“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.

“November Road” by Lou Berney

November Road by Lou BerneyThe day John F. Kennedy was assassinated is frequently described as “the day America lost its innocence.” A decade later, Watergate represented the beginning of a new era, one in which many citizens grew deeply mistrustful about whether or not our leaders were telling us the truth. For someone like me, who grew up steeped in that post-Nixon cynicism, it’s hard to believe that after the Warren Commission report was issued, 87% of Americans were convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. 20 years after JFK’s murder, that number was down to 11%.

Since it’s likely no one will ever know what really happened, the tragedy in Dallas is ripe for reinterpretation and myth-making. Enter Lou Berney, born the year after JFK’s assassination, who has skillfully spun his own yarn about who ordered the hit on the president: a fictional New Orleans mob boss named Carlos Marcello*. When one of Marcello’s lieutenants, Frank Guidry, hears the news about Kennedy, he immediately realizes he’s in trouble; after all, he just finished running an errand in Dallas for Carlos.

“Maybe it was just a coincidence, he told himself, that he’d stashed a getaway car two blocks from Dealey Plaza. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Carlos despised the Kennedy brothers more than any other two human beings on earth. Jack and Bobby had dragged Carlos in front of the Senate and pissed on his leg in front of the whole country. A couple of years after that, they’d tried to deport him to Guatemala.

“Maybe Carlos had forgiven and forgotten. Sure. And maybe some mope who lugged boxes of books around a warehouse for a living could make a rifle shot like that—six floors up, a moving target, a breeze, trees in the way.”

When Carlos starts getting rid of loose ends, Guidry realizes that he’s probably next in line to be disposed of, so he hits the road, hoping to reconnect with a powerful pal in Las Vegas who holds a grudge against Carlos. Perhaps his friend might be willing to smuggle Guidry out of the country. But first, he needs to get there, knowing that Carlos’s man is hot on his trail.

Then Guidry stumbles upon the perfect cover—no one will be looking for a family man. Enter Charlotte, a small-town Oklahoma housewife. She is on the run from her alcoholic husband with her two daughters and their epileptic dog in tow, making her way to Los Angeles with plans to start her life over. When her car breaks down in New Mexico, and she and Guidry wind up at the same motel, he sees his chance to win her trust and offer her a ride. So Frank Guidry becomes Frank Wainwright, insurance salesman: “If Guidry could pull this off, he’d be practically invisible.”

My main beef with books about mobsters is that they tend to have high body counts, and ruthless, remorseless killers are not generally people I enjoy reading about. However, Berney (whose last book, The Long and Faraway Gone, was one of my favorites of 2015) is such a gifted writer that he is able to bring a lot of depth to Frank Guidry. His journey with Charlotte and the girls changes him in some very significant ways. And Charlotte’s story takes some unpredictable turns as well, as Guidry comes to realize that he has feelings for this woman who was unwittingly dragged into his dangerous road trip. By the end, I found myself caring about and sympathizing with both characters.

* I had the chance to meet Lou Berney at a book signing a few days after this was published, and it turns out Carlos Marcello was not only real, he has a fascinating back story, and yes, he really hated the Kennedys. But of course we’ll never really know if he was the one who ordered the hit on JFK. According to Berney, Marcello’s motto was, “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

“Dead Man Running” by Steve Hamilton

Dead Man RunningI have written before of my dislike for “inside the mind of a serial killer” books—those with chapters told from the point of view of a mass murderer. It didn’t take me long to realize that Steve Hamilton’s Dead Man Running was such a book, and had it not been for the fact that I’ve read everything he’s ever written, I would have stopped right there. But this is the first new Alex McKnight novel in five years, so of course I was going to finish it.

This book is extremely different from others in the McKnight series (Dead Man Running is #11). For one thing, the cover seems to indicate that it takes place in the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where McKnight lives; however, most of the action is set in Arizona and a handful of other non-U.P. locations. And as mentioned above, Alex’s first-person chapters alternate with ones about the serial killer he’s chasing.

The book’s premise is great: the killer is caught, and when he’s taken into custody, he says he’ll only talk to one man: McKnight. The thing is, Alex has no idea who this guy is and why on earth he is asking for him. A couple of FBI agents fly to remote Paradise, MI, to get McKnight and bring him to Arizona. There’s a ticking clock, since the killer says he’s left a woman tied up and alive, and he might be willing to reveal where she is before she dies of thirst.

Once Alex comes face to face with the killer, Martin Livermore, it turns out this mystery man knows almost everything about McKnight, down to his minor-league batting average. Their connection is finally revealed well into the book, and I thought it strained credulity a bit.

Hamilton is indisputably a fine writer who knows how to create high-octane suspense, but Dead Man Running is just not the type of book that I personally enjoy; it doesn’t feel like an Alex McKnight mystery. Instead, it reminded me quite a bit of Red Dragon, the Thomas Harris serial killer novel that scared me silly when I read it as a young adult. As I made my way through Dead Man Running, I found myself having to pause every few chapters and look at cute animals on my favorite Instagram accounts in an effort to wipe the images of graphic violence and brutality out of my mind.

Dead Man Running will be published on Aug. 21. Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons 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.