Back when I was a boy, growing up in northern Oregon, I suffered from pretty severe hay fever. So while other children in my neighborhood scampered through wild grasses up to their armpits or engaged in lazy innings of softball on luminous summer afternoons, I remained behind. My mother, wary of overmedicating her two sons, didn’t want me popping pills or receiving shots that might have reduced my allergy symptoms, even if the alternative was that I spend the most agreeable days of June, July and August inside or, at best, in a rocking chair out on my bedroom’s deck—a place from which I could escape easily, should the demons of pollen discover me.
Knowing that I’d be all but confined to my parents’ home during the Northern Hemisphere’s most congenial months, I made it a habit to start planning at the end of each school year what books I wanted to read during my vacation. That practice has served me well ever since. Now, come spring, I begin searching through lists of summer releases, seeing what will soon be available. And by the end of May, I’ve narrowed my choices down to what I might actually find time to enjoy.
Below are eight of my top U.S. mystery and thriller picks for this summer.
The Confessions of Al Capone, by Loren D. Estleman (June):
Although he’s known best for his series about hard-crusted Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker (Burning Midnight), Estleman has also produced novels based on historical figures such as “hanging judges” Isaac Parker and Roy Bean (Roy & Lillie). Confessions, set in 1944, finds FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enlisting a young agent, Peter Vasco, to penetrate the inner circle around mob boss Al Capone, who, after seven years’ imprisonment, is back home in Florida, suffering from syphilis and irregularly lucid. It’s up to Vasco to gather as much dirt as possible on Capone’s confederates before the old gangster kicks off. The third-person action here is engaging, but it’s Capone’s first-person recollections that really make this story.
The Rules of Wolfe, by James Carlos Blake (June):
Showing the influences of Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy, this sequel to Blake’s 2012 historical novel Country of the Bad Wolfes tells the modern tale of Eddie Gato Wolfe, a too-impulsive member of a Texas gun-running clan. Weary of his lowly role in the family biz, Eddie vaults the U.S.-Mexico border to take security work with a Sonoran drug cartel run by the merciless La Navaja. Everything is fine, until Eddie falls for Miranda, a cinnamon-skinned beauty who also happens to be the mistress of El Segundo, La Navaja’s brother. When El Segundo catches the two lovers in bed, Eddie kills him and then escapes with Miranda, pursued by a pack of killers, turning this novel into a high-revving chase thriller.
The Fort, by Aric Davis (June):
Like Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, The Fort is about youth cheated of its innocence. It’s the summer of 1987, and from the ostensible safety of their tree house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, three boys see what they’re sure is a man pressing a gun to the back of 16-year-old Molly Peterson. The problem is, no one—including the police—believes their story, even though Molly has indeed vanished. So, against all good sense, those boys decide they must find and rescue Molly—a decision that puts them in the treacherous path of a Vietnam vet who’ll kill to locate his own lost sister.
The Devil’s Cave, by Martin Walker (July):
Satanism has finally reached the quaint village of St. Denis in France’s Dordogne region. Or, at least, that’s the way it looks when the nude corpse of a young woman floats down the river into its town center, her body flanked on a small boat by large black candles and her torso inked with a pentagram. Police chief Bruno Courrèges (last seen in The Crowded Grave) has plenty of other concerns on his plate, notably a domestic abuse case and a highly touted real estate development that may be less propitious than it appears. Yet when evidence of satanic ritual turns up in a popular local cavern, the media’s interest in St. Denis’ devilish escapades explodes. Not until he probes further does the romantic, food-loving Bruno realize that the “evil” at the root of these recent doings may have more to do with lust and lucre than Lucifer.
Death Was in the Blood, by Linda L. Richards (July):
Four years after her last adventure, in Death Was in the Picture, Kitty Pangborn—a feisty former debutante now struggling in Depression-era Los Angeles as “Girl Friday” to tippling private eye Dexter Theroux—returns in this knotty yarn about avarice, envy and “horse-napping.” Going over her boss’ head, Kitty accepts the job of body-guarding Flora Woodruff, an industrialist’s “elfin,” equestrienne daughter, who hopes to compete in the upcoming 1932 Olympic Games. Threatening missives, the disappearance of Flora’s prized German steed and suspicions of mobster involvement raise the stakes here, and leave Kitty even more out of her depth than usual.
Massacre Pond, by Paul Doiron (July):
Many residents of Washington County, Maine, aren’t pleased with a move by well-heeled animal-rights activist Betty Morse to buy up tens of thousands of woodland acres and give them to the U.S. government as a new national park site. In evident protest, moose are found butchered on Morse’s property. After Morse’s daughter loses her life in a peculiar car accident, game warden Mike Bowditch—unpopular himself in many quarters—realizes he must end the rising violence fast or risk losing both his friends and career. This is the fourth Bowditch novel after last year’s Bad Little Falls.
A Tap on the Window, by Linwood Barclay (August):
In possible tribute to his onetime “mentor in absentia,” detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the protagonist in Barclay’s latest thriller is Cal Weaver, an upstate New York PI who lost his son, Scott, in a tragic fall. Two months later, Cal picks up a rain-drenched hitchhiker, a teenager who introduces herself as “Claire” and says she’d known Scott. Cal hopes the girl has insights into his son’s passing. However, after Cal stops to let her use a diner’s bathroom, Claire takes a runner—only to be replaced in his car by another, near-identical girl. When Cal demands to know what’s going on, that second teen flees; soon afterward, she’s found dead. If things weren’t weird enough already, the real Claire—the daughter of his town’s mayor—is nowhere to be found, and Cal is hired to track her down. In the course of his investigation, this PI rips open more local secrets than anyone wanted exposed.
Night Film, by Marisha Pessl (August):
From the author of 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics comes this psychological thriller about an investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, who believes there’s more to the story of lovely Ashley Cordova’s demise in a lower Manhattan warehouse than simple suicide. She, after all, was the daughter of Stanislas Cordova, an enigmatic filmmaker who’s known for his cultish, scary-dark productions...and the reticence of actors who’ve worked with him to share their experiences. McGrath, meanwhile, has known disgrace and heartbreak before in his pursuit of the mysteries surrounding Stanislas Cordova. But in this instance, it seems, he’ll stop at nothing to find out what really happened to the haunting Ashley.
Also worth checking out: If You Were Here, by Alafair Burke (June); Joyland, by Stephen King (June); A Serpent’s Tooth, by Craig Johnson (June); Summer Death, by Mons Kallentoft (June); Masaryk Station, by David Downing (June); The Bat, by Jo Nesbø (July); The Homecoming, by Carsten Stroud (July); The Last Whisper in the Dark, by Tom Piccirilli (July); Let It Burn, by Steve Hamilton (July); Mystery Girl, by David Gordon (July); Let Me Go, by Chelsea Cain (August); Sandrine’s Case, by Thomas H. Cook (August); Eva’s Eye, by Karin Fossum (August); The Mojito Coast, by Richard Helms (August); and The Dying Hours, by Mark Billingham (August).