Summer reading: Killer thrillers

Salon recommends four addictive novels to add intrigue and treachery to your beach book list.

Published June 2, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

When the days grow long and hot, some readers reach for fizzy novels about sex and shopping, or warm-hearted accounts of potato peel societies and ya-ya sisterhoods. Not me. I want blood and murder, intrigue and treachery, dark secrets and paranoia. A good thriller is what keeps me devouring the pages through summer's sultry afternoons and long flights.

Yet despite the vast popularity of the genre, decent thrillers are hard to come by. Even a writer who's delivered the goods in the past (I'm looking at you, Carlos Ruiz Zafon!) can disappoint. Some of the worst specimens have hokey plots whose "twists" you can spot a mile away; others feature characters so flimsy and dialogue so clichéd they make your average Stephen Seagal movie look like Ingmar Bergman. Most are just plain dull -- and can there be anything more dispiriting than a thriller that fails to thrill? Yes, there can: the knowledge that said thrill-less thriller is the only book in your beach tote or carry-on bag.

To prevent just such a catastrophe, here are four novels of crime and adventure, recently published or scheduled for release later this summer, and cherry-picked from a field of lesser contenders. But consider yourself warned: Don't start any of these babies just before you plan to get a good night's sleep or take a dip in the pool. You may find yourself, much, much later, looking up as you turn the last page and wondering just where the summer has gone.

"Dark Places"

By Gillian Flynn

Libby Day has a bad attitude. She's surly, she's never held a steady job and she spends most days lying around in her crappy rental house in her crappy Kansas City neighborhood, glaring at her unfriendly neighbors. She refers to suicidal ideation as "a hobby of mine." Even her favorite aunt has stopped returning her calls. But as excuses for gloominess go, Libby has a doozy: Her mother and two sisters were massacred in the family's farmhouse when she was 7, and her teenage brother, Ben, went to jail for the crime. Since that horrible night, Libby has lived off charity and the proceeds of a grotesquely dishonest "inspirational" book titled "Brand New Day! Don't Just Survive Childhood Trauma -- Surpass It!"

By the time Gillian Flynn's sardonic, riveting "Dark Places" begins, however, the cash has run out. A desperate Libby agrees to speak to a "Kill Club," a convention of geeks obsessed with famous crimes. Naturally, she demands a hefty fee; she even brings along select items of Day family memorabilia, hoping to sell them to some creepy collectors. To her astonishment, at the meeting she's confronted by prison-house groupies convinced that her brother is innocent, women who blame Libby (and the therapists who coached her) for the testimony that convicted him. It's a possibility that Libby -- who has refused to examine her memories of that night for years -- has never seriously considered. Soon she learns that hardly anybody thinks Ben was really guilty of the killings.

"Dark Places" is part mystery, part chronicle of a young woman's emergence from a 27-year funk. Like Kate Atkinson ("When Will There Be Good News?"), Flynn has figured out how to fuse the believable characters, silken prose and complex moral vision of literary fiction to the structure of a crime story. Alternating with Libby's grumpy present-day account of reinvestigating the "Kinnakee Kansas Farmhouse Massacre" are chapters set during the day of the murders, told from the viewpoints of her mother, Patty, and Ben himself. Ben's in the throes of heavy-metal-fueled adolescent rebellion, while Patty struggles to save the family farm from a treacherous economy and her deadbeat ex. You can sense trouble coming like a storm moving over the prairie, but can't quite detect its shape.

There's something about the flatness of the Great Plains states and the difficulty of life in the lonely farmhouses there that makes the Days' murders seem even more stark and unfathomable; this is "In Cold Blood" country. That the secret to the killings lies not in hatred, madness or rage, but in love is Flynn's ingenious variation on the theme. In tough times, even the tenderest emotions can break us, but as Libby finds out, they can also put us back together again. (Available now)

"The Strain"

By Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

What's summer without a big, fat vampire novel? "The Strain," by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, doesn't have the Old World moodiness of Elizabeth Kostova's 2005 bestseller, "The Historian," but what it lacks in misty Carpathian landscapes and haunted libraries it makes up for in apocalyptic action and supersize portions of gore. "The Strain" isn't really the reinvention of the vampire yarn that its publisher claims, but that's OK; it's hard to imagine how anything genuinely original could be done with the genre at this point. Instead, "The Strain" is shamelessly, gleefully cheesy, like one of those sneakily potent cocktails that includes a dash of everything in the bar (and heavy on the grenadine).

Co-authors del Toro (director of the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth" and the "Hellboy" franchise) and Hogan (a mystery novelist) kick things off with a transatlantic flight landing at New York's JFK and going suddenly, totally dark -- a nod to Bram Stoker, whose "Dracula" featured an eerily depopulated sailing ship dropping anchor off England. Fearing terrorism, emergency response personnel approach the plane carefully, only to discover that everyone on board is dead. Well, almost everyone. Among the four survivors (none of whom remember anything about the landing) is an attorney who gets all four sprung from quarantine, over the protests of our prudent hero, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather of the Centers for Disease Control.

Of course, the survivors are infected, and soon the semi-supernatural vampire virus is spreading through New York City, abetted by a sinister billionaire financier whose name (Eldritch Palmer) is yet another nod -- this time to Philip K. Dick. The vampires themselves behave more or less like zombies, although their wherewithal is somewhat inconsistent; one tries to attack a victim through a car windshield because it apparently doesn't know about glass, while another manages to send a text message. Goodweather teams up with the obligatory elderly vamp expert (this time it's an Armenian holocaust survivor turned pawnbroker) and a delightfully saturnine Russian-American rat catcher in a desperate bid to stamp out the epidemic before it spreads beyond the city.

"The Strain" is part "The Andromeda Strain," part "Night of the Living Dead," and all B-movie, but despite its air of pastiche, it succeeds on the force of sheer enthusiasm. Del Toro and Hogan aren't afraid to use lines like, "Everett, this is bigger than you can know!" -- and their affection for the genre's clichés, along with their brisk delivery of suspense and thrills, makes even the hoariest chestnuts seem like old friends.

The only really discordant note is Goodweather himself, a blatant authorial avatar embroiled in a child custody battle with an ex-wife who was too small-minded to accept her proper role as Helpmeet to Genius. Since "The Strain" is the first book in a projected trilogy, I'd like to take this moment to have a word with Messrs. del Toro and Hogan: Gentlemen, I won't speculate about whose divorce-settlement baggage found its way into "The Strain," but in the future, leave the score settling with your ex and her toolish new boyfriend at home. We don't want that in our vampire novel! When it comes to blood sports, please stick to the strictly fictional kind. (June)


By George Dawes Green

Chance is a cruel god and luck cuts both ways in the Southern strip-mall milieu where George Dawes Green's "Ravens" takes place. The Boatwright family of Brunswick, Ga. -- churchgoing Mitch, his boozy wife, Patsy, their striving, community college student daughter, Tara, and her kid brother, Jase -- are no sooner blessed by a $318 million lottery jackpot than they draw the attention of two losers passing through town. One, Shaw, is a charismatic sociopath and the other, Romeo, is Shaw's devoted, if intermittently ambivalent, Igor. In no time, the Boatwrights' phenomenal good fortune morphs into calamity.

With a combination of ghastly threats and mesmerizing persuasion, Shaw worms his way into the Boatwrights' home and alternately cows and seduces them into presenting him as a co-owner of the winning ticket. Romeo plays enforcer, prowling the streets and poised to slaughter their friends and relatives if they rebel. Then, carried away at a press conference, Shaw suddenly proclaims his intention to give his share to charity. This attracts a come-to-Jesus following, some of whom believe that he has the power to heal. In no time, Shaw begins to subscribe to his own charade, convinced that he plans to "bring great beauty into the world" in "this great adventure" he's sharing with the Boatwrights.

What makes "Ravens" remarkable is how monstrous Shaw can be without ever becoming an absolute monster; he's a volatile mixture of megalomania, petulant rage and pathetic longing, dreaming of a respectable marriage to Tara, as if he'd never threatened to shoot her in front of her beloved grandmother. Romeo's much the same, softhearted enough to want to give his roadkill a decent burial ("I was just trying to do right by this animal") yet determined to fulfill his loyalty to Shaw even if it means cutting down innocents in cold blood.

The novel's suspense hinges on this precarious dynamic; any little thing -- a slight, a smile, a flash of memory -- might tip Shaw or Romeo one way or the other, toward savagery or sympathy. This instability also makes the book surprisingly, if darkly, funny. Green's juicy supporting characters contribute a lot of the humor, from the aging, hangdog deputy who's shrewd enough to smell a rat, to the appalling Patsy, who takes a break from being terrorized by Shaw to check the going prices for Malibu beach houses and fantasize about sipping tea with Nancy Reagan.

Green writes like Ruth Rendell with a generous injection of Elmore Leonard, but he also waxes philosophical. "Every great idea is enforced by a great terror," Shaw tells Romeo, as he acquires more and more of the mannerisms of a tent-revival preacher. "That's how good comes into the world -- with a dark escort." He has a point: How much clout would God wield without the Devil behind him, playing the heavy? The fate of the Boatwrights hangs on the possibility that Romeo's evil will turn out to be as fraudulent as Shaw's holiness. A long shot, perhaps, but Green keeps the family's unstable luck in play until the very end. (July)

"The Girl Who Played With Fire"

By Stieg Larsson

Lisabeth Salander, a ninja-hacker-urchin punkette with an implacable and somewhat inhuman sense of justice, was more of a supporting character in the international bestseller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," than the novel's title might lead you to suppose. "Dragon Tattoo" was the first of three long, detailed crime novels written by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, who died of a heart attack at age 50; all three books have been published posthumously in Sweden, with the English translation of the second, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," coming out this July. The second novel shifts the focus away from middle-aged investigative journalist Mikel Bloomkvist to dig deeper into Salander's past, explaining how she became the extraordinary creature she is.

But Salander is only the most obvious attraction in Larsson's addictive fiction. His secret weapon is his straightforward, methodical, even expository style, most likely an adaptation from his nonfiction feature writing. It's the very absence of the usual flashy, fast-paced, movie-inspired tricks that hooks you in. When Salander, rocking a bogus identity, sets about furnishing a new apartment, Larsson meticulously lists everything she buys right down to the new mop, naming each item ordered from Ikea. Then he tells you how much she spent. By conventional rules, this level of detail ought to be tedious, but instead it makes the novel feel reported, as if it were the world's greatest true-crime narrative.

The story this time around hinges on an exposé of sex trafficking about to run in Bloomkvist's magazine. The freelancer working on the piece turns up murdered, as does Salander's nasty legal guardian. (She's been declared mentally incompetent, for reasons that only become clear later.) Forensic evidence points to Salander as the killer, which Bloomkvist, naturally, refuses to believe. She goes on the lam and he tries to clear her name, fighting a state bureaucracy whose doctors, lawyers and case managers have mislabeled the brilliant Salander as (in the words of one cop) a "psycho bitch." It also doesn't help that, to judge by Larsson's fiction, Sweden is crawling with misogynistic bullies. Unfortunately for the villains, they have picked the wrong victim, and the unflappable Salander proceeds to infiltrate networks, office buildings and personal computers, wreaking her terrible vengeance according to her own peculiar code.

Although "The Girl Who Played With Fire" lacks the melancholy island setting of "Dragon Tattoo," and Stockholm is a less atmospheric replacement, the Swedishness that made the first novel so beguiling remains. It's in the characters' uneasiness with their overmanaged lives, their awareness of the danger that lies in permitting your identity to be dictated by a state that doesn't always live up to its vaunted ideals. That's what makes Salander, for all her oddity and surliness, so engaging: An antisocial democrat, she refuses to comply. She's the imp that lurks in every machine. (August)

By Laura Miller

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

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