Remember “Presumed Innocent”? It practically ushered in the age of the legal thriller and helped give birth to the mega-selling John Grisham. Now Scott Turow is back with “The Last Trial” (Grand Central), notable for any number of things, not the least of which is its post-septuagenarian hero.
Turow’s stalwart Sandy Stern is 85-years-old, ready for retirement until old friend Dr. Kiril Pafko is arrested on a myriad of charges a younger lawyer could make an entire career out of. The fun lies not only in watching Stern dissect the crime, along with the prosecution, but doing so even as he lost faith in his own abilities and faculties. Throw in the fact that Pafko is on the cutting-edge of cancer research, and you have the recipe for a typical Turow page-turner in which things are never what they seem and are always bigger.
This is thriller writing of the highest order, at once a brilliant character study and superb exploration of the nature, and relative merits, of the truth. Turow doesn’t release books with the frequency of his competitors but he stands over the lot of them in just about every other respect.
Both J. A. Jance and her seminal series hero Ali Reynolds return with a vengeance in the topical “Credible Threat” (Gallery Books), a terrific entry in a series distinguished by its consistent quality.
The setup is especially relevant and timely: When the life of the local Phoenix archbishop is threatened, he turns to Ali’s detective agency for help. The trail of the threats, and ultimate assassination attempt, may or may not be linked to grief-stricken mother Rachael Higgins, who has just learned that her son’s addiction and ultimate suicide were directly related to abuse suffered at the hands of a pedophile priest.
Jance is never shy about looking hard issues in the eye and neither is Ali when it comes to fighting for her clients. The difference this time, what makes “Credible Threat” so special, is her conflicted feelings regarding who and what she’s actually protecting. Sensitive treatment of a difficult subject makes this an extraordinary literary experience.
Speaking of topical, David Pepper’s “The Voter File” (Putnam) serves up a scarily prescient vision of the future of American elections. And Pepper, a longtime political operative himself, knows of what he speaks in fashioning what can best be described as a data-driven “Seven Days in May.”
The action unfolds through the eyes of former political reporter Jack Sharpe. Of course, there’s a reason why he got dumped by a right-wing television network and that reason forces him to rethink his priorities. In search of employment, as well as redemption, he teams up with political data specialist Tori Justice on the trail of how the “voter file” of the title may have been manipulated, potentially upending the coming election in catastrophic fashion.
This is that rare political thriller that takes us inside the actual election workings and that view makes for a superb cautionary tale on what might happen if the proper precautions and security measures aren’t taken. A must read for political junkies and anyone worried about this coming November.
Jessica Barry’s riveting “Don’t Turn Around” (Harper) reads like a novelization of a terrific postmodern film noir, something like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride” or even the TV movie classic “Duel,” which launched Steven Spielberg’s career.
We’re treated to a pair of young women, Cait Monaghan and Rebecca McRae, strangers to each other until a fateful night when sharing a ride puts them in the path of an imposing, snorting, metallic monster of a truck. It’s obvious one of them has been targeted but which? And what about all those secrets that keep popping up, and out, on the parts of both? Convenience brought them together but they will need to forge true bonds if they’re going to survive the night.
The action unfolds over the course of that single evening, lending “Don’t Turn Around” the eerie claustrophobic form that defines its structure. In lesser hands, such a limitation would have threatened to stop the story in its tracks. But Barry’s grasp is seasoned and sure, leaving us putty in the hands of a master storyteller.
Francesca Serritella’s blistering and bracing “Ghosts of Harvard” (Random House) is about, well, ghosts residing amid the storied Ivy League’s campus. But that description hardly does justice to this well-wrought and chilling thriller.
Cady Archer arrives in the hallowed halls of Harvard determined not only to get a great education, but also uncover the truth behind her brother’s suicide there the year before. Eric was fine when he got to Cambridge, but regretfully ended up developing severe schizophrenia instead of just packing on the dreaded freshman 15. When the very ghosts who moved into his head began communicating with her as well, Cady races to find the truth before the same madness claims her.
“Ghosts of Harvard” presents a postmodern gothic tale wrapped in the fabric of a traditional thriller to sterling results. A magnificent mix of the Henry James classic “The Turn of the Screw” with Donna Tart’s “The Secret History.”
Otho Eskin’s “The Reflecting Pool” (Oceanview) is the kind of crime-thriller Ross McDonald would have written if he were still alive today. That’s a high bar for any author to reach but Eskin proves more equal to the task.
That’s due in large part to his hero, unorthodox homicide detective Marko Zorn, who has tastes far in excess of his Washington, D.C., homicide detective’s salary. That results in him taking side work not in keeping with his job. Zorn’s worlds collide when he comes upon the drowned body of a Secret Service agent and finds himself on the trail of bad guys with far worse plans in the offing.
“The Reflecting Pool” is a crime-thriller constructed along classic lines and in Zorn, Eskin has created the best crime hero this side of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Woven from the fabric of masters like John D. MacDonald and Robert Crais, this riveting page-turner is never afraid to cut its own cloth.
Matt Goldman combines his insider knowledge of the entertainment industry with classic Hollywood detective noir in the relentlessly entertaining “Dead West” (Forge).
What starts out as a routine job for private detective Nils Shapiro becomes anything but that, when he gets to the root of why a client’s grandson is squandering his considerable trust fund. Shapiro’s investigation takes us inside the inner workings of Hollywood, the very nuts and bolts of an industry where corruption may be nothing new but murder is.
The fact that he hails from the Midwest marks Shapiro as something of a fish out of water, just one of the many ingredients that make “Dead West” a great read. Add just enough humor and terrific pacing to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for everything the hardboiled detective novel of today is supposed to be.
Damien Lewis’ wondrously realized Churchill’s “Shadow Raiders: The Race to Develop Radar, WWII’s Invisible Secret Weapon” (Kensington) isn’t a work of fiction, but that doesn’t stop it from reading like a top-notch thriller fashioned by the likes of Jack Higgins or Frederick Forsyth.
Don’t be fooled by the apt, though dry, subtitle, because this is adventure writing that would make Alistair McClean proud, circa “The Guns of Navarone.” That comparison is actually appropriate, given that Lewis’ latest war-themed nonfiction tome is chock full of parachute landings behind enemy lines, daring raids and ordinary men who become extraordinary heroes. All in quest of the German radar technology which threatened to change the course of the war.
The narrative is so riveting and powerful that it’s easy to forget you’re reading fact instead of fiction. Lewis writes with the alacrity of the great Eric Larson, while displaying an even keener sense of storytelling.
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