Henry James famously said that "summer afternoon" were the two most beautiful words in the English language. With apologies to The Master, I'd tweak that sentiment to suggest that maybe "summer suspense" are two even more beautiful words. Surely, on a sunny summer day, few pleasures can be greater than reading outside in the shade cast by a first-rate thriller.
Since 1997, Steve Hamilton has been writing his award-winning Alex McKnight series, about an ex-cop who rents out vacation cabins in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but repeatedly finds himself pulled out of the tranquility of nature into the human wreckage of crime. Hamilton's latest book inaugurates a new series.
Called The Second Life of Nick Mason, the novel is so good, it legitimately stands shoulder-to-padded-paranoid-shoulder with the classics of the crime-noir genre.
The opening scene is archetypal: An ex-con named Nick Mason walks out of a maximum-security prison into a waiting limousine. Nick doesn't know why or how he's been released decades early from his 25-years-to-life sentence for his role in a caper that resulted in a cop's death, but he knows that a crime kingpin named Darius Cole — who's still inside the prison — is responsible.
Sure enough, the limo takes Nick to Cole's luxury townhouse on the North Side of Chicago. The limo driver drops Nick off, leaving him with the ominous advice: "This isn't freedom. This is mobility. Don't get those two things confused."
Soon, Nick's cell phone begins ringing with grisly long-distance assignments from Cole. Nick is a criminal, but not a bad man. While feverishly scheming how to escape his servitude to Cole, Nick also must keep dodging a Chicago detective determined to put him back in prison.
There are so many terrific elements in this novel — Nick's haunted character, a plot that never darts in the direction you expect it to and a truly ingenious climax — that I could be here till Labor Day singing its praises. Instead, I'll change directions and mention another seasoned hard-boiled writer who introduced a superb new series several months ago.
Reed Farrel Coleman is known chiefly as the creator of the acclaimed Moe Prager crime novels featuring a Jewish ex-cop in 1980s New York whose cases have led him through the alleys of Coney Island and the ruined resorts of the Catskills.
Coleman's latest book, Where It Hurts, introduces Gus Murphy, yet another middle aged-cop, chewed up by life. When his teenaged son dies and his marriage falls apart, Gus seeks numbness to survive; he lands a job at the Paragon Hotel on Long Island where he drives the courtesy van and works security — a job that soon branches out into freelance investigations.
Here's how Gus describes the joint: "The Paragon wasn't the kind of place with bridal or presidential suites. ... No one came here to be pampered or to have free wine at five or complimentary continental breakfast in the morning. People came here to leave."
The spare, hard-boiled rhythms of its language, as well as its moody low-rent Long Island setting have kept me thinking about Where It Hurts ever since its late winter debut.
Speaking of debuts, Clare Mackintosh comes fresh to suspense writing with a track record in real life detecting: The author spent 12 years on the police force in England. Her first novel, I Let You Go, has become an international best-seller, likened to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train — a comparison that seems required these days for every psychological thriller written by a woman. Except, I Let You Go is more deserving than most of those high-blown comparisons.
The novel's grim prologue describes the sudden hit-and-run death of a 5-year-old boy. What unspools is a sinister plot in which our main character, Jenna Gray, escapes to an isolated shack on the Welsh coast to try to forget. Of course, that never works. This is a purebred "woman in trouble" tale, complete with a twisted plot, festooned with red herrings galore.
Lauren Belfer's And After the Fire is a different species of suspense tale from the novels I've recommended so far. Belfer writes evocative, deeply researched historical novels that contain, but are not dominated by, a suspense plot.
Her 2010 book A Fierce Radiance, for instance, focused on the race to develop penicillin during World War II. Her latest book is another absorbing read centered on the discovery of a lost cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach — a piece of music that was stolen in Germany during World War II and resurfaces decades later in Buffalo, New York.
The kicker here is that the libretto accompanying Bach's gorgeous music is infested with anti-Semitic sentiments. Belfer's novel roams from the salons of cultured Jewish patrons of the arts in 18th-century Berlin to hushed Ivy League libraries where vicious scholarly rivalries of the present play out. And After the Fire explores the vexing question of whether art can be simultaneously beautiful and hateful. A heavy subject for summer reading, but Belfer's novel — in fact all of the novels I've mentioned here — manage to dazzle while delving into dark places.