A taut, exquisite page-turner vibrating with existential distress and cumulative dread.
Schweblin’s English-language debut, translated by the eminently capable McDowell, plays out as a tense, sustained dialogue in an emergency clinic somewhere in the Argentinian countryside between a dying woman named Amanda and her dispassionate interlocutor, David, who, we quickly ascertain, is a child but seems to be neither her child nor any clear relation to her. At David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past, but as he pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, a struggle for narrative control ensues. Though Amanda gradually gains the power to tell her story in her own way—despite David’s frequent protestations that she's dwelling on irrelevant details that won’t help her understand her circumstances—the impotence and inchoate dangers that underscore the conversation in the clinic ricochet throughout the larger story being told, of what brought her there and why David is with her. Even with the small freedom to tell the deathbed tale she wants to tell, she moves inexorably in the retelling toward the moment when death became inevitable, just as time, in the clinic, creeps closer to the realization of that death. While the book resides in the realm of the uncanny, its concerns are all too real. Once the top blows off Schweblin’s chest of horrors, into which we’d been peeking through a masterfully manipulated crack, what remains is an unsettling and significant dissection of maternal love and fear, of the devastation we’ve left to the future, and of our inability to escape or control the unseen and unimagined threats all around us.
In a literary thriller of the highest order, Schweblin teases out the underlying anxieties of being vulnerable and loving vulnerable creatures and of being an inhabitant of a planet with an increasingly uncertain future.
A Pennsylvania police officer digs deep, then still deeper, into the mystery of an inexplicably slaughtered family.
Professor Thomas Huston seemed to have it all: a successful career as a novelist, a position as a popular teacher at Shenango College, a loving wife, and three children too young to have grown away from him yet. So why on earth would he have taken a razor to their throats before disappearing into the night? Why, even if he felt compelled to end their lives, would he have varied his technique for his baby son, stabbing him in the heart instead? And why, if he’s so determined to run away, does he keep hovering around the town, telephoning his friends only to read them poems by Edgar Allan Poe? Sgt. Ryan DeMarco counts himself as one of those friends, but he finds Huston’s behavior, whether or not he’s as guilty as he looks, as inexplicable as everyone else. Unlike everyone else, however, DeMarco can’t let go of these agonizing riddles. Still mourning the death of his own baby son in a car crash, he feels an uncanny kinship to Huston, an intimacy that deepens when he retraces the writer’s steps to Whispers, the strip club where Huston had cultivated owner Bonnie Harris and dancer Danni Reynolds as models for Annabel, the heroine of his latest novel. As DeMarco, who’s a lot better at butting heads with station commander Sgt. Kyle Bowen, the supervisor he used to supervise before his demotion, than at detective work, struggles to make sense of Huston’s behavior, Silvis (The Boy Who Shoots Crows, 2011, etc.) intercuts his inquiries with glimpses into Huston’s tantalizingly underspecified memories of the fatal night until the two men finally collide in the first of several memorable lurches into resolution.
Beneath the momentum of the investigation lies a pervasive sadness that will stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Freya Miller has recently lost her favorite patient to a horrific automobile accident. Depressed, she puts off her lifelong plan to work as a Red Cross nurse in East Timor and applies for a suspiciously well-paying job with the fabulously wealthy Vincetti family. Evelyn and Harlan Vincetti are the owners of a vast conglomerate that uses every means possible to increase profits no matter who or what gets hurt. Their younger son, Elijah, is comatose after a mysterious accident. Aside from caring for him, Freya’s job is to keep her mouth shut and her curiosity buried, something she finds especially difficult once she’s given a key card that opens some but not all of the hundreds of rooms in the Vincetti mansion. Compared to his older brother, Jack, an agoraphobic writer toiling with difficulty on his second book, Elijah has always been the family’s golden boy, handsome, athletic, and multitalented, and his fiancee, Rosaline, is determined to have the storybook wedding she’s dreamed of despite Elijah’s condition. The family may be dysfunctional, but Freya has her oddities, too. She always wears gloves or bracelets to cover up a scar caused by a pineapple cutter, and she suffers from a rare condition that allows her to see sound as color. Freya makes friends with Maria, the housekeeper, and slowly develops a romantic relationship with the reclusive Jack, who joins her in trying to uncover some of the secrets hidden behind the locked doors, many of which turn out to be horrifying and deadly. This first mystery from Donellan (A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India, 2009) will remind many readers of Tom Robbins’ work: cleverly crafted and overflowing with idiosyncratic characters and mordant humor.
Indefatigable author/editor Edwards (Serpents in Eden, 2016, etc.), diving once more into the past, dusts off 11 mostly forgotten seasonal reprints from the golden age of the detective story.
The good news is that none of these tales is a clunker; all are at least readable. The better news is that their value as Yuletide nostalgia is intensified by excavating them between 50 and more than 100 years after their initial publications. The best news is that by far the longest of them, Victor Gunn’s “Death in December,” is one of the most effective, packing into its 75 pages a wraithlike figure that walks in the snow without leaving footprints, a mysterious corpse dressed just like a notorious earlier family fatality, the disappearance of said corpse, and a tidy set of logical explanations. The other standouts are Ianthe Jerrold’s “Off the Tiles,” a briskly efficient inquiry into who pushed an inoffensive lady off the roof of her flat, and the best-known of these stories, Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Sack,” an aggressively traditional tale that packs a most unwilling Albert Campion off to a Christmas party, where he’ll be needed to investigate a well-anticipated jewel theft. Felonious holiday parties are also the order of the day for Christopher Bush, Julian Symons, and Michael Gilbert. Fergus Hume supplies a shivery seasonal ghost, Edgar Wallace a free-wheeling fantasia whose two murder victims richly deserve what they get, S.C. Roberts a charming Sherlock-ian playlet with an ending right out of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” and Josephine Bell a grim tale of theft and casual murder disappointing only because the crime is so much more memorable than the detection.
Just the thing for readers who crave a retreat from their own rounds of obligatory social events and a rationale assuring them that attending Christmas parties can provide quite a shock to other people’s systems.
Haunted by a Saddam Hussein henchman's coldblooded execution of a young Shiite girl, British war reporter Thomas Benton and ex–GI Arwood Hobbes reunite in Iraq 22 years later to investigate the unlikely possibility that she is alive.
The unlikely duo first meet in 1991, during the uneasy cease-fire following the first Gulf War. The 22-year-old Hobbes is on patrol at Checkpoint Zulu, 150 miles from the Kuwaiti border. Benton is on the prowl for unsanctioned information about ongoing conflicts. During an attempt to rescue Benton from a dangerous situation in a nearby town, the fearless (and feckless) Hobbes spots a frightened girl in a green dress and tries to get her out of harm's way as well. But a Baathist colonel, with Hobbes' gun pointed at his head—and in full view of U.S. soldiers—shoots her in the back. After beating up a lieutenant who berates him for daring to get involved in local matters, Hobbes is sent home without honor. Benton returns to an unhappy home life in England following a meaningful one-night fling with Märta, a sexy and stoic Swedish relief worker. In 2013, out of the blue, Hobbes invites the now-63-year-old reporter to join him in Kurdistan, convinced he saw their girl in green on Al Jazeera escaping a mortar attack. Her existence, or lack thereof, speaks to the fact that everything has changed in Iraq, and nothing has changed. The new emerging threat is ISIS, but the same grudge fights are being fought, scores of innocents are still on the run, and Westerners like our heroes are still getting abducted. As in his acclaimed debut, Norwegian by Night (2013), Miller brilliantly blends offbeat reflection and dark emotion, using pop-culture references ranging from Ferris Bueller to Winnie the Pooh to underscore the killing ironies of war.
A penetrating, poetic, and unexpectedly disarming book about the ageless conflict in the Middle East by a writer who has made that topic his specialty.
Argentine novelist Ronsino’s debut in English, a brief, brooding novel set on the windswept edge of the pampas.
Not much happens in Chivilcoy, which, though in the province of Buenos Aires, might as well be on the moon. The story opens ominously, in 1973, when workers come without notice and dig up the town’s rail link to the outside, leaving the massive Glaxo factory an island out on the grassland. The narrator is one of four figures who, in this gloomy place, play a part in a killing whose motives are obscure, recapitulated, in a way, by a finger-shooting game in which bored kids re-enact a gunfight from a Western film. Jealousy plays its part as the Dulcinea of the piece, the lovely La Negra Miranda, provokes the requisite deadly sins while pretty much minding her own business. All these years later, and she has gone, and, as the second narrator, now speaking from a vantage point a quarter-century after the events, says, “Here, in the Don Pedrín, Lucio Montes tells me about a ghost, because to name La Negra Miranda is like naming a ghost.” She is not the only specter, not the only secret the little town seeks to hide as it tries to forget the killing of an innocent—and, at the same time, the involvement of some of its inhabitants in the murderous dictatorship of the 1970s and the punishment of some who committed no crime; jealousy is one thing, but wanton and casual violence is quite another. Allusive and reserved, as if peeking out at the scene of the crime from behind drawn curtains, Ronsino’s short novel has an almost claustrophobic feel to it; if the only way to escape the place is to be imprisoned or drafted, the only way to get out of the narrative is to see people at their indifferent worst.
Perry (Forty Thieves, 2016, etc.) drives deep into Jack Reacher territory in this stand-alone about a long-ago Army intelligence officer whose less-than-grateful nation just won’t let him be.
Dispatched to Libya a generation ago to deliver $20 million to Faris Hamzah for distribution to rebel fighters, Michael Kohler watched as Hamzah sat on the money, purchasing a Rolls-Royce, financing a cadre of personal bodyguards, and doing everything except pass the bundle to the intended recipients. So Kohler grabbed the rest of the money and hightailed it back to the USA. His offers to return the money to the National Security Agency fell on the deaf ears of bureaucrats who informed him that he was a wanted criminal who’d better turn himself in and face the music. So Kohler went off the grid as Dan Chase, of Norwich, Vermont, invested the money cautiously, and set up several false identities, just in case. Ten years after his wife died, his past catches up with him in the shape of two Arab-looking men who break into his house while he’s supposed to be asleep. After taking care of business with brutal efficiency, he goes on the lam once more. As Peter Caldwell he drives to Chicago, where he meets Zoe McDonald, who’s quickly drawn to him. They make some sweet memories together as Henry and Marcia Dixon; then it’s time once more for Henry to leave. Julian Carson, the special ops contractor assigned to locate Dixon and set him up for the kill, ends up sympathizing with him instead—especially after he helps arrange the return of the $20 million and sees that it doesn’t lessen the pressure on Dixon—and passes on the information that allows the Dixons to escape, though it doesn’t exactly feel like an escape to Marcia. They retreat to an isolated cabin in Big Bear; Carson quits the assignment and marries his Arkansas sweetheart. Both men wait for the inevitable, and in the fullness of time, it arrives with guns ablaze.
Swift, unsentimental, and deeply satisfying. Liam Neeson would be perfect in the title role.
During the waning years of the British Empire, a young woman returns to her father’s Kenyan farm after boarding school in England only to find home is no longer the safe, happy place she recalls.
Rachel Fullsmith lost her mother when she was only 12, on the same day she witnessed violence at her uncle’s factory during a strike. Having grown up on her parents’ farm in the African bush, she never felt at home in England, where her bereaved father sent her after her mother's death. As soon as she finishes school, she returns to Kenya but finds another woman living in her father’s home and all the familiar routines of the farm upended both by her pseudo-stepmother’s rigid—and racist—views and by the terror of the nascent Mau Mau rebellion. Torn between the memory of her once-loving home and the trauma and loss she and the people she knew as a child have experienced, Rachel tries to understand the political and social circumstances that have altered her world. McVeigh (The Fever Tree, 2013) creates real emotional tension as Rachel tries to hang on to all that reminds her of her mother. Will she reconnect with her father? Can she grow to accept, if not love, his new family? Will treating black Kenyans with the kindness her mother taught her put Rachel in harm’s way? Will the man she saw murder a striker on the day she learned of her mother’s death become as great a threat to Rachel as the Mau Mau? All of this is set against Rachel’s growing attraction to Michael, her former tutor and her father’s employee, and the danger of their forbidden relationship.
Readers who want a story that keeps them on edge will enjoy this historical novel rich with emotional and sociopolitical drama.
Hosking’s assured debut, a heady mixture of relationship drama and sci-fi time-travel thriller, features a fascinating character at its center: Grace, a brilliant, erratic, obsessively driven science student who has suddenly and inexplicably vanished. Our narrator and guide through the resulting narrative tangle, Grace’s younger brother, suffers in comparison to his charismatic sister. A diffident underachiever, he’s largely a passive figure in his own story, tagging along in the wake of his elder sibling’s worldly social circle, until his investigation of Grace’s disappearance uncovers her devastating secret—and the shocking actions of her unassuming genius boyfriend, John, who has rashly meddled with the secret mechanics of the universe itself for his own dark purpose. Structured anachronistically, Hosking’s time-looping tale deftly teases the reader with well-deployed reveals and intrigues with elegantly limned science-fiction ideas (including the brain-hurting concept of “subjective time” and spooky otherworldly “hunters” set upon those who temporally trespass). Hosking’s prose is limpid and tonally sophisticated; he’s a graceful wordsmith as well as a cerebral idea man. One may wish for more of Grace’s defiant, complicated voice—a version of the story from her point of view might have yielded more surprises and richer rewards—but Hosking's novel satisfies as both speculative fiction and character study.
A potent, sophisticated combination of science-fiction novel and psychological thriller.