Hard-core grittiness and violence are now the norm in female-penned suspense novels; romance-laden cozies are no longer the province of the Women of Mystery—if indeed they ever were. So move over Andrew Vachss, step aside Lee Child: There's a new sheriff in town—and he's a she!
A WINNER FROM FLYNN
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s suspenseful new thriller, has generated more pre-release buzz than just about any other mystery this year, and deservedly so. It is a fiendishly clever tale of a marriage gone toxic, and revenge exacted to a disturbingly lethal degree. The story is narrated in alternating chapters by the husband/wife team of Nick and Amy Dunne, who offer up markedly contradictory accounts of events leading up to the violent abduction of Amy, and the police investigation that follows. Needless to say, the husband is always the first and primary suspect, and this time is no exception. Nick protests his innocence, both to the police and to the reader, but he is sparing with the truth; indeed, it seems he will only cop to his bad acts (an ongoing affair with a young student, for instance) when he has painted himself into a corner. Amy, for her part, is either manipulative and sociopathic—or the hapless victim of a closet sadist, a deviant exceptionally skilled at hiding his darker side. You be the judge—but be prepared to change your mind . . . again and again, right up to the very last page!
THE KING AND HIS GARDINER
Stephen King and I have one thing in common (a hint: it isn’t great wealth). Give up? OK, here it is: We are both big fans of Meg Gardiner. In fact, King went so far as to say that her books make up “the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last 20 years,” and who am I to argue with Stephen King? This time out, Gardiner departs from series novels with a stand-alone thriller called Ransom River. Rory Mackenzie thought she’d never return to her hometown of Ransom River, California; the small-town attitudes and prejudices conflicted too strongly with her more sophisticated worldview. Yet somehow, she’s back, and she has been drafted as a juror in a high-profile murder trial, a case with strong connections to organized crime and corrupt cops. When a video clip from a particularly bad day in court seems to show Rory colluding with masked criminals, she finds herself on the run from both the mob and the law, not knowing where to turn or whom to trust. And it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better! Gardiner continues to move from strength to strength; with a tightly crafted story and charismatic (albeit admirably flawed) new characters, Ransom River displays the talents of a top tier mystery writer at the top of her game.
Fans of Scandinavian suspense will find lots to like in Anne Holt’s Blind Goddess, the book that introduced European readers to the exploits of Oslo police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen back in 1993. Here in the colonies, we have gotten the Wilhelmsen books in a different sequence, starting with 1222, by which time Wilhelmsen has bitterly retired, paralyzed by a bullet lodged in her spine. In Blind Goddess, we get a flashback peek at an entirely different Hanne Wilhelmsen: sensual, upbeat, physically capable (graceful, even) and oh so enigmatic. Teamed with police attorney Hakon Sand, Wilhelmsen investigates the murder of a small-time drug dealer, followed in short order by the killing of a well-known—if decidedly sleazy—attorney. On the surface, the cases wouldn’t appear to have much in common, but before the investigation is brought to a close, it will expose an unthinkable level of corruption that permeates the Norwegian government to its highest echelons. That said, Blind Goddess doesn’t read like a political thriller, but rather a topnotch police procedural, one with an exotic and icy Nordic twist. After all, when it comes to solving a clever crime, it is not what you know to be true, but what you can prove that matters.
WHERE THERE’S A WILL
Special Agent Will Trent has to be one of the most fascinating suspense protagonists in recent memory: He is tormented by his childhood demons; dyslexic to the point of being barely able to read; uncomfortable to the extreme in relationships. On the plus side, he has one of the finest analytical minds in the entire Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Together with his partner Faith Mitchell, he has appeared in several of Karin Slaughter’s excellent novels, including her latest, Criminal. Trent’s current case is strongly evocative of a murder dating from 30-some years ago, in which the victim’s flesh was sliced open and then crudely sewn back together. It is a case with strong personal connections for Trent; he knows exactly who the killer was (and is), and there is little or nothing he can do about it. Legally, that is. And there is the rub: Does Trent operate outside of—and in direct conflict with—the legal system that has been such a cornerstone of his existence for many years? Or, can he somehow find a way to bring the perpetrator to justice within the confines of the law, and before he kills again? Criminal offers a look back at 1970s Southern culture (with all its gentility and warts), a dash of romance for its unlikely protagonist and a twist ending that few will see coming.
THE ANGLO/IRISH CONTINGENT
There’s an old joke that goes, “What do you call 100 dead lawyers?” Answer: “A pretty good start.” This is also the general mood of the London public in the case of three convicted pedophiles found murdered and mutilated—by person or persons unknown—in Irish author Jane Casey’s new thriller, [Sat Aug 23 15:22:07 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. The Reckoning. In the second installment of the series featuring Anglo/Irish DC Maeve Kerrigan (after last year’s The Burning), our conflicted heroine seems to be the only person truly concerned with bringing the perpetrator to justice. In her opinion, punishment should be left to the legal system, not meted out by vigilantes. Little does she realize the peril that viewpoint will hold for her. The Reckoning is written in the first person, with the sort of dry wit that often characterizes the best Irish crime fiction (think Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels). The dialogue is a true treat, engaging and intelligent as Kerrigan takes on the testosterone cowboys who comprise the rank and file of the London police department. My prediction: If The Reckoning is any indication, this young author has a long and successful career ahead of her.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
“Murder” and “Amish” are two words not typically found in the same sentence . . . unless, of course, you are referring to Linda Castillo’s brilliant suspense series featuring lapsed Amish police chief Kate Burkholder, of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. The latest installment, Gone Missing, finds Burkholder embroiled in not one, but three cases in which young people have disappeared, seemingly without a trace. The common denominator? All are teenaged Amish girls, each with a history of rebellion against their religion. Complicating matters is the fact that the Amish are notoriously insular; by the time the families get around to involving the police, the trails have grown cold. There is no shortage of suspects, however: a famous photographer once convicted of taking nude pictures of underage Amish girls; a halfway house operator expelled from the Amish culture for homosexuality; a rabid preacher trolling among the young Amish for converts to his controversial sect. Is it one of these people, or is the predator to be found closer to home, in the often misunderstood community of the Plain People? With its wonderfully conflicted protagonist, and its incisive look into a society most of us know little about, Gone Missing is the unquestioned high point of one of the most compelling series in modern suspense fiction.
When Gillian Flynn learned in June that her new novel, Gone Girl, had debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, it was not exactly a glamorous moment in publishing. “I was in Scottsdale by myself,” Flynn recalls. “I got the phone call while wading in the hotel pool.”
A second chance for a proper celebration came on the Fourth of July, when she found out at home in Chicago that her book had reached the top of the list. “We went out on the back porch—our neighbors are very fond of illegal fireworks, so we popped open champagne and watched,” she says.
Flynn experienced modest success with her first two novels, 2007’s deeply creepy Sharp Objects and 2009’s aptly named Dark Places. But Gone Girl is a bona fide phenomenon, selling 1.8 million copies to date and spending 20 consecutive weeks (so far) on the New York Times bestseller lists, including eight weeks in the number-one spot for hardcover fiction. It’s the word-of-mouth hit that book lovers everywhere have been reading, talking about and gushing over. For these reasons, BookPage has named Gone Girl the Breakout Book of the Year.
Flynn spoke to BookPage from her home in Chicago, still sounding slightly stunned by the book’s astonishing performance.
"I'm smart enough to acknowledge that I'm a good writer, but this is lightning in a bottle."
“This one’s so different from the other two, just wildly different and incredibly unexpected,” she says. “I thought it would do incrementally better, like the first two. It was thrilling to see it take off like that.”
In Gone Girl we meet Nick and Amy, happy newlyweds living in New York. The inspiration for her parents’ popular series of children’s books, Amy has a healthy trust fund that partly supports their Manhattan life. Then they are both laid off from their magazine jobs, and her parents’ unwise investments drain Amy’s bank account. Nick and Amy move to Missouri to care for his sick mother and start over. After they settle in a gloomy subdivision filled with empty foreclosed homes, the cracks in their marriage quickly appear. Those cracks soon become gaping crevasses, and then Amy disappears, leaving Nick as the prime suspect. But is Amy the golden girl everyone thought she was, or is there something much darker there? And that’s really all you can say about this deliciously strange story without giving away too much.
It’s hard to pinpoint why Gone Girl has captured the popular imagination so thoroughly. It’s perhaps in part because America is still a place where we are most comfortable with women fitting the very specific role of selfless caretaker.
Flynn doesn’t write about that kind of woman.
“I really fight against the idea that we’re natural nurturers,” Flynn says. “It belittles us and our fight to be a good person.”
Flynn is warm and funny on the phone, a far cry from the deeply damaged heroines of her novels. It’s hard to understand how Flynn, who grew up in a happy two-parent home in Kansas City, Missouri, spins such wickedly eerie stories.
“It may be that’s why I’m able to go to those darker spots and always been attracted to that,” Flynn says. “My dad is a film professor and he loved to share movies, particularly with his daughter. I loved to watch horror movies, loved to wander around my house imagining things in the closets. I still remember Dad putting a tape in the big VCR and saying, ‘It’s time to watch Psycho.’”
It seems pretty inevitable, then, that after earning a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern, Flynn would become a writer for Entertainment Weekly. “We were charter subscribers,” she says of her family. “Entertainment Weekly was an iconic thing in our house.”
Flynn worked her way up to TV critic (for the record, she currently is watching “Parks and Recreation,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland” and “30 Rock,” but maintains that the best TV series of all time is still “The Wire”). When the economy tanked and magazines had to trim budgets, Flynn was among those laid off.
“It gave me the freedom to walk around and feel sorry for myself for a few months,” Flynn says with a laugh. “I spent my days watching movies and playing video games.”
Dark Places came out just months later, though, and Flynn made the transition to full-time novelist. She writes in the “weird little basement area” of the old Victorian house in Chicago she shares with her husband, a lawyer and fellow pop culture junkie, and their toddler son.
Right now, her writing is focused on drafting the Gone Girl screenplay. Reese Witherspoon has signed on to produce and star as Amy. (No word at press time on who will play the handsome but cagey Nick, although Internet opinion seems to lean toward Bradley Cooper or Ryan Gosling.)
With so much of the novel taking place inside Amy’s and Nick’s heads, writing a screenplay is a unique challenge. “I’m trying to find a way to externalize that dialogue,” Flynn says. “I think of Trainspotting, Fight Club and Election—I can’t imagine those without voiceover.”
Once the screenplay is de[Sat Aug 23 15:22:07 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. livered and the publicity for Gone Girl is done, Flynn will have to focus on her next book. She admits to feeling the pressure of what she calls her own “Greek chorus” to produce another runaway bestseller, but tries to focus on the work rather than the result.
“I’m smart enough to acknowledge that I’m a good writer, but this is lightning in a bottle,” she says. “You just do the good work and write what you want to write.”Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
WAR’S LASTING AFTERMATH
With his 15th novel, The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian offers up a fascinating crime story set in Italy in the 1950s. When a beautiful widow named Francesca Rosati is brutally murdered in Florence, it’s at the hands of a serial killer who’s stalking members of her family. Detective Serafina Bettini believes the crime may have roots in World War II, when Francesca lived with her in-laws and children on an estate in Tuscany. The Nazis were drawn to the estate, thanks to the presence of an Etruscan tomb on the property, and they made themselves at home there. Adding another twist to the Rosatis’ story is the affair Francesca’s sister-in-law had with a Nazi officer. Serafina, who bears her own scars from the war, has a few secrets of her own, and they weigh on her mind as she seeks Francesca’s killer. Deftly flashing back to wartime Italy, Bohjalian has created a compelling and complex narrative. He’s a daring writer who isn’t afraid to take risks, as this fast-paced historical thriller demonstrates.
Adelle Waldman’s debut, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., is a sharply observed novel-of-manners about an up-and-coming writer who pursues love in New York City. When Nate Piven sells his first book, he’s on top of the world. His romantic life is also abuzz with activity, as his ex, Elisa, and writer friend, Hannah, both want to spend time with him. When his connection with Hannah deepens, Nate makes a habit of faulting her for any problems that arise, and Hannah—a level-headed, self-possessed young woman—soon finds herself in the grip of new insecurities. Since the story is told in Nate’s voice, it soon becomes clear to the reader that he thinks a little too well of himself—he’s an educated, liberal-minded guy, but he’s clueless about his own shortcomings. Waldman cleverly uses Nate as the subject of what turns out to be a shrewd study of contemporary male behavior. She writes with amazing authenticity from a man’s perspective and has woven a darkly humorous narrative around her brilliant but sometimes oblivious antihero.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s chilling 2012 bestseller, is available in paperback—at last. This intriguing novel starts out harmlessly enough, as Nick Dunne and his smart, beautiful wife, Amy, celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary at their new home in Missouri. But when Amy disappears, Nick becomes the prime suspect. By all appearances, some sort of struggle took place in the Dunnes’ house, and more evidence comes to light indicating Nick’s guilt. Yet—despite the formidable case that’s built against him—he protests that he’s innocent. The novel is related from his perspective and from Amy’s, and the result of these skillful shifts in point of view is a narrative world that’s disturbing in its uncertainty. When the truth behind Amy’s disappearance finally becomes clear, it’s a shock to the reader—and a testament to Flynn’s skills and originality as a novelist. Fans of literary fiction and mystery lovers alike will savor this addictive thriller, which is set to debut on movie screens in October.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Amy disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, and while Nick has not been a model husband, could he really have killed her? It's soon evident that if Amy is dead, that's the least of the reader's worries. Flynn's last novel, Dark Objects, was a New York Times best seller, but this one is expected to break her out.[Page 66]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
There's the evil you can see coming--and then there's Amy Elliott. Superficially, this privileged Gotham golden girl, inspiration for her psychologist-parents' bestselling series of children's books, couldn't be further from the disturbingly damaged women of Edgar-finalist Flynn's first two books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. But as Amy's husband, Nick Dunne, starts to realize after she disappears from their rented mansion in his Missouri hometown on their fifth anniversary--and he becomes the prime suspect in her presumed murder--underestimating Amy's sick genius and twisted gamesmanship could prove fatal. Then again, charmer Nick may not be quite the corn-fed innocent he initially appears. Flynn masterfully lets this tale of a marriage gone toxically wrong gradually emerge through alternating accounts by Nick and Amy, both unreliable narrators in their own ways. The reader comes to discover their layers of deceit through a process similar to that at work in the imploding relationship. Compulsively readable, creepily unforgettable, this is a must read for any fan of bad girls and good writing. Agent: Stephanie Rostan, Levine Greenberg. (June)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC