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The Mystery Writer

I tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theorists—wait, let me rephrase that: I think most conspiracy theorists are bat-guano-crazy, howl-at-the-moon wingnuts. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on the reading of Sulari Gentill’s The Mystery Writer. One of the main characters is a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist caught up in an online matrix of resistance, revolution and heaven knows what else, who is led by a character named Primus, who for all we know may be a 42-year-old who still lives in his mom’s basement. Rent free. But let’s put that aside for a moment, and focus on the protagonist, Theodosia “Theo” Benton. Theo has made her way from Tasmania to her brother’s house in Kansas in hopes of becoming a writer. Against all odds, she befriends her literary idol in a local coffee shop, published author Dan Murdoch, whose presence in the corporeal world is, unbeknownst to him, racing toward a violent close. Oh, also, he may have been the aforementioned Primus. Or not. Conspiracy theories are notoriously flexible that way. But when Theo begins to look into the death of her friend/mentor, she will be forced to come to terms with the real-world consequences of internet rants. Gentill’s follow-up to The Woman in the Library is an original and entertaining read with likable characters (even some of the wingnuts), although it may put me off Kansas for a while.

The Stars Turned Inside Out

It’s been six years since author Nova Jacobs’ debut, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, hit the bookstands, garnering an Edgar Award nomination for best American debut. And then we waited, and waited some more. I am quite happy to report that her second novel, The Stars Turned Inside Out, is well worth the intermission. Deep underground, in a secret location somewhere outside Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider goes about its business of smashing subatomic particles, allowing scientists to conduct all manner of experiments regarding the nature of the universe. When the body of physicist Howard Anderby is found in one of the tunnels, having apparently been exposed to lethal levels of radiation, security consultant Sabine Leroux is called in to determine the cause. Her investigation unearths several troubling situations that lend credence to the idea that Anderby’s death was not accidental. Sabine conducts interviews with other physicists and staff on-site, volleying scientific jargon back and forth, but it is all clearly explained, never overwhelming and will engender curiosity in the non-scientist reader. In Jacobs’ first book, the murder mystery was overlaid with mathematics; in this book, the murder mystery is overlaid with physics. I live in hope that the next one will feature chemistry or biology, and that I can further my education while doing what I enjoy—reading murder mysteries. 

Cast a Cold Eye

If violence is your cuppa oolong, look no further than Cast a Cold Eye, installment two of Robbie Morrison’s Depression-era, Scotland-set Jimmy Dreghorn series. His first, Edge of the Grave, won the 2021 Bloody Scotland Debut Prize for Crime Novel of the Year and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel carries on in that grand tradition. Violent crime in 1930s Glasgow tends to be domestic abuse or the result of gang-related scuffles, with fists, knives or razors as the weapons of choice. So when a boatman is executed with a single bullet to the back of the head, it is a shock. Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and his sidekick, “Bonnie” Archie McDaid, get the case. The pair is awash in contrasts: Dreghorn is complex and unlucky in love, a John Rebus-like character out of place in the era; McDaid is a onetime Olympian wrestler who employs his martial arts skills to great advantage, often with humor that will be appreciated by readers, if not by his opponents. Morrison paints the Glasgow milieu in somber shades of gray and brown, often water-streaked and more than occasionally blood-streaked as well. The dialog is spot on, which is to say that there is a good case to be made for having a Scots-English dictionary near at hand. If you’re here for the action, the history, the brothers-in-arms camaraderie and a cracking good story, you’ve come to the right place, laddie.

Pay Dirt

V.I. Warshawski returns for her 22nd adventure in Sara Paretsky’s latest mystery, Pay Dirt. In this installment, the PI is not in her usual digs in Chicago, but rather in Lawrence, Kansas. That will not keep her out of trouble, though; she manages to find that pretty much anywhere. This time it’s in the form of Sabrina Granev, a teenage soccer player barely clinging to life after being found in a drug house, and a second woman who was not so lucky—found dead in the same house a few days later. The mystery explores financial greed; closely held family businesses; the mutual back-scratching of corporate interests, politicians, law enforcement officials and jurists; and a bunch of ripped-from-the-headlines points of contention: critical race theory (and ongoing racism in general), the specter of reparations, conspiracy theories, “wokeness” and more. And of course there are a couple of murders, and if the bad guys have their way, they will add Warshawski to that (growing) list. Warshawski remains in top form as she ages; battered some by life, perhaps a bit more acerbic and wryly cynical, but still a keen observer and first-person chronicler. As was the case with the 21 volumes that preceded it, Pay Dirt is unputdownable, a worthy addition to one of the finest series in modern suspense fiction.

Plus, the latest whodunits from Sulari Gentill, Robbie Morrison and Sara Paretsky round out a great month in suspense fiction.
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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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Book jacket image for Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll

Bright Young Women

Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women is a primal scream for women past and present.
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Book jacket image for Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead by Jenny Hollander

Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead

Engagingly twisty with a memorable cast of characters, Jenny Hollander’s Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead explores the aftermath of a journalism school massacre.
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Book jacket image for Rabbit Hole by Kate Brody

Rabbit Hole

Kate Brody’s debut novel, Rabbit Hole, is both a suspenseful mystery and a provocative portrait of a broken family.
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Book jacket image for Listen for the Lie by Amy Tintera

Listen for the Lie

The snarky and complex Listen for the Lie is riveting all the way through to its jaw-dropper of a resolution.
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These books turn the voyeuristic gaze of true crime back upon the reader. You may not like what you find.
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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.
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The Clinic

Celebrities in rehab: Newsworthy, if not especially surprising. Celebrities dying in rehab: front page, above the fold for at least a day, maybe even a week. But what about celebrities murdered in rehab? That’s the “what if” at the center of Cate Quinn’s deft new thriller, The Clinic. Let’s start with The Clinic itself, which is easily the creepiest setting for a suspense novel since the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. The luxurious rehab center is set atop a remote oceanside cliff somewhere along the Oregon coast, awash in salt mist and mystery. When pop star Haley Banks dies of a heroin overdose at the facility, her sister, Meg, doesn’t believe the official story. Meg is a casino cop of sorts and, after some soul-searching, decides to launch an investigation of her sister’s death by posing as a patient seeking treatment. This will not be much of a stretch for Meg, as she is addicted to both alcohol and Oxycontin. If she is wrong about Haley’s death, she may get clean; if she is right, she may get killed. The story is told in the first-person perspectives of two different narrators: the aforementioned Meg and Cara, the manager of The Clinic. As they alternate chapters, Quinn tightly ratchets up the suspense. And the big reveal? I never saw it coming.

The Wharton Plot

Before starting Mariah Fredericks’ The Wharton Plot, I decided to read up a bit on Edith Wharton. I knew she had been the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Still, I had essentially written her off as the poor man’s Dorothy Parker, sharp of tongue but lacking in humor. But The Wharton Plot showed me how very wrong I was. Fredericks’ mystery reads like a story from an earlier time, as it should. It conjures up the ghosts of American aristocracy in much the same manner as an F. Scott Fitzgerald or a Nathanael West novel, and is filled with historical figures such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and his extended family, and muckraking writer David Graham Phillips, whose real-life murder is investigated by Wharton in the novel. It may take a chapter or two to settle into the narrative, which is written a la one of Wharton’s own novels, but once that hurdle is cleared, the book is simply unputdownable. And as with a healthy meal, at the end you feel a sense of accomplishment, as you have done something good for yourself.

The Busy Body

It is, I think, not the easiest thing for a man to write a story from the perspective of a woman. That said, author Kemper Donovan has done that so well in his fun and entertaining mystery The Busy Body that I was totally convinced he was a woman until I read his bio. (I get it that as a male reviewer, I am not the definitive authority on the accuracy of his portrayal, so I will simply say that I never questioned it. Not even once.) The story begins with Dorothy Gibson, a former senator who has arranged for a ghostwriter to pen her autobiography. While they are together at Dorothy’s home in Maine, a neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances, and the politician and her ghostwriter (who is an engaging and offbeat character, even though she is never given a name) launch an amateur investigation into the death. There are overtones of Agatha Christie and Knives Out, both in the unlikeliness of the mystery and the cleverness of its solution. This is, I guess, no surprise as Donovan hosts the podcast “All About Agatha.”

The Ghost Orchid

Psychologist Alex Delaware is back, along with his sidekick, Los Angeles cop Milo Sturgis. Their arrangement is somewhat odd in that it is exactly the opposite of the typical setup in which a cop is the central character and a specialist serves as foil for the heroics. But boy, does it ever work. Author Jonathan Kellerman has created one of the most enduring and acclaimed series in suspense fiction, the latest installment of which is The Ghost Orchid. The tony LA enclave of Bel Air provides the setting for the story, which begins with the murder of Gio Aggiunta, a wealthy Italian high-society ne’er-do-well, and Meagin March, his older—and married—mistress. Both have been shot, and the police cannot determine whether one was the primary target, or if it was just a burglary gone wrong. Nothing seems to be missing, so initially they fixate on March’s husband, a multimillionaire investor, because hey, it’s always the husband, right? But as it turns out, Gio has been the “correspondent” in several affairs with married women, which raises the question: If it is the husband, which husband? Kellerman’s prose is fast-paced without being in any way hurried or abrupt, and Delaware and Sturgis play off one another exceptionally well. The characters are as comfortable as old slippers, fictional friends whose company and adventures readers have enjoyed for decades. The Ghost Orchid is another excellent addition to a series full of excellent editions.

Mariah Fredericks’ new historical mystery turns the magisterial author into a gumshoe and the latest Alex Delaware novel wows our mystery columnist.

Dark academia is a hot aesthetic for a reason: A lot of bad behavior can play out behind ivy-covered walls, especially if it involves student-teacher power dynamics or competition for the best grades, internships and career opportunities. But what happens after graduation, when diplomas are conferred and jobs taken, but copious scars remain? Jenny Hollander’s Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead explores the aftermath of a journalism school massacre, and competing quests to find out what really happened . . . or cover it up.

A Londoner living in New York City, Charlotte “Charlie” Colbert is engaged to the handsome heir of a publishing magnate and conquering the media world as editor-in-chief of a trendy magazine. Like most New Yorkers, Charlie’s in therapy. Only in her case, it’s to process a nearly decade-old trauma, when Charlie survived a Christmas Eve attack at the prestigious Carroll University graduate school of journalism. Charlie’s satisfied with her slow progress in therapy and keeps her guard up elsewhere in her life. But then her former classmate Steph Anderson, the first person to discover the carnage and now a network news anchor, announces her participation in and financial backing of a feature film that will supposedly reveal the secrets of that fateful night. Charlie is determined to prevent the production at all costs—because she knows what actually went down on “Scarlet Christmas,” and that public revelation could destroy everything she’s built.

The director of content strategy at Marie Claire and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, debut author Hollander is uniquely equipped to probe the minds of ambitious and extremely stressed young reporters. Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead is a tautly paced thriller that’s not short on emotion as it deftly explores tight friendships, fledgling romances and constantly shifting alliances among young 20-somethings and the media professionals they become. Engagingly twisty with a memorable cast of characters, this one-sitting read is best experienced with a strong drink on the side.

Engagingly twisty with a memorable cast of characters, Jenny Hollander’s Everyone Who Can Forgive Me Is Dead explores the aftermath of a journalism school massacre.
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Ilium

As Lea Carpenter’s Ilium opens, the unnamed narrator feels not unlike an actor in a play: “I had no sense of what scene would come next, but as each scene evolved, I could start to see the way I would handle it. . . . It never occurred to me that the life you have is only in part the life you choose, because the moment you start to think you know what’s coming next, that’s when lightning strikes, shatters those windows, and rain starts to pool on the floor.” This is a heavy thought for a 21-year-old who has just wed a man 33 years her senior, and she will come to find out it is deeply portentous. Her new husband is a man of many secrets, not the least of which is that he is grooming her for a major role in a joint CIA-Mossad operation, a task she had been chosen for well before their “chance” meeting and subsequent engagement and marriage. All that said, Ilium is not merely an espionage novel, although there is a certain amount of subterfuge, to be sure. It is rather a story of relationships in which the good guys are neither especially good nor especially bad, and pretty much the same can be said for the bad guys. Ferreting out the truth of who someone truly is must be secondary to achieving the operation’s desired outcomes, and “therein,” noted the Bard, “lies the rub.” Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.

Northwoods

There’s precious little bucolic woodland ambience to be found in Northwoods, Amy Pease’s debut mystery set in Shaky Lake, a resort town in northern Wisconsin. Sheriff’s Deputy Eli North is plagued by a host of debilitating issues that date back to his military service in Afghanistan. He is about as beaten down as a man can be, yet he still possesses some sparks that make the reader root for him. As the tale begins, Eli is well on his way toward being drunk. He receives a call about a noise disturbance at a lakeside cabin and stumbles (almost literally) upon the lifeless body of a teenage boy. Murder is somewhat outside the purview of a rural sheriff’s department, so when it is discovered that a teenage girl has gone missing as well, the sheriff—who just so happens to be Eli’s mother—calls in the FBI to investigate. The winding road to the crime’s solution involves everyone’s favorite boogeyman, Big Pharma, and touches on the tension between townies and wealthy “summer people.” I strongly hope that Eli will be afforded a sequel or 10, and that he will find his way back to something resembling a normal life.

Two Dead Wives

It is unsurprising, I suppose, that a spate of recent crime novels have been set during the first COVID-19 lockdown. You would think that time would be the perfect milieu for a locked-room mystery, but Adele Parks’ Two Dead Wives is anything but. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Kylie Gillingham. Somewhere along the way, she took on two identities—one named Kai, one named Leigh (Ky-Lie, get it?)—married two different men and lived two separate lives. Now, she has been missing for two weeks. Statistically, that suggests she is dead, and conventional wisdom pegs the husband as the likely perpetrator. But which husband? One is currently in lockdown in his London apartment, and the other has done a runner to his native Netherlands. Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds about a woman named Stacie Jones, who is recovering at her dad’s seaside cottage after surgery to remove a brain tumor. She has lost a lot of her memory post-operation and, naturally, that suggests that a key to an important lock or two is buried somewhere in her mind. The investigators—one by the book, the other impetuous—play off one another well, and the two-pronged storyline is bound to engage fans of twisty thrillers and police procedurals alike.

Where You End

Where You End, Abbott Kahler’s debut novel, reads like the work of a seasoned writer. There is a reason for this: She has published a number of works of historical nonfiction as Karen Abbott, and boasts an Edgar Award nomination for Best Fact Crime for The Ghosts of Eden Park. As her first thriller begins, Katherine “Kat” Bird is not at all sitting in the catbird seat. She barely survived a car accident a couple of weeks back, and her memory has virtually been erased. She can form sentences and understand when people talk to her, but the only person she recognizes is her twin sister, Jude. Jude is Kat’s mirror twin—she parts her hair on the other side from Kat; her dimple shows up in the opposite cheek when she smiles. Slowly, Jude brings Kat up to date on the events that helped shape their lives for better and for worse: their father’s disappearance when they were young, their mother’s death, their post-high school backpacking trip to Europe. But there are nagging inconsistencies in Jude’s narrative. As Kat learns more about herself and as bits of memory fall into place, she begins to harbor doubts that Jude is being truthful. Couple this with newfound evidence of her own propensity for (and expertise at) violence, and Kat is shaken to her core. However much Kat thinks she knows, however much she is able to relearn, there is one person who knows her better: Jude, for better or worse. Don’t miss this scary, tense and provocative thrill ride!

Abbott Kahler’s debut thriller delights our mystery columnist, plus Lea Carpenter’s latest literary espionage novel impresses.

Fans of Alex Michaelides’ bestselling thrillers The Silent Patient and The Maidens will be delighted that he’s returned with another notably unreliable narrator: Elliot Chase, a playwright who takes the famous Shakespeare quote “All the world’s a stage” quite literally in The Fury, a tantalizing slow burn murder mystery told as a play in five acts.

As befits an artist of his ilk, Elliot has a flair for the dramatic and an enthusiasm for gossipy speculation. When it comes to his own motivations, however, he is far more elusive—slippery, even—thanks to childhood wounds never fully acknowledged or healed, and present-day jealousies he attempts to stifle, with mixed results.

In The Fury, he has readers’ undivided attention, and he’s going to unapologetically enjoy it. “And before you accuse me of telling my story in a labyrinthine manner, let me remind you this is a true story—and in real life, that’s how we communicate, isn’t it?” Perhaps . . . or this is just a sly form of obfuscation from a seasoned dramatist. After all, he plainly states, “We are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives.”

Elliot’s best friend, movie megastar Lana Farrar, owns a remote Greek island named Aura. She hosts Elliot, her husband and son, and her longtime stage actress friend, Kate, for a luxurious Easter holiday. But Aegean winds known as “the fury” batter the island and cut them off from civilization for the duration of the storm. It is then that one of them is murdered, and all of them become suspects.

The British Cypriot Michaelides has cited Greek mythology and Agatha Christie as important influences; in The Fury he draws on elements of both as he creates a darkly immersive atmosphere rife with creeping dread, heightened passion and numerous dubious alibis. There is plenty of paranoid suspense, too, in this inventive take on a locked-room mystery that reminds us people are far more complex than they seem to be—or we would like them to be—for better or (murderously) worse.

Alex Michaelides blends Greek mythology and Agatha Christie to tantalizing effect in The Fury.
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Rachel Hawkins’ The Heiress is a riveting, juicy romp set in Ashby House, a 15-bedroom mansion in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina that is home to several generations of the McTavish family. As in her previous thrillers The Villa, The Wife Upstairs and Reckless Girls, Hawkins excels in examining how the trappings of excessive wealth can launch dysfunction into hyperdrive. 

After growing up in Ashby House, Cam McTavish desperately tried to flee this fate, and has been living an unassuming life as an English teacher in Colorado with his wife, Jules. Although he has left his inherited fortune mostly untouched, he still owns Ashby House, and after the death of his uncle, Cam is summoned back to the mansion, which is desperately in need of repairs. The couple is greeted by Cam’s Aunt Nelle and her entitled grandchildren, Ben and Libby—all of whom resent the fact that Cam owns the house they live in. He’s seen as a double interloper, as his late mother, Ruby, adopted him at age 3. 

At the center of the story is Ruby, who was abducted at age 3 and found months later living with a family in Alabama. Her life has been tumultuous ever since; as an adult, she earned the moniker “Mrs. Kill-more,” having married and left behind “a pile of dead husbands.” Hawkins delivers this narrative in a series of letters written by Ruby shortly before her death, which have just the right amount of devilishly delicious black humor—a delicate balance that’s hard to achieve. 

One of the great delights of this thriller is the carefully crafted way that Hawkins allows the plot—along with the rich, twisted family history—to unfold. She uses old news accounts, emails and chapters narrated by both Cam and Jules, along with Ruby’s letters. Hawkins seamlessly intertwines all these different modes of storytelling while deftly hinting at the many secrets harbored within the walls of Ashby House. 

When Cam turned 18, Ruby gave him a watch inscribed “Time Brings All Things To Pass.” Indeed it does, and in The Heiress, the twists, turns and betrayals just keep coming, all guided by Hawkins’ skilled hand. The resulting suspense will be quickly devoured and long enjoyed.

In The Heiress, the twists, turns and betrayals just keep coming, all guided by Rachel Hawkins’ skilled hand.
STARRED REVIEW

Our Top 10 books of January 2024

Jami Attenberg’s guide to writing, Derek B. Miller’s World War II art heist and Abbott Kahler’s thriller debut are among January’s top reads.
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Jami Attenberg’s guide to writing, Derek B. Miller’s World War II art heist and Abbott Kahler’s thriller debut are among January’s top reads.

Theater is life for a specific subset of people. And it’s not just actors and stage managers—for the professional theater critic, the hours spent after the lights go down are just as sacrosanct. Alexis Soloski’s Here in the Dark follows one such critic, a New York City 30-something who finds herself embroiled in a web of deception, sex and murder.

Vivian Parry has loved the theater since childhood, but after her beloved mother’s death and a subsequent psychotic break, the former actor turned to criticism as a way to engage with her passion from a distance. Vivian’s Manhattan life is completely subsumed by her art: Even as she guns for a promotion at her prestigious magazine, Vivian maintains her isolation, disappearing by day in a haze of words, booze and pills until it’s time for that night’s curtain. When Vivian is interviewed by a graduate student who then goes missing, she’s driven to find out what happened to the enigmatic young man. An undercover stint at a Russian gambling startup, the discovery of a corpse (not his) and a fling with an earnest special effects designer follow, with Vivian drinking more and thinking less as she finds herself no closer to the truth. But as the lines between theater and reality blur, she finds herself asking: Is it all just an act?

Soloski is the best possible candidate to write a protagonist like Vivian. She not only holds a doctorate in theater from Columbia University, but also is an award-winning critic for the New York Times, former lead critic at The Village Voice and a past instructor at Barnard College and Columbia. Her debut novel is chock-full of wry observations about lighting design, references to everyone from Shakespeare to Grotowski, and enough industry inner workings to make the hearts of her fellow theater critics (which this reviewer just so happens to be) sing. For those less drama-obsessed, fear not: Here in the Dark is also a tightly paced and expertly crafted noir whose heroine is both hilariously wisecracking and deeply troubled. From curtain up to curtain call, Here in the Dark is flawless.

Theater critic Alexis Soloski’s debut thriller, Here in Dark, is flawless from curtain up to curtain call.

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.

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 Soulmate will 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.
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You Know Her

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.

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