What if you could spend the next three months doing nothing but lying around reading escapist fiction, with a margarita or a bowl of cherries or a massive Toblerone bar — or all three — at your fingertips? If there were ever a time to distract yourself with the dismaying and often preposterous predicaments of characters unlucky enough to be the protagonists of thrillers, that time is now. The more outrageous, the better.
Switching identities with someone sounds so alluring, particularly now that we’re stuck at home with nothing but our own diminishing resources. Let’s get out of here! But of course all that means is trading one set of problems for another, as Julie Clark reminds us in THE LAST FLIGHT (Sourcebooks Landmark, 311 pp., $26.99).
At Kennedy Airport and on the run from her charismatic, abusive husband, Claire Cook impulsively accepts the offer of a woman named Eva to swap lives. In a variation on the classic “Freaky Friday” scenario, Claire flies in Eva’s place to Oakland; Eva takes Claire’s spot on a flight to Puerto Rico. But the Puerto Rico-bound plane crashes, spinning the novel in an intriguing new direction. (It also seems great for Claire, since she is now officially dead.)
The plot runs on two tracks. Going back in time, it fills in Eva’s past — her rough childhood, her triumphant acceptance to college, how it all went off the rails so spectacularly. (As is so often the case, a bad man had something to do with it.) And in the present, it takes us along with Claire to Berkeley, where she is confronted by the complications in Eva’s life. A further twist: It seems that Eva might not have boarded the doomed plane after all, and Claire’s vindictive husband suspects that his wife is still alive. Trying to figure it out for herself, Claire Googles “Can you scan onto a flight and not get on it?,” as we all would.
It’s hard to become engrossed in a book just now, with so much noise crackling inside and outside of our heads, but “The Last Flight” is thoroughly absorbing — not only because of its tantalizing plot and deft pacing, but also because of its unexpected poignancy and its satisfying, if bittersweet, resolution. The characters get under your skin.
If you’re sick of who you are, you might be equally sick of where you’ve been living for the past few months. But be glad you’re not holed up in sleepy Grotto, Iowa, which embodies the three rules of small-town thriller life: 1. Placid communities are actually claustrophobic hotbeds of murderous intrigue. 2. Your neighbors are creepy sex pests. 3. All the law-enforcement officials are totally compromised by conflicts of interest.
Heather Gudenkauf’s THIS IS HOW I LIED (Park Row, 336 pp., $28.99) visits the unsolved murder of 15-year-old Eve Knox, whose body — beaten, asphyxiated — was found in a grotto in Grotto back during Bill Clinton’s first term. Twenty-five years later, the victim’s long-lost bloody shoe turns up, and the past rushes into the present to wreak havoc on Eve’s friends and enemies, none of whom seem to have managed to leave town in the ensuing quarter-century.
As with actors forced to double up on roles in a regional theater company, each character plays multiple parts in the ensuing drama. Maggie, Eve’s best friend, who discovered her body, is now the detective assigned to the reopened case, which was originally investigated by her father, then the police chief and now increasingly senile. Nick, Eve’s violent boyfriend, peaked in high school and now runs the town’s gift shop.
There are enough red herrings to form their own little school in the corner of the pond. As the complicated web of relationships and pathologies is revealed — wait until you hear about Nola, Eve’s sister, and her highly unpleasant hobby — the story shifts into high gear. Throughout it all you feel terribly sorry for Eve, whose unhappy last day on earth is revealed in flashbacks interspersed with the present-day narrative. She is the nicest person in the book, but an awful lot of people had motives to kill her.
Evoking the great Agatha Christie classics “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” Lucy Foley’s clever, taut new novel, THE GUEST LIST (Morrow/HarperCollins, 305 pp., $27.99), takes us to a creepy island off the coast of Ireland, where a young couple are about to get married.
They seem so glossy and perfect. Jules is the beautiful, scarily competent editor of an online fashion magazine, and Will is the hot, charming Bear Grylls-ish host of a popular reality TV show called “Survive the Night,” which involves him being left alone in various dangerous situations after dark, and having to use his cunning and survival skills to return to safety. He and Jules look so good together. They barely know each other. What a great start to a marriage.
Foley builds her suspense slowly and creepily, deploying an array of narrators bristling with personal secrets: Jules, the bride; Olivia, her fragile sister; Johnno, the troubled best man; Hannah, whose husband is an old and suspiciously close friend of Jules; and quiet Aoife, the suspiciously judgmental and tightly wound wedding planner.
What sadistic acts did Will and his bro-y groomsmen regularly commit at their horrible boys’ boarding school — and why is Will’s father, the headmaster of that school, so cold toward his son at the wedding? Why do people keep bringing up “Lord of the Flies”? Is it really a good idea to have a wedding on a possibly haunted island full of ancient bodies buried in the peat, especially with a major storm brewing?
We know from the flash-forwards dotted throughout that someone will be murdered during the wedding reception. Pay close attention to seemingly throwaway details about the characters’ pasts. They are all clues. When the murder finally happens — when the identity of the victim is revealed — it makes total sense. The only question is why no one did it sooner.
THE CHOICE (Putnam, 366 pp., paper, $16), Gillian McAllister’s almost unbearably tense novel, divides its narrative into alternative stories, “Sliding Doors”-style, playing out two possible futures in one person’s life. It’s such a fascinating thought, how a moment can change everything. Both scenarios begin when Joanna Oliva, a young woman walking home from a bar at night, pushes a threatening man who seems to be following her down a set of stairs in London.
In the first scenario, Joanna resuscitates him and seeks help — concealing vital details about what happened but still facing the possibility of life in prison. In the other, she leaves the man to die, and is driven to virtual madness by the weight of her conscience and the burden of concealment.
“The Choice” is less a conventional thriller than a morality tale, a granular exploration of secrecy and guilt — how they corrode, how they poison a psyche — in the manner of “Crime and Punishment” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Following Joanna as she grapples with her conscience, it’s hard not to have every shameful secret from your own past come flooding back. It’s times like this that I wish I were Catholic and could go to confession for quick absolution. (The thought passes quickly.)
A lot of the tension reverberating through “The Choice” has to do with the psychic interplay between Joanna and her rigidly moralistic husband, Reuben. What will she tell Reuben, and when? How will she handle his response? Is she really right to think of him as some sort of moral arbiter of behavior?
As the book turns the screws, it becomes almost physically difficult to read. I was so grateful to McAllister for providing some degree of relief, some redemption for Joanna — and for us.
Women are dying at an alarming rate on the streets of Los Angeles in Ivy Pochoda’s THESE WOMEN (Ecco/HarperCollins, 352 pp., $27.99), but nobody is paying much attention: They are sex workers, street people, marginal citizens of color. But if women are the victims in this intricate, deeply felt, beautifully written novel, they are also its heroes.
The story unfolds through the perspectives of five characters, all women, with overlapping and interweaving histories. Their voices sizzle and sparkle; each of them helps advance the plot, and each brings to it her own particular pain and her own particular tragedy. All are haunted by birth and circumstance.
Dorian, who owns a fried-fish shack in South Central and is especially kind to “women on the stroll,” as she thinks of them, wants more than anything else to keep everyone safe. She is broken, ruined by the murder of Lecia, her beloved daughter, after an evening of babysitting some years earlier.
Julianna, the child Lecia was babysitting that night, has grown up to become Jujubee, a dancer at a sketchy nightclub who is built for “a world of jiggling and taunting, of sauntering and displaying” but who has the eye of an artist and a hunger to escape to something better. She also has a phone full of searing, beautifully composed photographs that she longs to show the world.
Then there’s Marella, Julianna’s neighbor, whose puritanical views about morality and sexuality and women have (among other things) instilled in her an uncontrollable rage that erupts from time to time. The story of her mother, Anneke, who has been keeping her own dark secrets for decades, follows along after Marella’s.
But the best character, the character who stays with you long after you have read the last word of this provocative book, is a diminutive, damaged, brilliant police detective named Essie. Tormented by guilt after a terrible tragedy in her past, she has been overlooked for promotion, passed over in the department, scoffed at by her male colleagues who refuse to listen when she says a serial killer is at work. She knows that someone has the blood of 17 women on his hands.
Kimberly McCreight’s latest book is called A GOOD MARRIAGE (HarperCollins, 390 pp., $27.99), but every marriage in the story, set among the snobs, poseurs and wannabes in tony Park Slope, Brooklyn, is dreadful. The characters look as if their lives are perfect, but their greatest skill is their ability to conceal the adultery, substance abuse and financial ruin percolating underneath. (“That’s the hardest part about marriage,” one character observes. “Somebody else’s problems become your own.”)
Let’s start with Zach Grayson, a superrich businessman, and his gorgeous, much younger wife, Amanda, whom we meet early in the book lying in a deceased heap at the bottom of the stairs in her elegant brownstone, covered in blood. (We will soon hear, in intermittent chapters, how she spent her last week or so on earth.)
Amanda is lovely and anxious; Zach, squirrelly and conniving. When we first meet him, he is in jail and calling Lizzie Kitsakis, an old law school classmate who also lives in Park Slope, begging for her help in defending him on his incipient murder charge. Unfortunately, because it is about to get really complicated, she ends up taking the case.
Lizzie’s marriage is nothing to post about on Facebook, either. Her husband is smart and loving, but he is also a falling-down drunk with a propensity for unemployment and a habit of forgetting where he’s been during his benders. Meanwhile, Zach and Amanda’s friends among the fellow parents at Brooklyn Country Day are wrestling with their own demons, some of which will emerge at Maude Lagueux’s notorious Sleepaway Soiree. It’s the sex party of the year, full of sanctioned adulterous fun.
Secrets pile up like cars on the freeway, some of them exiting onto service roads that lead nowhere. Who is stalking Amanda? What is the story with Amanda’s shadowy friend Carolyn? Who is behind the malicious hacks into the computers of the parents at the kids’ school? What is the mystery Lizzie is so anxious to conceal? And why is Zach such a tool?
McCreight is particularly deft at parsing the small but telling details of life among Park Slope’s elite, as when Amanda fails to understand that the ladies of Park Slope prefer “calculated indifference” in matters of dress, a contrast to the glossy perfectionism of their Manhattan counterparts.
“Park Slope moms were beautiful and fashionable and fit, but they were above caring too much about silly things like fashion,” McCreight writes. “Amanda needed to master the application of the exact right amount of concealer and precise coating of mascara to appear flawlessly barefaced.”
It’s not a reason to kill anyone, but Amanda just never fit in.
Meanwhile, be glad you are not Chris Cowley, a hapless young associate at a fancy corporate law firm in New York. At the beginning of Patrick Hoffman’s CLEAN HANDS (Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pp., $25.99), Chris gets drunk and then, still apparently hung over, has his cellphone stolen in Grand Central Terminal as he goes to work the next day.
No bonus for him! (Especially after an investigator examines a video of the incident and sees what looks like a suspicious split-second interaction between Chris and the pickpocket.) Not only is the cellphone unlocked and not password-protected, if such a thing is even possible, it also contains a trove of highly confidential and compromising documents related to a sensitive case the law firm is working on.
Topics covered include a failed merger, a shell corporation in Oman, collusion and bond-price manipulation. (Handily for the thieves, the documents are not hard to find on the phone, being as how they are labeled “hot docs.”)
The stolen phone passes through various layers of New York City criminality until it reaches Avi Lessing, one in a series of middlemen of varying intelligence, who decides to copy the compromising files onto his own hard drive. What a great idea! “He would come to regret that decision more than anything he’d ever done in his life,” Hoffman notes.
Valencia Walker, the no-messing-about former C.I.A. operative hired by the firm, brings an elaborate arsenal of threats, promises, violence, subterfuge and charm to bear as she plays the various factions against one another. It becomes increasingly clear that the whole thing is far more complicated, with much higher stakes, than most of the pawns in this grand chess game understand.
The fun is in the details. A lot of characters find themselves in places they would rather not be, feeling paranoid, anxious and compromised by things they wish they had not done. Chris, the associate who started the whole thing, has perhaps the hardest time coming to grips with what a sorry turn his life has taken. “One day you’re home doing a little work, the next you’re involved in a criminal conspiracy,” he muses.
At one point, a shadowy figure on the subway warns him to appear less depressed so as not to bring suspicion upon himself, an encounter that inevitably brings him to a new low of despair.
“He used to go out to clubs and hook up with random dudes, make out with them,” Hoffman writes. “He used to send text messages to his friends and go out for brunch. He used to listen to podcasts and watch movies and cook food and go out to dinner. What happened to all that? What happened to exercising, yoga classes, bicycle riding, farmers’ markets? Was that life completely over?”
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large for The Times, working for a variety of desks including sports, culture, media and international. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the culture and metro desks.