4 First-Rate Thrillers That Will Make Your Heart Pound The suspense novels Maureen Corrigan recommends roam from the beaches of Long Island to the coast of Wales, and from the mean streets of Chicago to the alleyways of Berlin.

4 First-Rate Thrillers That Will Make Your Heart Pound

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This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan will have plenty of books to recommend for summer reading. To kick off the holiday weekend, she has a list of suspense novels that roam from the beaches of Long Island to the Welsh coast, Midwest prisons and Manhattan penthouses, the streets of Chicago and the alleyways of Berlin. Here are her recommendations.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: 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 of "The Second Life Of Nick Mason" is archetypal. An ex-con named Nick Mason walks out of 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 enough, Nick's cell phone begins ringing with grizzly 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 must also 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 until 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 teenage 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.

(Reading) 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 5 or a 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. Mackintosh spent 12 years on the police force in England. Her first novel, "I Let You Go," has become an international bestseller, 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 such 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, "And After The Fire," 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, N.Y.

The kicker here is that the libretto accompanying Bach's gorgeous music is infested with anti-Semitic statements. 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.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Second Life Of Nick Mason," by Steve Hamilton, "Where It Hurts," by Reed Farrel Coleman and "After The Fire," by Lauren Belfer and "I Let You Go," by Clare Mackintosh.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about conservative activist James O'Keefe who's known for his undercover videos of sting operations targeting ACORN, Planned Parenthood and NPR. Our guest will be New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. She's written an article about O'Keefe and how he accidentally stung himself while trying to penetrate a group in New York. I hope you'll join us.

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