When You See Me by Lisa Gardner

Nobody pulls the blinds back on small-town America better than former Rhode Island resident Lisa Gardner, inevitably revealing a sordid center of moral decay. That proclivity is firmly on display in When You See Me (Dutton), a stunner of a tale that finds her at the top of her game.

Back driving the action are old friends Detective Sergeant D. D. Warren along with former crime victim turned avenger Flora Dane. The pair are drawn south from Boston to Niche, Georgia, where the discovery of human remains sets off the desperate search for a young woman who’s soon to become the killer’s next victim. The problem is that Niche lies alongside the kind of insular towns portrayed in In the Heat of the Night and Bad Day at Black Rock when it comes to keeping secrets.

The crackling prose is divided between first and third person, with a smattering of journal entries sprinkled in for good measure. Gardner, who won the Rhode Island Authors Legacy Award in 2018, has churned out another relentlessly riveting psychological thriller that never lets up and never lets us down.

Hunter Killer by Brad Taylor

Brad Taylor just keeps getting better, the ambition displayed in his latest, Hunter Killer (Morrow), was exceeded only by the execution (no pun intended!).

The ambition lies in the complex, shifting plot that sends Pike Logan and his stalwart TaskForce team to South America on the trail of Russian assassins who prove to be their equal at every turn. Logan knows a threat to the homeland is involved; he just doesn’t know how. Watching him match wits, as well as fists and bullets, with his Russian counterparts feels almost cathartic; it’s great fun, given that America’s uber-enemy has finally met its match.

The political complexities, together with a structure grounded in military realities, take Hunter Killer to a whole new level. In fact, Taylor here might well have christened a new genre in the form of the literary action thriller. Equal parts John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum and Vince Flynn, this is storytelling par excellence by an author who keeps upping his game.

House on Fire by Joseph Finder

Joseph Finder brings back his Nick Heller character after a brief hiatus to smashing (literally!) results in House on Fire (Dutton).

Channeling his inner Jack Reacher, this time out Heller agrees to assist a would-be whistleblower looking to come clean about the opioid debacle. This in the wake of an old army friend succumbing to an overdose. In true Reacher fashion, no one and nothing is safe from Heller’s two-fisted wrath. But this is a thriller where as much of the intrigue takes place within boardroom-type settings as otherwise, with Kimball Pharmaceuticals standing in for Purdue Pharma and others who’ve fueled the crisis Heller now wants to personally eradicate.

Packed with both brains and brawn, House on Fire is thriller writing at its very best, conjuring tomorrow’s headlines instead of ripping off today’s.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Gregg Hurwitz proves himself to be among the best, if not the best, action-thriller writers out there today with Into the Fire (Minotaur), his fifth in the Orphan X series.

This time out, Evan Smoak, aka “The Nowhere Man,” engages in a scavenger hunt-like quest that begins with a key passed on to hapless Max Merriweather by his murdered cousin. Smoak, in true “Equalizer” fashion, agrees to lend a hand, not quite realizing he’ll need to turn that hand into a fist when the truth behind the death of Merriweather’s cousin slowly becomes clear. Suffice it to say there is no shortage of fallen bodies, as Smoak races to erase a threat that promises to spill many more.

We watch him dispatch bad guy after bad guy in a frantic and frenzied fashion akin to Richard Stark’s (aka Donald Westlake) The Hunter, which was the basis for John Boorman’s classic film noir Point Blank. There’s plenty of noir to be found in Into the Fire but also just the right amount of red in the best action-thriller you will read in 2020.

Liars’ Legacy by Taylor Stevens
With Liars’ Legacy (Kensington), Taylor Stevens has fashioned a wildly energetic thriller that reminded me of the John Wick movies in all the right ways.

As with that film trilogy, assassins of all sorts take center stage led by twins Jack and Jill. In trying to avoid those hunting them, they’re seldom in the same place for more than a page, never mind a chapter. The beating heart of all this is the unwavering geo-political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, both of which are determined to utilize the twins’ deadly skills. Unsure of who they can trust, including each other, Jack and Jill race to stay alive long enough to save the day, as the body count climbs precipitously.

Stevens has outdone herself in the latest entry in a series that threatens to redefine the very nature of the thriller. The stunning visual depictions of the set pieces that dominate Liars’ Legacy are exceeded only by a pair of remarkable protagonists who take no prisoners, literally and figuratively.

The Wild One by Nick Petrie

Speaking of action, Nick Petrie once again proves himself to be a maestro, wielding his keyboard with all the deftness of a master conductor’s baton, in The Wild One (Putnam).

Once again rootless, PTSD suffered Peter Ash is at the center of the action, which becomes increasingly insular and personal as the plot unfolds. Heading to Iceland on the trail of a missing boy, Ash finds his efforts blocked at every turn. Does someone not want him or anyone else to find some elusive truth? That’s what awaits Ash in Iceland, along with a killer blizzard that considerably complicates his mission while leaving him no choice but to become the one-man wrecking crew readers have come to expect and love.

This seems to be the month for terrific action-thrillers and Petrie is on comfortable, familiar ground there. The Wild One is one wild ride that races along at breakneck speed toward a shattering conclusion.

The Rabbit Hunter by Lars Kepler

Lars Kepler’s The Rabbit Hunter (Knopf) is one of those rare grounded-in-reality thrillers that’s truly chilling — scary, even.

There’s a fiendish killer loose in Sweden who authorities have christened “the Rabbit Hunter.” To track him down and prevent more carnage, the government dispatches disgraced (and recently imprisoned) detective Joona Linna, whose obstinancy is exceeded only by his brilliance. Since the killings have a sharp political angle as well, he joins forces with intelligence agent Saga Bauer on a cross-continent search for the truth behind the evil that has ensnared the country.

Think a political thriller with Hannibal Lecter cast as the villain and you’ll get a notion of the difficult balance Kepler manages to pull off in a book cut from the cloth of the great Jeffery Deaver. A mesmerizing and scintillating success.

The Body Outside the Kremlin by James L. May

James L. May has fashioned the first sleeper hit of 2020 with The Body Outside the Kremlin (Delphinium), a rich, historical thriller with strong echoes of Martin Cruz Smith’s classic Gorky Park.

Set in 1926, May’s debut is centered almost entirely around the White Sea island prison of Solovetsky and follows young inmate Tolya Bogomolov’s enlistment to help the prison authorities investigate the murder of an inmate whose body is found in the icy waters surrounding the island. Bogomolov’s trail takes him even further into the past and secrets left over from the days where the current prison was a monastery.

The Body Outside the Kremlin features top-notch plotting but is distinguished even more by its brooding, neo-gothic tone exemplified by the claustrophobic confines that mirror the moral degradation of those who call the prison home. This is thriller writing of the highest order, a tale as ambitiously conceived as it is stunningly realized, and the best prison-set drama since Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. (Read BookTrib’s review of The Body Outside the Kremlin here.)