Genre aside, the coda of any Stephen King book is an impossible-to-put-down story populated by richly drawn characters and a hero you can root for. Well, professional assassin Billy Summers has a code, too, one that will be tested to the hilt in the novel that bears his name, Billy Summers (Scribner).

This thriller falls under “the one last ride” category, with Billy planning on riding off into the sunset once he pockets a cool $2 million for his latest kill for the mob and nineteenth overall. Billy, a former Marine sniper, only kills bad guys, and his would-be victim this time more than fits that bill. What could go wrong? Well, without bothering with a spoiler alert, I can say plenty and that the body count won’t stop at one.

King’s been at this for so long; it’s easy to take him for granted. But there are extraordinarily few writers whose feats, talents and tales span generations, never mind years or decades. And he’s every bit as good, albeit not quite as raw, as he was nearly fifty years ago. Billy Summers may represent kind of a departure for the master, but this slam-bang, perfectly executed tale hits the bulls-eye dead center. Just like Billy himself.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Speaking of mega-selling authors breaking new ground, Sandra Brown is back with Blind Tiger (Grand Central), her career masterwork and a genuine masterpiece that’s rich in detail woven into a sprawling tapestry. 

This period piece, set in 1920 amid Prohibition, features World War I vet Thatcher Hutton who just wants to get back to his roots busting broncos. Unfortunately, though, fate has other ideas. He’s anything but welcome in the small town of Foley, TX, where he crosses paths with would-be moonshiner Laurel Plummer. Hutton is the classic reluctant hero mixing it up with Plummer’s wronged woman, finding himself on both sides of the law. 

Written in a style akin to James Lee Burke’s Holland Family Saga, it may sound strange to call an author of Brown’s repute 70th or so book groundbreaking, but that’s exactly the case here. Blind Tiger is an exquisite exercise in storytelling that’s as close to perfect as a book can get.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Decades from now, when discussions are held about this generation’s Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the name most mentioned will undoubtedly be Aloysius Pendergast. The reasons for that are all on clear display in the brilliantly conceived Bloodless (Grand Central), Pendergast’s 21st adventure brought to us by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

His latest case, involving bodies drained of every drop of blood, challenges even Pendergast’s most formidable detective skills. Before you can say “Dracula,” vampire rumors are running rampant through Savannah, GA. But Pendergast and his semi-partner Armstrong Coldmoon turn their attention toward, of all things, the unsolved robbery and then disappearance of D. B. Cooper fifty years ago.

In lesser hands, such a setup would have collapsed under its own melodramatic weight. But Preston and Child, expertly straddling the line between reality and the paranormal, have fashioned a neo-gothic masterpiece.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 The television show Bones may be gone, but Temperance Brennan is back and better than ever in the bracing The Bone Code (Scribner) from Kathy Reichs who has never been better, either.

The 20th entry in the series finds both Reichs and her forensics doppelganger hitting on a classic mystery-thriller trope: connected deadly events separated by a lengthy period of time, fifteen years in this case. The setup is pure gold: The aftermath of a violent Atlantic tropical storm washes up on the South Carolina coast a medical waste container containing two likely murder victims that bear an unlikely connection to one of Brennan’s old cases. And getting to the bottom of things means unearthing the secret that links them.

Reading Temperance Brennan is like visiting an old friend who never lets you down, and neither does Kathy Reichs. This is a forensic thriller extraordinaire, as timely as it is terrific. (Read BookTrib’s review here.)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 James Rollins, king of the modern-day adventure novel, and his stalwart Sigma Force team is back in Kingdom of Bones (William Morrow). Rollins, no stranger to beautifully executed concepts that test the bonds of our imaginations, tests his own limits here.

Something very strange is happening in the Congo with dire ramifications for all of us. While human beings of all ages become virtual living zombies, plants and animals enter a kind of hyper-evolution, upending the food chain as well as nature’s pecking order. It’s left to Gray Pierce and company to determine the cause before we’re left facing a true new world order. But what if they can’t? What if there’s something lurking in the Congo that’s the precursor to an evolutionary paradigm shift of deadly proportions?

Indeed, nobody answers the question “What if?” with more sophistication and aplomb than James Rollins. With the death of Clive Cussler, it’s safe to pronounce him the king of the speculative thriller and the best pure storyteller writing today.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Catherine Coulter, the reputed queen of the FBI thriller, is back with Vortex (William Morrow), another in her fabulously successful Sherlock and Savage series.

This entry, though, features higher stakes and a broader tapestry than usual. That tapestry starts with the efforts of young journalist Mia Briscoe to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of her best friend back in college. Somehow, the events that night at a party are connected to CIA agent Olivia Hildebrandt’s efforts to get an operative, whose cover was blown, out of Iraq. Forces seem equally determined to stop both in their tracks for reasons it’s left to our stalwart FBI agents to figure out.

Coulter is always good but in Vortex she uses her considerable talents to spin a complex tale of escalating stakes in a full-bore thriller that is not to be missed.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Riley Sager’s scintillating Survive the Night (Dutton) reads like Die Hard in a car. But that snippet doesn’t do the book the justice it deserves for its bracing originality and daring structure.

Not only is this a period piece set back in 1991, it takes place in a brief, unbroken stretch of time, which risks trading conflict for claustrophobia. The setup is mundane enough on the surface with college coed Charlie Jordan joining classmate Josh Baxter on a rideshare back to their mutual home state of Ohio. Charlie’s been struggling since her best friend was murdered by a serial murderer known as the Campus Killer. As the minutes and miles mount, though, she begins to suspect she’s sharing a car with that very monster.

This Hitchcockian set piece, a la the master’s Rope, makes for a splendid exercise in psychological terror with Charlie’s own narration taking us along for the ride (okay, pun intended!). Brown University’s legendary novelist professor Jack Hawkes rode a similar motif to literary stardom with Travesty, but Sager’s mastery of pacing and suspense makes Survive the Night a book you’ll be reading well past midnight. (Read BookTrib’s review here.)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 W. Michael Gear is best known for his expert tales on all things historical. It’s kind of Michael’s, and wife Kathy’s, niche, which makes it perfectly appropriate that Gear opts instead to imagine a kind of future history in the dystopian Dissolution (Wolfpack Publishing).

Imagine a group of archaeology grad students on a field trip to the wilds of Wyoming. Imagine them stranded there when a far-reaching cyberattack destroys America’s banking and financial system. Imagine being trapped in the wilderness when the world comes to a complete standstill. That’s the plight facing unlikely hero Sam Delgado and his college cohorts on what is essentially a quest story, an odyssey that would make Homer himself proud, as they fight for both survival and normalcy.

Reading like a post-modern update on John Milius’ jingoistic fable Red Dawn, Dissolution is The Walking Dead without the Dead, which is fine because the living, it turns out, can be just as bad. In breaking new ground with this wildly imaginative, brilliantly conceived, and terrifyingly on-point stunner of a tale, Gear has proven himself a master of all trades.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop