The Perfect Spy Novel

Need to Know

 

 

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (Ballantine Books, January 2018) is the perfect spy novel, told from the POV of Vivian Miller, an American CIA counter-intelligence analyst, who has just discovered her husband, the father of her four children, is an embedded Russian spy.

Has Matt been manipulating her since they met? Is their ten-year marriage a lie? When she confronts him, he admits being a spy but claims he truly loves her and the kids, has never passed anything she’s told him on to the Russians, and he urges her to turn him in.

Viv knows she should turn Matt in, send him to prison for life. But she also knows she needs him to help her take care of their children, needs his income to pay the bills; worries she’ll lose her security clearance if her boss learns she was married to a spy; and doesn’t want to live without the man she loves by her side.

The conflict is real, the tension palpable. The stakes continue to grow as Viv makes one bad decision, then another. She becomes a traitor to her country, deleting Matt’s picture from the computers at the CIA, and plays into Russian hands. They own her. If she doesn’t do what they ask, they will reveal what she has done and she’ll go to prison along with Matt.

When she refuses to insert a flash drive that will give Russia access to CIA computers, Russian spymaster Yury threatens Vivian’s children. Viv feels trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Is there no way out of the hole she’s dug herself into?

Vivian and Matt are complex characters readers can identify with, juggling personal lives with professional responsibilities. Which is more important: allegiance to spouse and children or allegiance to one’s country? Which vows take precedence: the marriage vows or the vows to protect classified information?

Impossible to put down, Need to Know is masterfully written. I recommend it highly.

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Fascinating First Novel

 

 

41n2K6oThw Vanishing Season

 

Abigail Ellery Hathaway is a survivor. She’s also a Woodbury, Massachusetts, police officer with secrets. In The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen (Minotaur/St Martin’s Press, December 2017), everyone has secrets. But not everyone is a survivor.

This is the story that won the MWA First Novel competition, and it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t read like a first novel. The characters are fully developed, the plot twists are foreshadowed but practically invisible, and the only speed bump in this mile-a-minute thrill ride is a lovable dog named Speed Bump.

Reed Markham is the disgraced FBI profiler who once rescued 14-year-old Abigail from certain death at the hands of a serial killer. Although Markham literally wrote the book on child abduction by serial murderers, one of his secrets is his wife really helped him write that book. Now she’s divorcing him, he’s fighting a possible addiction to alcohol, the FBI suspended him for making a mistake that cost a girl her life, and he’s not the hero everyone thinks he is.

When Abby grew up, she moved from Chicago to Boston, changed her name to Ellery (a tip of the hat to Ellery Queen?), became a cop, and moved to Woodbury where she thinks no one knows her past. Although Abby/Ellie hides her scars from prying eyes, she’s sure someone stalks her who has somehow discovered her identity.

Every year for the past three, a Woodbury resident disappears on Abby’s birthday. Every year, for the past three, Ellie receives a mysterious birthday card. Is it a coincidence?

With her birthday nigh and  Ellie still can’t convince Chief Sam Parker or Detective Jimmy Tipton there’s a serial killer loose in Woodbury, she goes over their heads and asks Reed Markham for help.

Everyone becomes suspect as  body parts and secrets are revealed. Was Abby so traumatized as a child that she’s now a killer herself? Is philandering Chief Parker so infatuated with Ellie that he’s stalking her? Is bumbling detective Tipton covering up his own crimes? Inquiring minds want to know.

Well-written and riveting, The Vanishing Season is a fascinating first novel by a writer to watch.

 

The Best Frame Story I’ve Read

The New Neighbors review

 

 

The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic (Berkley, April 2018) isn’t a ghost story. It is a lot like a ghost story, though, because main characters are haunted by skeletons in their own closets.

And it’s like a haunted house tale, because there are strange things in their new house that go bump in the night. There’s also a dead cat in the attic, for example, and a child’s treasure box. There are stuffed owls and strange pictures on the walls allegedly left behind by the previous owner.

It’s really a story about relationships. That fact is brought home right from the beginning by framing alternating chapters with Jack’s confessional letters to Syd, and then Syd’s written reply to Jack, using he said/she said as a device  for story reveals. It’s the best frame story I’ve read in a long time. You know what I mean by frame story, don’t you? Of course, you do.

Jack and Syd are only a little suspicious when they acquire their new house for a song, because they’re unwilling to look a gift horse (or gift house) in the mouth. Why should they?

And when all that could possibly go wrong suddenly does, Jack and Syd naturally blame each other and not the house. Jack also blames Bart, his best friend and co-worker. And his nearest neighbor, Elsie’s father.

Syd, of course, blames Jack.

Elsie is the teen girl next door Syd befriends because, like Syd, her father physically and mentally abuses her. Elsie reminds Syd of Jessica, her younger sister, who committed suicide when Syd left home in her teens.

The New Neighbors is also a murder mystery, a whodunit, as well as a nearly-perfect frame story. Brits love a good mystery, don’t they? Almost as much as they enjoy a good ghost story or haunted house tale.

Both Jack and Syd have been insecure since childhood, and that leads them to withhold information and tell lies. And makes it easy for them to wind up in a hellish situation. Relationships are always complicated anyway, aren’t they? But being deprived of parental love while growing up only makes matters worse.

The New Neighbors is a bloody good read. Very highly recommended.

 

New Addition to Great S&S Series

The Brghtest Fell

 

The Fae don’t play nice. October Daye should know that by now, being half-human and half Faerie. But where her mother’s concerned, Toby can’t think logically. In The Brightest Fell (DAW, September 7, 2017), Book 11 of the October Daye series, Hugo-Award-Winning Author Seanan McGuire sends October in search of a long-lost half-sister. When mother politely asks Toby to put her PI skills to work to find August, she refuses.

Amandine, one of the Full-Blood Fae and Daoine Sidhe, isn’t used to being refused and won’t take no for an answer. To force her younger daughter to obey, she imprisons Toby’s fiance, Tybalt, plus another of Toby’s friends and takes them both hostage. Many of the characters from previous novels in this series, both friends and former enemies (including Simon Torquill from Rosemary and Rue), aid October’s quest into deep faerie to retrieve sister August.

Readers of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files will love McGuire’s Daye tales as much as, if not more than, Dresden, because Harry is currently missing, burnt out, or presumed dead while Daye becomes more and more immortal—and memorable—with every new novel.

Both urban fantasies have first-person narratives riddled with self-deprecating humor as well as suspense. Both heroes are PIs (private paranormal investigators). Harry’s entry to Faerie is Chicago; Toby’s is San Francisco. Both have half-siblings as antagonists who become occasional allies. Both frequent a restaurant where preternatural folk gather: Harry’s is a local bar; Toby’s is Borderlands Cafe and Bookstore. But the two heroes are actually as different as Knight and Daye, because Dresden’s story is told from a male viewpoint while Daye’s is decidedly feminine.

Ever since Spenser reinvented the sword and sorcery genre with the publication of the Faerie Queene in 1590, English-language writers have been embellishing on his themes and characters. Although the fairy tales most Americans are familiar with originated as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Germanic folk tales as retold by Victorian writers like J. M. Barrie, Spenser’s heroes are not entirely forgotten. The heroic quest of Britomart—the heroine’s journey—accompanied by her faithful squire, becomes Toby’s journey-quest on faerie’s Babylon Road (much like Dorothy and her companions following the yellow brick road into the Land of Oz to find a wizard), accompanied by Simon and Quentin.

What is it that attracts us to Faerie Tales? Is it a memory, embedded deep within human DNA, inside our very blood, of a long-ago time when magic was real and women ruled the world? Magic is a Ma word, you realize, because the first true practitioners were women. Magic flows from the Mother to her children through her blood, her breast-milk, and her songs. Men have no magic of their own except what they inherit from their mothers.

Magic lives in the blood. True magic is blood magic, and true enchantment is lyrical.

Magic is never free. There’s always a painful fee to be paid when employing magic to acquire what you desire. In fact, the Fae are sometimes called The Fee. They are sometimes also known as The Fates or as The Furies, but that’s another story.

Fae Magic always smells like it’s composed of a mixture of the alchemical essence of a living plant combined with something else, like rosemary and rue, and it also has a shape one can touch, a thread to ravel or unravel.

Toby’s unique gift, inherited from her mother, is her ability to smell or taste magic. She can differentiate odors like artists differentiate shapes and colors. She can track scents like a bloodhound or a Cu Sidhe (a Faerie dog). She can also retrieve memories from the blood of others, even the dead.

The October Daye novels may seem confusing unless you understand the familial connections of characters. McGuire includes a helpful prologue in this novel to help you understand. Faerie is not unlike medieval Europe where all the royals are related by blood and bastards of kings and queens abound. Bloodlines become important for more reasons than one. There are Firstbloods and Purebloods and mixed bloods (part fae and part human) known as Changelings. October is a Changeling (daughter of Amandine and a human), while August is a Pureblood (daughter of Amandine and Simon Torquill). Descendancy shouldn’t matter in modern-day America, but it sure did in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland during the late Elizabethan period (and in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros of Game of Thrones fame). McGuire boldly explores the meaning of family—blood families, marital families and extended families of choice—in her Daye  novels.

The Brightest Fell is very highly recommended, as is the entire October Daye series.

 

Great Mystery, Superb Suspense

The Other Girl

The Other Girl by Erica Spindler (St. Martin’s Press, August 22, 2017) is a great mystery story, expertly crafted.

Miranda “Randi” Rader and Jake Billings, police detectives in rural Louisiana, investigate the murder and mutilation of a college professor. Before Miranda became a cop, she’d been a victim herself of kidnapping and attempted sexual assault. Evidence found at the murder scene leads her to believe the professor, who is also the college president’s son, was the man who abducted her and another girl fourteen years ago.

Spindler builds suspense by piling up more and more evidence that points fingers at the wrong people, including Randi. Is someone trying to frame her for murder? Who? Why?

No one seems to believe Randi (Miranda), except her partner Jake and her best-friend Summer. She’s removed from the case and suspended from the department. She has to hire an attorney because she’s about to be arrested for murder.

Things go from bad to worse. Miranda learns Summer has an inoperable brain tumor and is going to die. Randi’s brother informs her their estranged mother is in the hospital recovering from a heart attack.

And when she and Jake fall in love, it only complicates things even more.

There’s an old saying among suspense writers that when your protagonist is hip-deep in alligators, you should throw a back-biting poisonous snake into the mix to add excitement. Spindler does that in The Other Girl, only she throws in more than one. Miranda doesn’t know (nor does the reader) she’s about to be bit in the butt until the snake strikes.

Great mystery, superb suspense. The Other Girl is a page-turner you won’t be able to put down until the very end.

 

Scottoline Scores Again

Damaged A Novel by Lisa Scottoline

 

Damaged: A Novel by Lisa Scottoline (A Rosato and DiNunzio novel, St Martin’s, August 2016) is full of surprises. It’s also filled with psychological insights. It’s a murder mystery, a thriller, a romance, and offers real information about dyslexia, bullying, the family court system, and Philadelphia.

I became intrigued with Scottoline’s writing after reading her short story in Matchup, the recently published (and reviewed) International Thriller Writer’s anthology. Although Damaged features an emotional Mary DiNunzio instead of the more hardboiled Bennie Rosato, the latter does make a brief appearance.

Scottoline’s attention to detail is legendary. She alters long narrative passages of highly descriptive prose with realistic dialog. She does include several fast-paced action scenes, though most of the novel deals with the day-to-day actions and emotions of sympathetic characters. Machiavelli, however, is a manipulative monster, and there are a couple of other bad guys lurking in the wings. There’s enough tension throughout to keep one engrossed, and surprises keep turning up every few pages to complicate matters.

Planning your own wedding is complicated enough, but when Mary takes on a ten-year-old boy who’s accused of attacking a teacher with scissors as a client her life is turned upside down. She’s accused of murdering the boy’s grandfather to gain custody, has a falling-out with her husband-to-be, is followed by a mysterious man in a brown Subaru, and is physically and emotionally attacked by Machiavelli.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then Mary’s extended family is the perfect village. After all, they raised her, didn’t they?

A five hanky read for mystery lovers.

4MK is a gruesome thriller

the fouth monkey

 

The four wise monkeys of ancient oriental myth — hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil, and do no evil — give the killer in The Fourth Monkey by J. D. Barker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 28, 2017) his name. The 4MK abducts women and sends an ear to the next of kin. Two days later, the victim’s extracted eyeballs arrive in the mail. Then the tongue. Two days after that, 4MK positions the victim’s mutilated body where easily discovered.

Hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil, do no evil. Those are the rules.

Detective Sam Porter, on bereavement leave following his wife’s tragic murder by a convenience store robber, receives a phone call from his partner. The Four Monkeys Killer was accidentally run down this morning  by a Chicago bus on his way to mail an ear of his latest victim to Arthur Talbot, one of the richest men in the city.

Sam’s chased the 4MK for five years. Seven dead girls he couldn’t save. Now it appears Talbot’s illegitimate daughter Emory will be 4MK’s next victim. The clock’s ticking as Sam assembles his task force and tries to find Emory before she dies of dehydration.

The killer’s diary found on the man hit by the bus tells what it’s like to be raised in a family of psychopaths. Barker effectively rotates POV among Porter, Emory, task force members, and the diary. The burning questions become: Is the diary real? Is the dead man the 4MK? Will Emory survive? What did Talbot do to warrant punishment by 4MK? Who killed Heather, Sam’s wife, and what will happen to him?

Set in metropolitan Chicago, the action delves into underground tunnels once used by bootleggers where thousands of rats thrive and Emory may be sequestered. Will she be eaten by rats, die of hydration, or have her eyes and tongue plucked out before 4MK is through with her?

Suspense builds as time runs out. Sam, who was neither able to protect his wife nor the seven previous 4MK victims, is desperate to reach Emory before she perishes.

The Fourth Monkey is as much a great horror novel as a mystery or thriller. Very highly recommended for readers with strong stomachs, insatiable curiosities, and time on their hands because they won’t be able to stop until the very end.