Simon sat on a bench in Central Park and felt his heart shatter.
So begins the brilliantly executed Run Away (Grand Central) which just might be the best book Harlan Coben has ever written. For such a master storyteller, that’s a high bar indeed but one Coben effortlessly crests by doing what he does best better than ever: going for the figurative jugular vein, while his characters go for literal ones.
Imagine watching a homeless person play music for pennies. Imagine it’s your long-lost daughter. That’s just the beginning of the dilemma facing the aforementioned Simon, which goes full bore thriller when Paige refuses his overtures and pleas to come home. That sets up an Odyssey-like quest by Simon to make his family whole again, not realizing it never really was to begin with.
That revelation comes courtesy of a never-ending series of twists and turns that have long defined Coben’s work. Run Away, though, features an effortlessness and fluidity that define everything great storytelling should be. A fantastic read and an early contender for the best thriller of 2019.
Reading Steve Berry is kind of like that occasional visit to your favorite restaurant: You know what you’re going to get but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. And, make no mistake about it, The Malta Exchange (Minotaur Books) is another typically savory mind snack that fully satisfies our hunger for terrific reading entertainment.
A true student of his story who’s become a master of utilizing passages of it to create relentlessly riveting adventures, Berry has outdone himself here thanks to the fiendishly clever use of a lost correspondence between Churchill and Mussolini as well as a potentially world-changing document that went lost fifteen centuries prior to that. It’s up to the stalwart Cotton Malone to sort through the morass amid a violent maelstrom at the hands of a secret sect of the Knights of Malta, played out in the shadow of a new pope about to be chosen.
The legendary David Morrell practically invented thrillers like this, and Berry has gone the master one better by once again finding within history a diamond in the rough he polishes to full-out brilliance.
Linda Fairstein didn’t invent the #MeToo movement, but she’s been so far ahead of the literary curve on sexual abuse and sex crimes in general that she might well have. And all the reasons for that are firmly on display in the blistering Blood Oath (Dutton) her broadest, most ambitious tale yet in the sterling Alexandra Cooper series.
This time out, Cooper, a thinly disguised literary doppelganger for Fairstein’s own background as a prosecutor, finds herself championing the cause of hapless ne’er-do-well Lucy Jenner who claims she was raped a decade before by someone of celebrity prominence. Pursuing that case is somehow interconnected with a vicious attack on a novice lawyer involving a sinisterly secret medical research facility.
The resulting taut complexity suits Blood Oath well. This is a masterpiece of form and function, featuring prescient societal commentary wrapped in the fabric of a thriller.
Look up the idiom “tried and true” in the literary dictionary and you’ll find a picture of C. J. Box, thanks to his superb Joe Pickett series. For proof look no further than Wolfpack (Putnam), in which Box tops even himself.
Like the early motor car’s appearance in classic “aging” Westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is forced to contend with the encroachment of technology into the frontier, this time in the form of drones. But that sub-plot also provides a window for Pickett, teamed this time out with female game warden Katelyn Hamm, into the apparent protected presence of a drug cartel on lands for which he’s the only law.
This nineteenth post-modern Western to present Pickett as a lawman cut from the classic cloth is a thriller of rare depth and emotion, featuring pitch-perfect plotting and characterizations every bit the equal of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry.
For proof that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, look no further than Dannemora (Kensington), Charles Gardner’s superb study of the much-covered prison break in upstate New York back in June of 2015.
Gardner, a former New York correctional administrator himself, knows of what he writes, and he writes both eloquently and in a riveting fashion that captures the events that both led up to the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat and its aftermath. Like Capote’s foils so romanticized in In Cold Blood, these were not nice guys. Unlike the killers in the Capote classic, they enjoyed an enabler in the form of prison employee Joyce Mitchell they alternately cajoled and seduced into doing their bidding. Gardner portrays her here as both victim and villain, shown alternately as sad and manipulative in her own right.
Indeed, in many ways, Dannemora reads like In Cold Blood for this generation. It’s that good as pure narrative storytelling, without even considering the blistering rebuke it delivers on contemporary mores or the lack thereof.
If you haven’t noticed lately, a rising trend in contemporary entertainment is having all manner of previously detached creatures of the night now walking among us. Christine Feehan may not have invented this pop culture gamechanger, but as displayed in the timely and terrific Toxic Game (Berkley), she’s pretty much mastered it.
Feehan’s latest plunges us back into the world of the GhostWalker Team led by Dr. Draden Freeman, this time battling an especially insidious virus capable of killing tens of millions. Infected himself while racing to stop the spread in the jungles of Indonesia, Freeman embarks on a one-man quest to track down the terrorists responsible, his efforts supplemented by a potential love interest gradually coming to grips with who, and what, he is.
Nobody balances the hybrid blend of the natural and supernatural better than Feehan. And, as a paranormal thriller, Toxic Game is every bit the equal of Robert R. McCammon, John Farris and even the occasional Stephen King at their level best.
This haunting, at times Southern gothic tale evokes memories of both To Kill a Mockingbird and last year’s terrific mystery The Storm King, as Sara Lennox dedicates to saving a pair of children from raging storms both figurative and literal. That quest blurs lines of morality and shades in tones of gray, instead of black and white as it evokes HBO’s True Detective at its level best.
The Liar’s Child reads like a cross between Pat Conroy and John Hart, emotive writing that packs a wallop to both the heart and the mind. Like David Morrell and James Lee Burke, Buckley is as polished a novelist as she is a thriller writer and her latest further blurs the line between them.
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