“Emma in the Night” by Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightOver the past few years, I have had the misfortune of dealing with a couple of people who I’m pretty certain have narcissistic personality disorder, the subject of Wendy Walker’s new thriller Emma in the Night. These are truly toxic individuals who can ruin the lives of those close to them. For those of us further out in their orbits, the best thing to do is just disengage.

In the novel, Cassandra Tanner is the victim of her mother’s noxious parenting style, which frequently pitted her against her older sister Emma. After her parents’ divorce, 11-year-old Cass made the mistake of asking to live with her father, which sealed her fate: “Don’t ever call me Mother again! To you, I’m Mrs. Martin!” her mom raged. And so Cass “became the outsider… all [she] could do was watch from a distance.”

A few years later, both Emma and Cass disappeared. Until one day, Cass returned alone, recounting how she and Emma had been living on an isolated Maine island with a couple who essentially kept them prisoner. Then Cass drops the bombshell that Emma had been pregnant when they left home, and that she had given birth on the island. The childless couple began to raise the infant as their own, despite Emma’s protestations. Finally, after months of planning and scheming, Cass was able to escape, but unfortunately, she has no idea where the island was located or how to find it. The couple were using fake names. How can she figure out how to get back and save her sister and the child?

First-person chapters narrated by Cass alternate with third-person chapters told from the point of view of Abigail Winter, an FBI agent working on Cass’ case. As it turns out, Abby also grew up with a narcissistic mother, so she identifies deeply with the girl. There are strong hints, however, that Cass is that old thriller standby: the unreliable narrator. Abby needs to figure out which of her tales are true, and which are pure fiction, in order to solve the case and find Emma.

This book should appeal to the many thriller readers out there who love twists, but I found it somewhat hampered by pedestrian prose; Abby’s mind “was spinning… round and round like a dog chasing his tail,” or Cass “just raised the stakes in a game [her mother] didn’t even know she was playing.” Or, “Evil can dress up as love so convincingly that it blinds you to the truth.” That’s not bad writing, just not terribly fresh or insightful. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because a lot of readers (me included) will turn back to the beginning and reread portions of the book once all has been revealed, to see if Walker played fair. I believe she did; the clues are all there, if you look closely enough.

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“Never Let You Go” by Chevy Stevens and “The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne

Never Let You Go by Chevy StevensIf you’re an avid reader, it’s important to have someone whose opinions you really trust who can always be counted on to give you great recommendations. Even though I live far away from her store, Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, MI, I know I can always rely on owner Robin Agnew’s suggestions. We have remarkably similar tastes! Several of the books and authors I’ve reviewed on this site are ones I discovered via Robin.

Recently, she sent me a copy of Chevy Stevens’ Never Let You Go. I was a little skeptical at first, because from the description, it seemed like a standard “abusive ex-husband gets out of jail and seeks revenge” type of thriller. However, this is a 400-page book that earns its length through a lot of twists and turns. I felt pretty certain I knew where it was going—but I was dead wrong.

The book is told from the points of view of Lindsey Nash, the ex-wife of the alcoholic and abusive Andrew, and their daughter Sophie, now 17 years old. Sophie was just 6 when Lindsey managed to grab her and escape Andrew’s clutches. Infuriated, Andrew got behind the wheel when he was too impaired to drive, and wound up getting into an accident that killed another driver. After serving his sentence, Andrew desperately wants to reconnect with Sophie, and she’s intensely curious about the father she barely remembers. He claims he’s changed, but has he really? Some frightening incidents have Lindsey convinced that Andrew is simply using Sophie to get to her.

I picked up Never Let You Go at around 10 PM figuring I’d read a few chapters before turning in early (at this point, I was about halfway through the book). The next thing I knew, it was 12:30 AM and I was finishing the last page. Even if I didn’t find the characters’ actions plausible 100% of the time, there’s no denying that this is a very compelling read, perfect for that long summer airplane ride or weekend getaway.

The Marsh King's DaughterAnother one of Robin’s picks was Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter. Aunt Agatha’s had hosted an event with the Michigan-based author, and Robin named her book one of the best of the year, so when I saw that Karen was going to be stopping in San Francisco, I trekked out to Bookshop West Portal for her signing. I found her to be such a warm and likable person that I hoped the book would live up to Robin’s praise—and whew, it did!

Dionne and her husband bought 10 acres of land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the mid-1970s, and stayed for 30 years. So it’s no wonder that she nails the sense of place in this UP-set novel. The Marsh King of the title is Jacob, who kidnapped a young teenager and held her captive in a remote cabin in the wilderness. Their only child, Helena, grew up in these strange circumstances, her only knowledge of the outside world coming from a stack of National Geographic magazines in their cabin. Helena both feared and idolized her father; he taught her how to hunt and track, but he was also capable of astonishing acts of cruelty.

We learn early on that the adult Helena now lives a relatively “normal” life, married with two daughters. She’s still in the UP, but her mother is dead and her father is in jail. Her old life is so far behind her that even her husband doesn’t know about her past. Then one day, the Marsh King escapes from prison, killing two guards and vanishing into the wilderness. Only one person has the skills to find him—the daughter who knows him better than anyone, because he taught her everything he knew. Helena sends her girls away and goes after her dad.

Chapters sent in the present are interspersed with flashbacks to Helena’s past. Dionne writes with authority about life in this rough, rural country; for instance, have you ever wondered what it’s like to shoot a bear? “A wounded bear doesn’t bleed out the way a deer does… Bear bleed between their layer of fat and fur, and if the caliber is too small, the bear’s fat can plug the hole while their fur soaks up the blood like a sponge, so the bear won’t even leave a blood trail. An injured bear will run till it’s too weak to keep going, which can be as far as fifteen or twenty miles.” (If your survival depends on killing animals, you’re not going to be too sentimental about them, though Helena does eventually adopt a stray dog that finds its way to the cabin.)

Unlike Never Let You Go, I took my time with The Marsh King’s Daughter, reading it over the course of a week. It’s a tough, sometimes scary book, but one that truly transports the reader to its harsh yet beautiful world.

“Rubbernecker” by Belinda Bauer

RubberneckerHave you ever been bored out of your skull by some acclaimed prestige-TV series, wondered what all the fuss is about, and been assured that you just have to keep watching, because it gets really good around episode eight? My response is usually to change the channel, and in the case of Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker, it’s very likely I would have given up on the book about a quarter of the way in were it not for the fact that I was reading it for my book group. I hate going to group when I haven’t read the whole book; it makes me feel like a slacker. So I persevered, and ultimately, I’m very glad I did.

Rubbernecker has an absolutely genius concept, but it doesn’t really become clear until about halfway through the book. Before that, we get chapters told from several points of view. There’s Patrick, who has Asperger’s and has been fascinated with death ever since his father was struck by a car and killed right in front of him; Patrick has enrolled in medical school, not because he wants to become a doctor, but because he wants to dissect a cadaver in order to learn more about death. We also meet Patrick’s mom, who doesn’t understand and frankly doesn’t much like her only child. Then there’s Sam, who has awakened in a coma ward after being gravely injured in an accident—he is now suffering from locked-in syndrome, so he is able to think clearly but can’t communicate. He believes he has witnessed the murder of one of his fellow patients, but has no way of letting anyone know. Tracy, a nurse on Sam’s ward, is obsessed with trying to seduce the husband of another coma patient, somewhat to the detriment of the rest of her charges.

How do all of these stories intersect? I don’t want to spoil the surprise, because once the reader figures out what’s going on, it’s extremely satisfying to see how everything clicks into place. But getting there can be a bit of a chore. The book can also be rather gruesome, since we are dealing with cadavers and the murder of helpless patients. Still, by the time I got into the second half of Rubbernecker, I realized I was in the capable hands of a diabolically clever author, and all of that set-up did indeed serve a purpose. This book isn’t for everybody, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read something a little different, and is willing to stick with it.

“The Forgotten Girls” by Owen Laukkanen

The Forgotten GirlsThis is the sixth book featuring FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere. I’ve been reading this series since the beginning (2012’s The Professionals), and this is probably my least favorite so far. For one thing, it’s a serial killer novel; for another, the killer’s motives are not terribly interesting. Since many chapters are told from his point of view, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that he’s your basic men’s rights type of guy. “He’d been nice to women, smiled, listened to them. Opened doors, held out chairs, paid for countless dinners. Tolerated every annoyance, jumped through every hoop placed before him, and still no woman had ever returned his affection. No woman had ever treated him with anything but cruelty.” May as well slaughter them, am I right?!

Stevens and Windermere are on the trail, as is a young woman whose best friend was murdered and is out for vengeance. The agents are hoping to find her before she becomes a victim herself.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Laukkanen talks about his motivation for writing the book—the apathetic law enforcement response when a real-life killer in Canada went after women who were primarily prostitutes of Native descent. I did some reading about the actual case, which is a lot more disturbing than the fictional account. One of the police detectives assigned to the case wrote: “There was a mindset that these were disposable women, that these victims chose this life… so we’re not going to put ourselves out in quite the same way that we might if it’s somebody’s daughter from [The University of British Columbia].”

None of those online articles tried to come up with a motivation; Laukkanen’s books always have chapters written from the point of view of the “bad guy” (or gal), so his formula required him to come up with something. I kind of wish he’d skipped it in this case, though. The “women should be nicer to me!” angle almost trivializes the heinous crimes. Serial killers are sick, twisted people; trying to rationalize their actions, even if the writer is well-meaning, makes for a seriously unpleasant reading experience.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.

“Exit Strategy” by Steve Hamilton

Exit StrategyIf fans of Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series, about a good-guy cop-turned-P.I., were willing to cut his new protagonist, Nick Mason, a little slack—well, sure, he’s a hit man, but he has a moral code!—Exit Strategy will put that willingness to the test. In his second Mason thriller, Hamilton’s Chicago ex-con proves to be a savagely effective killing machine, having to go back on his personal vow to try to keep the casualties to a minimum. Exit Strategy runs up a sky-high body count as Mason goes about his deadly duties.

While the first book in the series, The Second Life of Nick Mason, had to roll out the backstory, Exit Strategy jumps right into the action (newcomers won’t be totally lost, but it helps to have read the previous novel to fully grasp what’s going on). Nick is out of prison thanks to the powerful Darius Cole, who sits behind bars but still manages to run a thriving Chicago criminal enterprise. Cole will be a free man if Mason can bump off the witnesses who are prepared to testify against him. All that’s standing in Nick’s way is a battalion of U.S. marshals sworn to protect the heavily-guarded men, along with a bloodthirsty Irish assassin who is on nobody’s side but his own.

The reason Cole is able to exert so much power over Mason is because he has threatened to harm Nick’s ex-wife and beloved daughter if he ever steps out of line. In Exit Strategy, we learn that the ex’s new husband wants to move the family to Denver. Mason is sad that he will be so far away from his kid, but anyone reading this book will probably be rooting for the entire clan to pull up stakes to a remote part of Iceland, though Cole seems so omnipotent that one gets the sense that he could probably keep tabs on them even if they were living in a Mongolian yurt.

Like the first book, Exit Strategy is a pure adrenaline rush, almost impossible to put down once you’ve started it. But by the end, I found my feelings about Nick to be a lot less mixed than they were when I finished the earlier novel. He may not be a “bad guy” in the sense that he has evil motivations, but he definitely does bad things—terrible things—and genuinely good people suffer the consequences of his actions. Still, it’s clear that Hamilton is working at the height of his powers, and with Exit Strategy, he has written a novel as lean and ruthless as his antihero protagonist.

Note: Exit Strategy will be published on May 16, 2017. Thanks to Putnam and NetGalley for the review copy.

“The Dark Room” by Jonathan Moore and “Fatal” by John Lescroart

The Dark Room by Jonathan MooreThe back cover of The Dark Room features a blurb by Stephen King, praising Jonathan Moore’s previous novel, The Poison Artist: “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” That novel, by Thomas Harris, remains at the top of my own personal Scariest Book list (followed closely by Lee Child’s Make Me). I was a little hesitant to dive in, but I find it hard to resist noir thrillers set in San Francisco, so I persevered.

On the whole, I’m glad I did, although when I described the plot to my husband, his reaction was one of ewwwww, so be advised that this book is not for the squeamish. (There are several scenes set in morgues.) Still, I found The Dark Room, which takes place in a San Francisco where it never seems to stop raining, to be a chilling and appropriate read for a wet and windy Bay Area weekend.

SFPD homicide detective Gavin Cain is attending an exhumation at a cemetery near Monterey when he’s summoned back to San Francisco by the mayor. Someone has sent him a threatening letter, along with several photographs. Mayor Castelli claims he has never seen the woman in the photos. Is he being blackmailed? He wants Cain to find out what’s going on, but the inspector is pretty sure the mayor’s a shady character and isn’t telling him the whole story.

Gradually, we learn more about the exhumation, and that it seems to tie into the investigation involving the mayor. Cain also gets to know Castelli’s family: his wife Mona and 19-year-old daughter Alexa. When Cain goes to visit Mona at the Castellis’ tony Sea Cliff home, I somehow knew before he arrived at her front door that she would be a bitter alcoholic “drinking a pitcher of martinis alone at two on a weekday afternoon.” And it wasn’t a huge surprise that Alexa turns out to be a troubled nymphette with a penchant for taking off her clothes.

Less of a noir trope is Cain’s girlfriend Lucy, a pianist suffering from agoraphobia and anxiety as a result of past trauma that is revealed later in the book. I found myself so concerned about the fate of fragile Lucy that I almost flipped to the end to see whether or not Moore killed her off in some horrific Gwyneth Paltrow-in-“Se7en” scenario. (No spoilers here, natch.)

The Dark Room is very well plotted, with a satisfying and logical solution. It’s a creepy but strangely compelling book.

Fatal by John LescroartUnlike Moore, John Lescroart lives in Northern California, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his San Francisco setting is dry and drought-ridden, as was the case here until just a few months ago. In fact, the drought plays a small role in the story, helping a detective find an important clue.

Fatal, a stand-alone thriller, starts off with an affair—a man and a woman, both married to other people, meet at a dinner party thrown by mutual friends. They agree that their tryst at a downtown hotel will be a one-time thing… but will it? At this point, I assumed the novel was going to turn into a Fatal Attraction style scenario where one of the people won’t take no for an answer, but the plot really takes a turn when a major event occurs that changes the lives of all the characters. To say more would spoil the twists that await the reader.

Some pretty awful things happen in Fatal, but Lescroart has a breezier style than Moore, so there’s less of a persistent sense of dread. Something I thought was going to turn into a major plot point winds up being mostly dropped, and the ending may not satisfy readers who want everything tied up with a bow. But Lescroart knows how to craft a page-turner, and once I was halfway through Fatal, I didn’t stop ’til I’d reached the end.