“Conviction” by Denise Mina

ConvictionConsidering the enormous popularity of true crime podcasts, it’s surprising that Conviction is the first mystery I’ve come across that uses one as a jumping-off point. The main character, Anna, is a busy mum of two who loves to escape into audio stories: “A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything. I’ve resisted an Assyrian invasion while picking up dry-cleaning. I’ve seen justice served on a vicious murderer while buying underpants.”

Unfortunately, her latest download (“Death and the Dana: A sunken yacht, a murdered family on board, a secret still unsolved…”) hits a bit too close to home for Anna when she realizes that one of the victims is Leon Parker, a former friend of hers. She had lost touch with him and had no idea that he’d married a billionaire and lost his life aboard a yacht reputed to be haunted. Anna listens to the podcast with increasing alarm, wondering if Leon could have possibly killed himself as well as his two children, who were also aboard.

Already shaken up, things for Anna get even worse when her husband tells her he’s leaving her for her best friend, Estelle, and taking her on holiday to Portugal. While they’re away, a desperate Anna teams up with Estelle’s partner Fin, a rock star who suffers from anorexia, in an attempt to figure out what really happened to Leon.

The first few chapters, where we get complete transcripts of the podcast, are incredibly gripping, but once Anna and the fragile Fin begin their quest, the book goes off the rails a bit as Fin decides to produce his own podcast. Despite the fact that he is recording it on the fly on his phone and posting it to Twitter, it becomes a major sensation. Perhaps Fin’s fame would help garner some extra attention, but today’s top podcasts have high production values and are carefully edited, not produced on the run during, say, a train journey, which is guaranteed to have lots of extraneous background noise.

Naturally, Fin and Anna start to get too close to the truth, which puts their lives at risk, and soon they’re outrunning hit men and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. I stuck with the book because I’d enjoyed the first half so much, but the second half is significantly more implausible and less compelling.

“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the KeyIf last year’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway took inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, then the title of Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Turn of the Key, seems to pay homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I’ve never read James’ novella, but according to an interview, Ware herself hadn’t read it either when she began writing: “I vaguely knew what the plot was, that it was about a governess and ghosts, but that was about it… It was only about halfway through that the penny dropped. At that point I decided that I had better read The Turn of the Screw so I knew what I was dealing with and so that I could ensure any overlaps were deliberate rather than accidental.”

Screw was published in 1898, while Key is undeniably a product of the 21st century, with most of the action taking place in a “smart house” in Scotland owned by two architects. The Elincourts have four children and are seeking a nanny who is willing to relocate to their remote Highlands home, a Victorian lodge that’s been modernized with a wide array of cutting-edge features. Lights, heat, phones, curtains, the coffeemaker and the shower—all those and more are controlled by the “Happy” system.

Rowan Caine figures dealing with the complicated app is a small price to pay for what seems like the perfect job, thanks to its fat salary and the luxurious environs of Heatherbrae House. But then she starts hearing frightening sounds, including footsteps from the supposedly sealed-up attic above her room, and mysterious shrieks that definitely aren’t coming from her young charges. One of the daughters, eight-year-old Maddie, seems convinced that they are sharing the house with ghosts. The fact that several previous nannies had left the Elincourts’ employ abruptly seem to indicate that something is very wrong.

Rowan may not believe in ghosts, but when both parents have to go out of town, leaving her alone with the children, the spooky goings-on accelerate, driving her nearly to the point of madness. “Suddenly… I understood what dark terrors had driven those four previous nannies out of their post and away. To lie here, night after night, listening, waiting, staring into the darkness at that locked door, that open keyhole gaping into blackness… I would not sleep again tonight. I knew that now.”

The Turn of the Key is an ideal Halloween read, though I must admit that I found the ending rather disappointing, as Ware throws in perhaps one twist too many. If you’re not already a fan of her work, this is perhaps not the best book to start with (I’d recommend either Mrs. Westaway or The Woman in Cabin 10), but all of her talent for creating a creepy, evocative mood is on full display here, and Key does provide plenty of gothic, spooky fun.

“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, The Serial KillerFor some reason, I tend to feel a weird sense of responsibility to finish any book I start. I rarely abandon books even if I’m not enjoying them. But this week, I gave up on not one but two novels. (One of them was an Edgar Best Novel nominee; I hope that one doesn’t win.) Then I picked up My Sister, the Serial Killer, and I was hooked from the very first lines:

Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola is the staggeringly beautiful younger sister of Korede, a nurse (a useful profession, as it means she’s unlikely to panic at the sight of blood). Bonded by traumatic events in their childhood, the two of them make an odd pair: gorgeous, flighty, flirty Ayoola, who has an unfortunate habit of stabbing to death any man who makes the mistake of falling in love with her; and clear-headed, homely, hard-working Korede, ready to tidy up any mess her sister may leave in her wake. (Be sure not to neglect any blood that may have “seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It’s an easy part to forget.”)

Why is Korede always there to help her sister, even in the most dire of circumstances? “I wondered what would happen if Ayoola were caught… I imagine her trying to blag her way out of it and being found guilty… I relish it for a moment, and then I force myself to set the fantasy aside. She is my sister. I don’t want her to rot in jail, and besides, Ayoola being Ayoola, she would probably convince the court that she was innocent. Her actions were the fault of her victims and she had acted as any reasonable, gorgeous person would under the circumstances.”

Then something finally comes between the sisters: a man. Specifically Tade, a doctor at Korede’s hospital, whom she’s had an unrequited crush on for ages. When Ayoola shows up one day to visit Korede at work, Tade spots her and is instantly besotted. It was one thing if Ayoola killed someone who was a stranger to Korede, but she simply can’t let Tade die at the hands of her sister. But how can she convince him that he needs to tread carefully around Ayoola without coming off as a jealous shrew?

Despite the grim subject matter, My Sister is not overly gory, and while Ayoola seems not to have a conscience, that’s definitely not true of Korede. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite skillfully balances humor, heartbreak and suspense in this audacious debut novel.

“The Suspect” by Fiona Barton

The Suspect by Fiona BartonIt’s every parent’s worst nightmare: their teenager is thousands of miles away, and unreachable. Her Facebook and Instagram are no longer being updated; she’s not answering her phone.

This is the terrifying situation faced by two mothers in The Suspect, Fiona Barton’s third novel featuring journalist Kate Waters. (I reviewed the first book in the series, The Widow, a couple of years ago.) Lesley O’Connor’s 18-year-old daughter Alexandra traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, with her friend Rosie Shaw, promising to phone home on the day her eagerly-awaited A-Level results came out. When the day passes with no word from Alex, Lesley reports her missing.

The disappearance soon becomes national news, which brings Kate into the story. Her son, Jake, is also in Thailand, living in Phuket. While he’s older than the girls, it’s concerning to Kate that he’s not been in more frequent touch: “There’ve been three e-mails, but our eldest son told us early on that he wouldn’t be contactable by phone. Said he was freeing himself of all the stress that constant calls would bring.”

Kate follows the story to Thailand, hoping to perhaps pick up some clues to exactly what Jake’s been up to while she’s investigating the girls’ disappearance. In a flashback, we learn early on in the book that level-headed Alexandra and free-spirited Rosie were at odds even before their plane touched down in Bangkok (“Rosie had had three glasses of wine with her hideous airline meal—’The chicken or the pasta?’—and Alex had warned her she’d get dehydrated. Her friend had rolled her eyes and made a big show of flirting with the man in the next seat before falling asleep and snoring gently.”). Alex had been hoping to see the sights, while Rosie’s main interests included partying and boys.

The Widow was fairly bleak, dealing with some pretty unsavory themes, and The Suspect isn’t exactly a feel-good novel either. (Any parent whose kid is angling for a gap year in Thailand will probably refuse to let them go near the place without a sober coach and an armed escort in tow after they’ve read this book.) Barton, a former journalist and editor at major U.K. newspapers, writes with authenticity about how Kate must insinuate herself into the mothers’ lives in order to scoop her rivals. The story is told from multiple points of view (including the police), but I always looked forward to returning to Kate’s first-person chapters, since her straightforward, authoritative yet compassionate voice is the best thing about this series.

The Suspect will be published on Jan. 22, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

An Anonymous GirlWhen I was in my 20s, I would frequently make a little extra cash by participating in studies and focus groups. All you have to do is spend an hour or two answering a few questions, and you walk away with a nice wad of cash. I never thought twice about it—but I guarantee that anyone who reads An Anonymous Girl will never approach a psychological study quite so cavalierly.

Jessica Farris wasn’t even supposed to be participating in Dr. Shields’ research into “ethics and morality.” A freelance makeup artist living in Manhattan, and thus perpetually in need of extra cash, Jessica learns about the study from one of her clients, who states her intention to blow it off, not wanting to show up at 8 AM on a Sunday morning: “I’m not going to set an alarm to go to some dumb questionnaire.” Once she finds out that it pays $500, Jessica decides to go in her place. A bit ironic for a study of morality, perhaps, but she’s got rent to pay.

Before long, Jessica has become the mysterious Dr. Shields’ favorite subject, and the research takes a strange turn—but the amount she’s being paid increases as well, and with her father out of a job and her disabled sister in need of expensive care, she finds she’s caught up in a situation that is quickly spinning out of her control.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen wrote one of my favorite thrillers of 2018, the bonkers-but-entertaining The Wife Between Us, and I expected An Anonymous Girl would be another crazy thrill ride of twists upon twists. Much to their credit, the authors have produced a work of more straightforward psychological suspense that does have plenty of surprises, but their priority here is to tell a solid story, not just to keep tricking the reader with misdirection.

An Anonymous Girl will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Give Me Your Hand” by Megan Abbott

Give Me Your HandI was about 100 pages into Give Me Your Hand when I read a column about thrillers by Mark Harris in the New York Times Book Review. This passage really resonated with me:

Split timelines—the bad past that explains the bad present—are a genre staple, and the emergence of something awful and long-suppressed is such a consistent motif that it has turned many novels into waiting games: “What exactly happened back then? Tell!” Readers speed ahead not because they’re gripped but because they’re impatient with so much calculated withholding.

That described Give Me Your Hand to a tee. Kit, the book’s narrator, learned her best friend Diane’s horrible secret when they were both high school seniors. That shared confidence “showed me what darkness was, and is, and how it works, and how it never goes away or ends.” The novel switches back and forth between “Now” and “Then,” as Kit, who hasn’t seen Diane in years, is suddenly reunited with her when she comes to work at the lab where Kit is employed as a research scientist. The flashbacks give us a look at their teenage years, when they were friends as well as competitors. Kit was the salutatorian to Diane’s valedictorian in their high school, and they competed for the same scholarship.

Kit’s lab is presided over by Dr. Lena Severin, a brilliant and driven biochemist who has recently received a large NIH grant to study premenstrual dysmorphic disorder. Only a couple of postdocs will be chosen for the research team, and Kit is the only female, at least until Diane comes along. They are rivals once more, with Diane’s secret looming between them and, of course, leading to chaos and murder.

With You Will Know Me, about a frighteningly ambitious gymnast, and now Give Me Your Hand, Abbott is becoming an expert at crafting disturbing tales of women who will let nothing stand in their way. I didn’t find Give Me Your Hand quite as compelling plot-wise as You Will Know Me, and it gets overly Grand Guignol at points (if you think the early mention of a menstruation study foreshadows that a lot of blood will be spilled later in the book, you’d be right). By the end, like Kit after her high school graduation, I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend any more time in Diane’s creepy company.