Book Reviews: New Thrillers

Book critic Alan Cheuse offers reviews of four new thrillers just out: Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest; Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans; Michael Gruber's The Good Son; and Justin Cronin's The Passage.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Our book critic Alan Cheuse, himself a novelist, created his own little book club this spring, one that focuses on thrillers. He has read himself through the newest batch of commercial contenders for best rip-roaring narrative, and here's what he found.

ALAN CHEUSE: I want to begin by saying, with respect to the posthumous, multi-million-dollar success by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, how sorry I am that it's over. The final volume in his really engaging trilogy about crime and corruption in contemporary Sweden - kind of like "The Sopranos" of contemporary publishing - has just appeared, and I gobbled it up.

This one is called "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." It once again features the young woman named Lisbeth Salander, a troubled, young, punkish, probably mildly autistic, bisexual heroine with a spine of steel, who in this volume, with the assistance of a Stockholm magazine journalist, completes her battle for personal justice.

If you haven't read the first two novels in this trilogy, you're probably wondering why I'm getting so lathered up about a thriller. All I can say is that if you enjoy contemporary thrillers with major, larger-than-life main characters, sharp social commentary and forward-moving plots, please do pick up these first two volumes and play catch-up. I lingered over the pages of this final installment, languished in them.

Just as brilliant, if not more so, is the latest novel from Alan Furst about the murky nexus of war and espionage in Europe during World War II, his usual material always told with unusual detail and flare. This one, called "Spies of the Balkans," takes us to Salonika just as Mussolini has decided to invade Greece, and carries us along with a mix of convincing details about the place and time and heart-pounding plot-making when the German army also promises to invade.

You'll find a celebration of courage in very, very dangerous times, when Salonika police detective Costa Zannis, the novel's main character, finds it a moral necessity to set up an escape route for fugitives from the Third Reich.

In the novel "The Good Son," writer Michael Gruber turns the tale of an American Taliban on its head and gives us a Taliban American. He's Theo Laghari, born in the Punjab in Pakistan to an American mother and a Pakistani father, a Jihadist war hero before puberty and now a member of our own Special Forces.

As the novel opens, Theo has returned to the U.S. for reassignment. He makes a quick turnaround because his mother, Sonia, a Muslim convert from Catholicism and a Jungian analyst by training, has been kidnapped in Pakistan by a gang of criminal terrorists. The plan Theo concocts to rescue his mom and a half-dozen of her colleagues nearly turns U.S.-South Asia policy around.

The biggest commercial offering this spring, prize-winning writer Justin Cronin's vampire novel, "The Passage," turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The book is a multimillion-dollar clunker and nearly 800 pages long, to boot. It's a vampire novel.

Cronin got a lot of money up front for this story that began when his young daughter supposedly suggested he write a scary book. He came up with a U.S. military experiment that creates a horde of infectious, murderous bloodsuckers, and America collapsing around their fangs.

I'm not saying, don't give it a try. I just wanted to tell you that I wasn't at all sorry when this one was over.

SIEGEL: Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University. He reviewed Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest"; Alan Furst's "Spies of the Balkans"; Michael Gruber's "The Good Son"; and Justin Cronin's "The Passage."

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