcing you to reconsider your so-called aha! moment.
★ The Body by the Sea
When I reviewed Jean-Luc Bannalec’s The Granite Coast Murders a couple of years back, I opined that the author’s portrayal of Brittany, France, was mesmerizing, noting that “it has been elevated into my top 10 places I need to visit, all thanks to Bannalec.” I would hope, however, that when I do finally visit Brittany, I can sidestep the murders that seem to bedevil Commissaire Georges Dupin. Bannalec’s latest Brittany novel, The Body by the Sea, opens in the seaside town of Concarneau, where Dr. Chaboseau, a noted cardiologist, has just taken a header from a balcony above Dupin’s favorite restaurant, the Amiral. Chaboseau had reportedly been involved in some contentious business relationships in the town, although perhaps nothing that should have risen to the level of homicide. Still, somebody was responsible; moreover, it will not be the last murder in this chain of events. Short-staffed thanks to a holiday weekend, Commissaire Dupin is the only on-duty cop save for a couple of very green recruits, so the case is rife with obstacles from the get-go. There is, however, a novel twist, so to speak: Some facets of Dupin’s current case echo plot points from a pre-World War II novel, which was in turn based on a real crime. Curiouser and curiouser, and it all leads to just the sort of surprise ending that readers long for. And as before, they are treated to fun facts about the food, landscape and denizens of Brittany along the way.
Start your summer early with two tales of vacations gone murderously wrong—plus a snappy 1950s mystery and an eerie marriage-centric thriller.
John Banville’s latest Quirke/Strafford mystery, The Lock-Up, stretches the boundaries of the genre. Ostensibly a police procedural set in 1958 Dublin, The Lock-Up is far more interested in its protagonists’ inner lives than it is in their detective work, and rather than celebrate its sleuths as bringers of order and righters of wrongs, it shows how their efforts toward justice can be, ultimately, meaningless. That said, it is well worth the read, because Banville’s characters fairly leap off the page. Pathologist Quirke is irascible as ever, but also lonely and grieving: “The thing about grief was that you could press upon it at its sharpest points and blunt them, only for the bluntness to spread throughout the system and make it ache like one vast bruise.” Detective Inspector St. John Strafford is a Protestant in a Catholic country, and a cop to boot—something for everyone to loathe. Together they investigate the death of Rosa Jacobs, a young Jewish woman with possible links to Wolfgang Kessler, a German refugee who made good in postwar Ireland and now appears to be involved with some shady dealings in the newly established country of Israel. The Lock-Up is beautifully written, the sort of book that makes you pause, reread a line and chew on it for a bit before continuing. Oh, and the ending? Good luck figuring that out before the precise reveal ordained by Banville.
Beware the Woman
Megan Abbott is one of the most skilled architects of suspense alive and has won or been a finalist for just about every major crime fiction award. Her latest thriller, Beware the Woman, finds her in top form once again. As the book opens, Jed and Jacy have just discovered that they are soon to become parents. They plan a holiday in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to visit Jed’s father, Dr. Ash, who lives in a luxurious “cabin” deep in the woods. As experienced readers will know, going to visit reclusive relatives in remote forests is like opening the attic door in a horror movie: guaranteed drama. As a retired physician, Dr. Ash is solicitous to a fault about Jacy’s pregnancy. When minor complications arise, he becomes rather heavy-handed about directing her care, never mind that he has not been a practicing physician for decades. Understandably, Jacy takes some exception to this but finds, to her dismay, that her husband has aligned with his father, and she soon becomes a virtual prisoner, held incommunicado. For sheer escalating tension, Beware the Woman rates right up there with Stephen King’s Misery; it just shouts to be read in one sitting.
The Last Drop of Hemlock
Katharine Schellman’s second Vivian Kelly mystery, The Last Drop of Hemlock, is set in Prohibition-era New York City. Vivian is a seamstress and delivery girl by day but a waitress at a speak-easy by night, doing the Charleston with lonely men in return for drinks. Said speak-easy, the Nightingale, is decidedly illegal and only exists as a result of liberally greased palms. Thus, an element of criminal activity is never far from the forefront. This time out, Vivian uses her connections to take a second look at a death that was initially ruled a suicide. The victim was Uncle Pearlie, a bouncer at the Nightingale who had purportedly just made a fortune via mysterious means. But when Vivian and her band of ne’er-do-wells go to his home, they find that his secret cache of cash has been emptied. Any lingering doubts that he was murdered are erased when his pregnant girlfriend comes forward and reveals that Pearlie’s windfall involved some particularly unpleasant gangsters. In the first book in the series, Last Call at the Nightingale, Schellman introduced a large and interesting cast of characters while also spinning a consistently suspenseful yarn. That is certainly still the case in book two, as Schellman tops herself in nearly every category.
Joe Brody, aka Joe the Bouncer, returns in David Gordon’s The Pigeon, the latest entertaining entry in the popular series. It should be noted that bouncer does not begin to encompass Joe’s duties. He serves as a sheriff of sorts for the criminal underworld of New York City, a mediator for organizations not exactly noted for solving disputes within the confines of the legal system. His longtime pal Gio sets him up with what should be an easy gig, and one that pays well too: recover a gangster’s stolen racing pigeon. The bird’s worth is in the neighborhood of $1 million, and Joe will collect a 5% reward upon recovery. Under normal circumstances, it would be a simple B & E—stuff the bird into a paper bag and exit stage left. But it turns out that the pricey Central Park-adjacent apartment building the bird is being kept in features one of the most sophisticated security systems this side of Fort Knox. Before Joe can snatch the pigeon, a squad of hit men is hot on his trail. He makes good his escape through a long-unused dumbwaiter, but his troubles are far from over. His FBI agent girlfriend is questioning her judgment in being associated with the criminal element, the gangster is still clamoring for his missing pigeon and the hit men know where Joe lives, works and plays. There is plenty of humor in the mix, as in an Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard novel, and plenty of action, too, realistically delivered without being egregiously graphic.
Quirke and Strafford team up again, plus Megan Abbott returns with a terrifying pregnancy thriller in this month’s Whodunit column.
Every artist experiences a lull, an acute need for fresh inspiration to get their work flowing again. And in Rachel Hawkins’ deliciously unsettling new gothic thriller, The Villa, characters at two points in time—1974 and the present—decide the very same Italian manse is just the place to spark new creative energy.
In the past, rock star Noel Gordon invites up-and-comer Pierce Sheldon; Pierce’s girlfriend, Mari; and Mari’s stepsister, Lara, to join him for a combination of vacation and songwriting session. Sex, drugs and rock ’n‘ roll abound, along with a rising undercurrent of discontent and unease fed by intense jealousy both romantic and artistic.
The louche vacation comes to a horrifying end when Pierce is murdered, thus cementing the villa’s notoriety—and kicking off major careers for Mari and Lara, both of whom began masterworks (a bestselling horror novel and a platinum album, respectively) during their tragic time in Italy.
In the present, the villa hosts frenemies Emily and Chess. They, too, need writerly rejuvenation. Emily, a cozy mystery author in the midst of a contentious divorce, can’t conjure storylines when her own life is a struggle. And famous self-help guru Chess is feeling intense pressure to come up with her next big thing. So she books them a summer stay sure to be rife with limoncello and, they hope, great new ideas. As Mari’s book and Lara’s album pique Emily’s interest, two mysteries emerge: Is there more to the 1974 tragedy than previously revealed? And is Emily’s growing unease simply due to the villa’s haunting history . . . or are her instincts warning of real danger?
Equally compelling dual timelines intertwine as The Villa progresses, showcasing Hawkins’ skill at crafting intriguing characters who take the notion of an unreliable narrator to clever new heights. Sly commentary on self-help and true crime mixes nicely with eerie gothic elements in this inventive and provocative tale that explores the dark side of artistic genius and the corrosive effects of unhealthy relationships. As a bonus, The Villa has its own legendary inspiration: Circa 1816, a vacation for Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley at Switzerland’s Villa Diodati laid the foundation for Mary’s acclaimed Frankenstein. Fans of twisty, creepy, layered thrillers will revel in their suspenseful stay at The Villa.
Fans of twisty, creepy, layered gothic thrillers will revel in their suspenseful stay at The Villa.
In the 1970s, a beautiful mansion in Orvieto, Italy, was the site of a brutal killing. Rock megastar Noel Gordon invited musician Pierce Sheldon, plus Pierce’s girlfriend, Mari, and her stepsister, Lara, for a summer of creativity, love and fun. But Pierce ended up dead, earning the villa a sinister reputation and the vacationers a complicated legacy. In the present, longtime yet somewhat estranged friends Emily and Chess go to the very same villa to catch up and hopefully kick off some new projects. While there, the villa’s tragic past piques Emily’s interest. Will she learn something new about the decades-old crime? Or will her sudden obsession distract her from the danger still lurking?
In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley participated in an impromptu, multiday creative jam session near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, that ended up inspiring seminal works of gothic horror, including Mary’s groundbreaking Frankenstein. Will you share with us how that weekend in turn inspired you as you wrote The Villa? I think it’s one of those things that is just naturally appealing to writers: a bunch of artists holed up in this gorgeous house, bizarre weather outside (1816 being the famous “Year Without a Summer”), all these completely wild interpersonal things happening among five very young people—Byron was the oldest of all of them, and he was only 28!—and at the end of it, one of the most famous books ever written is created by an 18-year-old girl.
Everything about that is so narratively rich and fun, and there are so many ways you can explore it. That was the seed for me, this idea of how art and life intersect, how great art can get made in the middle of chaos and the way artists inspire and also possibly derail one another.
You pay homage to the participants in that weekend through your characters’ names, e.g., Mary and Mari, Percy and Pierce. Who was the easiest for you to inhabit? The most difficult? The most fun? Mari’s voice always came through the strongest for me, even when the book was just a few stray notes on my laptop. Her sections sometimes felt more like dictating than writing, and that had never happened to me before, so I like to think that maybe I’d read enough about Mary Shelley that she was inhabiting me just a little bit.
For the most fun, that is easily Noel, our Byron stand-in. Byron was such an interesting guy, and when you read his letters, you really get that he was fun and charming and super witty, but the dark side of all that wit was this really stinging cruelty, and I liked finding moments when you could see both of those elements in Noel.
Pierce was probably the trickiest to write just because Percy Shelley himself was a tricky guy! He had all these noble ideals and was a gorgeous writer, but he also wrecked a lot of lives along the way. Finding a way to make Pierce appealing enough that we understand why both Mari and Lara loved him while also showing just how destructive and oblivious he could be was a tough needle to thread.
In addition to balancing dual timelines, you created a book within a book (Mari’s Lilith Rising) and an album, too (Lara’s Aestas). How did you manage all of these elements? I honestly just love challenging myself in new ways, and there was something really fun about conjuring up my own ’70s horror novel and coming up with song lyrics (a first for me!). That said, you realize pretty quickly when you’re writing a book about a famous book and a famous album that you are going to cringe a lot as you write characters going, “This is the best book/song ever!!” when you’re the one writing the excerpts and the lyrics!
Mari’s novel is called Lilith Rising. Why did you choose that title? Like most girls who wore Doc Martens and graduated from high school in 1998, Lilith Fair still looms large in my mind. So when I knew Mari would be writing a novel that would be seen as an important piece of feminist horror, it made total sense to me to involve Lilith. She’s scary (a demon!) but also a feminist icon (the discarded first wife!), and she just felt like the perfect figure to lend her name to Mari’s title.
At one point Mari thinks, “It was hard for two people to be artists when the rugs needed hoovering, and food needed to be purchased, dishes washed. And somehow, those things kept falling on her.” Will you share a bit more about what you wanted to convey with these lines and the ways in which the division of labor in heterosexual partnerships (or lack thereof) plays out in The Villa? This is another one of those things I come back to again and again in my books. I’m always interested in talking about women stepping into their power and the ways society can hold them back from doing that. And one of those ways is this very thing: we’ve come really far, and yet so much domestic stuff still falls on women.
I don’t need anything special in order to write. I don’t need an office that’s just so, or this one kind of pen/word processing program/notebook/tea, whatever, but I do need time and space and—tall order here!—a certain level of calm. Obviously, I’m not going to get those all of the time because Life Happens, but I’ve worked hard to prioritize those things and am lucky to have a family who gets it. But I still hear from women asking things like, “How do I get my partner to take my writing seriously?” or, “How do you balance being a mom and a writer?” So questions of Who Gets To Art, basically, are very much on my mind.
Since The Villa is a book about women and art, it felt natural to explore that idea on a couple of levels. Mari and Emily are both characters who shouldn’t necessarily find themselves in that situation—Mari because she’s living this bohemian lifestyle, Emily because we’re supposed to be past all that in 2023—and yet, they are both hemmed in by the men in their lives in these frustrating but unfortunately familiar ways.
What were the challenges of writing about a murder both as it happens and as a true crime story decades later? I’m fascinated by true crime, both as a genre and as a sort of cultural zeitgeist thing, but as the genre has gotten bigger, I’ve also tried to be a little more thoughtful about how much of it—and what kinds of it—I consume. At the end of the day, it’s a little weird that the worst thing that ever happened to someone is my road trip entertainment or the thing I turn on while I fold laundry, you know? So while this is obviously a fictional murder of a fictional character, I did want to show that Emily’s take on the crime might not line up with who these people really were, or what really happened, and that this thing that’s just part of the backstory of her vacation house was a truly devastating event that changed everyone involved.
If presented with a possible murder mystery while staying in a fancy villa, are you the sort of person who would hunt for clues like Emily did? Oh, I would be leaving. Very strict No Murder House policy in all my vacation plans!
Emily and Chess have known each other since childhood but aren’t as close as they once were and are quite often at odds. Mari and Lara have a shared history and a fraught relationship, too. Why do you think those sorts of unhealthy friendships are so common and can be so difficult to navigate? I’ve joked that this book is apparently my way of exploring my personal nightmares because I have so many wonderful and supportive women in my life, so of course I wrote a book where those kinds of relationships are toxic and awful! But the idea of the “frenemy” is so strong, and I think it’s because it exposes the flip side of that saying about how “friends are the family you choose.” They are, but that also makes it more complicated to untangle yourself from a friendship that goes bad—because you did choose that person, and there were a million reasons, big and little, why you did. I feel like society prioritizes family and romantic relationships over friendships, even though friendship is, in a lot of ways, a really complicated mix of those two things—shared history and the magic of finding a stranger who feels like a part of you—so of course when that sours, it can be profoundly hurtful and really tricky to untangle.
Chess has amassed huge wealth and fame in the self-help realm, and Emily is a mix of impressed, envious and skeptical. Are you a bit of a self-help skeptic yourself? There are great self-help books and writers out there who genuinely help people, and I’ve been helped myself by some of them. So not a full skeptic, no! But in the past few years, the sort of Girlbossification of mental health has definitely raised my eyebrows a bit, and Chess is a reflection of that. For Chess, it’s not so much about helping people—even though she does buy into her own hype at times—but presenting this kind of aspirational lifestyle in which mental health is just another thing on the checklist next to “BMW” and “Nancy Meyers Movie Kitchen.” That kind of career path requires a certain kind of ruthlessness but also a lot of intelligence and an innate understanding of people. Emily sees all of that in Chess, but she’s also the kind of woman who’s a part of Chess’s ideal audience, which is why her feelings about Chess’ whole thing are a really complicated mix.
In both storylines in The Villa, there are famous and wealthy characters who are often casually cruel to friends who have less money and security. What is it about that sort of relationship that appeals to you as a writer? The haves vs. the have-nots is such a powerful trope, and I think it’s particularly interesting to explore given how often we’re told that we live in a classless society despite all evidence to the contrary. So it’s one of those things that lets you really get in the weeds when it comes to character work, and it helps you build sympathy for your have-not characters. (Sidenote: It’s always so funny to me how even the people who are definitely the haves never really see themselves that way!) It’s also part of a rich tradition of storytelling; issues of money and class are always right at home in a gothic novel!
Is the gothic tone one you always intended to explore? Are there gothic authors or books you return to again and again? I have always been a huge fan of all things gothic and was very into Anne Rice as a teenager. I have a collection of old Victoria Holt novels that I treasure, and I also have a lot of newer books—Mexican Gothic, The Hacienda, The Death of Jane Lawrence—so I am not surprised to finally have a big ol’ creepy house book under my belt. The gothic was definitely an element of my earlier thrillers, but this is the one where I leaned in the hardest, and it was just the most fun. So fun that my next thriller is equally, if not more, gothic. So yes, definitely a tone I love exploring!
“Houses remember” is an important line in your book, written and pondered by various characters, evoking a range of emotions and more than a few shudders. What does that phrase mean to you? To be completely honest, at first I just thought it was a really cool—and yes, spooky—way to open a book! But the more I wrote, the more that line kept popping up until it was basically a theme. It means various things to the characters, but for me, it’s about the way a place can sometimes seem to hold not just the memories but the energy of the people who once stayed there.
What do you most hope readers take away from The Villa? I have a huge amount of fun writing my books (yes, even when they get pretty dark!), and that’s always the main thing I want for my readers, too. I want The Villa to make a long flight go by quickly, or distract them in waiting rooms, or make an afternoon on the couch with a cup of tea just that much more enjoyable. I love playing around with big ideas and themes and all the things I got an English degree to explore, but at the end of the day, I’m in this to entertain, and I hope The Villa does that!
Photo of Rachel Hawkins by John Hawkins.
The author turned to one of the most iconic gatherings in literary history to create The Villa.
In this trio of suspense novels, a seasoned spy, a clever reward-seeker and a thief extraordinaire take on complicated, dangerous assignments as they race against time and attempt to elude their equally determined enemies.
At just under 500 pages, Charles Cumming’s JUDAS 62 is a commitment, but those who love immersive espionage thrillers will consider it time well spent.
Fans were first introduced to Lachlan Kite in the 2022 series-opener BOX 88, named for the spy agency to which Kite has been loyal since his college days. As the second book begins, Kite is chagrined to hear that former Russian general Saul Kaszeta, a BOX 88 resource for many years, has been killed at his home in Connecticut. To make matters worse, Kite learns of the existence of the JUDAS list, a log of Russia’s enemies who are targets for assassination. Kaszeta was on that list, and thanks to a mission he completed in 1993, so is Kite. Also on the chopping block? Yuri Aranov, the bioweapons scientist Kite exfiltrated all those years ago.
Emotionally vivid flashbacks to that mission offer insight into a pivotal time in Kite’s life, when he was transitioning from a newbie uncomfortable with lying to his friends into an accomplished, silver-tongued agent on the rise. It’s a treat to be in on Kite’s elaborate planning, social machinations and on-the-fly pivots as roadblocks literal and figurative pop up in his path, including a violent Russian intelligence agent named Mikhail Gromik.
In the present day, there’s plenty of nail-biting action, too: Kite’s got to keep himself and Aranov from being crossed off the JUDAS list and, to truly ensure their safety, take Gromik off the map. Kite and his team jet off to Dubai, “a playground for spying,” to bring those goals to fruition, and Cumming puts his characters in a variety of creatively precarious situations, layering in paranoia and suspense galore. He also underscores the inner conflict that bedevils his spies both novice and expert, what a young Kite called being “suspended between the two worlds in which he lived.” JUDAS 62 offers an engrossing, highly detailed excursion into spy life that crackles with tension, life-or-death problem-solving and plenty of international intrigue.
As his millions of fans know, Jeffery Deaver likes a twist, especially in his Colter Shaw series. The rugged reward-seeker (he finds people who have gone missing and collects the reward money) relies on two rules emphasized by his uber-survivalist late father: “never be without a means of escape, and never be without access to a weapon.”
In his fourth adventure, Hunting Time, Shaw puts those rules to the test on a new sort of project, foiling the theft of a nuclear device called the Pocket Sun. The client is Marty Harmon, the founder of Midwestern startup Harmon Energy Products. Shaw likes the cut of Harmon’s jib, so he agrees when the CEO implores him to do yet another job just days later. The brilliant Allison Parker, Harmon’s best engineer and inventor of the Pocket Sun, and her teenage daughter, Hannah, have gone on the run because Allison’s abusive ex-husband, former police detective Jon Merritt, was released early from prison. Harmon wants Allison and Hannah found, protected and returned, but Allison refuses to resurface until Jon is back behind bars.
Deaver deftly alternates perspectives throughout Shaw’s suspenseful three-day chase over rough terrain, immersing the reader in Jon’s growing rage, Allison’s efforts to strategize an escape while keeping the argumentative Hannah calm, and the demented determination of two hit men who are, alas, also chasing Allison. As time ticks by and the various players converge, Deaver keeps the anxiety high with short chapters and multiple twists that cast the characters’ motivations in surprising new lights. The vagaries of city politics and complicated family dynamics add depth and context to this timely and tension-filled thriller.
Incorrigible master thief Riley Wolfe is back for a third escapade in Three-Edged Sword by Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series (and creator of the hit TV adaption).
The story picks up right after 2020’s Fool Me Twice, and Riley is doing the last thing readers would expect: sitting still. Or at least trying to, as he waits for Monique—master art forger, occasional heist partner, the woman for whom he has unresolved romantic feelings—to emerge from a coma. Riley’s mother has been in a coma for some time, and with the only two people he cares about ill and inaccessible, he’s suffering the kind of antsiness that makes him “really want to . . . light [his] hair on fire and run screaming into the night.”
He doesn’t do that, but he does take risks that land him in the clutches of Chase Prescott, a rogue CIA agent who decides to force Riley into doing a job for him. He’s to sneak onto a remote island in Lithuania owned by former Soviet intelligence agent Ivo Balodis, who lives in an underground bunker connected to a decommissioned missile silo. Once there, he must steal a flash drive from the (heavily guarded and booby-trapped) silo; as payment, he can swipe a rare Russian icon from Balodis’ prized collection.
Riley is infuriated to learn that Prescott has kidnapped his mother and Monique to ensure compliance. Can he rescue them from Prescott’s goons while coming up with a way to breach Balodis’ missile silo without coming to great harm, or even death? Readers will be transfixed by Riley’s every move as he engages in astonishing transformations and clever ruses in pursuit of his seemingly impossible goals in this audacious and action-packed thriller.
A seasoned spy, a clever reward-seeker and a thief extraordinaire race against time and attempt to elude their equally determined enemies.
If I had to sum up Lisa Unger’s Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six in 10 words, I would say “Cast of ‘Friends,’ dark and stormy night, soundtrack by Disturbed.” This friend group is much more disturbed than Ross, Chandler, Monica, et al., but there are parallels: a sister/brother pair; a female friend from the past; some canoodling that is, shall we say, detrimental to the group dynamic. Siblings Hannah and Mako are celebrating Christmas at their parents’ house when their father finds an unusual gift under the tree: DNA genealogy kits for the whole family, from an anonymous Santa. A few months later, when Hannah, Mako, their respective spouses and another couple head up to a remote cabin to unplug, the other shoe drops. Some of them did the kit and were unexpectedly proven to be the progeny of the same man, and they are not happy to know who (and what) their biological father was. Secrets abound in this psychological thriller; even the cabin itself harbors a hidden history, giving off unnerving vibes to renters and readers alike. At 400 pages, it’s a long book for a one-sitting read, but you’ll be sorely tempted.
1989 is Val McDermid’s second installment of a trilogy (which this reviewer hopes will become a quadrilogy or even a quintology) featuring Scottish investigative reporter Allie Burns. The series began with 1979, and in the sequel, readers are mired with Allie in the late ’80s, when mobile phones were the size of lunchboxes, when AIDS was ravaging the U.K., when a jetliner was bombed out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, and when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. All in all, not a time to be nostalgic for, and true to form, McDermid spins the tale without a whiff of sentimentality. Allie works for media mogul Ace Lockhart, who bears more than a passing resemblance to newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell (father of Ghislaine, of Jeffrey Epstein-associate infamy): flamboyant, bullying and destined for disgrace. Lockhart, who has a number of business ventures based in the Eastern bloc, senses the upcoming upheaval and sends his daughter to secure his interests in the changing political landscape. When she is kidnapped in East Berlin, Lockhart sends Allie Burns on a rescue mission, and in short order, things careen out of control. You don’t need to read 1979 to hit the ground running with 1989, but you will want to have Wikipedia open to look up all the fascinating historical and cultural moments McDermid references along the way.
Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man
Emily J. Edwards’ Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man is, hands down, this month’s most entertaining mystery. Set in 1950 New York City, it chronicles the adventures of a plucky Pennsylvania country girl, the titular Viviana Valentine. Upon arriving penniless in the Big Apple, Viviana sweet-talks her way into a girl Friday job for Tommy Fortuna, a Philip Marlowe-esque private investigator who calls her dollface. But after Tommy goes MIA and a dead body is found on his office floor, Viviana is forced to take the helm of the agency, clear Tommy’s name and crack the case he was working on. Whatever she lacks in experience, Viviana more than makes up for with her in-your-face attitude, wicked sense of humor and snappy one-liners. Her friends and acquaintances include high society debutantes, models, mobsters, cops both arrow-straight and morally flexible and a host of other ’50s types that would slot neatly into a black-and-white detective film. Edwards nails the tone, with dialogue and milieu evocative of classic noir, and presents the era warts and all: conversations that are a bit politically incorrect; men behaving toward women in ways that are borderline or flat-out predatory; and a towering amount of smoking and drinking.
★ The Devil’s Blaze
In the same fashion that Sean Connery is the quintessential James Bond for many cinema aficionados, Basil Rathbone is widely regarded as the definitive silver screen Sherlock Holmes, even though the most famous films in which he took on the role are not set in the original Victorian and Edwardian eras but smack in the middle of World War II. Author Robert J. Harris expands upon those midcentury films with his Sherlock Holmes in WWII series, the second volume of which (after 2021’s A Study in Crimson) is The Devil’s Blaze. The Germans have developed a truly insidious weapon to use against their English adversaries, a death machine of some sort that causes people to spontaneously erupt into flames. As usual, there are only two people in England clever enough (or devious enough, depending on your point of view) to approach a mystery of this magnitude: Sherlock Holmes (natch) and his longtime archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty. There is certainly no love lost between the pair, but they are forced to forge an uneasy alliance to try and save England from this terrifying new weapon. Harris never lets readers forget that this is a Sherlock Holmes novel, with the narrative turning on a dime—or a twopence, if you prefer—such that only an experienced fishmonger would be able to sort through all the red herrings. Holmes is as cerebral and arrogant as die-hard fans would expect, and Watson hews closely to actor Nigel Bruce’s portrayal in the Rathbone films: thoughtful, taciturn and usually a step behind his mentor. And Moriarty, well, he should be giving TED Talks on the subject of villainy.
Lisa Unger will make you think twice about dabbling with DNA ancestry kits, plus Val McDermid returns with a new Allie Burns novel in this month’s Whodunit.
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