Our 2018 fall list of the best mystery and thriller books so far is incredibly diverse, ranging the gamut from political thrillers to crime thrillers and everything in between. If there’s one thing that distinguishes this excellent batch of books, it’s character development. While losing sleep is practically guaranteed with any of our mid-year picks, each is a fast-moving tapestry of emotionally-driven art that you’ll be begging your friends and family to read.
Scissorman by Henry Chancellor
Simultaneously playful and edgy, Scissorman is a generous helping of dazzling contemporary detective fiction.
In Henry Chancellor’s Scissorman, a wealthy American living in London kicks off what promises to be the most celebrated annual scavenger hunt in history: the search for King Arthur’s mythical sword, Excalibur.
The book kicks off in dramatic fashion on July 13th, as nearly a million people watch a website hosted by the veritable game master, Callum Relph, as he buries the relic along with a current copy of The Times. For further proof that it isn’t a prerecorded hoax, he also posts to Twitter. As a final flourish, he offers an app containing clues for treasure hunters, as well as seven golden tickets, each worth half a million pounds sterling. As Relph hits the talk show circuit, he explains the sword’s lineage in detail, and indicates that he may host an annual scavenger hunt complete with corporate sponsorship.
The very next day, July 14th, likable London detective Frank Moke observes a far more somber occasion: the annual arrival of an envelope containing a photo from a book of gruesome German fairy tales. One such tale involves a tailor, the Scissorman, who snips off a boy’s thumbs as punishment for sucking them. The letters are torturous reminders of a string of unsolved crimes against children. This year, the letter arrived a day earlier than usual, but Moke doesn’t have much time to ponder the significance of the anomaly. He is soon called to investigate a report that a fox had been seen carrying a severed human head.
Early on, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of connective tissue between Moke and Relph, and with each passing day, Moke is met with a new surprise, many of them grisly. But in a novel chock full of clues and red herrings, Scissorman continues to deliver the unexpected in each succeeding chapter.
Throughout, Chancellor’s prose crackles with the playfulness of a contemporary YA thriller, which is perhaps why the juxtaposition of the elaborate scavenger hunt with the emotional heft of Moke’s 20-year-old case feels so fresh. While not a historical thriller in the strictest sense, Chancellor also weaves in just enough history – including art, literature and even architecture – to add a hefty dose of intellectual nutrition without over feeling bloated. While the book weighs in at nearly 700 pages, there isn’t an ounce of fat in the manuscript. It’s easy to imagine a business-minded editor splitting the novel into two or three separate books, but we can’t think of a better way to start a series.
Let’s hope Chancellor has more adventures planned for Detective Moke.
The Puppet Master, by Ronald S. Barak
An outstanding, relentlessly paced whodunnit with sky-high stakes and a jaw-dropping twist.
When a trio of high-level political assassinations leave investigators puzzled, Superior Court Judge Cyrus Brooks and Homicide Detective Frank Lotello team up to uncover a diabolical scheme. After the murders and post-mortem sexual assaults of a senator and treasury official, the D.C. police chief begins to piece together a profile of the perp: a possible serial killer and sexual deviant, preying on female members of the political community.
But something doesn’t sit right with Lotello. The killer reported the first murder to the police, and apparently also placed a call to a journalist. Why? And why wouldn’t murdered Senator Wells’ staff make her calendar available for the investigation?
By the time the third victim is found — the male head of the Securities and Exchange Commission — Lotello realizes something is very wrong.
The second book in Ronald S. Barak’s Brooks/Lotello thriller series, technically a prequel, is the perfect entry point for new readers. In The Puppet Master, we are fully immersed in Brooks’ insights, anxieties and ethics as he realizes the impossible task of maintaining complete impartiality.
When Lotello approaches him to share his concerns about the investigation, both men are acutely aware that their careers are on the line if anyone were to find out. Privately, both men are understandably rattled by the times in which we live, an era in which mass political resentment and political violence are fast becoming the norm.
Throughout, Barak offers snatches of the killers’ point of view. Clever readers may figure out the motive before Lotello can, but the intricacies of the plot will leave most in awe. The Puppet Master has the makings of a big tent bestseller, but legal thriller fans will also delight in the book’s heady courtroom drama.
Encore: A Contemporary Love Story of Hypnotic Abduction by Tantra Bensko
When the dying star of a famous performance troupe goes missing right before show time, her standby, Miriam, prepares to take her place in the performance. As is their custom, Dune, the troupe’s leader, hypnotizes her before the curtain rises. In her trance, she believes she is Susan, the leading actress, and Dune’s wife.
Typically, the spell breaks when the curtain falls after the final encore. Not this time. Dune takes Miriam, who still believes she is cancer-stricken Susan, to a castle owned by an alchemist. During the ride, she can’t recall key details of their life. Their electric chemistry. Their wedding. Even the castle owner’s name. And yet, she remembers, Miriam (her true self), from Susan’s point of view, unlocking a scintillating combination of envy, jealousy and passion.
Will Miriam’s friend, Colin, come to her rescue? Will someone find the real Susan, and when they do, will she still be alive?
Tantra Bensko’s Encore is one of the most sophisticated romantic suspense novels in recent memory. Like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Bensko weaves in history, real-world myths and legend into the novel. But make no mistake, this is an utterly contemporary piece of work. Beyond the series’ theme of exposing social engineering, the novel explores the attraction of cult leaders and the role of power in sexual fantasies (favorite line: “Some mass murderers were attractive. I would have fallen for them. Scary”).
Book clubs will have need overtime to devour all the references to the occult, literature and art, to say nothing of the Shambhalla and Atlantis. But readers need not be overly cerebral to enjoy Encore as a romantic suspense novel. While technically Book 3 in Bensko’s Nevermind series, the novel is a perfect entry point to the work of one of today’s most distinctive voices.
The Moving Blade by Michael Pronko
A string of grisly murders, high stakes geopolitics and the prose of a master craftsman elevate this crime thriller to rarefied air.
What do a murdered American diplomat, a set of rare erotic Japanese wood block prints, and an agreement to keep American bases in Japan have in common?
That’s the question facing investigators in The Moving Blade, the second in Michael Pronko’s Detective Hiroshi series. The book opens with a break-in at the Tokyo home of diplomat Bernard Mattson during the victim’s own funeral. The experienced burglar quickly finds his target: two files from the deceased’s computer, which he downloads onto two USB drives before hiding them in a cigarette pack. Less than an hour later, the burglar himself is slain on a dead-end street.
Fortunately for Detective Hiroshi Shimizu, the swordsman leaves one of the precious files behind. Tokyo Police find a curious file containing two rare erotic woodblock prints. The post-it notes and pencil sketches around the margins are of particular interest. And what of the filename, “SOFA,” an acronym for The Status of Forces Agreement with America, the agreement governing the continued military presence of American military following the post-War occupation?
Mattson’s estranged daughter, Jamie, hasn’t been back to the country since she was 13 years old. She finds a world of quiet expedience where everything from the autopsy to the particulars of her father’s death have been all-too-conveniently whisked away. Through her eyes, we experience the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy and bewilderment of a relative outsider in Japan. It’s inevitable that her insistence on a thorough investigation will put her in danger, but thanks to Pronko’s expert pacing, the build-up is anything but predictable.
In this second series installment, Pronko resists the temptation to morph Hiroshi into a Western-style investigator trademarked by quirkiness or self-abuse. Instead, Hiroshi remains a likable but thoroughly believable vehicle through which we explore this sophisticated, multi-faceted puzzle. Thanks in large part to the extreme care in which each and every sentence is crafted, Fans of Barry Eisler’s John Rain series may find a new favorite author in Pronko.
The Girl Next Door by Lisa Aurello
The Girl Next Door had me at “donuts and high heels.” This cheeky, stylish and sophisticated novel is a must for anyone who loves unreliable narrators.
Lisa Aurello’s The Girl Next Door begins with a murder, then rewinds a few weeks to eavesdrop on a conspiratorial café conversation between her likely killers. But in a clever move that expertly ratchets up tension, Aurello is careful not to reveal their identities. Like eyewitnesses that saw something terrifying in peripheral vision, readers will explore each succeeding chapter with a sleuth-like attention to detail, attempting to connect the dots in this most intriguing of cases.
Enter suspect number one, 25-year-old Jane Jensen, who suffers significant amnesia after a car accident. In many ways, The Girl Next Door details her struggle to reclaim her identity. Who is she, really? Why does she bear no resemblance to the heavyset teen of her youth?
But Jane isn’t the only one asking tough questions. When investigators learn that Jane stalked the murdered woman’s husband, they come looking for answers.
With Jane unsure about her guilt or innocence, it’s up to readers to figure it out before the shocking ending.
While a cynic might say Aurello’s title and protagonist with gradually eroding memory issues bears too close a resemblance to The Girl on the Train, that’s about as far as the connective tissue between the two novels gets. Paula Hawkins isn’t half as funny or as profane as Aurello, nor is she nearly obsessed with footwear. Highly recommended.
Game Piece by Alan Brenham
When Texas detective Barry Marshall receives an anonymous tip on a stolen Chevy truck, he knows that something is off. The caller urges him to come quickly, claiming to fear for his own life, and the truck description matches an active case Marshall is working. But when Marshall arrives, there’s no truck in sight – just the butchered bodies of a young Hispanic couple.
Is the murdered man the person who called him? Or has Marshall been led into a trap?
Through alternating points of view, author Alan Brenham deftly reveals a psychopath who is hell-bent on exacting revenge for some past indiscretion (“If only that prick cop treated him with a little respect back in Dayton”). But the perp isn’t content to simply assassinate Marshall from afar as he watches the TV news crews roll into the crime scene. He’s going to have a little fun before making Marshall pay the ultimate price.
Brenham’s fourth novel is every bit as engrossing his Jason Scarsdale series that came before it. If there’s one distinguishing thread that runs through Brenham’s work, it’s humanity, a trait sorely lacking in most cookie-cutter police procedurals. As Marshall is processing the crime scene, he has to request overtime for two detectives, and as luck would have it, one that shows up is Don Reihms (“if detectives had Yelp ratings, the best Rheims could hope for would be a one-star”). Meanwhile, Marshall’s wife is hardly sympathetic. After the murder of her uncle a year earlier, she’s been pressuring Marshall to retire, and his missing yet another date night to investigate a double-homicide isn’t helping matters. Through domestic realism, Brenham, himself a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, delivers a fully realized hero.
But ultimately, the duel between Marshall and his stalker is what makes Game Piece so addictive. As the killer strikes again and again, it becomes clear to Marshall’s colleagues that these crimes are intensely personal. Credit Brenham for putting the tremendous psychological weight of that responsibility squarely on Marshall, creating an investigation in which the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Given that James Patterson is more executive producer than author these days, seeming to churn out a new novel each month, it comes as a shock that his collaboration with former president Bill Clinton tops our list. ‘
But this is one collaboration that is obviously magic, producing the best Patterson novel in years.
Rogue U.S. President Jonathon Duncan faces impeachment for persistently escaping from the eyes of the Secret Service. Duncan is convinced that he is the only man with the insider information to stop an imminent cyberterror attack on the U.S.
To say much more would spoil the fun.
Set over the course of three days, The President Is Missing sheds a stunning light upon the inner workings and vulnerabilities of our nation. Is it filled with information that only a former Commander-in-Chief could know?
You be the judge. One thing is for sure: this is one thriller that is well worth reading.
Gate 76 by Andrew Diamond
Compared to Diamond’s excellent cyber-crime novel Impala, Gate 76 is a bona-fide big tent crime thriller that should connect with readers from all walks of life.
34-year-old private detective Freddy Ferguson, a man still largely defined by his former career as a prize fighter, is waiting to board a flight to Washington D.C. when he spots Anna Brook. She is attractive in a hassled sort of way, but it’s her interaction with her male companion – a knucklehead gripping her arm in an unkind way – that really grabs Ferguson’s attention.
He watches as she prepares to board a flight to Honolulu, only to emerge from the jetway at the last minute, change her appearance, and catch a flight to Chicago.
By the time Ferguson lands in Dulles, news of a plane crash – the very same one that Brook nearly boarded – is on CNN. The world believes Brook is dead. Only Ferguson knows the truth.
Writing from Ferguson’s point of view, Author Andrew Diamond’s first person, present-tense narration is a breath of fresh air in a genre where the narrative voices are all too homogenous. Not since Thom Jones’ The Pugilist At Rest has a writer so eloquently incorporated the physical and mental toll of boxing in a protagonist’s life journey.
As PIs go, Ferguson is as world weary as you might expect, but much funnier:(“I get premonitions… I see some guy walking down the street—never laid eyes on him before—and I just know he’s gonna be beating the crap out of me in an alley before the day is over.”) For a young man, he’s decidedly old school, from his puzzlement at the “younger folks” taking photos at a funeral to the way he carries a toothpick and uses it as a low budget burglar alarm. The result is a story that feels timeless – it could have been set in any era over the past six decades – but still completely of this world.
The First Conception by Nesly Clerge
The author of the addictive Amazon #1 bestselling psychological thriller The Anatomy of Cheating shows his narrative range in his latest outing, The First Conception: The Rise of Eris. In an alternate reality, a genetically engineered blight has caused most of humanity to become infertile. As in vitro techniques fail, the human race faces inevitable extinction.
The fear of mass infertility has been a common sci-fi theme over the past few decades, including P. D. James’ novel The Children of Men, Margaret Atwoods’ The Handmaid’s Tale and the upcoming The Completionist by Siobhan Adcock. With The First Conception, author Nesly Clerge has written a worthy entry into the canon. But unlike Atwood, James or Adcock, the cause of infertility isn’t caused by an environmental disaster, but rather, by a powerful team of women who have had enough of male dominance and sexual abuse.
The book focuses on traumatized molecular biologist Dr. Katherine Eris Barnes, the child of a poor single mother with a dizzying array of abusive lovers. Clerge’s depiction of Barnes’ home life is remarkable for its psychological and physical brutality, but the result is a smart, imaginative revenge fantasy wrapped in a terrifying medical thriller. While Barnes cops to her plot to destroy humanity in the very first chapter, discovering how she does it – and why – is well worth the journey.
Blind Eye by Meg Lelvis
Following her razor-sharp debut novel, Bailey’s Law, author Meg Lelvis has resurrected detective Jack Bailey for another adventure on the mean streets of Chicago. When popular parochial teacher Sister Anne is found murdered along with two Bible verses – Psalm 27:10 and Isaiah 41:17 – Bailey suspects that it won’t be the last. Sure enough, another victim – and another verse – appears again in two weeks. And of course, Bailey rips off the perfect line: “The Bible thumper strikes again.”
The use of scripture in relation to criminal cases is a tried-and-true plot device, but when used by a writer like Lelvis, it never gets old. From the moment Bailey’s partner, Sherk, observes that the word “forsaken” is used in the first two verses, a world of analysis opens up. Did the nun somehow abandon one of her students? Was there abuse involved? Or was it just a red herring to throw the detectives off the trail?
While Lelvis lets us in on a key piece of the puzzle early on, that bold plot device allows her to fully flesh out her villain. But to her credit, she doesn’t show all her cards until the very end, making for a shocking conclusion that will keep readers white-knuckling the book until the bitter end. As a series author, Lelvis is only just hitting her stride. For now, here’s a toast to many happy returns for Jack and Sherk.
Caught in a Web by Joseph Lewis
When Milwaukee Detective Jamie Graff’s phone rings, he can tell by the early hour that he’s about to receive bad news. His hunch is right, as he hears that yet another kid has been found dead from an overdose of heroin and fentanyl. The local drug trade, controlled by MS-13, has claimed the lives of three high schoolers and one middle-school student. They won’t be the last.
Author Joseph Lewis has crafted an exceptionally timely crime novel about MS-13, aka Mara Salvatrucha, the international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The White House has a stated goal of eradicating MS-13, and more recently, reports surfaced that MS-13 groups were encouraging its recruits, largely teenagers, to kill policemen. That threat is palpable in Caught in a Web, as Graff, effectively drawn as a world-weary local crime-fighter, is joined in his effort to dismantle the gang threat by intrepid undercover sheriff Detective Pat O’Connor and his control, Paul Eiselmann.
Meanwhile, Ricardo Fuentes, an MS-13 member known as “The Blade,” is sent from Chicago to find out who is cutting in on their business. That’s only the beginning, however, as he is intent on finding and killing the 15-year-old that murdered his cousin. Using the incomprehensibly cruel and morally bankrupt Fuentes as a vehicle, Lewis holds little back as he demonstrates the extent of cultural decay at the hands of MS-13. The results are grisly – one scene with a 13-year-old is especially difficult to read – but extremely effective. Simultaneously, at Butler Middle School, Lewis creates a believable sense of how MS-13 threatens to destroy what is, in many ways, a normal educational existence. The result is a truly important novel in which readers will truly care about characters’ lives.
Restitution by Rose Edmunds
Rose Edmunds proves that her Crazy Amy series is only getting better with each installment.
Has a long-lost Picasso really resurfaced in Prague? That’s the hope of 84-year-old London resident George Smithies, whose father, a gallery owner, was allegedly tortured and killed by the Nazis in 1939. Having avoided his homeland since his escape to England as a boy, a newspaper photograph of the painting, found in a Czech apartment, has compelled him to consider it.
Enter 38-year-old Amy Robinson, a.k.a. As a newspaper report has it, Amy “will try to help George navigate his way through the minefield of Czech restitution law.” But as anyone who has devoured Rose Edmunds’ first two Crazy Amy series books might guess, that doesn’t come close to describing the extent of the personal and professional danger that awaits her.
Amy recently lost Zowie, the unborn child whom she named after the late great artist David Bowie’s son. Actually, “lost” isn’t quite the right word, since it’s quite possible that Amy’s drinking killed him. No matter. Amy steels herself, quite ready for the task that lies ahead. And thus is the genius of Edmunds’ recurring anti-hero. Amy is painfully, deeply flawed. And yet she is utterly brilliant, fearless and to George, indispensable. Once again, Amy’s inner mind chatter crackles with quotables throughout (favorite lines: “If Kafka hadn’t existed, what other word could adequately describe my experiences?” and “As a modern, professional woman, it was embarrassing to admit you’d been seduced by the idea of becoming a princess”) .
As Amy and George’s adventure takes them deeper into this labyrinthine quest –spoiler: there is actually a maze – their journey becomes one of mystery, mayhem and murder. But more importantly, each successive chapter brings us to increasingly close quarters with both characters’ quest for spiritual and physical survival. It’s a ride well worth taking. While Restitution is a fine entry point for any new reader, we highly recommend the entire trilogy.