***A Noise Downstairs

typewriter, writing

Steven Depolo, creative commons license

By Linwood Barclay – A professor at a small Connecticut college, living with his second wife on the shore of Long Island Sound, Paul Davis has had a rather unremarkable life until late one October night when he recognizes the broken taillight of his colleague Kenneth’s car and follows it.

Kenneth is driving erratically, and Paul worries the older man might be tipsy. When Kenneth stops his car on a lonely road and pops the trunk, Paul stops too and is shocked to see the bodies of two women inside. Wielding a shovel, Kenneth bangs him on the head and would have murdered him, except for the timely appearance of the police, investigating that car with a broken taillight they noticed a few moments before.

Eight months later, Kenneth has pleaded guilty to the murders and is in prison, but Paul hasn’t fully recovered. The blow to the head has mostly resolved, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks. His wife Charlotte and his psychologist Anna encourage him, but he has headaches, he forgets things, he’s haunted by the murders. Paul knew the dead women slightly and it seems Kenneth was carrying on with both at once. Only his wife was unaware of his reputation for womanizing.

Much of the story takes place within the four walls of Paul’s house, making it another one of those claustrophobic, unreliable narrator domestic thrillers which there are a lot of lately. Unfortunately, for me at least, that took the freshness out of Barclay’s story, though he has a nice red herring woven in.

Paul is determined to regain a grip on his life and decides the best way to try to answer his many lingering questions about the murders would be to review everything about the case and the reasons people commit murder. Charlotte and Anna are initially dubious, but persuaded by his determination.

Charlotte even buys him an old-fashioned Underwood typewriter. It’s a talisman of the case, because in one of its more ghoulish aspects, Kenneth made his victims type a note on such a typewriter, apologizing for their “immoral, licentious, whore-like behavior.” When Paul repeatedly hears the typewriter in the middle of the night, he slips downstairs to see who is using it, but the house is empty. He half-believes the dead women are trying to communicate with him.

On a visit to Anna, he loses his keys and Charlotte has to pick him up. Now here, the author lost me, because if he drove to the office and after their session he doesn’t have his keys, why wasn’t a thorough search made before calling for a ride? Then when Paul believes there’s been an intruder at his home, why does it take many pages for the characters to recall the missing keys? Ultimately, they are “found” in one of the two chairs in Anna’s office, but that unlikely discovery is taken at face value, and no one wonders whether they were there all along.

Odd events continue, and to put the ghostly typewriter issue to rest, his friend Bill suggests that he put a piece of paper in it and see what the women want to say. It’s an absurd idea, except that messages begin to appear. Even if you are skeptical of the paranormal, it’s not easy to see how these tricks are being accomplished, and Paul, not fully of sound mind, is increasingly anxious.

Author Barclay keeps the tension and the possibilities going at a brisk clip, and though you may figure out the direction of the plot early on, he has surprises in store.

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Listen Up! Take 2

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Three notable audiobooks for your consideration: the fantastic debut novel She Rides Shotgun, award-nominee The Breakdown, and Hangman, follow-up to last year’s mega-hit, Ragdoll. Starting with the best of the three.

*****She Rides Shotgun
By Jordan Harper, narrated by David Marantz – Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best debut novel, this is the audio equivalent of a real page-turner (though I’m never tempted to listen at 2x speed!). When Nate McClusky leaves prison after refusing to work for the dangerous gang Aryan Steel, a death warrant is issued for him and his family. He finds out how determined the killers are when he discovers his ex-wife and her new husband murdered, and realizes his eleven-year-old daughter Polly will be next. He picks her up at school before the killers find her, and the chase is on. They’re practically strangers to each other, as he’s been incarcerated for most of her childhood. She’s a quirky kid, shy and smart as a whip, teddy bear in tow.

Nate hasn’t had much parenting experience, but he warms to the role, and two have terrifying—and sometimes heartwarming—adventures roaming Southern California, as they gradually become partners in evading their would-be killers as well as the police. Betrayal is a constant anxiety. Based on the premise—the criminal dad, the kid—I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as I did, no small part of which relates to Marantz’s excellent narration.

Another recent and remarkable book about a criminal father raising a daughter was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, also an award nominee.

***The Breakdown
By B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire – Another domestic thriller of the “is she going crazy, or is someone doing this to her?” variety. Unfortunately, the big reveal seemed obvious early on, which tarnished the entertainment value. I selected it because the book was on the “Best Novel” short-list for a 2018 Thriller Award. Compared to the other two nominees I read, it falls short of the nail-biting excitement of Gin Phillips’s Fierce Kingdom or the fascination of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will.

Rain on Windshield

Iwan Gabovitch, creative commons license

The story takes place in and around a mid-sized English market town. One night, as Cass is driving through the woods to her isolated (natch) home in a terrible rainstorm, she sees a woman in her car, stopped by the side of the road. Since the woman doesn’t appear to be in distress, rather than get drenched, she doesn’t offer aid. The next morning, she learns the woman has been murdered. And that she knows her.

Guilt over not helping, strange occurrences that make her think the killer may now be stalking her, and fear that, like her mother, she may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s make for a pretty mopey outlook. The narration reflects that, though I admire Maguire’s portrayal of the long-suffering husband. You can hear—and empathize with—his growing doubts about his wife’s mental state. If you like the “gaslight” sub-genre, you may enjoy this.

**Hangman
By Daniel Cole, narrated by Alex Wyndham – This book follows on the successful 2017 thriller Ragdoll, and involves some of the same characters, charged with solving a series of baffling murders that hits London and New York. Are they Ragdoll-related or grisly copycats? DCI Emily Baxter, who was key to solving the Ragdoll case, is flown to New York to liaise [!]. I like how prickly she is—don’t try to sweet-talk her for god’s sake! The CIA operative is an engaging character too.

I’m not squeamish, but my lack of enthusiasm for Hangman derives from its excess of sadistic violence, which appeared ramped up for shock value. A male narrator was chosen for the audiobook, though usually the narrator’s gender matches that of the protagonist. Possibly the publishers thought the extreme violence would be better portrayed in a male voice, and Wyndham does a fine job presenting UK and US characters of varying ethnicities.

Read an earlier Listen Up! compilation here.

*****The Woman in the Window

Wine Bottles

photo: H Williams, creative commons license

By AJ Finn — From the first pages of this immersive psychological thriller by newcomer AJ Finn, you’re pulled into the claustrophobic world of Anna Fox, the story’s first-person narrator. You don’t see much of New York other than her townhouse, and by the end of the book, you may feel boxed in by its walls too.

Anna is not coping well after suffering some psychological trauma that’s caused the breakup of her marriage, and you eventually learn the particulars. Though she talks to husband Ed and daughter Olivia by phone, they have moved out, leaving her rattling around her Harlem townhouse alone.

Before the family break-up, Anna worked as a child psychologist with children damaged by abuse, neglect, psychosis, modern life. Now she’s the patient. She has developed a severe case of agoraphobia and does not—cannot—leave that house. Her psychiatrist and physical therapist come to her. Her groceries and drugs are delivered. She actually takes quite a few drugs, washing them down with astonishing quantities of red wine, delivered a case at a time, and lies about this dangerous practice to her doctor, husband Ed, and anyone else who asks.

To amuse herself, Anna watches old black and white movies and spies on the neighborhood, using the zoom lens of her camera—much better than binoculars, she claims. Soon her own situation takes on the elements of the classic noir films Gaslight and Rear Window. Between the drugs and the merlot, you wonder whether Anna’s movie obsession is coloring her perceptions of real-life events.

Although Anna is obviously both disturbed and muddled, Finn has written her with compassion and truth. Her behavior is consistent with her character and disordered state of mind, and you believe in her actions, even the brave ones almost impossibly difficult for her.

Her new neighbors become aware of her spying and want her to stop. However, their teenage son befriends her. He’s a little lonely living in a new city and has other unremarkable teenage woes like the adolescents she’d occasionally see in her clinical practice. To him, she’s a refreshingly non-judgmental conversationalist. But when Anna sees the teenager’s mother murdered and accuses the husband of killing her, the family tells the police she’s delusional. Noticing the profusion of empty wine bottles, they doubt her too. I thought I saw where all this was headed, but Finn has several surprises in store.

Stories with unreliable narrators are a staple of the thriller genre. Sometimes the narrators know they’re bending the truth to manipulate the people around them. Anna is as desperate to bring reality into focus as is everyone else around her.

****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.

*****Say Nothing

By Brad Parks – After these powerful opening lines, you pretty much have to keep reading this new thriller:

Say Nothing, Brad Parks, cell phone

photo: Japanexperterna.se, creative commons license

“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”

With these few words, the deep anxiety all parents feel for the safety of their children bubbles up. The reader anticipates the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller, as a family confronts its horrifying challenges.

Most of the book is told in first-person, from the point of view of Scott Sampson, a judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, “many steps off the beaten path.”

The kidnappers’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Judge Sampson into convicting a clearly guilty drug-dealer and murderer. At the last minute, his instructions change: “Let him walk.” It’s not an exercise in thwarting justice; it’s to show how much power they hold over him. One order the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”

Soon you realize the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case—a patent dispute involving a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical product. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and much else, which he does with an enormous sense of loss. Once he has unshackled himself from the basic tenets of the legal system, how far will he actually go?

Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress game would generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and it’s impossible to keep from them what happened to the children. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their support gives the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.

Parks does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers. Although you probably have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings—and why—there are surprises in store. There’s also an unnecessary plot twist at the end that muddies the mother’s motives. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.

Parks’s earlier books, like The Good Cop, demonstrate a wicked sense of humor, which he says he deliberately excised from Say Nothing. This book shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.

The Girl on the Train

girl-on-the-trainThis movie thriller (trailer) written by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor is based on Paula Hawkins’s runaway best-selling novel. Cognoscenti in the crime fiction world consider the book distinctly overrated, so an investment of two hours in the movie theater may be preferable to a dozen hours of reading. Maybe this was a bad choice. As Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com says, “The Girl on the Train is good trash. At least as a novel, it is. As a film, however, it’s not even that.”

The story is initially engaging, thanks primarily to excellent acting by Emily Blount as Rachel, the alcoholic protagonist. She knows her husband Tom had an affair and left their childless marriage primarily because of her drinking but seems to be spinning ever-further out of control, a vodka-in-the-water-bottle kind of drinker.

I’m not persuaded by critics who say the film withholds pertinent information, because it is mostly told from Rachel’s point of view. We see the world as she does—none too clearly—with a few scenes from the also-limited perspectives of the other two principal women.

Rachel commutes into the city every day from Westchester (London in the novel), and her train passes behind their former house. She can see him (played by Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby. She also sees the devoted neighbor couple (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), whose love seems perfect in these tantalizing glimpses. If her city job were real, exposing herself to hurt with this voyeurism might be torture. Since her job is imaginary, it’s pathological.

You will have guessed that the neighbor couple’s relationship is more complicated than Rachel apprehends, and when the woman turns up missing, Rachel’s obsessions and her hazy perceptions create havoc. It’s always fun to see Allison Janney, here as a police detective investigating the disappearance and trying to make sense of Rachel’s “evidence.”

Ultimately, the motivations that drive what turns out to be a six-sided story of love and lust, deceit and dangerous truth-telling are deeply clichéd, and there are a few too many close-ups of a befuddled Rachel. The Girl on the Train is a ride to nowhere terribly interesting.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 44%; audiences 56%.

***Jack of Spades

playing card, Jack of Spades

(photo: Poker Photos, creative commons license)

By Joyce Carol Oates – This rather short (200-page) new psychological thriller is told as a first-person narrative by successful mystery author “Andrew J. Rush.” Rush thinks of himself with quote marks around his name, perhaps because he’s beginning to realize identity is more ephemeral than he’s heretofore believed. The reader soon learns he’s begun secretly writing a new series of books under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” These books are an exceptionally dark, crude, and surprisingly popular [!] departure from AJR’s usual output. Worse, writing books under his own name is laborious, whereas Jack of Spades books fly onto the page from the tip of his pen.

AJR is one of those intriguing characters, the unreliable narrator. He is self-obsessed, but not self-aware. The reader realizes immediately that, given a choice between behavior that makes sense and behavior that will get him into trouble, he will choose trouble every time. When a woman from the local community launches a baseless plagiarism suit against him, he has two choices: a) call his publisher’s legal department; or b) telephone the woman and try to reason with her. You or I would lawyer up. AJR, of course, chooses b), which leads to a frightful scene.

It turns out this plaintiff is slightly unhinged, with a history of suing prominent authors for stealing her outlines and ideas—she’s even sued Stephen King, his lawyer tells him—and the court readily dismisses her complaint. But AJR can’t let it go; he becomes obsessed with her. Added to this is the increasingly insistent voice of Jack of Spades who, like a malevolent Jiminy Cricket, goads AJR toward further steps in all the wrong directions.

Early in the book, the dogged plaintiff reminded me of the fangirl-turned-vicious in Stephen King’s Misery. (Although Oates takes her novel in a different direction, the King thriller must have been in her mind, too, because she includes a reference to it.) Strangely energized by his growing fears, it is AJR who repeatedly courts a confrontation with his litigious nemesis, escalations conveyed vividly in Oates’s tension-filled writing.

This being a novel whose narrator is an author, it includes some early passages disguised as notes on craft that are actually deft foreshadowing. AJR is discussing the structure of the book he is currently working on and how he plans to include a contrasting “hero” and “villain” in alternating chapters, with the hero prevailing in the end. AJR and the asides from the Jack of Spades play those contrapuntal roles, as well. His planned final punishment of the villain is part of the implicit contract between mystery authors and their readers that allows for “an ending that is both plausible and unexpected.” If there’s a flaw in Oates’s book, it is that the ending falls short of that goal.

By making the narrator a somewhat high-brow mystery writer, Oates can quite naturally adopt a voice for the book that reveals a great deal about AJR in its pretentiousness and deprecating attitude regarding his wife and certainly the townspeople. As a reader, you probably won’t like AJR, but it’s delicious to see such a creep get himself into deeper and deeper trouble. It’s too bad he takes others with him.

A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.