For nine months The Girl on the Train has been lauded as the best thriller of 2015, but it has some real competition with the arrival of The Killing Lessons, a dark, violent novel from British author Glen Duncan (The Last Werewolf) writing under the pseudonym Saul Black. Set in San Francisco and Colorado, it’s a cross-country race to catch two serial killers that channels the atmosphere of Scandinavia’s celebrated TV noirs with female heroes like “The Killing” (Forbrydelsen) and “The Bridge” (Broen).
Rowena Cooper is baking Christmas cookies for her children when two men appear in her home in the mountains of Colorado, one holding a shotgun, the other a knife. Though they murder Rowena and her son, her 10-year-old daughter Nell manages to escape into the woods. Meanwhile in San Francisco, a team of investigators has been hunting these murderers for months, after they abducted, raped and murdered seven women in different cities before transporting their bodies to another state. The men leave objects inside their victims as a signature—a balloon, a fork, a museum flier. Lead investigator Valerie Hart isn’t sure if they’re meaningful or random, but she’s not sure of anything anymore. Once driven and naive, Valerie has become jaded, resigned and dependent on a drink ever since she “killed love” in her own heart. Though Valerie soon makes a long overdue break in the case, the only person alive who can help her identify the serial killers is young Nell, still missing in the Colorado mountains, who may have escaped one grisly fate only to meet another.
Violent but never gratuitous, Duncan’s first crack at a thriller is a master class in suspense. Phrases like “page-turner” and “it kept me up all night!” get thrown around a lot in the book business, but The Killing Lessons is hands-down the most compelling, addictive novel I’ve read this year.