Every June brings the tantalizing conundrum: what books to drip lemonade on this summer? At the start of the season, we imagine the weeks stretching languorously in front of us, and what could be better than to pass our days lounging at the beach, in the yard or at the pool with the perfect page-turner?
But what constitutes a great summer read? Every airport newsstand is teeming with generic potboilers and steamy tales of love lost and found. The real trick is scoring a book that engages your imagination just enough, but not so much that your brain's gears start to grind.
Over the next four weeks, Salon's staff will recommend a list of summer reads that won't make you feel cheap and empty. (Or maybe they will, in the best possible way.) In the coming weeks we'll spotlight a choice selection of mysteries, ch**k lit, fantasy, sports and memoirs.
This week's list is killer thrillers: the quest for a lost Shakespeare manuscript, the case of a missing girl's mysterious return, a dying man's search for the truth about his ex-wife, an Australian detective whose time off turns grisly, and the mystery of a tattooed corpse. We hope these add sizzle to your long, sultry summer.
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"The Book of Air and Shadows"
By Michael Gruber
"The Da Vinci Code" may not be a very good book, but it has whetted the public's appetite for literary thrillers, some of which, like Elizabeth Kostova's 2005 novel, "The Historian," actually manage to be genuinely literary. Add Michael Gruber's "The Book of Air and Shadows" to that list. It has car (and boat) chases, gunplay, femmes fatales, secret codes and Russian gangsters, not to mention the search for a long-lost manuscript by the greatest writer of all time. And it also has quirky, flawed characters, tricksy first-person narration, some knowing references to the cinematic nature of its own plot, and nimble, witty prose -- a dash of Nabokov and a dollop of Amis. For all the faux-learning that often festoons this genre, Gruber is the real deal, but you'll probably figure that out even before he name-checks the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski on Page 250.
Part of the story is told by Jake Mishkin, a Manhattan intellectual property attorney who, despite being "loaded" (his own term for it), is a mess. His job bores him and his compulsive womanizing has ruined his marriage. Although he claims to be no great shakes as a writer, his readers will instantly know otherwise from sentences like "Villains are just there, like rust, dull and almost chemical in the stupid simplicity of their greed or pride." When his best friend, a Shakespeare expert, refers a professorial colleague to his office and the man turns up petrified and babbling about discovering a 17th-century letter alluding to the hiding place of a previously unknown Shakespeare play about Mary Queen of Scots, Jake naturally dives right in. (It doesn't hurt that there's also a pretty woman involved.)
The other strand of the novel's complex plot concerns movie geek Albert Crosetti, son of a cop, living with his mother in Queens and trying to scrape together enough money from his job at a rare book dealer to pay for the tuition at NYU film school. His crush on a frosty co-worker involves him in the discovery of the manuscript -- the deathbed confession of a Jacobean spy who investigated Shakespeare and a sheaf of his encoded reports on the Bard. (Here Gruber's fictional plot meshes with the real ongoing debate over the possibility that the Bard was a closet Catholic.) The writings of the spy, Richard Bracegirdle, make for the book's third narrative strand, and while most contemporary novelists' attempts to simulate antique writing tend to be painfully lame, Gruber's Bracegirdle is so convincing I was tempted to Google the guy.
Little disquisitions on Shakespeare scholarship, bookbinding, cryptography and the deadly religious and political feuds of 17th-century England enrich "The Book of Air and Shadows" without weighing down the plot. And the minor characters in Gruber's novel (Jake's thug-turned-priest brother and his dissolute model sister; Crosetti's Irish mom and her boyfriend, a saturnine Polish immigrant) have more life in them than the leads in most thrillers. This is a top-drawer romp for bookish (and filmish) readers by a talented writer (with a backlist!) who might not have come to our attention otherwise, and for that alone, we owe Dan Brown a vote of thanks.
-- Laura Miller
"What the Dead Know"
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, $24.95
Two sisters, 11 and 15, vanish from a suburban Baltimore shopping mall in 1975. Thirty years later, a disoriented woman picked up on a hit-and-run charge claims to be Heather, one of the missing "Bethany girls," but refuses to say what she's been doing since she and her sister Sunny disappeared so long ago. She's damaged, erratic and manipulative, drawing a lawyer, a bookish social worker and a philandering cop into the toils of her personal drama. Is she really Heather Bethany? And if not, then who is she and what does she know about the lost girls?
That's the premise of Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know," a novel whose own snares are constituted of equal parts suspense, psychological realism and nostalgia. For crime fiction, "What the Dead Know" is daring; there isn't exactly a main character, and large parts of the narrative take place in the past -- they may or may not pertain to the identity of the woman Detective Kevin Infante insists on calling Jane Doe. The dark puzzle of what happened to Heather and Sunny is the steady pulse of the book, but along the way you may find yourself just as absorbed by the Bethany family's internal dynamics. The father, Dave, is a slightly sanctimonious counterculture control freak who listens to jazz on headphones, forbids the girls any white sugar and follows a meditation practice called "the Five-Fold Path." The mother, Miriam, is restless, unfaithful and capable of selling anything to anyone.
Lippman has also captured the treacherous politics of sisterhood. Despite being younger, the shrewd Heather ("11 going on 40," according to her mother) usually gets the better of naive, dreamy, awkward Sunny, especially when it comes to negotiating their father's many rules. Theirs is a world of Bonne Belle lip gloss, macramé and Jethro Tull albums; Lippman gets the flotsam and jetsam of mid-'70s girlhood just right. And the grown-up "Jane Doe" seems to remember it all so well herself -- from the Karmelkorn stand at the mall to the defunct department store since replaced by a J.C. Penney to the blue denim purse with rickrack trim that Heather dropped in the parking lot before she vanished. Yet there are troubling gaps in her story, things the real Heather ought to know.
Lippman's evocation of the Bethanys is so palpable that "What the Dead Know" carries a queasy charge; when characters feel this real, so do their sufferings, and the sickening horror of losing one's child to an unknown but probably ghastly fate saturates this book. You may sit up late to finish it, but not with the compulsive, lightweight ease inspired by most thrillers. That's a cost, I suppose, of reading crime fiction this believable, and in the case of "What the Dead Know," it's well worth paying.
-- Laura Miller
By Peter Abrahams
William Morrow, $24.95
In tales of suspense, almost nobody can be trusted. The best friend, the high-school sweetheart, the authority figures and institutions we're told to respect -- any one of these at any point can (and probably will) turn out to be unreliable, treacherous or downright diabolical. The only one you can really count on is the hero. He (or she), with allowances for minor flaws, will always be resourceful, intrepid and act out of a fundamental integrity. Peter Abrahams' manly protagonists don't really depart from that norm, but this author has hit upon an unusual twist: What his heroes can't trust is their own bodies.
In his 2005 novel, "Oblivion," Abrahams' hero is a hotshot private detective who has to re-create his own investigation halfway through the book when he suffers a stroke that wipes out selective parts of his memory. In his latest book, "Nerve Damage," Roy Valois, one of those sculptors who works in monumental scrap metal and lives in rugged isolation in small-town Vermont, learns that he's suffering from a fast-moving cancer linked to the summer he spent as a teenager demolishing an asbestos-stuffed building. An experimental drug trial offers some hope, but only the advent of mortality would prompt a man in his late 40s to hack into the New York Times' obituary database on a dare from an old friend, wondering if the Times will mention his big score in a college hockey game.
Roy discovers what he thinks is a minor error in the piece; his beloved and much-mourned late wife, Delia, worked for a think tank, not the U.N. But when the obit writer he complains to has trouble establishing the facts, and then turns up murdered, Roy starts looking into her past himself. Have the think tank and Delia's former boss simply evaporated from the face of the earth, or is Roy's memory muddled by the exotic chemicals being piped into his veins? It would be a lot easier to investigate if he wasn't falling asleep at odd moments or suddenly overcome by bouts of overwhelming weakness.
Roy's search for the truth about Delia is suspenseful, all right, though her secret is fairly routine by the standards of today's conspiracy fiction. What gives "Nerve Damage" its juice is the anxiety that arises from Roy's unaccustomed and unpredictable physical vulnerability. He's a man used to relying on his body -- its strength, coordination and stamina -- and perhaps his biggest challenge lies in recognizing that he can't rely on it any longer. After a lifetime of stoic independence, can he figure out how to ask for help? If the drug trial doesn't work, then time is fast running out in his quest to find out what really happened to Delia.
Roy's condition imbues the book's action sequences with an acute tension, but it also makes even an interstate road trip a source of potential peril. This sort of scenario invites authorial excess, but there's not a speck of self-indulgence or sentimentality to be found in "Nerve Damage," not even the boozy, bruised romanticism of noir. As ever, Abrahams' wiry, disciplined prose keeps the novel sharpened to a needle's point. That's something he can always be counted on to deliver.
-- Laura Miller
"The Broken Shore"
By Peter Temple
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25
It may be summertime in America, but it's winter down under. In Peter Temple's "The Broken Shore," big-city detective Joe Cashin returns to his hometown on the South Australian coast to recover from a run-in with a felon that nearly claimed his life. He busies himself by playing with his dogs, taking walks in the country, and restoring the house his grandfather ruined when he blew himself up on the premises. This could be a novel in itself, with Cashin confronting the skeletons -- literally -- in his closet. But when a local millionaire is brutally assaulted and the three aboriginal youths accused of the crime die in quick succession, he is pulled back into the sleuthing biz.
Cashin is a wounded man. He is greeted by twinges of pain every morning and interrupts meetings to lie on the floor and rest his back. For most of the book, we have no idea what happened to him: Temple expertly ekes out the details of the detective's life while keeping the book's central mystery in motion.
"Broken Shore" veers into Dan Brown territory when Cashin finds a body in the rafters of an abandoned theater, hanging in front of a biblical backdrop. And did he really just spear that bad guy, vampire style, with a crucifix? No matter. Temple -- author of eight crime novels, five of which have won Australia's Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction -- writes so beautifully that even the most ludicrous scenes can win you over. And his paeans to ordinary moments -- sunlight streaming through Cashin's windows, the joyfulness of his dogs -- lend "Broken Shore" a realism that makes its improbable plot pretty darn believable. So much so that sitting in a 93 degree un-air-conditioned apartment, I could feel a winter's chill.
-- Dipayan Gupta
"The Grave Tattoo"
By Val McDermid
St. Martin's Press/Minotaur, $24.95
Val McDermid is known for her hard-bitten, grisly crime novels -- a critic friend describes her "A Place of Execution" as one of the scariest books he's ever read -- but despite its ominous title, "The Grave Tattoo" isn't any such thing. Think of this book as a grown-up version of a Nancy Drew adventure, especially designed for English majors. McDermid's heroine, an intrepid but impoverished Ph.D. named Jane Gresham, is hot on the trail of her pet theory. She thinks that the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth knew the infamous seaman Fletcher Christian (leader of the mutiny on the Bounty). The idea isn't far-fetched: The two men grew up in England's Lake District, went to the same grammar school, and Christian's brother, a lawyer, represented the Wordsworth family in a lawsuit.
What's less plausible is the second part of Jane's theory, which ties into a long-standing Lake District legend that Christian wasn't really killed in a battle on Pitcairn Island, as is generally thought, but actually snuck back to England and hid out near his childhood home. Jane has discovered a vague reference to a suppressed document in a letter Wordsworth's widow wrote to one of their sons, and she's convinced the document is a poem describing the mutiny from Christian's perspective. It was destroyed or (she hopes) hidden in order to conceal the respectable poet's friendship with a notorious felon and fugitive from the law.
What Jane's academic friends call her "fantasy" gains some traction when an early 19th-century corpse turns up in a peat bog not far from her hometown. The chemicals in the bog can preserve flesh for years, and this body still has its skin -- complete with South Sea Island-style tattoos. Jane hies it home from London, where she lives in a bleak housing project and mentors Tenille, a 13-year-old black girl with a headful of dreadlocks and a precocious love of Romantic poetry. Several other players -- a sleazy ex-boyfriend, a gay pal and, eventually, Tenille herself -- follow suit. Everyone, including Jane's resentful, envious schoolteacher brother and a shadowy, possibly homicidal individual whose identity won't be revealed until the book's final pages, launches into a search for the lost manuscript.
Granted, there's not much Wordsworthian lore in "The Grave Tattoo," but then he wasn't a very colorful character, and to judge by McDermid's attempts to ventriloquize Fletcher Christian in some passages, historical verisimilitude isn't her forte. Moody Lake District scenery and the gossipy, provincial society of its long-term residents provide most of the novel's texture. The result is a sort of small-town free-for-all, with all the various sleuths rushing to be the first to sweet-talk this or that elderly local into handing over a half-forgotten cache of family papers. "A Grave Tattoo" is not so much gripping as beguiling, an amiable, old-fashioned detective yarn with enough modern touches to keep a reader on her toes and the perfect diversion for long, lazy afternoons on the porch.
-- Laura Miller