Here are four thrillers you won’t forget. The best crime books of fall 2020
Fall Crime Roundup
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Like everything else, book publishing has taken a hit from COVID-19. Many titles have been postponed or forced to compete with a dizzying array of emergencies (including the election). I choose to see the silver lining for crime fiction: the opportunity to dive into worlds where murder and confusion might reign but order is eventually restored.
It’s an exceptionally rich crop this fall, with excellent new entries in beloved series and, even more exciting, standalone books that push the form — debuts crackling with authenticity, lives we don’t normally read about and boundaries being broken in exhilarating ways. When they are written by women, like the curated selection below, mysteries risk being misfiled under domestic suspense. But what these outstanding novels do, across all subgenres, is delve into lives previously unseen — darkness and all.
‘Confessions on the 7:45'
By Lisa Unger
Park Row: 368 pages, $27.99
Lisa Unger is a well-established writer, and her attention to craft shows. Last year’s “The Stranger Inside” excelled at illuminating the stresses of motherhood, but all of Unger’s work is notable for its deft handling of creeping suspense, multiple points of view and rich psychology. “Confessions on the 7:45”, her 18th novel, is a highwire genre-bender, with debts to “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” but an intricate structure of domestic suspense all its own.
Just back in the workforce after years of caring for her young sons, Selena Murphy is reeling. Having hired the young Geneva to replace her as caregiver, she discovers via nanny cam that Genevahas taken up with Selena’s unemployed husband, Graham. On the commuter train, Selena happens to sit next to a stranger named Martha. When the train stalls, they break out the mini liquor bottles and the confessions begin to flow. Martha happens to be having an affair with her boss’ husband; Selena tells of Graham’s affair.
“Don’t you ever just wish your problems would take care of themselves?” Martha asks, before adding it would be great if her lover “just died ...” Selena, for her part, “understood for the first time in her life how people might kill each other — married people who once loved each other with passion and devotion, who once cried happy tears at the altar.”
Martha’s question sets in motion a series of revelations that relentlessly twist Selena’s and the reader’s understanding of the characters and their motives. The compromises and sacrifices of marriage and motherhood lie at the heart of this novel, making it one of Unger’s most intricate and nuanced — on par with the best top-flight psychological suspense.
‘The Girl in the Mirror’
By Rose Carlyle
William Morrow: 300 pages, $27.99
A law professor who has crewed on scientific yachting expeditions and sailed from Thailand to South Africa, New Zealander Rose Carlyle more than holds her own in fiction with this thrilling debut. Before you cringe at another “Girl”-titled tale, consider the intriguing premise: the twin Carmichael sisters, Summer and Iris, appear to be mirror images of each other, down to their slight facial asymmetries. Even their organs mirror each other, giving Iris a “misplaced” heart on her right side, an apt metaphor for her spiky personality and persistent envy of her sunshine and lollipops “twinnie.”
Iris’ father, Ridge, taught her early on that “Nice is dumb,” and he was certainly not nice. Rather than divide his $100-million estate among his seven children by three wives, the abrasive entrepreneur bequeathed it to his first legitimate grandchild whose parents would give it the Carmichael surname. Iris starts scheming at 18 to marry the first reasonable sperm donor who crosses her path, thus thwarting Summer and her much younger stepsisters. Only sweet Summer vows to marry for that nice-is-dumbest of reasons: love.
Fast forward nine years. Iris’ marriage in New Zealand has fallen apart while Summer is happily wed in Australia to a charismatic Seychellois man. Her new husband is wealthy enough on his own to buy the Carmichael yacht, Bathsheba, and sail it around the world with his wife and his son from his first marriage. A series of snafus strand him in Phuket, Thailand, while Iris joins Summer to sail together to the Seychelles. The ensuing misadventures are just the beginning of a journey filled with envy, greed and deception. Carlyle’s expert knowledge of sailing and vivid prose are on stunning display, while her research on twin psychology anchors the plot in reality. By the end, readers will realize they’ve been sailing a course both wildly unpredictable and expertly plotted.
‘A Question of Betrayal’
By Anne Perry
Ballantine: 284 pages, $28
For more than 40 years, Anne Perry’s fictional patch has been Victorian England, her detectives solving crimes across three series and two generations. But last year, with “Death in Focus,” she introduced a new heroine, Elena Standish, who — in pivotal 1933 — delivered a vital message in Berlin even as an affair with the traitorous Foreign Office agent Aiden Strother ruined her reputation and nascent career. Now, she’s asked to undertake her first official assignment for MI6, the secret service her grandfather Lucas once helmed. She must go to Trieste, Italy, under cover with a photo assignment and contact their agent, who has information about Austria’s fascists, and — if necessary — help him escape. To her shock, that contact is Strother, who appears to be a double agent still loyal to the crown.
Wracked with doubt, Elena nevertheless forges ahead. Meanwhile, her older sister Margot travels to Berlin to attend the wedding of a friend to an officer in the Gestapo. At the reception, she overhears talk of a right-wing group rising in Austria. In spite of their increasingly troublesome connections, the sisters’ unshakably noble convictions are what make “A Question of Betrayal” a page turner — and a resonant one today, when it’s easy to see how collective self-interest might hasten the slide into fascism. “People tend to believe what they need to,” Lucas tells a questioning Margot, “what will keep them safe and support all the things they love and want. We’re all like that. Somewhere inside ourselves we will fight to believe the world is as we thought.”
‘When No One is Watching’
By Alyssa Cole
William Morrow: 353 pages, $17
In what is technically her first thriller, Cole brings a wealth of experience writing historical, contemporary and sci-fi romance, novels distinguished by strong Black characters and meticulous accuracy. Those strengths are applied with devastating effect to the story of Gifford Place, a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by Black stalwarts locked in a war of attrition with gentrifying white newcomers lured by a Big Pharma opioid research center. Ominously framed by the stranger-than-fiction account of Brooklyn’s real-life 19th century slavery theme park, the novel moves through the perspectives of two characters on opposite sides of the battle.
Recently divorced Sydney Green has returned home from Seattle to care for her ailing mom, fight off yet another real estate agent’s “lucrative offer on your house” and develop a more racially inclusive historical tour of brownstone Brooklyn. Theo is one of the newcomers, a bearded hipster with a checkered past who bought the house across the street with his girlfriend, Kim, scion of a hell-a-rich lawyer. When Ponytail Lululemon, as Sydney derisively calls her, has a racist encounter in a Muslim-owned bodega reminiscent of Central Park’s recent “Karen” incident, the neighborhood erupts in arrests and vanishings that raise suspicions and stakes.
The mystery behind the sudden discord on Gifford Place unites Sydney and Theo on a quest to connect the dots between modern displacement and racist history. Theo wakes up to the neighborhood’s lessons: “When I think of a Black community, the first thing that comes to mind — even if I don’t want it to — is crime. Drugs. Gangs. Welfare. Not old people drinking tea. Not complex, self-sustaining financial systems that had to be created because racism means being left out to dry.”
“When No one is Watching” isn’t didactic, it’s chilling — “Get Out” for gentrification, with some romance in the mix. It’s everything a thriller can and should be in 2020.
Woods is a book critic, editor of anthologies and author of the Detective Charlotte Justice procedurals.
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