*****The Never-Open Desert Diner

Utah Highway

photo: Bhanu Tadinada, creative commons license

By James Anderson – This debut novel is masterfully travels a remote strip of high desert highway to all the important destinations of the human heart. Recommended by the fine folks at Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen bookshop, it checks a lot of genre boxes. It isn’t typical crime fiction, though there are crimes in it. It has a nice dose of both mystery and romance. It’s inescapably a Western, as it takes place in a desolate section of Utah. The one genre it doesn’t draw from is science fiction, though strange things certainly do happen out there in the back of beyond.

I would put this unforgettable 2015 book on my short list of “must-reads.” Reviewer Patrick Anderson in The Washington Post calls it “outstanding in every regard—writing, plot, dialogue, suspense, humor, a vivid sense of place.” Agreed, whole-heartedly.

Ben Jones owns a business as a short-haul truck driver whose route takes him back and forth along a hundred-mile stretch of Utah highway 117, between Price and the fictional former coal-mining town of Rockmuse. (For purposes of the novel, Anderson has relocated this highway about 40 miles east of its IRL location.) He makes deliveries for FedEx, UPS, and other companies to the scattered residents along the route, and, if they put out a red handkerchief by the road, he stops to get their orders for goods to be delivered from town.

Anderson sets up the isolation and the harsh conditions so effectively that Ben’s description of his clients—“Such folks were a special breed”— is almost superfluous. You anticipate meeting some real characters hidden away out there, and you do. Chief among them is Walt Butterfield, owner-operator of The Well-Known Desert Diner, though locals have amended that to the more accurate “Never-Open Desert Diner.” Walt is an angry geezer who restores old motorcycles. He lost his wife years earlier after an episode with some violent customers, and the extent to which he hasn’t recovered becomes apparent only over time. Each time any of Anderson’s characters wander into a scene, something interesting happens.

Ben happens upon a barely started housing development across the road from the diner, hidden by a rise, and containing only one house. Inhabited. The woman who lives there plays a cello with no strings, except, it transpires, those of Ben’s heart. About their initial prickly contacts, Ben gives one of his typically colorful and insightful comments: “I knew from experience that if you’re about to do something you probably shouldn’t do, the best advice you can give yourself is not to think about it too long. It ruins the surprise when the worst happens.” Soon odd events begin, and the strong plot unfolds like the road in front of Ben, going toward a place not particularly desirable, but barreling toward an ending.

Ben is a likeable and perceptive narrator, with especially acute radar for bullshit. Yet he looks upon the troubled and eccentric people he encounters with a nonjudgmental, compassionate eye. He respects their desire to be left alone. All of them are struggling, him included. When the world starts to open up for him, is it real or just another desert mirage?

This is the kind of story that really couldn’t take place anywhere but in such a remote location. The isolation engenders insights as well as eccentricity. It has those quality of literary genre work that inspire closing the book for a moment for reflection and a head-nod. The lyrical language in talking about such a dusty and forlorn place elevates the story and makes it unforgettable: “The highway ahead lolled in sunlight. It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.”

The Next Generation of Mystery/Thriller Readers

Nancy DrewThe fiction that appeals to teen readers follows certain general principles (notably, lack of adult supervision) that will sound familiar to adults who grew up with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. In retrospect, these stories of mystery and adventure may seem weak broth alongside the themes popular now.  Today’s teens seem mired in a world of hurt: dystopian novels and series, like the Hunger Games and Divergent, vampires and werewolves, and, more recently suicide narratives.

Atlantic commentator Heather Horn suggests such books, rather than fostering a dark view of the world, reflect the view our youth already have. “The young are attracted to the genre because it so perfectly mirrors their experience of the at once vibrant and sinister world of middle school and high school.” There’s a chilling thought.

Since people sat around campfires listening to stories, they’ve taken pleasure in tales of mystery and adventure. Today’s teens are reading less and less, availing themselves of fewer narratives of success and accomplishment to pattern their own lives on. Can they be drawn back to reading with good stories? With plucky protagonists who figure things out, who solve problems, who cleverly elude dangers here in the real world?

I’ve read two new novels lately that I think manage this.

****League of American Traitors

Written by Matthew Landis – This debut YA thriller is set in the modern day, with one foot firmly planted in American history. The promising (but ultimately rather far-fetched) idea underlying the story is that the descendants of American heroes (from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World Wars I and II) belong to a shadowy group called the True Sons of Liberty, while the descendants of history’s notorious traitors belong to the equally shadowy and eponymous League of American Traitors.

When a traitor descendant turns 18, he or she will be challenged to a duel and must accept the challenge or go into a lifetime of hiding. Descendants who choose the duel and survive are free to live in peace thereafter. Author Landis keeps the teens’ interactions at a slangy and superficial level; further, some of the adult portrayals are overly stereotyped and the dialog is a touch Hollywood. For the most part, there’s little exploration of the backgrounds of the characters’ ancestors, which seems like a lost opportunity. Perhaps it will interest teens in delving further.

The book nevertheless raises thought-provoking and unexpectedly timely issues. When discussing the impact on the duelist of actually killing another person, one of the hero’s friends admonishes him, “Don’t rationalize it. That’s what the Libertines do—use honor to make murder okay.” My longer review of this book is available at CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Trell

By Dick Lehr – Inspired by the true case of a Boston preteen’s murder and the false imprisonment of a young African-American father for the crime, this compelling first-person narrative recreates the efforts of the convict’s teenage daughter to exonerate her father and vividly portrays the allies and enemies she makes along the way. A highly engaging character, Trell has grown up without a father in her life, but by sheer willpower and a growing mound of evidence convinces a has-been reporter and a dogged lawyer to join her fight. Author Lehr is a former reporter for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (yes, that Spotlight team), which took on the case. The father was no saint, but he wasn’t a murderer, either.

*****Maisie Dobbs

cup of tea

photo: Raheel Shahid, creative commons license

Though this book hasn’t acquired the patina of age, the legion of fans for the award-winning 13-book series would no doubt enthusiastically endorse its classic status. Having read the first one, I’m eager to read more.

Maisie’s story begins in London in 1929, when she opens her office as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s enormously advantaged—not because she’s born to the upper classes, like the roughly contemporaneous Lord Peter Wimsey—but because of her own pluck, hard work, and keen insight.

Her first client is a man who believes his wife’s strange behavior hides a possible dalliance. Maisie shadows the woman and uncovers something quite different behind her mysterious disappearances. Before she will reveal the wife’s sad secret, she makes sure the husband is prepared to act on her findings and thereby to relieve his wife’s distress.

Maisie’s insights have been cultivated by the celebrated detective Dr. Maurice Blanche. Raised the daughter of a costermonger, financial straits require her to enter service at a young age, and in a long section in the middle of the book, we learn how Maisie’s employer, Lady Rowan, discovers her reading the Lord’s library in the wee hours of the morning. Her intellectual gifts recognized, Maisie’s education is turned over to Lady Rowan’s friend, Dr. Blanche. Hard work subsequently gets her into university. Her academic career, if not her education, is interrupted by World War I, and she serves as an aid station nurse behind the front lines of France.

Now it’s 1929, and though the world powers have signed a peace treaty, for many Britons, the Great War is not over. Both the client’s mysterious wife and Lady Rowan’s own son—suffering from what was then called shell-shock and today we call PTSD—have links to a murky organization called The Retreat, which purports to give veterans who simply cannot live in society a safe haven. But is it what it says it is? By combining a clandestine investigation of The Retreat with Maisie’s strong emotional connection to the experiences of war, author Winspear has created a truly compelling story.

What sets the series apart from the norm is the interplay of psychological elements and Maisie’s strong empathy. Take, for example, the interesting notion drilled into her by Dr. Blanche that, when you pry a story or a confession out of someone, you need to recognize that “the story takes up space as a knot in a piece of wood. If the knot is removed, a hole remains. We must ask ourselves, how will this hole that we have opened be filled?” In other words, investigators’ responsibilities don’t end when they’ve wrung a confession out of someone.

The book is written in an easygoing style, and the details of daily life, manners, and attitudes seem to perfectly fit the post-war era in which it is set. Never stodgy, it moves along briskly, in part thanks to strong secondary characters. The occasional clashes in social strata keep things interesting, as dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey exploited so effectively. In Maisie, I’ve found a terrific new literary companion!

****The Snowman

The Snowman, Jo NesboBy Jo Nesbø, narrated by Robin Sachs — As the film of Jo Nesbø’s quintessential police procedural The Snowman (2007) comes to the big screen, listening to the audio version is perhaps a dramatized alternative between reading this terrifying bestseller and seeing the film (trailer), which, if the critics are to be believed, is pretty much a bust.

The book begins in 1980 on “the day the snow came.” A clingy married woman and her lover have a final midday assignation while her young son waits outside in the car. A hint of menace, a sense of being watched, hangs over the scene. The watcher turns out to be nothing more than a snowman, but the boy says the snowman gave him a message: “We’re going to die.”

The book then jumps to 2004, again November, again a first snowfall, and a missing woman, Birte Becker. She and her husband Filip also have a son. A snowman mysteriously appears on the Becker’s lawn.

The Snowman was the seventh outing for Nesbø’s prickly alcoholic detective, Harry Hole. Harry’s notoriety from capturing an Australian serial killer in book one (The Bat) haunts him in the Oslo department, making his superiors and colleagues reluctant to believe Harry’s contention that a serial killer is at work in Norway. The psychology of these interactions is strong. There’s a lapskaus (Norwegian stew) of grudging respect and desire to downplay another’s success—in short, all the petty office jealousies that interfere with getting work done.

A bright new transfer from the Bergen PD, Katrine Bratt, is assigned to work with Harry on the Birte Becker case. While he at first doubts her usefulness, her experience on the Bergen sex squad gives her good insight. They investigate cases of missing women going back a number of years, and Bratt discovers they all coincided with winter’s first snowfall. Another previously unrecognized common denominator is that a snowman stood near where each woman disappeared, an innocent symbol transformed into a diabolical observer.

The trope of settling first on one suspect, then having that theory demolished and settling on another, and so on, has become a bit hackneyed, though this is an excellent example of where it works well. When you are only 50 pages (or an hour) into a book and the police start saying they have their man, you know they’re wrong. Twists and turns inevitably lie ahead, with the real culprit laying down a succession of misleading clues. Nesbø is so clever with his logical traps that, even though you are sure they lie in wait, they’re still a surprise.

The Scandinavian setting is, basically Nordic noir. Snowy. Wet. Dark. And the story moves through the slush in a doggedly determined fashion, like Harry himself, without any of the literary attributes that help crime fiction rise above the genre.

Well-developed secondary characters—a slimy plastic surgeon, the strangely distant father Filip Becker, a chauvinist playboy media mogul, and a now-dead policeman involved in an earlier Snowman case—are all attractive suspects whom Nesbø dangles in front of you.

The narration by the late English actor Robin Sachs is solid. Sachs has a good feel for the characters, having narrated several Harry Hole books, even though he makes Harry sound older and more dissolute than I picture him. A bit of a problem for audio that wouldn’t arise in reading this story is that the characters’ names are hard to remember, especially those of the victims. Regular readers of Harry Hole novels would have an advantage here, because they’d be already familiar with the Oslo PD personnel. It’s a minor quibble and requires only a little extra attention.

For more on Harry Hole and his universe, read CrimeFictionLover.com’s complete guide to the series here.

*****The Cossack

photo: Ivan Bandura, creative commons license

By KJ Lawrence – Though this debut espionage thriller kicks off with a murder in winter 2014, it’s not the usual intercontinental bloodbath. In fact, in a nice twist, the killer—a Russian hit man named Mikhail Petrov—is having serious second thoughts about his choice of career. He regrets the string of corpses he’s left in his wake, and is weighing the likelihood he could change occupations without himself becoming a victim of the SVR—the heir to the KGB. With the death that opens this book, at least he gets what he came for: a set of 18th century banking documents.

Mikhail is an ethnic Russian who grew up in the Ukraine, and his victim is a young Ukrainian named Ivan, working in London as an assistant to noted photographer Daniel Brooking. Ivan has disappeared, but it’s happened before, and Daniel is not too worried about it until he receives a visit from Ivan’s friend, British intelligence official Anthony Graves. Finding out what happened to Ivan becomes a truth mission for Daniel. All he has to go on are some documents relating to a mysterious financial transaction during the American Revolution.

Across town, Mikhail Petrov likewise studies the papers he stole from Ivan. Though Ivan had cleverly divided his resources, both sets of documents converge on one location, a bank headquartered in New London, Connecticut. Mikhail travels there, and finds Daniel a half-step ahead of him. In author Lawrence’s hands, the shifts between these two characters’ points of view work well. They’re well-rounded, believable, interesting, and temperamentally different from each other. Daniel may be the novel’s main character, but Mikhail is more sympathetic than you’d expect and has considerably more skills for dealing with the hazards this unlikely duo eventually confronts.

You can almost smell the dust on the half-forgotten legend they uncover concerning a fortune in gold. What could this far-fetched tale have to do with modern-day Ukraine? Why was Ivan killed for delving into it? A question that does not occur to Daniel, at least at first, is whether poking a stick at this particular bear puts him at risk too.

Lawrence creates a strong sense of urgency by interspersing a parallel story line involving Ukrainian protests against the Russian-supported government, which peaked in 2014, the time when this novel is set. Ivan’s sister Yana, a physician, is an active participant in Kiev’s independence movement and a witness to the violence perpetrated by the Ukrainian police. Yana is poking a bear, too, determined to put an end to the careers of the worst offenders. Although this thread of the story is thinner than the main tale, it provides a real-life grounding and urgency to Daniel and Mikhail’s activities continents away.

The Cossack is a fine debut, with Lawrence a compelling—and compassionate—author worth watching.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

****The Ex

photo: Mr. Nixter, creative commons license

Written by Alafair Burke – Even two decades later, New York criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall has never quite forgiven herself for the unnecessarily cruel way she broke up with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Subsequently, however, Jack seems to have found happiness in his career as a best-selling novelist and on the family front with his wife Molly and teenage daughter Buckley. But that happiness was merely a respite. Three years before the novel begins, a mentally disturbed fifteen-year-old murdered thirteen people and injured many more in a Penn Station shooting. One of the dead was Molly Harris.

The boy was the son of prominent investment banker Malcolm Neeley, who’d refused to get the boy treatment or do “anything that would label his son as ‘sick.’” The outraged families of the victims, led by Harris, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Neeley, a suit recently dismissed by the court.

The book opens with the transcript of a police station interview with Harris. An NYPD detective is looking for information about a shooting that occurred earlier in the day: “Boyle: Okay, I’ve turned on the machine, Mr. Harris. Just to make clear, are you here at the First Precinct voluntarily?” Then, “And you’re willing to speak to me of your own accord?” You know immediately that Jack has already made a colossal mistake. He’s talking to the police without a lawyer.

Their flimsy excuse for taking him to the station for the interview, the pretense of needing to put the interview on tape because they’re talking to so many potential witnesses, all are bright flashing neon letters reading, “you’re in the deep water now, Jack!” The interview tells you a lot about Jack as well as the trouble he’s likely in. when the police reveal that one of the three people killed in that morning’s shootings is Malcolm Neeley.

Partly out of her own past guilt and partly because she can’t imagine Jack committing any crime remotely close to a triple murder, Olivia takes on Jack’s case. One of her first challenges is trying to unravel the puzzling sequence of events that lured Jack to the vicinity of the shootings in the first place. It seems to have been an elaborate ruse involving a woman, a book, and a picnic basket, with a big assist from social media. Did this woman even exist?

In her Internet research, especially, Olivia is aided by her office assistant Einer, a smart and savvy young man with a gift for sarcasm. Many of the other secondary characters come across strongly too in Burke’s skilled hands.

In the face of mounting evidence and doubts about Jack, Olivia can’t help but wonder, is this the same man I knew two decades ago? Can you ever really know what someone else is capable of? These are not uncommon questions, and the final reveal is fairly familiar territory as well.

In The Ex, you see a civilized, realistic New York City—not the city of top-to-bottom corruption in Don Winslow’s summer hit, The Force. Burke’s is a city of private schools, functioning public services, trendy night spots, and Armani.

On the short list for an Edgar Award in 2017, this is Alafair Burke’s eleventh crime thriller. She is a professor of criminal law in New York, a former prosecutor and has good genes. She’s the daughter of acclaimed thriller writer James Lee Burke.

****The Place of Refuge

orchid-leis

photo: Emilia, creative commons license

By Al Tucher – This 160-page novella takes great advantage of its setting on the Big Island of Hawai`i. For those who’ve visited the islands (or wanted to), this is a low-cost, no-jet-lag trip full of adventure.

For some time, Detective Errol Coutinho of the Hawai`i County Police and his partner, Detective Kim, have been on the trail of a serial killer of prostitutes. The murders stopped for a period of months, but now a Filipino hotel maid has discovered what appears to be the renewal of working-girl carnage. They need a decoy.

On the island of Oahu, undercover police officer Jessie Hokoana of the Honolulu Police Department is working to expose a major drug dealer, getting close to him and gaining his confidence using the oldest trick in the book. Jessie grew up on the Big Island, daughter of the owner of a small Korean barbeque place and Hosea Hokoana, an enormous Hawaiian man who feared nothing and no one, except perhaps Jessie’s mother. Hosea decamped from the family twenty years ago, when Jessie was young.

Jessie’s investigative target and boyfriend, Teddy Dias, is persuaded to go to Mexico to try to make a marijuana-supply deal with the leader of a Mexican cartel. Pakalolo—nicknamed Kona Gold or Puna Butter—could be supplied by Teddy and fed into the Mexicans’ distribution network. He takes Jessie with him. She agrees, mainly because she’s heard about a cage fighter there whom she believes may be her father.

In Hawai`i the police can give her only minimal protection, but in Mexico, none at all. And when the hoped-for drug deal goes south, only her father can save her. If he realizes who she is. If he wants to.  The story of Jessie’s family, especially of Hosea and his return to Hawaiian society and the consequences of that, ultimately involving Coutinho and Kim, predominate in the story.

This book provides a great flavor for the rich multi-cultural society in Hawai’i. Coutinho’s ancestors were Portuguese, while Kim is Korean; their boss, Tanaka, is Japanese. Jessie is half Hawaiian and half Anglo. In author Tucher’s hands, these characters are interesting and unique individuals, not bending to stereotype.

There’s also humor in the book, especially among the detectives. Tucher resolves the big plot questions, but not the human relationship questions, which is probably more realistic than an excessively tidy ending and holds the door open for further installments, which will be as welcome as a trip to the islands!

*****I.Q.

wild dog

photo: numb photo, creative commons license

Written by Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Japanese-American author Joe Ide grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and it’s obvious he kept his ears open. He has a remarkable ability to capture the cadences, the vocabulary, the put-downs, and the jiving of the mostly African-American characters in his debut novel, deservedly  nominated for numerous awards. Sullivan Jones’s stellar narration of the audio version truly does Ide’s rich dialog justice.

Growing up, Ide’s favorite books were Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and in his book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old prodigy Isaiah Quintabe, he’s created a new kind of superbly logical Holmes in an unlikely urban California setting, East Long Beach.

The teen lives with his older brother and legal guardian Marcus, the only family member he knows. He idolizes Marcus, who badgers Isaiah to excel. When Marcus is killed in a hit-and-run accident right in front of him, Isaiah is so bereft he drops out of high school. Although he’s underage, he’s determined to keep Marcus’s apartment, in some sense to keep Marcus close and to avoid the foster care system.

The low-level jobs he can snag aren’t bringing in the income he needs, though, and he takes in a roommate—the irrepressible, dope-dealing, trash-talking, rap-music-loving Juanell Dodson, who is soon joined by his girlfriend Deronda . If you’re easily put off by four-letter words or black folks calling each other nigga, this is probably not the book for you, though the language is absolutely true to the characters.

Dodson comes to IQ with a proposal for a high-profile gig that’s fallen into his lap: to figure out who’s behind a strange attack on a leading rap star. They watch a security video of the night when the rapper is alone in his mansion and a huge and superbly trained attack dog bursts through the doggie door. The people are threatening enough, but this dog . . .

Dodson is a bundle of barely controlled emotions, while Isaiah maintains his calm demeanor, whether he’s dealing with the star-personality rapper and his entourage, the bad guys, the neighborhood lady whose daughter’s wedding presents were stolen, the former auto-racing owner of TK’s Wrecking Yard who teaches him to really drive, or high-maintenance Dodson and Deronda.

I.Q. was nominated for Edgar, Barry, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards for a best first novel, won a Shamus Award, and was named by numerous publications (New York Times, Washington Post, Amazon, Suspense Magazine), as one of the best books of 2017.

Narrator Sullivan Jones is a California-based actor who brings a gift for humor and a lively understanding of the characters in this novel that makes his reading both perceptive and entertaining. An excellent choice for audio.

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

****They All Fall Down

caramelized sugar

photo: Serene Vannoy, creative commons license

By Tammy Cohen – Hannah is a new patient in a women’s low-security psychiatric facility called The Meadows outside London, the result of an incident Cohen takes some time to reveal.

In the several weeks before this psychological thriller opens, two of the facility’s dozen or so patients have committed suicide. In fact, the first line is, “Charlie cut her wrists last week with a shard of caramelized sugar.” Hannah doesn’t believe Charlie killed herself. She believes both of the so-called suicides were murder. But who will believe her?

Most of the short chapters are told in either Hannah’s first-person point of view or that of her mother Corinne, in third-person. Corinne isn’t sure what to make of Hannah’s accusations. She wants to believe her daughter, but Hannah’s done some strange things lately that weaken her credibility.

At the same time, Corinne is desperate to believe her daughter is safe at The Meadows. And the director, Dr. Oliver Roberts, and the art therapist, the supportive Laura, as well as most of the other staff seem capable and conscientious, don’t they? Are these people who they say they are? Their contention that their patients are high-risk, with histories of suicide attempts, never quite reassures her.

Author Cohen has assembled an interesting group of patients: Odelle, thin as a stick with serious eating disorders; Stella, whose otherworldly appearance results from too many cosmetic surgeries, including removal of a rib to achieve a smaller waistline; and Judith, who says she’s just being “honest” when she makes her intentionally cruel remarks. As events unfold and confidences are shared, these patients form a kind of lamenting Greek chorus.

The characters are mostly well developed; however, it was jarring when the patients’ ages would be mentioned. They were in their mid-thirties or so (Hannah is 32), but they came across like teenagers. Perhaps this is because they are highly dependent, vulnerable personalities.

Throw into the mix a lurking filmmaker and his cameraman working on a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary. The filmmakers were a nice touch (with the director Justin “doused in self-absorption like cheap cologne”), since an underlying theme of the book is perception. What does the “neutral” eye of the camera perceive? What do each of the characters perceive about each other, and do they trust each others’ perceptions—they certainly share doubts about Hannah’s—and does she even trust her own?

In general, the writing style is effective and the pace is good and varied. Cohen uses cliffhangers to keep you reading “one more chapter”—mysterious items and messages turn up in the hospital, a red baby hat on Corinne’s doorstep. Eventually these are all explained, but the repeated technique begins to feel artificial. On the whole, an intriguing psychological thriller.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.