“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.

“The Night Bird” by Brian Freeman

The Night Bird by Brian FreemanCan memories be changed? It sounds far-fetched, but there is actually a growing body of scientific evidence showing how easy it is to manipulate memory. This article recounts a study where volunteers watched an episode of the TV show “24,” were fed false information about what they had seen, and later took a quiz about the program. The experiment demonstrated that under certain circumstances, memories can be selectively rewritten.

I’m pretty sure the scenario in The Night Bird, in which a deranged madman “programs” people to kill themselves and/or others by messing with their memories and implanting suggestions, is 99% implausible, but at least it’s grounded in reality. Dr. Frankie Stein (yes, she’s heard all the jokes about her name) treats patients who have developed crippling phobias as a result of traumatic experiences, such as a girl who grew terrified of water after a kayaking accident. Dr. Stein rewrites the bad memories and replaces them with different ones: the doctor “reconstructed a completely different version of the accident,” one in which her patient “didn’t topple under the weight of the current. She kept control… That was her reality now. That was what she remembered.”

But when someone with a grudge against Dr. Stein begins kidnapping patients she’s worked with and further manipulating their memories, causing them to snap when a particular song (Carole King’s “Nightbird”) is played, the doctor teams with San Francisco homicide detective Frost Easton to figure out who is carrying out this deadly vendetta.

You do have to suspend your disbelief a bit in order to fully enjoy this book—I could buy some of the memory stuff, but toward the end, the killer manages to plant his suggestions into someone who wasn’t even an official patient of Dr. Stein’s (she’d only gone in for a single consultation). Also, Frost is a pretty unconventional cop; he seems to have a lot of latitude to go out on his own to follow tips or hunches. Still, I really enjoyed reading The Night Bird. It’s a genuine page-turner, and even though Freeman lives in Minnesota, he’s obviously done his research on San Francisco; the book’s setting provides the reader with an amazing sense of place. Since I live in the Bay Area, I always like reading books that take place here, and Freeman writes about it so well that you’d swear he must be a local.

As a bonus, Frost has a cat named Shack who is one of the most unusual and delightful fictional pets I’ve encountered in quite some time. If you’re going to read a book about a diabolically brilliant serial killer, it helps to have a cute kitty (who is never in jeopardy at any time during the book—don’t worry, feline fans!) along to provide a few moments of levity.

“The Cutaway” by Christina Kovac

The CutawayI never thought I’d be spending Inauguration Day reading a book set in Washington, D.C. However, The Cutaway is more of a novel that happens to be set in Washington than it is a “Washington novel.” There is a brief scene set during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but otherwise, it’s safe to pick up even if you’re suffering from political overload.

The Cutaway tells the story of Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer investigating the disappearance of Evelyn Carney, a young attorney working at a prestigious D.C. law firm. Evelyn had been dining with her husband, who had recently returned from a lengthy military deployment, when she abruptly stormed out—and vanished. Virginia feels that the lawyer’s mysterious disappearance from affluent Georgetown will make a killer story, and decides to pursue it.

Complicating matters for Virginia is her station’s new news director, who seems to have it out for her, and is intent on slashing the budget, possibly breaking up Virginia’s loyal team of behind-the-scenes and on-air talent. There’s also the fact that Virginia has a rocky romantic history with the new commander of Criminal Investigations, who is actively involved in the missing-persons case.

Christina Kovac herself has a long history in TV news, so she brings an insider’s perspective to her first novel. There are also some very nicely written passages about Virginia’s fraught relationship with her dying father. However, Kovac does fall into the trap of sending her heroine into a deserted and dangerous place to search for clues—anyone who has read a zillion mysteries, as I have, will be tempted to shout “NOOOO!” at that point in the book. There are a couple other places where I felt I was a step ahead of Virginia (particularly one involving a bugged cell phone), but Kovac’s strengths as a prose stylist and plotter are enough to outweigh the rookie missteps.

Note: The Cutaway will be published on March 21, 2017. Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the review copy.