“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.

“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.

“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 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.