Who knew a thriller could be this boring! Felonies, hush money, Russian agents, dogged journalists — in real time, it turns out, all that stuff moves like molasses, with none of the subtle internal coherence you find in a good novel of suspense. We may have to concede that while truth is indeed stranger than fiction, fiction is substantially better arranged.
On the other hand, we don’t know the ending yet. There are great books that begin slowly, the authors talking themselves uncertainly toward their material before suddenly they find it and the intensity increases, the options narrow, the risk heightens: The final report comes in.
Take Jane Harper’s THE LOST MAN (Flatiron, $27.99). A gifted, laconic former journalist from Australia, Harper made her debut in 2016 with a dazzler called “The Dry,” about a farming community that had been waiting two years for rain. She followed it up with a weaker but readable sequel featuring some of the same cast, and now, in “The Lost Man,” has written a stand-alone mystery. It’s one of those books that actually start around Page 75 — a bit dull, then all at once enthralling.
“The Lost Man” is set in Queensland, a ranch’s distance off from a town called Balamara, itself “a single street, really,” 1,500 kilometers west of Brisbane. (For those of you still using imperial units, 1,500 kilometers is roughly equivalent to one billion miles.) In this remote country, Nathan Bright is isolated further still by an ancient transgression whose nature Harper doesn’t immediately disclose. He manages his land alone, accepts infrequent visits from his son, and occasionally sees his family. But he’s barely alive. “After Kelly died,” Harper writes — his dog, cruelly poisoned by an unknown enemy — “he had felt his fingertips starting to slip.”
As the novel begins, though, Nathan receives a jolt. His brother Cam dies, and it forces him back to his childhood home, where he sees his mother, a fearsomely capable old hired hand named Harry, a couple of backpackers who have stopped for work and, perhaps most crucially, the woman he once loved but who married his brother, Ilse.
The bizarre circumstances of Cam’s death — he dies from the heat, desperately spiraling a gravestone to stay in its meager shade, despite being close to his car — force Nathan into an ad hoc investigation first of his brother, then ultimately of his own unhappiness.
“Human relationships are vast as deserts,” Patrick White, perhaps Australia’s greatest writer, once wrote. “They demand all daring.” Harper’s books succeed in part because she conveys how even now, geography can be fate. Heat and empty space in her work defeat modernity, defeat logic, technology and even love, throwing us back upon our irreducible selves. By the time she reveals the (brilliantly awful) back story about Nathan’s banishment from the few human comforts of Balamara — the pub, for example — the reader feels frantic for their restoration.
The final pages of “The Lost Man” are somewhat predictable, but Harper is skillful enough, a prickly, smart, effective storyteller, that it doesn’t matter. She’s often cynical, but always humane. Book by book, she’s creating her own vivid and complex account of the outback, and its people who live where people don’t live.
If “The Lost Man” starts slowly and ends at a hurtle, JoAnn Chaney’s AS LONG AS WE BOTH SHALL LIVE (Flatiron, $27.99) threatens to do the opposite. It’s about a woman whose husband comes rushing down a mountainside after a hike, calling for help: His wife has fallen from a steep precipice into the river below, which the park rangers know, exchanging glances, means that she’s all but guaranteed to be dead.
All but. The thriller is living in the aftermath of the revolution Gillian Flynn ignited with “Gone Girl,” in which everyone is guilty, depending on what kind of crime you mean, and in which experienced readers mistrust their first instincts.
Her pupils include Chaney. “When a woman is murdered, it’s probably the husband,” Matt Evans, the husband this time around, says early in her book. “Hell, anyone with basic cable and the slightest interest in the melodrama of true crime knows it.” After a few chapters of “As Long as We Both Shall Live,” it seems clear that in fact he pushed his wife, Marie, from the cliff. For one thing, we learn that his first wife died in a mysterious fire; for another, he’s a born salesman, suave and unctuous, with an eye for other women. But Chaney does just enough to raise the possibility that something else is going on. She offers one scene, for instance, now a staple of the genre, in which Marie’s friends describe her with an innocent matter-of-factness that actually paints her in a few small anecdotes as a sociopath. Could it be that she set Matt up?
Many writers in the past few years, modeling their books on the work of Flynn, Liane Moriarty and Paula Hawkins, would settle for that premise. But part of the pleasure of “As Long as We Both Shall Live” is that Chaney’s too sly for that. She’s on the run too, a half-step ahead of us but continually getting away, right through the book’s conclusion. She’s an indifferent stylist (an “impossibly blue sky” shows up early, a character “wound tight as a drum,” that kind of prose) but a surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful writer, especially delicate in her portrayal of two cops who might easily have fallen into stereotype. This may be yet another husband-and-wife domestic thriller in an era overwhelmed by them, but it’s a strong one.
It would be hard to accuse THE PLOTTERS (Doubleday, $25.95), a raucous extravaganza of assassins and lunatics by the lauded Korean writer Un-Su Kim, of conforming to any template. It does belong, however, to an emerging subgenre that’s become more and more discernible lately, from “1Q84,” by Haruki Murakami, to the recent Booker Prize winner “Milkman,” by Anna Burns, to the Netflix show “Maniac” — works that are not dystopian, but instead set in worlds identical to ours except for minor, unsettling differences: two or three millimeters over in the multiverse, say.
In Kim’s version of Seoul, North Korea has fallen, with unexpected results. “The overthrow of three decades of military dictatorship … and the brisk advent of democratization,” he writes, “led to a major boom in the assassination industry.” The city’s “plotters,” nebulous capitalist kingpins, have figured out that killing is the ultimate market efficiency. “Nowadays, if you so much as tap a mountain with a bulldozer, bodies come pouring out,” a character laments.
One of these assassins is Reseng. Young, handsome and like everyone in his trade continually nearing the end of what he knows will be a very brief life, he stupefies himself with beer between jobs. But things are stirring; his mentor, Old Raccoon, might be losing his grip on power. What’s more, a woman is secretly obsessed with Reseng, and may also have the power to save his life.
Kim is a good writer, soulful and observant. He sees “flames balking briefly” at new wood on a fire; notes dryly of black tea that of course it’s the product of imperialism: “Anything this flavorful has to be hiding an incredible amount of carnage.” This intelligence and humor keep Reseng’s tale afloat on its tiring, convoluted narrative. As in “Sin City” or “A Confederacy of Dunces,” plot is pointedly unimportant to “The Plotters,” mostly a medium for satire and repulsion.
Perhaps that’s the point of these tales set slightly akilter from our own world. By exaggerating the exigencies of capitalism, Kim circles closer to them: For people like Reseng, he seems to argue, globalization has amounted to nothing but the dim sense that some monumental unfairness, impossible to counteract, is moving tectonically beneath our feet. Each of us is fungible once our utility is exhausted — our data mined. The idea that anyone is in charge is ludicrous. “We have to do what we can to survive in this incomprehensible place,” he writes. Until — the unspoken half of that dark message goes — we don’t.
Sometimes as a reader it’s exhilarating to run loose in a scattershot thriller of ideas. Sometimes we want the opposite. Lisa Jewell’s WATCHING YOU (Atria, $26) is the work of an astute, meticulous midcareer professional, solid as a rock; there’s something just as satisfying about a Tim Duncan bank shot as a fallaway Manu Ginobili three.
“Watching You,” set in England, starts in “a kitchen like a million other kitchens all across the country.” This one is at least temporarily distinctive, however, because it has a corpse in it. Whose? Jewell’s not telling — “Watching You” is as much of a who-died as a whodunit.
What the author does reveal is that a tassel from the boot of a young neighbor named Joey Mullen sits in the blood nearby. Joey is impulsive and directionless, living with her new husband — picked up in Ibiza — at her more collected older brother’s house. Quickly and assuredly, Jewell builds an ecosystem of countervailing suspicions on the Bristol street where they live. There’s Tom Fitzwilliam, the appealing but possibly predatory headmaster at the local school, his awkward wife, a paranoid single mother a few houses down — and so on.
Something funny happens about halfway through “Watching You.” Already an engaging thriller, it becomes a moving one as well when its focus shifts to two teenagers living on Joey’s street, Jenna and Freddie. Jenna lives alone with that paranoid mom, and despite being pretty and sociable, feels, too often, “a terrible hollowness open up inside her, a sense that she was all alone, that she had in fact always been all alone, that the corners of her life were folding in and folding in, and that there was nothing she could do about it.” Then there’s Freddie, friendless and odd, watching Jenna from his window, who might say something similar if he could articulate it.
Adolescence and the novel have always been well-suited partners, sharing an air of growth, of privacy. As Jenna and Freddie turn detective, “Watching You” reaches both a tricky, clever, unexpected ending, and lands a final turn on a surprisingly affecting and sensitive revelation of autism. In her 18th book, Jewell does little spectacularly but everything well — a pro’s pro. It seems there’s at least one good plotter out there.
If “Watching You” has a precise identity, THE CURRENT (Algonquin, $27.95), by the best-selling literary suspense novelist Tim Johnston, is tougher to assess. The tale of parallel drownings in a frozen Minnesota river 10 years apart, it has the atmosphere of an A.A. meeting: rueful, solemn, suffused with shy and tender hopes. There’s a burdensome, long-winded seriousness to it, but Johnston writes in gracefully exact language with genuine heart. A reader who either dismisses or exalts this book too quickly is making a mistake.
“The Current” begins with two college students driving north. Audrey Sutter’s father is dying of cancer, and her friend Caroline offers to take her home. After being assaulted by two young men at a gas station, Audrey and Caroline speed away, breathlessly grateful, until they get stuck on a bridge. A car comes along the highway — the men’s? — and tips them into the rapids. It’s a situation unhappily analogous to the death of a girl named Holly Burke, and her father, Gordon, is one of the central characters of “The Current.” The other is Sheriff Sutter, Audrey’s dying father, who handled the Burke case.
Johnston is excellent at the mechanics of a thriller, but hides his adroitness between long stretches of rumination. (Glance at a page of “The Current” and there’s a decent chance you won’t see any dialogue.) Of its dual main characters, one, Sutter, is beautifully wrought; the other, Gordon, too often overwrought. The book’s women are, like those orbiting the politicians who gravely remind us that they’re fathers and husbands and sons, mainly supernumeraries of the male struggle. Wait, capitalize that: the Male Struggle. “If you’re gonna slug me, go ahead and slug me,” a suspect in Holly’s death tells Gordon. “What makes you think I’m gonna slug you?” he replies. “Those two fists at the end of your arms.”
Exchanges like this could nearly turn you against “The Current.” But its feelingness, its deliberative dexterity of plotting, its insights into grief and loss, are at their best reminiscent of writers like Annie Proulx and Richard Bausch. In a more compact, narrative-driven novel, Johnston might be a writer to create a work of art.
In almost perfect contrapuntal reply to the gravities of “The Current,” there’s Lyndsay Faye’s THE PARAGON HOTEL (Putnam, $26) — a lovable muddle of a book, which for the demographic of readers whose hearts it captures will seem as utterly winning as anything that comes out in 2019. As for the readers who wouldn’t like it, they’re probably trying to get you to switch to vinyl. Don’t worry about them.
Faye is an author of first-rate historical fiction, including several excellent riffs on the Sherlock Holmes canon. In this novel, she alights in Oregon in 1921, where a woman named Alice James stumbles off a sleeper train, gutshot, barely alive, and splendidly dressed.
A handsome porter named Max takes pity on Alice, bringing her to the book’s title hotel, whose clientele is otherwise exclusively black. Here, Alice — fleeing from the mob, it emerges, her already chameleon-like character in desperate search of its real depths — recovers slowly, while more speedily inserting herself into the hotel’s various dramas. All of these are shadowed by the ferocious racism in Oregon, which Faye carefully highlights with historical quotations at the head of each chapter — many of them to do with Portland’s flourishing chapter of the K.K.K.
“The Paragon Hotel” is just a little bit at war with itself. Alice narrates the book in galloping flapper banter, and the characters surrounding her respond in kind, all equally witty, like the troupe in a Noël Coward play. That doesn’t change even when Davy, the ward of a nightclub singer named Blossom, disappears; the book’s single register is too light and crystalline to stretch around its substantial themes.
But Faye writes a good puzzle, and more important, she has the dash of a real writer — which is not to say simply a published writer, but a person meant to write, who thinks and jokes and understands by writing. It’s a rare gift. Max’s laugh is “a spill of light,” Alice tells us; the loss of a safe haven as a child “carves a canyon through a person.” Her mother’s wry verdict on her father: “He was a ray o’ sun, but the sun goes down.”
What lasts in the reader’s mind after “The Paragon Hotel” ends is this voice. In one scene, Alice drinks “Darjeeling spiked with rum,” and that could serve as a metaphor for this book’s joyful, righteous, fearless flavor. At this strange, slow-burning moment in history, most of us would probably like to have such confidence. And probably also a cup of that tea.
Charles Finch is a literary critic and novelist whose next book, “The Vanishing Man,” will be published on Feb. 19.
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