“Need to Know” by Karen Cleveland

Need to KnowI received a free copy of Need to Know by Karen Cleveland in my CrimeFest book bag, and will admit that I was captivated by the clever design of the advance readers’ edition: if you bend the paperback in one direction, the page edges read HE’S YOUR HUSBAND; if you bend it the other way, the letters turn into HE’S A SPY. Cute gimmick, but would the book live up to the packaging?

Cleveland has crafted a twisty thriller about a CIA counterintelligence analyst named Vivian who learns very early on in the book that her husband of 10 years is a Russian spy. She confronts him immediately, and he confesses that instead of all-American Matt Miller, he’s actually Volgograd-born Alexander Lenkov. He courted and married her simply because he was following his Russian masters’ orders, but now, he swears that he really does love her—and their four young children, who complicate everything. Vivian realizes that turning in her husband would wreak havoc on her kids’ lives; her job is demanding and Matt does most of the child-rearing. Perhaps, she thinks, if she can unmask Matt’s handlers, he could escape their grasp, and they could return to a normal life. That is, if she can ever forgive him… or trust him.

Cleveland, a former CIA analyst herself, does a great job of getting into Vivian’s head and making readers experience her feelings of confusion, fear and fierce maternal love. The book is a quick read, and while I’m not a huge fan of spy thrillers, the domestic-suspense aspect was definitely in my wheelhouse. The ending may prove divisive—this would be a good book-club selection, since readers could debate whether they’d make the same decisions Vivian did in the same circumstances. And with all the talk of Russian interference into U.S. politics in the news, it’s certainly a timely novel.

“The Boy at the Door” by Alex Dahl

The Boy at the DoorI’m attending the CrimeFest conference this weekend, and while there are plenty of authors here with whom I’m already familiar—Lee Child, Simon Brett, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Peter James, etc.—I wanted to check out some of the new writers. Alex Dahl’s debut thriller is set in Norway, and I’m always interested in the latest in Scandinavian crime fiction. Unlike a lot of the Scandi-noir titles that make it to the U.S., this one isn’t a bestseller in its homeland that’s just been translated; Dahl was raised in Oslo but she’s half-American, so she wrote this book in English.

I’m on the record as being a fan of books with complicated, even frankly unlikable narrators, so I was immediately captivated by Cecilia Wilborg, who is… well, at best, a narcissist, and at worst, a sociopath. Cecilia lives in the town of Sandefjord, which she describes as “a wealthy town full of spoiled, bored wives.” She works as an interior decorator, and the money she earns helps keep her in cashmere Missoni throws and designer dresses. Her husband is a successful businessman, and they have two beautiful daughters.

“All I ever wanted was a normal family, the kind of family others may look to for inspiration. Does that make me bad?” muses Cecilia. “I’ve worked hard at being the perfect wife and the perfect mother.”

When something comes along to threaten that perfection, Cecilia is forced to make some difficult decisions. A small, olive-skinned boy named Tobias is found alone at the local swimming center, and Cecilia, who is there with her own children, is persuaded to take him in for a few days while the authorities search for his parents. She is furious at the inconvenience, but relents. Soon, she discovers that Tobias has a connection to a drug user named Anni—a woman who knows some shocking secrets that Cecilia has tried very hard to hide.

Dahl is wise enough to realize that a whole book of self-absorbed Cecilia would be rather hard to take, so the author intersperses chapters told from Cecilia’s point of view with Tobias’s backstory and excerpts from Anni’s diaries and letters. As Cecilia’s carefully constructed web of lies begins to fall apart, the question becomes whether she’ll be able to outrun her past, or if her misdeeds will finally be exposed.

The Boy at the Door is a genuine page-turner, a fascinating psychological study and a must-read for people who can’t resist twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. It’s already available as an ebook from the U.K. publisher Head of Zeus; it’ll be out in the U.S. in July.

“The Glitch” by Elisabeth Cohen

The GlitchSince I have lived in Northern California long enough to have experienced both tech booms, I was immediately interested when I heard about The Glitch, a comic novel set against the backdrop of our local industry. Shelley Stone is one of the few high-powered female CEOs in Silicon Valley; her company, Conch, produces a wearable device that’s sort of like a more-advanced Siri who’s always in your ear. (The Conch provides advice, like “Avoid blood clots and increase productivity by taking a moment to stand and stretch,” along with giving directions and information.)

Shelley believes in her product, but more than anything, she believes in herself. Incredibly driven, Shelley lives a regimented life centered around work (“I manage myself, my actions, my thoughts, my goals, my calories ingested and expended, mood, work deliverables, and long-range planning with an intensity and accountability that I know most people could not handle”), but she does have a husband and two children (their maid speaks Mandarin to the toddlers “so they’ll have perfect tones”).

In the first chapter, the family is visiting Cap Ferrat, France, when 4-year-old Nova disappears. Both Shelley and her husband are on business calls, which they try to continue as they frantically search for their daughter. I thought at that point that the book was going to be about a type A personality who comes to realize the importance of family, but The Glitch is a lot wilder and weirder than that; Nova is found relatively quickly, though the search for her brings Shelley into contact with a mysterious man who figures into the plot later on.

Shelley went from a normal Wisconsin teen to a hyper-ambitious striver after she was struck by lightning shortly before her 20th birthday. Now rising at 3:30 AM (“such a great time to answer email while doing some high-intensity interval training”), she often comes across as the human embodiment of a TED Talk. Elisabeth Cohen must have spent months reading books and listening to speeches given by Silicon Valley thought leaders in order to write using such fluent business-buzzword-speak: “I tried to do some strategic blue-sky thinking, focusing on our Conch mottoes and corporate touchstones: ship and iterate. Moonshot thinking. Fail better.”

On the one hand, Shelley is obviously a deeply unlikable person with seriously screwed-up priorities (“having a family [is] part of my brand”). But on the other, there are so few women leaders in Silicon Valley (or in Fortune 500 boardrooms in general) that when things start going wrong, I will admit I was rooting for her to succeed. The Glitch takes some odd turns into magical realism, then sort of undercuts them with prosaic and sometimes-unconvincing explanations. But on the whole, this is a book I had fun reading, and it’s one I would put in a time capsule so people 50 or 100 years from now can understand what it was like in Silicon Valley circa 2018. By then, maybe everyone will be wearing Conches, or perhaps a similar technology will just be implanted directly into our brains.

The Glitch will be published on May 22. Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara

“We always catch the dumb ones,” cops like to say. They could tick off ninety-nine out of a hundred boxes with these kinds of arrests. That one unchecked box though. It could vex you into early death.

I bought my copy of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer at a March event in San Francisco featuring the late Michelle McNamara’s husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. I had become intrigued by the case several years ago when McNamara wrote a piece about the man previously known as “EAR/ONS” (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker—McNamara was marketing-savvy enough to know that a catchy name is essential in generating interest in a cold case) for Los Angeles magazine. The article featured an email sign-up form at the end, promising to keep readers updated on new developments. I submitted my address, looking forward to finding out more about the hunt for a man who had committed heinous crimes not far from where I live, terrorizing this area long before I moved to California.

Sadly, McNamara died before the killer was caught, and before she finished her book. Oswalt gave the researchers she had been working with access to her voluminous files and notes, and they completed her work. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a testament to her skill as a writer and her colleagues’ determination; there are notes in the book indicating when the duo, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, are working from notes, early drafts of her Los Angeles article, or interview transcripts.

So this is not the book McNamara would have released into the world had she lived, but we’re lucky to have this version of it, because it’s an instant classic in the true-crime genre. There are plenty of thoughtful passages where you can tell how immersed she became in the case, like this one, where she tries to truly understand the man she’s been tracking for so long: “Violent fantasy advances to mental rehearsal. He memorizes a script and refines methods. He’s the maltreated hero in the story. Staring up at him anguished-eyed is a rotating cast of terrified faces. His distorted belief system operates around a central, vampiric tenet: his feeling of inadequacy is vanquished when he exerts complete power over a victim, when his actions elicit in her an expression of helplessness; it’s a look he recognizes, and hates, in himself.”

I will admit that I was kind of scared to read the book because I’m a little bit of a true-crime wimp (at least I can reassure myself that fictional murders are simply the product of some writer’s imagination), but once the Golden State Killer was caught, I immediately picked it up, figuring that it would be less creepy once he was no longer on the loose. To be honest, I’m glad I waited, because it was fascinating to read it in light of what we now know about James DeAngelo, the man investigators are convinced is the culprit. “If we could just submit the killer’s actual genetic material… to one of these [DNA] databases, the odds are great that we would find a second or third cousin and that person would lead investigators to the killer’s identity.” Bingo.

For armchair crime buffs, it’s perhaps a little disappointing that DNA ultimately brought down the killer instead of the obsessive sleuthing of both professionals like ace investigator Paul Holes and enthusiastic amateurs like McNamara and Haynes. Known online as “The Kid,” Haynes compiled a 118-page document “with some two thousand men’s names and their information, including dates of birth, address histories, criminal records, and even photos where available.” We now know that DeAngelo’s name was almost certainly not among them. And yet, reading this book after DeAngelo’s capture shows how correct some of the hunches were. Holes told McNamara that he felt the killer may have attended California State University, Sacramento; that turned out to be right, since news stories following his arrest have revealed that he graduated from that institution with a criminal justice degree.

Why did his killing spree come to an abrupt end? “After May 4, 1986, you disappear,” writes McNamara. “Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me. I think you bailed when the world began to change… memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves. You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.” On April 24, 2018, it finally happened, exactly as McNamara predicted it would: “The tables have been turned. Virtual windows are opening all around you. You, the master watcher, are an aging, lumbering target in their crosshairs… Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”