Summer reads

Killer thrillers: From an art-world conspiracy to a campus murder to the gripping tale of a missing child, these recommendations will add suspense to your beach book list.

Published May 26, 2008 11:31AM (EDT)

Memorial Day brings the promise of summer: languorous days spent lounging at the beach or by the air conditioner with the perfect page-turner. A mesmerizing potboiler, a heady historic tome, a gripping memoir -- you want a book that transports you to exotic places without making you go through airport security. You want something you can really sink your teeth into, but that won't leave you feeling overstuffed. In the coming weeks, Salon's staff will recommend a selection of summer reads -- mysteries, chick lit, memoirs and fiction with a historical twist.

This week's focus is thrillers: a suburban family is menaced by shady secrets and unexpected dangers; an art forger gets sucked into a bizarre conspiracy; a Stalin-era communist apparatchik seeks to redeem himself by uncovering a crime; an enigmatic college professor asks his class to unravel a hypothetical (or is it?) murder; and a divorcee becomes a mother-avenger as she searches for her missing teenage daughter.

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"Hold Tight"
By Harlan Coben

Like the hit men he portrays with such relish, Harlan Coben collects his contract and goes about his business with a minimum of fuss -- and he gets the job done every time. Not that he earns much love from the critical intelligentsia, but for his millions of acolytes, the effect of reading a Coben book is to resent anything that stops you from completing it. Had a rough day, honey? Tough shit. You want me to eat dinner? I'm on a diet. Kids killing each other? Call me when someone's bleeding.

And indeed, someone is always bleeding in Harlan Coben land, a white upper-middle-class suburban enclave menaced by the World Without. Coben's particular suspense turf is the imperiled family, and the clan that lies at the center of "Hold Tight" has more than its share of trouble -- though the full extent of it doesn't become clear until Mike and Tia Baye install spy software on their son's computer. Adam is a 16-year-old goth with the expected attitude and some unexpected secrets, as his parents learn when they find an instant message advising him to "just stay quiet and all safe."

"What would Adam need to stay quiet about in order to be safe?" his mother wonders, but Adam doesn't stick around long enough to answer, and in the course of tracking him down, his parents learn that he's mixed up in the suicide of his best friend, Spencer, and in the shady doings of a teen-oriented club in the Bronx that may be offering a bit more than alcohol-free entertainment. And the Bayes aren't the only ones having a bad week. Their next-door neighbor has just learned that her dying son was fathered by someone other than her husband, and a psychopathic killer named Nash is, for mysterious reasons, dragging suburban moms into his van and pulverizing them.

Kidnapping, rape, Internet cabals, kids with drugs, kids with guns: Coben's work might be accused of playing too ardently on the fears of the soccer-mom demographic, but he gives his families enough gumption to fight through their various terrors and enough layers to make you care about whether or not they end up in someone's nasty white van with tinted windows. And if "Hold Tight" is forced to fall back on coincidence to tie up its loose threads, it nevertheless gives readers all the assets we've come to expect from Coben: killer pace, stripped-down prose that never overreaches itself, and a conservative and abiding belief in the family structure, even -- make that especially -- at its most fragile. Formula this may be, but nobody cooks up the ingredients better. -- Louis Bayard

"The Forgery of Venus"
By Michael Gruber"

Absorbing suspense, well garnished with history and a dollop of high culture -- so many "literary thrillers" promise just that, setting their contemporary characters hot on the trail of an antique mystery, name-checking the geniuses of the past as they go. Most of these books, however, seem to be written by people who know as much about, say, Leonardo da Vinci as can be skimmed from a dog-eared copy of "Fodor's Guide to Italy." Then there's Michael Gruber, the master of the game, a pop Nabokov whose sterling prose, unreliable narrators and Möbius Strip plot devices bump the genre into previously unexplored territory. His 2007 bestseller, "The Book of Air and Shadows," followed a lubricious attorney's search for a long-lost Shakespeare play. His latest novel, "The Forgery of Venus," is narrated by a conflicted painter who fabricates (or perhaps re-creates) one of several now-lost nudes that the Spanish painter Velásquez is believed to have produced in Rome in 1650.

Gruber's choice is astute; though not as familiar to the masses as Rembrandt or Michelangelo, Velásquez is generally considered by other painters to be the greatest of the old masters. Gruber has a real understanding of painting, that witchery of chemistry and technique that conjures the luster of flesh, fur and satin out of calcite and iron oxide; at moments, the novel is almost fragrant with turpentine and linseed oil.

His narrator, Chaz Wilmot, the embittered son of a successful but hopelessly compromised Norman Rockwell type, dithers away his own talent until he comes to the attention of some rich, powerful and shadowy individuals. They have noted his uncanny ability to imitate the great painters of the past with a keen and mercenary interest. Chaz's knack for artistic mimicry is further honed when he participates in a bizarre study on the effects of a drug called salvinorin A on creativity. The drug, known for stimulating hyper-vivid memories in those who take it, causes Chaz to relive not only his own past, but someone else's, too. And that someone else appears to be Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velásquez.

Chaz is a mess, a cynical wisecracker and a screw-up who has allowed his disillusionment with the contemporary art world to corrode his soul. "Our icons are blank," he complains to a friend, "and the only religion we see in the galleries is irony. I can do irony fine, but it makes me sick." He's not likable in any conventional sense, certainly not idealized in the usual fashion of pop-fictional heroes, but he's completely believable. His struggle to find an honorable use for his own gifts becomes as gripping as the bizarre, possibly delusional conspiracy he gets caught up in.

Pervading the novel, as luminous, complex and elusive as Velásquez's rendering of the pope's white lace robes ("white is never white, only fools paint it so with actual white paint"), is the dream of art itself. It is, as one of the characters assures Chaz (paraphrasing Marcel Duchamp), "that which cannot be explained," a mystery it takes a lifetime to solve. -- Laura Miller

"Child 44"
By Tom Rob Smith

The heroes of most thrillers are damaged men with tragic pasts; they tend to feel guilty about a dead wife or estranged child, or they chew themselves up inside over some doomed innocent they failed to protect. These aren't bad guys, however -- quite the opposite. They are knights in slightly tarnished armor, over-committed to the job and way too hard on themselves, but ultimately on the side of right and good -- yadda, yadda, yadda.

Leo Demidov, the protagonist of Tom Rob Smith's flinty, Stalin-era detective thriller, "Child 44," starts out guilty, really guilty. A war hero and loyal Communist Party apparatchik, he is an officer of the MGB (precursor to the KGB), and in the first few chapters of the novel, we learn that he has been complicit in more crimes against humanity than the best detectives ever get the chance to solve. All the machinery of the paranoid, dehumanizing totalitarian state -- arrests, interrogations, denunciations, executions -- is in full gear at the beginning of "Child 44" (although things stutter a bit when Stalin dies midway through the novel) and Leo's job is to provide people to be ground up by it. His victims are "ideological criminals"; as for actual crime, that's supposed to be extinct in the perfected communist state. Anyone who suggests otherwise qualifies as an ideological criminal.

Thanks to his role in the persecution of a man who even he comes to see must be innocent, Leo has an inkling of his own culpability before the system inevitably turns on him and his wife, Raisa. The couple survives, barely, and Leo gets reassigned to an obscure rural police force where one of his past misdeeds catches up with him. The gruesome murder of a local girl reminds him of rumors about the death of a child back in Moscow -- rumors that Leo was ordered to shut down, since a child-targeting serial killer is the sort of monster who can only be produced by the decadent West.

Although the conclusion of "Child 44" is a bit outlandish, Smith otherwise handles this story (based on a notorious real-life case) with a grounded, muscular realism and some truly riveting action scenes. Unlike Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko, who solves crime in a Soviet Union that is already beginning to crumble from within, Leo must pursue his investigation near the peak of "1984"-style oppression and double-think. Unsympathetic superiors are a convention of the genre, but Leo has it exponentially worse than Dirty Harry, et al.: His bosses will destroy him for even suggesting that this crime is possible. His illusions pulverized, his wife finally free to announce that she married him out of fear instead of love, Leo sees catching the murderer as his last shot at redemption -- literally. He knows he won't survive the solving of it, and that the authorities can't be trusted to dispense justice. Bleak as it is, the help Leo receives from an unexpected quarter provides a morsel of balm in what's otherwise an almost unbearably relentless thriller. -- L.M.

By Will Lavender

Two signs that Winchester University is bit stranger than the average Midwestern college: At least one student is perpetually reading "City of Glass," Paul Auster's exercise in metaphysical noir, and the campus sports a statue of Stanley Milgram, who conducted that famous experiment demonstrating the average individual's willingness to subject others to painful electric shocks if ordered to do so by an authority figure. Like every college, Winchester has its share of creepily intense student-professor dynamics, whether played out as illicit affairs, harassment complaints or the formation of fanatical cliques of intellectual followers. But at this school, the fervor is ratcheted up a few more notches.

In "Obedience," Will Lavender's suspense novel set at the fictional Winchester University, the professor in question is charismatic, mysterious and rather scary. His name is Leonard Williams (or is it?) and he teaches a course called Logic and Reasoning 204, in which the sole assignment is to solve a mystery. "There's been a murder," he announces on the first day of class, or rather "a murder that may happen in the future." A teenage girl is missing. Who took her, and why? He gives his class a few shreds of evidence. That night, the students receive cryptic e-mails containing possibly staged photographs. Attempts to track down more information about the pictures result in reprimands from shadowy campus officials. Three of the students -- a big man on campus, the studious girlfriend he dumped the year before and an emotionally fragile boy mourning his brother's suicide -- begin to wonder just how "hypothetical" professor Williams' little thought experiment really is.

It must be said that "Obedience" is not one of those intricate, Swiss-clock thrillers in which every piece of the plot clicks smoothly into place and it all adds up perfectly in the end. While it may not be as enigmatic as Auster's novels or David Lynch's films, it shares their preference for atmospheric menace over strict logic. Halfway through, you may find yourself wondering how Lavender can possibly account for every twist in this metastasizing collection of ominous developments; he can't ... or at least, not entirely. But all of the elements are so striking -- especially the recurring figure of a disturbing girl who keeps turning her head away, hiding her face -- that you're tempted to just go with it, and you should succumb to that temptation.

This is the sort of story in which a character, while retrieving her sweater from a cloakroom, is slipped a note reading, "None of this is real. I AM NOT HIS WIFE." A library's copy of a true crime book is revealed to contain nothing but blank pages. A roadside lounge, replete with weather-beaten poker players and a chatty bartender on one afternoon, is, when visited the next day, completely emptied of people and furniture. Plausible? Perhaps not. But "Obedience" is nevertheless a full course-load of sinister fun. -- LM

"Losing You"
By Nicci French

I admit it. The whole time I was reading "Losing You," the thriller by husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, I was busy casting the movie version. I have no idea if the film rights have even been sold, but if they have, the producers had better choose an actress ballsy enough to play the book's heroine. If they don't, they'll have to answer to me and a goodly number of Gerrard fans, and I'm here to say it won't be pretty.

Not that there's anything exceptional about Nina Landry at first glance. She's a divorcee, just turned 40, still struggling to stay civil with her ex and living for the time being on a remote island 60 miles east of London. (It was her ex's idea to move there.) Christmas is less than a week away, and she's about to take her two kids on a vacation to Florida with her new boyfriend. The tension is high, the packing isn't finished, the car won't work and Nina's 15-year-old daughter, Charlie, has had the bad timing to throw her mother a surprise birthday party -- a party Charlie hasn't even bothered to attend. Now there's only a few hours before the flight, and Charlie still hasn't shown up and wait till I get my hands on that girl! Only it seems someone else may have had the same idea, because Charlie never comes home. And as disquiet gives way to blazing panic, Nina becomes a mother-avenger, chasing down every clue, shaking every tree, disdaining and finally ignoring the dim-bulb local constables who've been assigned to the case. There's nobody she won't piss off and nothing, finally, she won't do to find out what's happened.

"Losing You" plays out over what feels like real time -- from roughly 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening -- and although it builds slowly, it never once slackens. At the same time, it never forsakes the need for texture. The complex particulars of Nina's and Charlie's relationship are convincingly evoked, and the authors make shrewd use of their locale: the fictional Sandling Island, a place like "the edge of the world" -- all foghorns and moaning winds and shrieking gulls -- where Nina can "scarcely bear the sense of solitude that engulfed me" and where people can live and die without a trace.

What gives "Losing You" its chief distinction, though, is its unusually emotive color and its flinty protagonist, who, like any mother, understands that no one can possibly care as much about her child as she does. Nina is the parent we'd all like to be under duress, and I find I've become nearly as protective of her as she is of her daughter. A friendly warning, then, to any producer thinking of committing her story to film: Kate Winslet or nobody. -- L.B.

What are your reading recommendations for this summer? Discuss them here!

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

By Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

MORE FROM Louis Bayard

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