In Allan’s debut thriller, a priest aims to find the people responsible for his brother’s murder, whatever the cost.
An explosion at a political rally kills a popular presidential candidate, a Muslim reformist and a lawyer who had Senate aspirations. However, authorities are baffled as to which person was the intended target of the terror attack. The lawyer’s twin brother, Luke Miller, a Catholic priest raised in a Jewish household, becomes a media celebrity in the aftermath of the tragedy, and he spends much of his day dodging paparazzi. The press’s fascination is understandable; after all, Luke wears his brother’s clothes, drives his brother’s car and goes out in public with his brother’s widow. He decides to look into the bombing on his own, even though his investigation may ultimately put other people’s lives in jeopardy. Allan’s novel is a blistering tale with all the right ingredients for a mystery—for example, Luke’s prodding reveals more questions, such as why Luke’s brother had been carrying a gun. But the author’s multifaceted characters are what give the book distinction. Luke is a bracingly ambiguous character, prone to violent retorts and wracked with guilt over the fact that he and his brother had not been on the best of terms. The novel also addresses Luke’s ties to the cloth, as his need for retribution makes him question his faith. The story is full of complex relationships; for example, Luke is indisputably attracted to both his sister-in-law Deborah, and the Muslim reformist’s sister Jami. Luke encounters many dead ends and red herrings, but they always feel like steps closer to a solution rather than throwaway pieces of a puzzle. The book’s stellar ending addresses a lingering uncertainty and leaves much for readers to ponder.
A prosecutor and a homeless man team up against a murderous conspiracy in this rollicking thriller.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlie Beckham is thrown for a loop when a deranged man on a subway platform addresses him by a nickname known only to his long-lost brother Jake. The problem is that Jake’s been presumed dead for 13 years. Charlie scours Boston’s back alleys for the elusive vagrant and finds a grizzled amnesiac named Bonz with the grooming of a sasquatch, the fighting chops of a Navy SEAL and serious mental instability. Soon, Charlie’s life collapses: He blows the biggest case of his career, a colleague, Angel, is found dead in his apartment, and Charlie finds himself on the run from the law with Bonz as his only ally. To get clear of the wreckage, the pair must solve a labyrinthine mystery—one that knits together Jake’s fate, Bonz’s foggy past and a missing audiotape. The two also contend with some formidable bad guys, one of whom specializes in hammering nails into his victims’ heads. Hankins’ sly buddy adventure contrasts two unlikely comrades. Charlie’s well-ordered world crumbles into paranoia and theft, while Bonz works toward forming coherent sentences and practicing better hygiene. The two settle into an entertaining dynamic as their statuses equalize, with Charlie’s squeamish legalism playing off Bonz’s unself-conscious violence and practicality. Hankins surrounds them with a crackerjack cast of bristling thugs, weaselly lowlifes and beady-eyed feds, and he ties the story together with pitch-perfect dialogue, mordant humor and action scenes poised exquisitely between menace and chaos. At times the plot’s scheming and counterscheming gets a bit over-the-top, but readers will likely be having too much fun to notice.
In Manos’ crime drama, Michael Pollitz must decide whether to protect the mobster who has protected him.
When Mike, a college student in 1972 Illinois, is arrested on drug charges, his father insists he use a public defender. His childhood friend’s father, Dom Calabria, head of the Outfit in Chicago, wants to help Mike by providing a first-rate lawyer, but Mike goes with his father’s wishes. The outcome is a plea bargain for a short stay in Astoria Adult Correctional Facility—but after he’s brutally beaten and raped by three inmates, Mike spends most of his sentence in the infirmary. He doesn’t give up his assailants’ names but threatens their lives right before he’s set to be released. When Mike is picked up by the head of the mob, people notice. Flash forward to 1994, when Detective Larry Klinger begins investigating the murders of two former Astoria inmates who were violently killed shortly after being released. An informant—the third man who beat Mike—tells Klinger that the murders were committed by Calabria, the kingpin whom Klinger would like to see taken down. Klinger investigates, coming in contact with Mike, and the two form a friendship. When Klinger realizes that Mike will never give up Calabria, he begins to wonder whether it’s even worth investigating the murders of such evil men. Manos is extremely deft at allowing the characters to reveal the story and what motivates them. Klinger captures this particularly well; he ponders his role in the reality of crime and punishment, and Manos allows him to grow in the process: “Interviewing scumbags has to be the most tedious damn thing in the world, Klinger thought, as Bobby Andrews jumped back and forth over the same explanations, tripping over one lie after another.” The characters are rich in their speech, experiences and motivations, which the measured, purposeful writing only enhances.
A character-driven crime novel ruled by complex men facing the past.
Enigmatic Romanian master detective Enescu Fleet returns for another tangled tale.
Young (Fleeting Memory, 2011) brings back suave sleuth Enescu Fleet in this complex, hypercaffeinated crime caper that opens with the narrator, hapless John Hathaway, who’s “not much of a detective,” on the brink of marrying Lesley Darlington. John’s friend and fellow detective Hutton has set up Lesley and her British parents in a lakeside cabin belonging to John “Johnny Fishcakes” Frederick Herrington, the mob kingpin “most famous for his ongoing blood feud with the Vroom family of Boston.” Lesley worries they may all be caught in the crossfire, although Hathaway is fairly certain she simply likes saying “Vroom.” Trouble instead strikes Hutton, who’s roughed up by goons. Shortly afterward, he’sled into the lakeside cabinby none other than famous retired detective Fleet and his faithful Maltese, Pixie. From there, the book’s manic plot takes off, centering on the Fishcakes/Vroom blood feud as it skillfully and delightfully lampoons conventional murder mysteries by filtering them through the quip-heavy sensibilities of a Wodehouse novel. “It’s amazing how often I end up in seats next to the most priceless asses,” Hathaway laments. When Fleet assembles a room full of such specimensat the book’s climax, one character dryly asks, “Next you’re going to say [the culprits are] in this very room,” to which the unflappable Fleet replies, “I am and they are.” The plot moves from one perfectly deployed absurdity to another, with Everyman Hathawayat the center of things, always with the slightly annoying but nearly infallible Fleet on hand to shed some light and generally be inscrutable. When Fleet hints that one particular pawn on the plot’s chessboard is “a knight in pawn’s clothing,” a hapless guest asks, “The knight’s the one that makes a move like an L?”—at which point Fleet suggests they “lay off the chess metaphors for now.”
Ostensibly about a serial killer, Barney’s (The Solarium, 2011, etc.) novel is about much more than that. It’s also the story of people who are down but not out and a rumination on family, courage and responsibility—a book that reverberates long after the last page.
Grouchy old Ellie Miller, the “graffiti grandma,” is on a quixotic mission to scrub the graffiti off the mailboxes in her neighborhood. With solvent and rags, she does it at least once a week. One day, she encounters Sarah, a homeless teenage goth girl who offers to help. But they’re wary of each other. In the first chapter, they discover, under a pile of leaves, the body of Peter, a homeless boy who was Sarah’s friend and protector. From there, the plot is off and running, even as it skips around. But that’s OK, since Barney is an agile writer with an uncanny ability to tie the plot strings together. For example, the narrative doesn’t get back to the action of the first chapter until Chapter 11, after all the characters are introduced, each with his or her own back story. There’s Jeffery, another forsaken kid whose grandfather comes to rescue him from a traumatic childhood, though he may not be a real rescuer after all. There’s divorced policeman Matt Trommald and his autistic son, Collin. And there’s Ellie, who’s no saint, though she’s finally sober. She thinks her troubled son, Danny, is long gone—and good riddance—but he might be closer than she thinks. Each chapter has its own appropriate point of view, with Ellie and Sarah in first person and Matt and Jeffrey in third. As such, it’s easy to get to know Ellie and Sarah and their wary dance around each other; Matt and Jeffrey, less so. Key to the plot is the camp in the nearby dense woods, where young runaways make up a ragtag family. But runaways are turning up dead. Who’s the killer? Fortunately, Barney’s narrative nimbleness helps wrangle the storylines as they race to a satisfying conclusion.
A gripping book with compelling characters who don’t want your pity.
In this stylish homage to the detective novels of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a press agent stumbles across a starlet’s dead body and into the seamy world of scheming players and morally bankrupt movie moguls.
An aging actress whose star has fallen, a thuggish bodyguard, a Holy Rolling studio head, an actor whose sexuality is in flux—these people inhabit the world of beleaguered publicist Joe Bernardi. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Joe operates in a 1940s Los Angeles full of femmes fatales, hucksters, and shady movers and shakers. But he’s no hard-drinking tough guy, just a man desperate to clear his name—the cops think he killed a dead actress—while trying to find satisfaction in his job at second-rate Continental Studios. He also wouldn’t mind reuniting with his ex-wife, Lydia, whose house he watches in the wee hours. Joe’s struggling to regain his life after the war, and his soft heart and fledgling courage stand out against the old-fashioned whodunit plot in which there’s no shortage of suspects, including Mafia men, all with convincing motives for murder. Adding depth and color are descriptions of LA that are at once nostalgic and believable. Observations from Joe’s viewpoint slyly echo the era and the genre: “the job suits her like a size 2 silk slip,” and “he can squeeze a penny hard enough to make Lincoln cry.” That’s what makes the story snap: the familiar yet original characters and their sparkling dialogue. Author Fischer spent many years as a Hollywood scriptwriter, and his talent for authentic voice and tight repartee shines in this first installment of the Hollywood Murder Mysteries series. The background is steeped in movie lore, with names and events of the time—Farley Granger, Gail Russell and the Black Dahlia murder case—cropping up to set the tale against real Hollywood history. Layered with complex relationships that are rarely what they seem, the tightly drawn plot carefully unveils its mysteries; even as one murder is solved, more twists pop up to ensure revelations right up to the satisfying ending.
An enjoyable, fast-paced whodunit from opening act to final curtain.
The surprises keep coming in La Salle’s twisting debut thriller, in which good and evil aren’t always black and white.
Quincy Cavanaugh and Tavares “Phee” Freeman team up with FBI agent Janet Maclin in the pursuit of a serial killer who’s murdered 12 clergymen every 10 years for the past three decades. With the killings set to occur over a limited number of days, the investigators have to move quickly to catch the Martyr Maker before he takes more lives and goes back into hiding. In the process, they discover that he isn’t randomly pursuing men of the cloth—he’s targeting the ones who use their positions to keep lurid secrets safe, and he believes he’s on a mission from God. In addition to the absorbing, fast-paced plot that will keep readers guessing until the end, each wonderfully sculpted character has a distinct, lifelike personality. Some characters aren’t who they appear to be, and few escape the story unchanged. Crucial subplots revolving around the main characters’ family members and significant others, who struggle with their own demons—like Quincy’s brother, who’s a priest, and a mother whose son committed suicide on her father’s watch—add nuance, making the characters real, vulnerable and flawed. Without skimping on character development in exchange for action, the plot offers catalysts for change while raising spiritual questions and blurring the line between good and evil, which propels the story upward from being merely a solid, entertaining thriller to being a gripping must-read that could have readers pondering right and wrong long after they’ve finished.
A delightfully twisting roller-coaster ride through light, dark and the shades between.
A genre-bending mystery set in the high-stakes world of TV production.
The titular narrator of Fitzsimmons’ (Life Askew, 2002) second novel is straight out of the Wild West, right down to his dialect, values and beloved collection of hats. But Promo Cowboy, who’s long renounced his “Christian name,” isn’t lassoing cattle out on the range—he’s working long days and late nights at a post-production studio in Midtown Manhattan, creating promos for whatever TV network calls on his freelancing talents. Though he’s suspicious when he gets a new gig through the referral of a longtime rival, Promo Cowboy is in no position to turn down work. As he gets further involved in the inner workings of a new up-and-coming network, some troubling coincidences come to light—namely, many of his new colleagues (and old friends) seem to be connected by their past tenure at Lifestyle TV (LTV), a music TV network that “[c]hanged television forever.” Sound familiar? Promo Cowboy’s new boss, Belinda got her start in the business as one of the “A-Girls,” LTV’s in-house pretty young things. Work becomes more complicated when a murderer dubbed the Video Killer begins strangling industry veterans with video tape,and Promo Cowboy, who’s recently had a one-night tryst with one of the victims, finds himself at the center of the media circus and the police investigation. Fitzsimmons, a more than competent writer, constructs a smart, well-plotted whodunit, and mystery fans will likely find his unusual setting and hero refreshing. More cosmopolitan readers, however, may find themselves exasperated by Promo Cowboy. Though his dialect is consistent, it’s also a bit heavy-handed; the longer passages that he narrates can quickly become grating. And while his occasional sexist and generally offensive remarks don’t go unremarked upon by other characters, neither do they render Promo Cowboy a particularly sympathetic figure.
This original, well-written crime story will win plenty of fans, but it’d be better off with a more likable protagonist.
A mind-bending marriage of ambitious literary theory and classic murder mystery.
In this intricately plotted novel, Hartman (winner of the Salvo Press Mystery Novel Award for Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead, 2008) spins the familiar trappings of gothic mystery together with a fresh postmodern sensibility, producing a story that’s as rich and satisfying as it is difficult to categorize. The narrative begins with Dr. Ned Hoffmann, a new psychiatrist at a mental institution in a small town. Barely in control of his own instabilities, Dr. Hoffmann struggles with demanding bosses and baffling patients, including the schizophrenic grown children of an opera singer who died under suspicious circumstances. When one of Dr. Hoffmann’s recent patients, Nicole, an anxious literature grad student, finally finds a topic for her dissertation, she discovers that life in her town is beginning to mirror art—in some disconcerting ways. Alongside a professional blackmailer, a scrappy librarian and other assorted meddlers and madmen, Dr. Hoffmann and Nicole slowly unspool a mystery that extends all the way back to artists of the romantic era. Hartman impressively turns literary theory into something sexy and menacing, weaving the real-life works of writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and composers Robert Schumann and Jacques Offenbach, among others, into his characters’ increasingly muddled lives. Sometimes the writing is self-conscious, as when Nicole says, “If you asked me about what’s been going on around here lately, I’d have to classify it as Post-Modern Neo-Gothic Horror.” For the most part, Hartman brings a light touch to potentially weighty material. Though the novel’s philosophical twists and turns are fascinating, the story also succeeds as an old-fashioned whodunit, and the writing is full of descriptive gems. At one point, the librarian looks at someone “over the tops of her trifocals, as if in the suspicion that none of their refractions would reveal the truth about him.” As Hartman skillfully blurs the lines between fiction and reality, the book becomes a profound meditation on art, identity and their messy spheres of influence.
An exciting, original take on the literary mystery genre.
A detective inspector joins forces with an Anglican priest and an astronomer to thwart a shadowy organization’s sinister plans in this debut suspense thriller.
In England’s Exeter Cathedral, a man with a strange black book is found dead in front of the altar, with occult signs spray-painted on the floor and a crucifix overturned. In Australia’s Siding Springs Observatory, a young astronomer named Charlie Brown discovers a supernova that’s sending “a hail of high-energy particles and electromagnetic radiation” straight toward Earth. Linking these events are the machinations of a secret society bent on power and destruction. As DI Cecilia Cavaliere investigates the secrets of the black book, she turns to scholar and Anglican priest Michael Aarons for help. Cecilia, Michael and Charlie must confront a world-threatening challenge with cleverness, courage, science and faith—as well as love and friendship. In this entertaining, thought-provoking novel, Bryan (The Resurrection of the Messiah, 2011, etc.)—himself an Anglican priest—highlights the imaginative sweep and power of Christianity. As Charlie says, “I can say, the universe has to be the way it is, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. And that’s certainly true. But still, to be in awe or not to be in awe, that’s a choice—an emotional choice—and I don’t see opting for one as being any more or less ‘scientific’ than opting for the other.” Bryan’s heroes aren’t just likable but lovable: intelligent, amusing, hardworking, even kind to animals. In contrast, the novel’s villains are truly spooky and disturbing; readers are always aware of the urgency of stopping their evilplans.
An enjoyable novel of spiritual mystery and adventure—well-plotted, intelligent and deeply moving.
In Ferrendelli’s debut mystery, a reporter desperate to solve her sister’s murder must face demons of her own.
Samantha Church didn’t quit her nearly decadelongcareer reporting for the Denver Post; she was fired due to the basic, yet persistent, mistakes in her articles. She knows she’s a damn good reporter, so her firing came as a shock, but an even bigger surprise was the accusation that she’s an alcoholic. Sure, she likes to have a drink now and then, but does that really matter? Sam won’t admit that her problem has caused her to lose custody of her daughter and also to miss her sister’s important phone call—her last communication before falling to her death from an apartment balcony. Convinced her sister would never commit suicide, Sam searches for her killer, following a trail of corruption involving drug cartels and some of the highest ranking members of a police department outside Denver. But as Sam tries to find justice for others, she realizes she needs rescuing as well. Struggling with personal demons, weight problems and alcoholism, Sam is a carefully crafted, realistically flawed character. Her mistakes and missteps have a humanizing effect, and though she may be exasperating at times, most readers will find themselves steadfastly in her corner. Secondary characters are similarly complex, with no lack of personal weaknesses, complementing the already tangible sense of humanity. The plot slows, understandably, during Sam’s alcoholic blackouts and moments of depression and accelerates accordingly in her times of clarity. Ferrendelli deftly avoids formulaic resolutions with outcomes that are nuanced and often unexpected. Some readers may feel that Sam’s occasionally lengthy moments of introspection lag compared to the rest of the story, and peculiar imagery—as when Sam remembers holding her daughter and feeling “her young tender bones as soft and as fragile and limber as cooked spaghetti noodles”—detracts from otherwise authentic, thoughtful prose. Minor issues aside, Ferrendelli’s debut will leave many readers hoping for more from this vulnerable, highly sympathetic heroine.
A smart, nimble treat of a mystery that provides ample foundation for growth.
In this debut thriller, two singles vacationing in paradise find love and sunken treasure, but the treasure belongs to a drug cartel that wants it back.
Luck seems to be on the side of Bill and Vicky. After meeting on Isla La Madre, the blossoming of their romance is followed by the discovery, while snorkeling, of a cigarette boatand close to $60 million—not to mention bullet holes and skeletal remains. The two take the money and try their best to hide evidence of the shipwreck, but that doesn’t stop the Miami Mafia from realizing that a rather sizable payment is now missing. They send their man to recover the funds and take care of any related problems. Howell sets up his story remarkably well, wasting no time in getting Bill and Vicky together and proficiently establishing their new relationship without dawdling. They snorkel, make love and even have an awkward moment when Vicky breaks the ice by implying that Bill’s an alcoholic—all within the first 50 pages. But it’s their shrewd response to finding bundles of cash at the bottom of the seathat makes them appealing. They consider every option—destroying the money or turning it in to the police, for instance—and they’re cautious even without knowing if they’re in danger. It’s clear to readers, however, that a menace is lurking: Mob manRizzo enlists Eddy, who’s not above murdering someone to cover his own tracks. The baddies get close enough to the lovers to ramp up suspense, which leads to a rousing car chase and the introduction of a police presence, mostly in the form of Officer Tony Sanchez. His scenes are less engaging, since readers are a few steps ahead of his investigation, but his refusal to let a murder case go cold is laudable. Numerous ships and scenes at sea lead to amusing nautical metaphors—Vicky notes that she and Bill, both with the money, are “on the same boat”—and even water-laden threats, like Rizzo suggesting that Eddy “plug some dike” with an unlucky man.
Pithy writing, an unswerving plot and witty characters give this thriller a notable gleam.
Knoerle’s ace thriller, the third in the American Spyseries, chronicles a noirish tough guy’s efforts to protect the world from the Red Menace, circa 1944.
Knoerle hits precisely the right note of humility and bravado when his protagonist, American Office of Strategic Services agent Hal Schroeder, declares in the novel’s prologue: “You wouldn’t believe how much crap you get credit for when you’re a hero.” What follows is a spare, stylish thriller peopled with wisecracking characters straight out of a Billy Wilder flick. Schroeder, a World War II vet marking time as a librarian in his native Cleveland, is tapped by real-life intelligence heavyweight Frank Wisner for another covert ops “suicide mission” in Eastern Europe. He accepts, of course—after which everything spirals blissfully out of control. Robert Altman–esque cameos of historical baddies, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and suave Cambridge Five double agents Guy Burgess and Kim Philby (who made careers of providing British secrets to their Soviet masters) add historical depth to the international political hijinks. However, Schroeder is the star here. The slightly goofy patriot is bright but not extravagantly so—much like author Laura Lippman’s nerdy Baltimore PI, Tess Monaghan, or Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, whose dogged legwork and occasional epiphanies eventually solve the problems at hand. Agent Schroeder is no Sherlock, and that makes him all the more appealing and the novel more accessible. Beguiled readers will want to seek out Schroeder’s two prior adventures (A Pure Double Cross, 2008, and A Despicable Profession, 2010) as a stopgap until Knoerle hopefully blesses fans with a fourth book (à la numerically expansive author Robert Rankin) in this delightful trilogy.
A legal thriller that does double duty as a poignant tale of a love challenged by the indignities of Alzheimer’s and the corrupt judicial system that refuses to acknowledge them.
Woodrow “Woody” Wilson has begun to forget things. He’s having not just the typical memory slips that increase as a man enters his 80s, but telling lapses such as not recognizing family members or believing their good intentions. When such moments arise, Woody takes off in his truck, and his loving son, Waylon, and wife, Maggie, tail him as he revisits cherished places from his past. One day, however, Woody ditches his truck and disappears with an unknown man. The family enlists the help of investigator Sherwood “Shot Glass” Reynolds, a recovering alcoholic who witnessed his own father’s battle with dementia. Reynolds soon identifies the stranger as Linus Schmutzer Jr., aka Doc Smooth, a psychiatrist forced to resign for conducting unauthorized experiments on Alzheimer’s patients. Yet all is not as it seems, as Waylon and Reynolds unravel a wartime connection between the abductor and abductee that stretches back to Auschwitz. A dangerous lapse into dementia leads Woody to hold a deputy at gunpoint, which results in his arrest. His court-appointed lawyer, Pythagoras “Thag” Clemons, lives a woebegone existence that makes Reynolds’ sad life shine by comparison. Thag is also painfully familiar with Alzheimer’s, and he joins the motley crew, which soon includes Woody’s cellmates, in an audacious plan to get justice for the ailing World War II veteran. Woodfin (The Lazarus Deception, 2013, etc.), an attorney with several thrillers to his name, expertly combines the detailed machinations of the legal system with a fast-moving, twisting plot that leads to an unanticipated climax. His tender portrayal of Woody and Maggie’s deeply felt love is a welcome surprise, as are the many near-poetic depictions of dementia that evoke pathos without a hint of sentimentality.
A fine thriller, with a bittersweet love story that lingers long after the last page.
Carpenter’s (This Jealous Earth, 2012) suspenseful debut novel weaves together the consequences of a horrific trauma and the thirst for both vengeance and acceptance with explorations of the human mind, family dynamics and the complexities of language.
A psychiatrist seems well-positioned to process the psychic damage of past events, but Dr. Philip Adler, 52, remains devastated 15 years after the violent death of his only child. As a result, his marriage has imploded, he has developed substance abuse problems, and he has run from the Normandy town where he and his family lived. Adler is a broken, lonely man trying to show strength to others through his clinical practice, but he’s unable to reconcile the events of the past. Although Édouard Morin, a mentally ill local youth, confessed to the crime and has been institutionalized and everyone involved, including Adler’s ex-wife and her new family, wants very much to forget the episode, the body of teenage Sophie Adler has never been found. When the death of Adler’s mother-in-law impels him to finally return to Yvetot, France, he realizes that he must reach closure before he can try to build a new life. Of the many ways a novelist could approach the search for a missing body, Carpenter opts for a most complex and ingenious one—through a detailed analysis of the language used by the brilliant, psychotic Morin during his brief, ill-advised interviews with Adler. This taut, high-stakes plotline is very effective, but the novel contains much more than this. Although Adler is a former resident and fluent in French, he is an interloper in the close-knit community. He is an American; he lacks understanding of the intricacies of French culture; and he is a constant reminder of the town’s inability to keep one of their own safe. As he stirs up unpleasant memories, the town mobilizes against him. The author’s ability to satirize the French people’s distaste for outsiders and their inflexibility brings mordant humor to the grim proceedings.
Fully realized characters, a remarkable fluency of language, wit, and an extensive comprehension of French culture and history make this literary novel a stellar achievement.