Thrillers with Heat – Sunburn and The Dry

Set in Australia, Jane Harper’s The Dry has a dried-up river and bush ready to burn; Laura Lippman’s Sunburn leaves its mark in familiar ground for this reader – Baltimore, Ocean City, and Delaware.  Both are gripping tales of murder with compelling twists and surprise endings – both are page-turners.

shopping-1In The Dry, the brutal murders on a farm bring federal agent Aaron Falk back to the town where he and his father were banished years earlier when Aaron’s friend was found drowned in the river.  When Aaron returns for the funeral of his best friend and his family, he uncovers raw wounds the town has never forgotten, and suspicion that he was responsible for the girl’s death twenty years earlier.  Mysteries around the all murders seem connected, and as he stays to investigate, the story leads him to surprising revelations about the people he thought he knew. The villain is cleverly concealed until the very end, and not one I suspected.

UnknownIn Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy.  Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born.  The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her.  Will he turn her in or run away with her?  Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all.  It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

 

Advertisements

Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?

 

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

9780544808249_p0_v2_s192x300  Elinor Lipman uses her witty banter to deliver a frothy and pleasurable read in her latest novel On Turpentine Lane.  The story revolves around an old house, recently purchased by Faith Frankel, a thirty-something whose boyfriend is walking across the country like Forest Gump.  Lipman’s strength lies in her characters as they meander through ridiculous situations, now and then offering zingers of truth about how people deal with life – through grudges, betrayals, romance – even murder.

An easy read, On Turpentine Lane has all the qualities of a romantic comedy, with a murder mystery mingled into the plot of a small town drama.  After Faith discovers a strange Polaroid in the attic, the local police inform her the former owner – a ninety year old not-dead-yet maven, who may have pushed two husbands down the steep cellar stairs, is living nearby in a nursing home.  As the investigation simmers, Faith’s father, an insurance salesman, has an epiphany and becomes a painter of Chagall imitations, with images of paying customers in replicas of the artist’s surreal work.  In the meantime, Faith decides to stop financing Stuart (Forest Gump) and connect with her handsome colleague, Nick Franconi,  who shares her work space in the development office of a private children’s school.  Nick moves into the Turpentine Lane house, and when Stuart runs out of money and returns, Faith conveniently connects him to Nick’s former girlfriend.

Although the comedic force follows a sitcom formula,  Lipman’s undercurrent grounds the story with perfectly aimed asides, driving the action fast and tight.  All pieces and characters neatly connect and the murder mystery is solved.  Life may be hilarious in a Lipman drama, but it always has an element of truth connecting the reader to something relatable and real.

I’ve enjoyed many of Lipman’s stories.  My favorite may always be her essay “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.”

Related Reviews:

Eleanor Lipman: Fiction and Nonfiction

The Family Man

River Road by Carol Goodman

9781501109904_p0_v2_s192x300   Carol Goodman’s mysteries cannot come fast enough for me, and her latest – River Road – has all the plot twists and Gothic flavor of her earlier books – The Seduction of Water and The Lake of Dead Languages.  Goodman once again mixes grief and revenge with office politics and murder.  Her mystery thriller brought back memories of the politics and secrets of academia, most notably the English department.

Nan Lewis, an English professor up for tenure at a state college in upstate New York, hits a deer on her way home from the department Christmas party.  The next day, Nan learns from the police that her favorite student, Leia Dawson, has been killed the night before on that same road.  The site is the same bend in the road where, years earlier, Nan’s 4-year-old daughter, Emmy, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Nan becomes the main suspect in the death of her student, but the investigation quickly spreads to include students and other professors in a tale full of unreliable narrators and red herrings.

As mysterious clues appear linking her daughter’s and her student’s death, a handsome police chief comes to Nan’s rescue more than once – adding an inevitable romantic storyline to the fast-paced killer pursuit.  The unforgiving cold weather adds to the drama, as well as Nan’s guilt over her daughter’s death.

A quick and satisfying read, River Road joins Goodman’s prolific output of books with murder, ghosts, and secrets.

Related ReviewArcadia Falls

In a Dark, Dark Wood

9781501112324_p0_v4_s192x300Ruth Ware expands on the spooky setting of her title in her first mystery thriller – In a Dark, Dark Wood.  A glass house with no curtains or phone service; a group of six forced together for a “hen” party, the British term for bachelorette bash before the wedding; a Ouija board spelling out murderer, a gun over the mantle – mix these with a self-possessed bride and the groom’s ex girlfriend – and you get revenge, murder, suspicion, surprise.

The story flips back and forth from the main character, Nora, recovering in a hospital bed, with a police guard outside her door, and flashbacks to the “hen” party events leading up to her current distress.  Her amnesia adds to the dilemma, and keeps the reader wondering who is telling the truth.  Nora herself is not sure what she has done, and a secret from the past she holds with the bridegroom threatens her resolve.

Ware cleverly throws in plausible red herrings and scary scenarios to keep the pages turning quickly.  If you enjoyed The Girl on the Train and Before I Go to Sleep, add In a Dark, Dark Wood to the books that will keep you awake at night.

Related Reviews: