Baltimore in the 1960s is the setting for this historical fiction about a real-life unsolved drowning.
In her most ambitious work to date, Lippman (Sunburn, 2018, etc.) tells the story of Maddie Schwartz, an attractive 37-year-old Jewish housewife who abruptly leaves her husband and son to pursue a long-held ambition to be a journalist, and Cleo Sherwood, an African-American cocktail waitress about whom little is known. Sherwood's body was found in a lake in a city park months after she disappeared, and while no one else seems to care enough to investigate, Maddie becomes obsessed—partly due to certain similarities she perceives between her life and Cleo's, partly due to her faith in her own detective skills. The story unfolds from Maddie's point of view as well as that of Cleo's ghost, who seems to be watching from behind the scenes, commenting acerbically on Maddie's nosing around like a bull in a china shop after getting a job at one of the city papers. Added to these are a chorus of Baltimore characters who make vivid one-time appearances: a jewelry store clerk, an about-to-be-murdered schoolgirl, "Mr. Helpline," a bartender, a political operative, a waitress, a Baltimore Oriole, the first African-American female policewoman (these last two are based on real people), and many more. Maddie's ambition propels her forward despite the cost to others, including the family of the deceased and her own secret lover, a black policeman. Lippman's high-def depiction of 1960s Baltimore and the atmosphere of the newsroom at that time—she interviewed associates of her father, Baltimore Sun journalist Theo Lippman Jr., for the details—ground the book in fascinating historical fact.The literary gambit she balances atop that foundation—the collage of voices—works impressively, showcasing the author's gift for rhythms of speech. The story is bigger than the crime, and the crime is bigger than its solution, making Lippman's skill as a mystery novelist work as icing on the cake.
The racism, classism, and sexism of 50 years ago wrapped up in a stylish, sexy, suspenseful period drama about a newsroom and the city it covers.
The small towns and coulees of southwest Wisconsin might not sound like a typical setting for a noir crime novel, but some very dark deeds propel this one.
Galligan (The Wind Knot, 2011, etc.) builds the complex plot of this intense novel around three strong central characters. Heidi Kick is interim sheriff of rural Bad Axe County, tapped after the death of her corrupt predecessor. Besides dealing with workplace sexism and the seemingly endless crimes generated by pervasive poverty and substance abuse, she’s still trying to solve the deaths of her parents 12 years ago, wrongly (she believes) written off as a murder-suicide. Bad Axe native and one-time local baseball hero Angus Beavers walks out of spring training in Florida to return to his family’s junkyard when he hears the old sheriff is dead, pursuing a mysterious mission involving a long-frozen corpse. Teenage Pepper Greengrass arrives in the Bad Axe town of Farmstead in the van of a pimp, having run away from her home in the Wisconsin Dells and her abusive stepfather. She’s armed with lots of attitude but might have underestimated how much danger awaits her. In well-crafted prose, Galligan alternates among them until their stories crash together in a mystery driven by savage misogyny and human trafficking. His portrait of life in the rural Midwest is about as far from bucolic as possible but vividly convincing. The book pulls no punches in its nightmarish depictions of violence, an essential part of its plot. In its early chapters, the book’s mordant humor, female sheriff, and quirky minor characters echo the movie Fargo, but Galligan raises the stakes beyond the comic. And indomitable Heidi, fiercely smart Pepper, and Angus, goodhearted despite his dreadful upbringing, are characters worth caring about.
Striking prose, engaging characters, and a searing story of crimes rooted in the heartland power a darkly irresistible thriller.
Ware (The Death of Mrs. Westaway, 2018, etc.) channels The Turn of the Screw in her latest creepy mystery when a nanny takes a post at a haunted country house.
Traveling to Heatherbrae House to interview for a nanny position, Rowan Caine finds a gorgeously redone Victorian mansion nestled in the remote Scottish moors. Sandra Elincourt is stylish and smart, and the girls seem sweet enough, though 8-year-old Maddie rings some alarm bells in Rowan’s mind. So what if the last four nannies left under mysterious circumstances? Rowan knows she’s where she belongs—even when Maddie tries to warn her away, claiming that “the ghosts wouldn’t like it” if she stays. On her first day, however, Bill Elincourt makes a pass at her, and then both parents leave on a business trip, planning to be gone for at least a week. Left alone with the three little girls, Rowan can’t shake the feeling that there are other forces at work in the house. When strange noises begin to wake them all in the night, it seems like the house may indeed be haunted. What happened to those other nannies? Why is Maddie intent on getting Rowan fired? Why is there a garden of poison plants? And who wrote “We hate you” all over the attic walls? Ware excels at taking classic mystery tropes and reinventing them; her novels always feel appealingly anachronistic because while the technology is 21st century, there is something traditionally gothic about the settings, full of exaggerated luxury and seething dark corners. In this case, she reimagines the Victorian ghost story, with Henry James the most obvious influence not just on the plot, but also on the narrative frame, as the story actually takes the form of a letter written by Rowan to her solicitor as she sits imprisoned for murder. Regrettably, the novel’s ending leaves a few too many loose ends while also avoiding the delicious ambiguity of its Victorian predecessors.
Truly terrifying! Ware perfects her ability to craft atmosphere and sustain tension with each novel.
When a corporate lawyer who divorced his first wife and married her more successful sister is found dead in his home in the Hamptons, his teenage son goes on trial for murder.
The fans who put Burke's (The Wife, 2018, etc.) last domestic thriller on the bestseller list are going to be happy with this one, a gimmick-free murder mystery with a two-stage surprise ending and uncommonly few credibility-straining plot elements. No double narrator! No unreliable narrator! No handsome psychopaths from central casting! And though there's usually at least one character in this type of book who isn't quite three-dimensional, most of the players here feel like they could have worked in a domestic novel without a murder, which is a kind of test for believability and page-worthiness. The star of the show is Chloe Taylor, a woman's magazine editor-in-chief who has become a hero of the #MeToo movement and a target of misogynist haters on social media. The lumpy area beneath the surface of her smooth, pretty life is the fact that she married her boozy, unstable, maternally incompetent sister's ex-husband and has been raising her nephew, Ethan, as her own son. When his father turns up dead, Ethan tells so many lies about his doings on the evening in question that despite the fact that he's obviously not a murderer, he ends up the No. 1 suspect. As soon as he's arrested, his real mom, Nicky, swoops into town and the sisters form an uneasy and shifting alliance. You'll think you have this thing all figured out, but a series of reveals at the eleventh hour upend those theories. Most of the important people in this novel are women—the head cop, the defense attorney, the judge—and their competent performances create a solid underpinning for the plot.
An FBI agent stumbles into a cesspool of police corruption and dead girls after the death of her father, a Long Island homicide detective.
After scattering the ashes of her father, Martin, Nell Flynn heads to his South Fork home to sift through his possessions after a motorcycle crash took his life. Nell is on leave from her job in D.C. as a member of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit after she killed a member of the Russian Mafia in the line of duty and got a bullet to the shoulder for her trouble. Nell mourns her father but also looks forward to moving on and never looking back at a town that holds nothing but bad memories, including the brutal murder of her mother, Marisol, when she was only 7. But getting out of town soon isn’t in the cards for Nell. When her old friend Lee Davis, a newly minted homicide detective, asks for her help solving a series of gruesome murders, Nell is intrigued. A young girl, shot, dismembered, and wrapped in burlap, has been found buried in a local park, and she bears a striking resemblance to a young Latina found the previous summer. Nell soon learns that a mansion near the burial is the site of lavish parties attended by Washington elites, where possibly underage girls are provided for entertainment. Nell’s digging leads to young Latina escorts afraid to come forward for fear of deportation and the wrath of their pimp, who is working with some of the most powerful men in New York. When a local landscaper is arrested, Nell isn’t convinced he’s the killer, and disturbing secrets about the local police—even her father—are rising to the surface. Nell carries a palpable sadness and is still haunted by her mother’s murder and her complicated relationship with her father. She has a vulnerable, empathetic core that will pull readers in, and Alger has a feel for small-town dynamics. The tension becomes nearly unbearable as Nell realizes she truly can’t trust anyone. Readers can expect a few genuine surprises, and the light Alger shines on society’s most vulnerable members is an important one.
Who put Charlie and the Family up to their murderous mischief? This long excursus on the killings that terrified Los Angeles 50 years ago suggests some unlikely answers.
How did it happen that a bunch of peace freaks turned into a band of homicidal maniacs? In this overlong but provocative barrage, freelance journalist O’Neill charts a series of conjectures that begins with famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and ends in the dark chambers of the intelligence community. The logic goes something like this: It’s useful to control people’s minds, but it’s difficult to accomplish if they’re sane. If they’re a little off balance, needy, and disaffected, though, then give them a charismatic leader and some chores, and voilà—and along the way, if LSD is involved, then you can serve up an object lesson about the dangers of drugs. O’Neill’s thesis has its possibilities, but, like Oliver Stone’s JFK—and the Kennedy assassination figures here—it’s not so much that he ventures a theory as that he ventures all of them: The FBI wanted to whip up racial division to divide the New Left from the Black Panthers, Manson was an agent provocateur, record producer and Hollywood insider Terry Melcher had a hand in the whole thing, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson was a silent partner. And then there was Roman Polanski and his weird proclivities—as O’Neill writes, “remember how Susan Atkins wrote the word ‘Pig’ on the front door of Cielo Drive, in Sharon Tate’s blood?” But what if she really wrote something else? It’s all too much. Among the best aspects of the book are the author’s confessions of the many dead ends and blank spots he encountered, as when he confronted Bugliosi with the suggestion that he knew more than he was letting on and in fact covered up some of the evidence. “It was the wrong move,” he writes. “I’d intended to build to this moment, and now I was leading with it, giving him every reason to take a contentious tone.”
Fans of conspiracy theories will find this a source of endless fascination.
Cep’s debut recounts how a series of rural Alabama murders inspired Harper Lee to write again, years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Death surrounded the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Following his wife’s mysterious murder in 1970, four more of Maxwell’s family members were inexplicably found dead within seven years. Locals blamed voodoo, but a deeper investigation pointed to fraud: Maxwell, said Lee, “had a profound and abiding belief in insurance,” and he collected thousands in death benefits. He was a suspect in his wife’s case (charged and curiously acquitted), but years later, before the police could make another arrest, he was killed in a public fit of vigilante justice. In a further twist, the same lawyer who helped clear Maxwell’s name decided to represent his killer. Lee, still uncomfortable over the embellishments of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, wondered “whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the far-bending accounts of her contemporaries.” In this effortlessly immersive narrative, Cep engagingly traces how Lee found the case and began—and ultimately abandoned—a project she called The Reverend. Cep writes with the accessible erudition of podcast-style journalism; she breathes not only life, but style into her exhaustive, impressively researched narrative. She relies heavily on the backstories of each of her narrative threads, which transforms her book into a collection of connected preambles. Short histories of fraud, Southern politics, and urban development take shape alongside a condensed biography of Lee. This kind of storytelling may feel disjointed, but there’s a reason for it: By fully detailing the crimes before Lee even appears, Cep allows readers to see the case through Lee’s eyes and recognize its nascent literary potential. Above all, this is a book about inspiration and how a passion for the mysteries of humanity can cause an undeniable creative spark.
A well-tempered blend of true crime and literary lore.
A deep dive into the twisted life of Israel Keyes, “a new kind of monster likely responsible for the greatest string of unsolved disappearances and murders in modern American history.”
New York Post critic at large Callahan cannot state with certainty how many murders Keyes committed, but the count seems to be at least 11 and is likely many more. He committed his final murder in Anchorage, Alaska, where he resided at the time with his daughter and an off-and-on girlfriend. Serial killers often commit their crimes close to home, inside a comfort zone, but as the author documents throughout this compelling narrative, little about Keyes fit the conventional serial-killer mold, including the fact that his crimes were scattered all over the country. She shares the sleuthing of law enforcement agents from the FBI, the Anchorage Police Department, and other state-level forces. Throughout the book, the law personnel obsessed by Keyes’ methods and grisly results come across as dedicated and largely talented, with the exception of the federal prosecutor, who had ultimate jurisdiction. Callahan portrays him as vain and tone-deaf, and his unwanted presence in the interrogation room undid much of the progress made in the case. The author builds the narrative around the kidnapping and murder of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig, who worked at an isolated coffee booth in Anchorage. Police had no clues for days, but the case eventually led to Keyes’ arrest due to outstanding detective work and uncharacteristic sloppiness by Keyes. In the latter chapters, Callahan explores Keyes’ unusual childhood, military service, and skills as a top-notch carpenter.
Although the details of the book are by definition lurid, the author admirably avoids a descent into journalistic sensationalism. Instead, she offers fascinating context about law enforcement investigative techniques and revelations about how a murderer can strike again and again without being detected for more than a decade.
When a friendship turns sour and a boyfriend ends up dead, what will it take to unravel the reasons why?
When Remy Tsai meets Elise Ferro, all she wants is to be friends. Elise is confident, fierce, and strong—ready to defend anyone from injustice, either with a few choice words or with a carefully planned act of revenge. Remy wants to be just like her. Elise offers an escape from Remy’s fighting parents, from Remy’s perfect brother, and from Remy’s other friends, who are growing distant. But beneath Elise’s brazen exterior, she has her own wounds. As their friendship intensifies, Elise begins to clash with Remy’s boyfriend, Jack. When Jack is shot and killed, Remy must sort through abuse, guilt, and love to understand what happened. Was it self-defense, or did the differences between Elise and Jack finally become too much? Remy and Elise’s sometimes-electrifying, sometimes-toxic relationship is explored in detail, making both girls’ actions understandable, if still reprehensible at times. Though the drama is extreme, the trauma Elise and Remy both carry is explored deftly, and Elise’s hold on Remy is tantalizing throughout. Remy is Chinese-American, has another Asian-American friend, and notes that her schools have become more diverse, though most of the other characters, including Elise, are white.
A gripping story of love, obsession, and the space in between.
Five high school sophomores returning to their New York prep school from a camping trip in Idaho realize that their private plane has been hijacked.
The passenger list includes Japanese-American Cassie, whose father owns the plane; her best friend, Indian-American Brandon; football star Tim, who is white; Tim’s Latinx girlfriend, Emily; Korean-American Jay, who feels out of place as a working-class boy on a baseball scholarship; and three white adults—their chaperone, pilot, and a substitute copilot. Soon after takeoff, something does not seem right: Cassie becomes seriously ill, and the plane is heading west. The story unfolds in chapters that alternate between the viewpoints of the teens on the plane and that of Michelle, a 16-year-old Nigerian-American intern at the National Air Traffic Investigation Center who is trying to discover the identity and motivation of the hijacker. Readers learn about each character—their personal ambitions, fears, thoughts, and mutual history. With the clock ticking before disaster ensues, emotions run high, the kidnappees have violent emotional breakdowns, and everyone questions whom to trust before readers learn the true motive behind the hijacking. Using straightforward, unadorned language that will appeal to reluctant readers, Griffin (Saving Marty, 2017, etc.) seamlessly weaves in topics such as financial struggles, family expectations, and relationship complications, shedding light on the friends, their emotions, and the hijacking without slowing down the action. Diversity is indicated solely through names.
Readers who crave nonstop plot-driven adventure will not be disappointed.
A girl struggles to understand her boyfriend’s suicide—or to discover if it really was a suicide.
For years, Hailey’s life has revolved around the charismatic stepbrothers across the street. Popular, handsome Kane’s her childhood best friend—they lost their virginity together as fumbling, awkward 15-year-olds. Then there’s his equally charismatic stepbrother—brilliant, talented, devout Declan—a gorgeous multiracial boy (Hailey fetishizes his ethnically ambiguous features). Told from Hailey’s point of view, the story jumps back and forth between the present—a year after Declan’s death—and flashbacks to her intense, romantic relationship with Declan and the lead-up to his death. Hailey, whose life has fallen to pieces since that night (after a lengthy in-patient stay, she’s self-harming and drinking), suffers from what her therapist calls selective retention, her brain refusing to process painful memories as suicide runs so counter to the Declan she knew. Then Declan’s mother finds a strange photograph and threatening message among his things. Soon, Hailey’s seeing hints of something suspicious everywhere she turns. Desperate, Hailey pushes hard, slowly unraveling relationships and secrets in her own memories. The vividly-drawn characters are consumed by the drama of their powerful feelings. The truth she finally finds is downright chilling. Most characters default to white.
A twisted, engrossing tale of relationships intermingling to disaster.