The Best Thrillers to Read This Season - The New York Times

Now that the pandemic feels a little less frightening than it did a year ago, I’m ready once more to submit to the exquisite torture of a terrifying book. Alison Gaylin’s chilling psychological thriller THE COLLECTIVE (Morrow, 335 pp., $27.99) fits the bill perfectly. It takes place partly in a far corner of the shadowy dark web where bereaved mothers trade anguished stories about their children’s deaths — and fantasize about poetic justice.

“I don’t just want him killed off,” writes one such mother, Camille Gardener, whose teenage daughter, Emily, was raped by a boy at a frat party and left to freeze to death in the woods. “I want his soul destroyed, his memory ripped to shreds, just like he and his family and their lawyers did to my daughter.”

But this is more than fantasy. The Collective, as the group is called, promises to turn these brutal visions into reality. Eventually, every one of these killers — the drunken driver, the man who carelessly shot a friend on a hunting trip, the dealer whose girlfriend overdosed, the bully who drove a girl to suicide — will themselves be killed by the Collective, always in a manner specific to their crime.

Its rules are strict. Members must remain anonymous. The group must remain secret. “Do not question what you are asked to do — just do it,” the leader, identified only by her alias — 0001 — writes to Camille. “If you repeat any of this conversation to anyone, there will be severe consequences.”

It’s a terrifying notion. But this terrific novel is no ordinary revenge fantasy, nor even a simple modern-day take on Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train,” with its classic mine-for-yours murder plot. There are larger questions at play, propelled by an iron-tight plot that becomes increasingly tense and claustrophobic.

As Camille is pulled deeper and deeper into this organization of “sisters,” she begins to question the Collective’s pitiless assumptions about guilt, mercy, justice and the worth of a life. Is it right to play God? Is it right to inflict on another family what has been inflicted on yours? And why was that grieving and apparently blameless man mowed down by a pickup truck, right in front of her?

The ending comes as a terrible shock, but it makes perfect sense in the context of Gaylin’s carefully constructed world. As the Collective says, “We’re everywhere, Camille.”

THE DANGERS OF AN ORDINARY NIGHT (Crooked Lane, 272 pp., $26.99), the fourth novel by Lynne Reeves, takes a quieter approach to terror. Two ambitious students at a performing-arts high school in Boston go missing one night; surveillance cameras show them being bundled into a stranger’s car after an audition. A few days later, they are found on a beach — but one is dead and the second, Tali, is traumatized, bruised and disoriented, with no memory of what happened.

At this point you might expect the story to take a lurid turn and the plot to shoot off into violent or complicated or improbable directions. Instead, the novel pauses for an extra-long breath and slows down, becoming almost too discursive. But the clues are there, if you pay attention. The shock of the opening gradually recedes into something else — a sensitive examination of a dysfunctional family and a full-of-secrets community that claims to be seeking the truth.

Somewhat confusingly, the focus shifts away from the girls and onto the adults connected to the case — Tali’s father, whose addiction and gambling problems may or may not be relevant to what happened; her mother, trying to hold the family together; Cynthia Rawlins, a therapist haunted by her husband’s faithlessness; and Fitz Jameson, a detective sick with guilt about his role in a deadly incident from his youth. Our attention is diffused, and it’s hard to know where to look.

A few plot threads fall by the wayside, like the whisper of romance between Tali’s mother and the father of June, the girl who died. Reeves builds her narrative slowly, lulling you into such complacency that when the twist comes, you’re looking the other way.

Is there anything more devastating than losing the person you love most? Sadly, yes, at least in Gus Moreno’s anguished THIS THING BETWEEN US (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pp., paper, $17), a surreal excursion into heartache and horror narrated by a man undone by grief.

After the sudden, violent death of his wife, Vera, Thiago Alvarez experiences what at first seems to be commonplace bereavement, like anyone else’s — that is, all-encompassing. “We assumed death was a long ways off, or that it would gradually come into our lives and we would face it together,” he writes, addressing Vera. (The book is presented, very effectively, as a long letter to her.)

But someone, or something, is disinclined to let him suffer in peace. Even before Vera died, the supernatural seemed to have seeped into their lives. The couple experienced pockets of icy air in their apartment; they heard strange noises emanating from the walls. Their smarmy Alexa-like digital assistant began inexplicably ordering menacing consumer goods — a book called “How to Contact the Dead,” a samurai sword, dozens of mousetraps, a container of industrial-strength lye — and making strange utterances reminiscent of HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or Talky Tina, the menacing “Twilight Zone” doll.

The sense that something creepy is out there worsens after Vera’s funeral. Thiago flees across the country, only to find that you can’t escape a malevolent force determined to suck you into its insatiable maw. Along with allusions to Rod Serling and “The Exorcist,” there are shades of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, zombie literature and, at least once, “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Snatches of knowing humor leaven the story. Characters include an eerie, portent-spouting cook at a deserted diner in the middle of nowhere and a kindly small-town vet who becomes markedly less kindly for upsetting reasons. (Maybe you don’t want to read this book right before bed.)

The chaos occasionally becomes too chaotic to understand completely — there’s a huge burst of horror at the end, or maybe it’s just a hallucination? — but along the way you are made to think about fate, the thin divide between life and death and the always exciting question of what, if anything, awaits beyond the grave. Along with Thiago, we wonder how to go on after devastating loss. As he explains to his wife: “I had no story to follow. My favorite character was gone.”

Ellice Littlejohn, the embattled heroine of Wanda M. Morris’s ALL HER LITTLE SECRETS (Morrow, 371 pp., $27.99) and the only Black lawyer at a large Atlanta transportation company, is having a going-nowhere affair with her boss, a brilliant but married WASP named Michael Sayles. “So many years. So much time wasted,” she sighs en route to his office for an early-morning assignation.

Alas, she finds Michael not sitting seductively on the couch, but lying dead on the floor. She flees the scene and turns into a familiar character: the innocent person who foolishly lies to the cops. No, she wasn’t there. No, she doesn’t know anything. And that grainy security-camera image of her sketchy brother entering the building — she has no idea who that is.

Ellice has good reason to fear the authorities. Her past, blighted by poverty, racism and abuse in a dead-end town in Georgia, is filled with incidents — murder, for starters — that she would very much like to keep to herself. But how can she protect herself after she’s promoted into Michael’s job — presto, she’s now general counsel of Houghton Transportation Company — only to stumble into a vast conspiracy involving corporate fraud, the illegal transport of guns and a white supremacist organization whose members seem to have infiltrated the C-suite?

The flashy, busy, unlikely plot is elevated by Morris’s urgent portrayal of a Black woman trying to navigate a world stacked against her, and the moving flashbacks to her childhood. Outside the office, protesters condemn Houghton’s racist employment practices. Inside, she works for a group of good old boys who regard her, at best, as an incompetent token. “The fact that you’re Black is like brown gravy on a biscuit,” her boss remarks.

The sharply drawn characters include an overweight man who looks like a “hastily made bed with a pillow tossed in the center of it,” a dim chief executive whose massive desk contains not a single scrap of paper and some understandably suspicious detectives. “Tell me, Ms. Littlejohn,” one says, “why is that so many people around you have managed to wind up dead?”

As you begin the British author Anthony Horowitz’s A LINE TO KILL (Harper, 384 pp., $27.99), you wonder if this will finally be the novel in which his fictional alter ego, “Anthony Horowitz,” proves that he is just as clever as Daniel Hawthorne, the infuriating detective whose cases he has been writing about.

Well, no. This is the third in a fiendishly entertaining series by Horowitz (the real one), the prolific inventor of the Alex Ryder series and the creator and writer of the TV show “Foyle’s War,” among other things — and it reveals his fictional protagonist, who shares a name and a résumé with his creator, to be as behind the curve as ever. If there’s anyone who makes him feel like a nitwit, it’s the supercilious Hawthorne, a modern-day Holmes to his Watson.

“A Line to Kill” finds Horowitz and Hawthorne at a literary festival on the tiny and usually peaceful Channel island of Alderney, whose locked-room-style location provides a perfect place for a literary murder. The delicious cast of puffed-up, self-regarding writers includes a male-chauvinist celebrity cook who specializes in traditional high-calorie, high-fat meals; Elizabeth Lovell, an annoying blind psychic who “sees” into the spirit world; and Mäissa Lamar, a tiresome French “performance poet” whose work no one understands. What skeletons are lurking beneath their brittle exteriors?

The murders are elaborate, the clues opaque and the mystery seemingly unsolvable, until Hawthorne steps in with customary aplomb and explains all. As a mystery, this book is immensely satisfying. But as a meta-story — an extravagant, knowing satire of authors, agents, publishers and literary hangers-on; a knowing sendup of the author himself; and a homage to the Golden Age of mystery — it is pure delight.

The most haunting artifacts of 9/11 may be the voice mail messages — of panic, fear, resignation and love — left by the people facing imminent death in the World Trade Center. The excellent notion behind Charlie Donlea’s TWENTY YEARS LATER (Kensington, 357 pp., $27) is this: Imagine that one of those messages was left by the main suspect in a notorious murder, who protested her innocence and pleaded for her name to be cleared.

After a brief flashback, the book jumps to 2021, when a tiny bone fragment from the Trade Center rubble is matched with the DNA of Victoria Ford, who spent the morning of 9/11 in the south tower meeting her lawyer. (This is not a far-fetched scenario; the remains of more than 1,000 victims — about 40 percent of the total — have never been recovered, and efforts are still underway to match bone fragments to people who were killed.)

Victoria was about to be charged with murdering her married lover by strangling him and pushing him over a balcony while making it seem that he had hanged himself. The case was rendered moot by Sept. 11; for two decades, nobody has been much interested in Victoria’s sister’s efforts to clear her name.

But the identification of Victoria’s remains changes everything. The story catches the attention of Avery Mason, the ambitious, duplicitous host of a TV newsmagazine show, who recently raised her public profile by deliberately driving into a swimming pool and demonstrating how to escape from a car submerged in water. (Her pro tip: Kick the lower right-hand corner of the driver’s seat window, very hard.) It also pulls the former F.B.I. agent Walt Jenkins, who worked the original case back in 2001, out of his boozy, personal-demon-plagued retirement in Jamaica.

What happened all those years ago, and why was the murder scene teeming with Victoria’s DNA? Why does Donlea, a veteran best-selling author, devote so much space to Avery’s difficult contract-renewal negotiations with the bosses at her Fox-like network? How relevant is her back story, which features a Bernie Madoff-style scandal and a brother drowned in a freak boating accident? Is there a reason Donlea keeps repeating that New York City is unusually empty over July 4 weekend?

The ingredients — adultery, fake identities, ulterior motives, forgery, plagiarism, rough sex, unusual chapter breaks, a little murder thrown in here and there — are enticing, and Donlea tells a propulsive tale. The novel’s problem is mostly a simple branding error, in that Victoria’s case is just one of many mysteries at play. We’ll figure out in the end what is worth paying most attention to, but not before we negotiate our way through a maze of misdirection, sudden revelations and, yes, contract negotiations.

Antoine Wilson begins his enthralling literary puzzle, MOUTH TO MOUTH (Avid Reader, 178 pp., $26), slowly but irresistibly. A shlumpy, down-on-his-heels writer runs into an old U.C.L.A. classmate from 20 years ago — richer, more successful, better-dressed — at the airport. Both their planes are late.

With offhand condescension, the classmate, Jeff Cook, invites the writer — who narrates the book and whose name, like that of the second Mrs. de Winter, is never revealed — to wait out the delays in an airline first-class lounge. They settle in, and Jeff proceeds to tell him a long and winding story that begins soon after graduation, when he was house-sitting in Los Angeles. He has never told anyone before, he says.

Walking across the beach one day, Jeff relates, he pulled an unconscious man out of the water, performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and saved his life. His behavior reinforced his view of himself as a good person, but it also touched off something unexpected in him. He became obsessed with the profundity of the gesture, and was surprised and a little angry when the man — a rich art dealer, Francis Arsenault — failed to seek him out and thank him.

Was his life worth saving? Jeff describes how he surreptitiously followed Francis around, got an entry-level job in his gallery, insinuated himself deeper and deeper into his life — and at every turn failed to reveal who he was. “I never forget a face,” Francis tells him, but does he recognize Jeff, whom he glanced at from his stretcher on the beach? (“What had he been trying to do?” Jeff wonders. “Signal? Beckon? Acknowledge?”)

As with Rachel Cusk’s “Outline,” the narrator exists mostly as negative space, a conduit for someone else’s story. But why is Jeff telling this tale now, and why has he selected this particular audience? Is this actually a justification — or a confession? “As his story proceeded, I felt an increasingly indefinable discomfort,” the narrator says. “Was he painting for me a kind of self-portrait? And what is a self-portrait if not self-serving?”

Wilson is a gorgeous writer, pulling you in and compelling you to keep reading. The story, and the story-within-the-story — the twists and turns, the attention lavished on motivation and emotion, the efforts to rationalize or at least explain strange or unsavory behavior — recall the cool prose of Paul Auster. Possibly we’re dealing with two unreliable narrators. Perhaps we will have to rethink everything we have already heard.


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