“Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman

Something in the WaterA few days ago, I was sitting in a packed movie theater watching the domestic-suspense drama “A Simple Favor” when it became clear that the protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, was about to do something rather ill-advised. As it became apparent what was going to happen, one woman in the crowd suddenly blurted out, “No!” It broke the tension, and a lot of people in the theater laughed. I couldn’t help but think back to that moment as I was reading Something in the Water, the debut thriller by British author and actress (she played Mabel Lane Fox on “Downton Abbey”) Catherine Steadman; I felt like shouting “No!” about a dozen different times.

When Erin and her husband Mark stumble upon a bag full of money and loose diamonds while on their honeymoon, it is pretty obvious that all sorts of horrible things are about to follow. Mark, an investment banker who had lost his job not long before the wedding, had been having trouble finding a new position; Erin, a documentary filmmaker, is in no position to single-handedly keep up the mortgage payments on their posh London home. So a large sum of money would prove very useful to keeping them in the lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed. They decide to keep the cash and the gemstones, leading to all sorts of craziness, like flying to Geneva to open a Swiss bank account and Erin’s approaching the imprisoned elderly gangster she’s been interviewing for her new film for advice on how to sell the diamonds.

Every step of the way, I felt like I had to read the pages of this book through my fingers, it made me so uncomfortable. I guess that meant it was effective, but did I enjoy it? Not one bit. I’m not quite sure why I decided to finish it; since the novel begins with Mark dead and Erin digging a grave in which to bury him, and the rest of the book is told in flashback, I suppose I was curious to find out how it all came to pass. Now that I know, I plan to move on to something less squick-inducing.

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“Last Looks” by Howard Michael Gould and “Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Last LooksCharlie Waldo is an LAPD officer turned hermit who hasn’t spoken to anyone in a year when his ex-lover Lorena, a private eye, turns up at his remote property. She wants his help with a case—”the biggest thing since OJ”—but he’s committed to the simple life, having pared down his possessions to a mere 100 items, and has no interest in returning to L.A.

However, Lorena’s visit opens the floodgates, and before long, media reports are falsely stating that the onetime superstar of the force is on the case, working to prove that TV star Alastair Pinch did not kill his wife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Waldo’s retreat is no longer a secluded haven, and he realizes that “the only way to restore the stillness that had made life bearable again was to go and reclaim it.” So he reluctantly heads back to the big city.

This is a Hollywood satire, and Gould, who has worked on numerous TV shows, writes with an insider’s knowledge of the business. Pinch, a hard-drinking Brit hamming it up as a Southern judge on a terrible courtroom drama, is kind of a bizarro-world version of Hugh Laurie. He swears he didn’t kill his wife, but since he was blackout drunk at the time, even he can’t be completely sure what happened on the night in question.

Gould’s first novel shows a lot of promise, while falling back on a few crime fiction tropes—for instance, Waldo gets seriously beat up about a half-dozen times, which made me think of, well, the Crime Fiction Trope Twitter account:

And of course there’s a lot of build-up until we finally find out why he abruptly quit the force and took up the life of a recluse.

Still, I enjoyed the book and would happily read another one of Waldo’s adventures. Somehow I doubt that Gould will be letting his hero return to his spartan, lonely existence anytime soon.

Snap by Belinda BauerReaders will be hard-pressed to find any well-worn crime novel clichés in Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which is almost startlingly original. I reviewed Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker last year and while the book started slowly, the sheer audaciousness of the plot (which intertwines the stories of a man with locked-in syndrome and a young medical student with Asperger’s) won me over. Snap is equally bold, and shows that Bauer (who lives in Wales) may be the closest thing we have today to an heir to Ruth Rendell.

Snap introduces us to 11-year-old Jack, the oldest of three young siblings. The book begins in 1998; they are in the car with their mother Eileen, driving down the M5 motorway, when the auto breaks down. (My guess is that Bauer set the book when she did because cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous back then.) Their mom leaves them in the car, making them promise to stay put, while she heads off to walk to the nearest emergency phone. She never comes back, and her body is found a few days later.

Eventually, the siblings’ father gets exhausted having to parent on his own, and when he leaves, they are left to their own devices. Jack, now a young teenager, has begun breaking into houses and stealing things, then selling them to a fence, in order to support his sisters. He is small and lithe and able to creep into the tiniest of windows, and meanwhile, the local police force are stumped as to who could be committing the crimes and how the burglar always seems to know when the houses he hits are vacant. Among the detectives is DCI John Marvel, exiled to “darkest Somerset” from London after “a single unfortunate incident that had resulted in the death of a suspect fleeing custody.” (Unlike Waldo, Marvel is unrepentant about his botched case.) Marvel has no interest in investigating a bunch of boring property crimes. He’s a homicide detective. And then he finds out about Eileen’s unsolved murder…

Bauer isn’t terribly well known in the U.S., but she’s a literary star in the U.K., where Snap was even longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (the judges described it as “an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”). Interestingly, according to a profile, she hadn’t even read any crime fiction before she wrote her first novel, and maybe that helps explain why her work is so startlingly fresh.

“Lies” by T.M. Logan

Lies by T.M. LoganI feel like I’ve read at least a hundred domestic-suspense thrillers with female protagonists; Lies by T.M. Logan is the rare novel told from a man’s point of view. If it does well, does that mean that we’ll be getting a slew of books with titles like The Man on the Train and Gone Guy?

Logan’s first-person narrator is Joe Lynch, a London teacher who is happily married to Mel and the father of an adorable four-year-old named William. Naturally, he finds out that his perfect life isn’t quite so perfect after all; Mel is having an affair with Ben, her best friend’s husband. Unlike Joe, a relatively unambitious family man, Ben is a relentless go-getter who drives fancy cars (“a pearl-white Porsche Cayenne with the number plate W1NNR”) and is a self-made tech millionaire. Now it seems that Ben wants Mel, and will stop at nothing to make that happen. Getting Joe out of the way appears to be #1 on his to-do list.

After a confrontation between the two men, Ben disappears, and gradually, Joe realizes that Ben is in hiding and trying to frame him for his murder. Ben has plenty of money and tech smarts at his disposal, and while Mel claims that she’s broken it off and is no longer in touch with Ben, Joe isn’t sure whether or not that’s actually true. Now, if you stop and think about it for 30 seconds, the obvious problem with this strategy is that it would require Ben to stay away forever, otherwise it would immediately become clear that Joe could not have killed him. Is he planning to sweep Mel off to a private island?

Meanwhile, it seems to be working, because the police are convinced that Joe is hiding something. He can’t trust his wife, his best friend has deserted him, he’s been put on leave from his job, and even his own lawyer seems to suspect that he’s guilty. He will have to come up with a plan to prove his own innocence.

Naturally, there are twists a-plenty, some of them more plausible than others. I did appreciate the fact that Joe is a nice guy and a reliable narrator (the reader always knows exactly as much as he does). In this genre of novel, a good man is hard to find, making Lies a welcome change of pace in a crowded field.

Lies will be published on Sept. 11. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Closer Than You Know” by Brad Parks

Closer Than You KnowThis week, I decided to take a break from the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series and read some contemporary mysteries. The first book I read was awful and I’m not going to say any more than that because while I don’t know the author personally, the crime fiction world is a small one (though I was gratified to see a bunch of negative reviews on Goodreads). The second one, though, was a winner: the latest stand-alone novel by Brad Parks, Closer Than You Know.

Parks, best known for his six-novel series about New Jersey investigative reporter Carter Ross, chose to write most of Closer in the first-person voice of his female protagonist, Melanie Barrick. Melanie is also a rape survivor and a new mom. This is tricky territory, but I think Parks did a wonderful job of making her a well-rounded, complex character you want to root for. And oh boy, if the reader wasn’t firmly in Melanie’s corner from the get-go, this book would not work at all, because she goes through some truly horrendous experiences.

Melanie discovered she was pregnant shortly after her rape, but until the baby was born, she wasn’t sure if the biological father was her rapist or her boyfriend Ben. No matter what happened, Ben vowed to raise the child as his own, and the two of them got married. Unfortunately, it was immediately obvious that pale-skinned baby Alex did not share any DNA with African-American Ben Barrick, but the couple worked to get past the trauma and immediately bonded with their newborn—until their nightmare began.

After going to pick up three-month-old Alex from day care after work, Melanie learns that he has been taken by social services. Thanks to a tip from an anonymous source, a large quantity of cocaine and drug paraphernalia were discovered in the Barricks’ home—in Alex’s nursery, no less. That turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Melanie, who grew up in foster care and has few resources and little financial stability, gets caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic hellscape that seems to presume she’s guilty of all manner of horrible things.

Now, I have to admit that I was pretty certain that Melanie would ultimately be exonerated and get her baby back in the end—it would be too depressing otherwise—so I just kept turning the pages (I did not want to put this book down!), eager to find out what would happen. A couple times, I was pretty certain I had it all figured out, but I turned out to be mistaken. There are a lot of legitimately surprising twists, but none of them seemed gratuitous; if the Gone Girl-inspired domestic suspense craze eventually runs its course, I hope there will always be room on the bookstore shelves for thrillers like Closer Than You Know, which are written with heart and genuinely make you care about the fictional people within their pages.

“The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

The Death of Mrs. WestawayRuth Ware’s fourth novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, seems to draw a lot of its inspiration from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. There’s a Cornish mansion, a sinister housekeeper, secrets galore, and a young heroine who has no idea what lies ahead of her when she arrives at the stately home.

Hal (née Harriet) Westaway is dead broke—in fact, she’s in debt to a loan shark—when she receives a letter from an attorney informing her that her grandmother has died and Hal is a beneficiary of her will. This comes as something of a shock, since the parents of her late single mother Margarida Westaway, are both dead. Hal figures it has to be a mistake, but perhaps all she needs to do is show up for the funeral and reading of the will, and if she’s lucky, she’ll inherit enough money to make her problems go away. So she takes the train down to Penzance and finds herself at Trepassen House, a crumbling, ivy-covered estate. The housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, is decidedly unfriendly, putting Hal up in a freezing attic room with a barred window and locks on the outside of the door.

Eventually, Hal meets the late Mrs. Westaway’s offspring and their respective families, who don’t exactly give her a warm welcome either. Somehow, she needs to figure out a way to trick them all into believing that she is the daughter of their long-lost sister Maud, who disappeared without a trace many years ago, without seeming like so much of a threat that somebody will be tempted to kill her in order to keep all those secrets intact.

Hal is a clever and resourceful heroine and I found the book to be great fun, if a bit portentous at times. (“There was a sudden spatter of fresh rain against the glass, and she thought she heard—though perhaps it was her fancy—the far-off sound of waves against a shore. An image came into Hal’s mind—of rising waters, closing above all of their heads, while Mrs. Westaway laughed from beyond the grave…”) But for those of us who enjoy this gloriously Gothic type of novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway offers solid summertime entertainment.

“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 Child Finder” by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder by Rene DenfeldEntertainment Weekly occasionally runs pie chart book reviews, and I’m tempted to draw my own chart for Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, comparing it to two other 2017 books: Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter and Peter Heller’s Celine. Since all three books were published last year, any similarities are purely coincidental. But like the title character in Celine, Denfeld’s Naomi is a uniquely gifted private investigator who only takes one kind of case: reuniting parents and children. And there’s a heavy fairy-tale element in the book, as there was in The Marsh King’s Daughter. In this case, instead of Hans Christian Andersen, we get the Russian story of The Snow Maiden.

Naomi was herself a lost child who escaped from an abusive situation (one she remembers very little about) and was raised by a loving foster mother. Now she devotes her life to finding missing kids, often solving cases that have stumped law enforcement agencies. In The Child Finder, she is asked to look into the case of Madison Culver, who disappeared three years ago at the age of five. Her parents had taken her to the Skookum National Forest in Oregon, planning to cut down a Christmas tree; in a moment of inattention, she vanished, and a snowstorm covered any tracks she may have made.

“No one could survive for long in the woods. Especially not a five-year-old girl dressed in a pink parka… Hope was a beautiful thing, Naomi thought, looking up through the silent trees, the clean, cold air filling her lungs. It was the most beautiful part of her work when it was rewarded with life. The worst when it brought only sorrow.”

The reader learns early on that Madison did survive—she was found by a deaf-mute trapper, Mr. B, who takes her to his remote cabin and keeps her there, imprisoned in a cellar secured by a locked trapdoor. Madison’s favorite fairy tale was The Snow Maiden, or as she knows it, The Snow Girl; she begins to believe that she had been “freshly created herself, rolled of snow and made of wishes.” Over the years, she gradually works to win the trust of Mr. B, and sometimes gets to sleep in his bed—yes, there is definitely child sexual abuse going on here, though it’s implied and not explicit.

With some help from a friendly park ranger, Naomi goes deep into the snowy mountains to search for Madison. But Mr. B catches a glimpse of her, and is willing to kill to keep his secrets.

This is a beautifully written but often disturbing book; it’s not long, yet I read it over the course of three evenings because the subject matter was so dark. There were times when I felt the relationship between Mr. B and Madison was depicted almost too romantically, but Denfeld herself is a survivor of childhood abuse and I trust that she wrote this story in the way she felt it needed to be told. She is, like her central character, a woman of powerful talents.