“The Liar’s Girl” by Catherine Ryan Howard

The Liar's GirlThe Liar’s Girl is another 2019 Best Novel Edgar nominee, and another one I may not have picked up otherwise. The jacket copy begins: “Will Hurley was an attractive, charming, and impressive student at Dublin’s elite St. John’s College—and Ireland’s most prolific serial killer.” Usually the words “serial killer” make a book an automatic “nope!” for me, but The Liar’s Girl takes that trope and gives it a far more interesting spin.

The novel focuses on Alison Smith, a young woman who left her sleepy hometown of Cork behind to attend St. John’s College, along with her best friend, Liz. During her freshman year, Alison meets Will Hurley, and falls madly in love: “I’d never felt that way about any other person. It was like the world had been dim and flat and now suddenly it was in Technicolor 3-D.” Liz often seems like a (resentful) third wheel in their relationship, but everything is fine until girls at their college start winding up dead, drowned in the Grand Canal near campus. Then Liz becomes a victim, Will is arrested, and all hell breaks loose.

Alison drops out of school, moves to the Netherlands and tries to recover from the unbelievable trauma of finding out that your boyfriend killed your best friend and a bunch of other women as well. Ten years later, with Will still behind bars, female St. John’s students once again start turning up dead in the canal. An Irish policeman arrives on her doorstep one day, telling Alison that Will claims to have information about the new spate of murders, but he will only share it with her. So she goes back to Ireland for the first time in a decade, and is forced to confront her past.

The Liar’s Girl is a genuine page-turner, which is probably why it scored that Edgar nomination—if you’re a fan of thrillers, this is the type of book which will keep you up late until every last question has been answered. My main caveat is that the book does contain “inside the mind of the serial killer” chapters (something I’m never a fan of; can’t we just assume they’re terrible people and keep them at arm’s length, instead of trying to discern a psychological motive for their killings?). Other than those parts, though, I did enjoy reading this book.

“Past Tense” by Lee Child

Past TenseAfter reading 2015’s truly disturbing Make Me, I kind of swore off Lee Child for a while, as it struck me as more horror than thriller. But then I saw Past Tense on the new-books shelf at the library, and decided to give it a whirl.

Like Make Me, Past Tense has Jack Reacher impulsively stopping in a small town, in this case Laconia, New Hampshire. “A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines… But he never went back.”

At this point, anyone who’s read a Jack Reacher novel (this is #24 in the series) knows that small towns in Lee Child novels are always places where bad, bad things are going on, and Reacher will wind up having to save the day, kicking lots of ass in the process. In Past Tense, we get a parallel story about a young Canadian couple on their way to New York with a mysterious suitcase. Their car breaks down near a motel a few miles outside of Laconia. But it’s not a Motel 6, and they’re not going to leave the light on for you.

It’s clear that the Reacher-in-Laconia storyline and one with the Canadians stuck at the creepiest lodging since the Bates Motel are eventually going to intersect. Pleasantly, the Canadians, especially the female, are resourceful, and not sitting ducks for whatever the sinister innkeepers have in store for them.

Getting a glimpse into Reacher’s past is always interesting, and the book subverts expectations a bit by not having him have a fling with the female cop in Laconia; the Canadian woman, Patty, fills the traditional “strong woman” role in this book. (One of the reasons Child has so many female fans is undoubtedly because women are portrayed as powerful in their own right, even if they don’t possess hands the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.) This is an enjoyable read that delivers everything Reacher fans have come to expect when they pick up a Lee Child novel, with just the right amount of suspense and action.

“The Last Act” by Brad Parks

The Last Act by Brad ParksA thriller featuring a protagonist who is a musical-theater star? Are you kidding me?! Since crime fiction and theater are two of my favorite things, I am definitely in the target audience for The Last Act. “I swear, the moment lasted longer than ‘City on Fire’/ ‘Final Sequence’ from Sweeney Todd—and that’s a thirteen-minute song” is a typical Tommy Jump quip. Tommy is the Tony-nominated star of the “short-lived but critically acclaimed” Broadway tuner Cherokee Purples, “a show about a family who had left the rat race in order to farm and sell the ultimate organic heirloom tomato.”

Unfortunately, Tommy, now in his late 20s, finds himself in an awkward stage: too old for kid roles, too short to be a leading man. He has decided that a summer-stock production of Man of La Mancha will be his swan song; he’s going to quit acting, maybe get a gig as assistant managing director of a regional theater in Arkansas. Until he gets an offer for a really big role.

A childhood pal of Tommy’s is now an FBI agent on the trail of a Mexican drug cartel. The one guy who has the evidence to bring down the cartel leader is an inmate in a minimum-security, “Club Fed” prison. Tommy will be given a new identity, then he’ll plead guilty to a crime in order to be sentenced to prison, befriend the inmate, and manage to convince him to reveal the location of a valuable stash of documents. He’ll be behind bars for no more than six months, and he’ll get $150,000 for his trouble, with more cash to follow if the information leads to an indictment.

At this point, I was practically shrieking “TOMMY, THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA!” at the book, but of course, the actor—who has a pregnant girlfriend—figures the money would give his new family a great start, and says he’ll do it. Needless to say, complications ensue.

I absolutely loved Parks’ last book, Closer Than You Know, and while of course I don’t want to reveal too much about the outcome of The Last Act, one of the reasons I enjoy Parks’ thrillers so much is that it’s obvious that the author really loves his characters. So I always know in the back of my mind that things will turn out OK, and I find that enormously comforting. Parks writes about nice people who go through hell and are able to use their wits to prevail in the end. There are lots of twists along the way, plus an obviously well-researched and engrossing look at day-to-day life in a minimum-security prison. This is a terrifically entertaining book.

Thanks to Dutton/Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of The Last Act! It’ll be published on March 12.

“House Witness” by Mike Lawson

House WitnessThis week, I read another Edgar-nominated book: House Witness by Mike Lawson, part of his Joe DeMarco series. This is book #12, and looking at the covers on his website, it’s not too surprising that I have never read any of these novels before: they all have sort of generic “political thriller” book jackets, and that’s not a genre I tend to seek out. (I’m usually trying to avoid thinking about politics.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised by House Witness. The plot moves at lightning speed; it’s almost impossible to stop turning the pages. (This is another one of those books that kept me up past my bedtime.)

The protagonist, DeMarco, works as a “fixer” for a powerful Democratic Congressman named John Mahoney. As the novel opens, Rep. Mahoney has just learned that his illegitimate son—a man he’d never met—has been killed, shot to death in a Manhattan bar. The man’s mother, Connie DiNunzio, is a career bureaucrat in Albany, who became “a major player in the backstabbing, bare-knuckles world of New York state politics” after her long-ago fling with Mahoney.

The man who pulled the trigger, Toby Rosenthal, happens to be a spoiled rich kid whose dad is willing to spend any amount of money to keep his son out of prison. DeMarco’s assignment: make sure Toby goes to jail for what he did.

At first, it looks like a slam dunk, since there are at least five witnesses who got a good look at Toby shooting Dominic DiNunzio. But Henry Rosenthal, a corporate lawyer, has the means to hire one of the city’s top criminal defense attorneys to defend his son. And when that attorney realizes that keeping Toby out of prison is by no means a sure thing, he decides to get a little extra-legal help from a specialist who has been known to get very rich people out of sticky situations.

So House Witness turns into a story of fixer vs. fixer, with DeMarco trying to discover why the once-airtight case against Toby Rosenthal is going down the drain. Rep. Mahoney is keeping the pressure on, so DeMarco has to figure out how to outsmart a seemingly invincible, invisible opponent.

The only thing I found a little annoying about Lawson’s otherwise unimpeachable prose was his tendency to occasionally drop in little “had-I-but-known” asides, like “Dent had no idea at the time that Rachel Quinn’s owning a dog would turn out to be important,” or “Slade had no way to know then that in the end, everything would almost unravel thanks to a middle-aged secretary.” Still, that’s a small quibble. This is an entertaining and well-crafted thriller.

“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).

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal WhiteOn many occasions, a book I’m reading has given me nightmares, because the content is gory or disturbing. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, however, is the first book that has ever provoked an anxiety dream: I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it was due back at the library, and that fear must have seeped into my unconscious.

I was looking forward to Lethal White because I’m a big fan of the Cormoran Strike series, and it’s taken three years for it to finally be published. However, I wasn’t expecting it to also be the size of three novels. It is a formidable 650-page tome that could, in a pinch, probably double as a weapon. (The audiobook clocks in at over 23 hours.) Fortunately, however, I did finish it a full two days before its due date.

My husband, who is an avid reader of Stephen King, noted that King’s books are incredibly long because he is so famous and successful that no one at his publishing house feels the need to edit him. (A New York Times article confirms this, noting “publishers often [take] a hands-off editorial approach with stars like [Anne] Rice and Stephen King.”) And I strongly suspect that if Lethal White had been written by anyone other than J.K. Rowling, whose final Harry Potter book tipped the scales at almost 800 pages, someone would have required her to pare it down by a couple hundred pages or so. Because while I enjoyed Lethal White, it would have been a better book if it hadn’t been so damn long.

I did appreciate the fact that Lethal White is a lot less horrifying than the gruesome serial-killer thriller Career of Evil, the previous Strike book. Lethal White is a good old-fashioned dysfunctional-family saga, featuring a Tory minister named Jasper Chiswell, who hires Strike to dig up some dirt on a couple of people he claims are blackmailing him. Jasper is the patriarch of a vast brood of upper-class twits, from his whiny wife Kinvara to the rest of the ludicrously-nicknamed clan, including Izzy, Fizzy and Tinky. One of his perceived enemies is a fellow government minister; the other, a radical socialist named Jimmy Knight, who is trying to extort money from Chiswell due to a mysterious past transgression he does not wish to reveal to the P.I., and one which Jasper “would not wish to see shared with the gentlemen of the fourth estate.”

Helping Strike with the investigation is his fellow detective Robin Ellacott, who was about to walk down the aisle with her loathsome fiancé Matthew at the end of Career of Evil. Lethal White picks up immediately after the ceremony; unfortunately, Cormoran didn’t rush in like Benjamin Braddock at the end of “The Graduate” and save her from marrying such an obvious jerk. However, there’s trouble in paradise even before the reception begins, as Robin discovers that Matthew has been deleting her cell-phone call history. Strike had fired her shortly before the wedding, but it turns out he had overreacted out of fear, due to Robin’s too-close encounter with the serial killer in Career of Evil that left her with an ugly scar and PTSD. He wants her to come back to work. Matthew, however, hates Strike and hates Robin’s job.

There was a bit of “will they or won’t they” tension between Robin and Strike in the first three novels, but Lethal White offers a different kind of love story—the love a woman has for her vocation. Robin, who started off as a temporary secretary/assistant, has developed into a damned good detective, and has obviously found what she was meant to do. Petty Matthew wants to keep her from it, which makes him an obvious villain. Will Robin finally come to her senses and choose career over marriage?

I enjoyed the snarky look at the British upper classes in Lethal White, such as the ridiculously stuffy gentlemen’s club where, “to avoid confusion, all male staff members are called George.” And I would certainly recommend this book to fans of the first three novels who can’t wait to catch up with this beloved pair of protagonists. But I also hope that we won’t have to wait another three years before the publication of the next novel in the series, and that when it comes, it’ll be both briefer and brisker.