If there is another genre that takes me away (besides a mystery)–it’s a good thriller. Authors and publishers, fully aware of the demand for escapist stories, are cranking them out by the thousands every year: Ludlum, DeMille, Cussler, Clancy, Grisham, and the “father” of many thrill-seekers, John le Carre are only a few. The following are some you may not have heard of that caught me up and did not let go until my eyes were slits and early morning light came in. If you read thrillers, you know these symptoms!
The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens
The gritty heroine of this novel, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is very much in the Lisbeth Salander mold: smart, troubled, tough, androgynous, with an encyclopedic mind. Even more valuable is Vanessa’s quick facility with languages, which gives her an edge with a variety of adversaries–her secret weapon. When she is asked by an oil millionaire to trace the disappearance of his step-daughter in Africa, the money as well as the challenge makes her take it on. Munroe grew up in Africa and speaks a number of the dialects, knows the culture, history and political nuances that Burbank, the oil tycoon, does not. To complicate the job, Burbank sends along a “helper” to assist, which she deeply resents. In the end, it leads to tough choices about who to trust and who will die. The setting in this novel is vivid and one can literally feel the heat of both the jungle and the razor-sharp psychological edge of Munroe’s intense personality.
The Sunbird, by Wilbur Smith
Smith has been a long-time favorite of mine, and I have read many of his novels–he started writing in 1964, and at age 82, published his 35th novel last year. Born in Rhodesia, Smith is considered a South African writer. I have several favorites, besides The Sunbird (published in 1972): Eye of the Tiger, and Cry Wolf, both also written in the 70’s. In the first part of the book, an archaeologist and an adventurer search for a legendary lost kingdom in southern Africa, encountering love, murder, betrayal and the fascinating landscapes of Africa that Smith portrays so well. Think a more sophisticated, believable Indiana Jones-type adventure. The second half of the book tells the even more compelling story of the ancient kingdom and imagines what happened to the two heroes who led it, in a riveting account of what happened to its people. Smith still captivates me, and I am not the only fan who still reads him. (I counted almost 200 mini-reviews of this title on the internet!)
Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs
Darvill’s Bookstore owner Jenny Pederson is a great thriller fan, and introduced me to this relatively recent (and very young) author. I am in complete agreement with her on this book; from the first pages I was caught up in the details with which two hapless characters are about to perform a million dollar robbery of an armored car at a casino–which you know is a recipe for disaster. The “ghostman” of the title is a character known as “Jack”, a loner who is a master of disguise, lives off the grid, and who unfortunately owes a debt to Marcus, a notorious “jugmarker” (the one who masterminds big jobs). Jack is called in to clean up the “bodies everywhere” mess of the casino robbery gone awry, which Marcus had so intricately planned. With less than 48 hours and every skill he ever had to secure the money from the robbery, Jack must find it or the money will literally explode. It kept me turning pages; I put it down only once, to dish dinner onto my plate, then ate while I kept reading!
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
This title, the second by Winslow, has received a couple of less than stellar reviews–but most have been positive. I loved the theme–Mexican drug cartels–which is why I picked it up. I’m glad I did, as Winslow has created a story with two deeply flawed characters whose lives are both fascinating, dangerous and tragic. There is a lot of good and bad in both the drug lord (Adan Barrera) and DEA agent (Art Keller), which makes for more compelling, natural characters. Their story started with Winslow’s first book, The Power of the Dog, which I have not read but now plan to. This is a novel that could break your heart, because it is so true and captures so much of the reality of life in Mexico, such a beautiful and rich culture. Winslow did a lot of research for both books, and I can only believe he captured the stories of so many players in the “war” on drugs. Winslow also enriched the story with a plentiful cast of “bit” players in this complicated drama, and their stories were just as fascinating and exciting as the protagonists’.
The Other Son, by Alexander Soderberg
Somewhere between a Scandinavian “noir” mystery and a thriller lies Soderberg’s pulse-racing books. His first was excellent (The Andalucian Friend), and this is the second in a planned trilogy. Two women characters dominate the story–Sophie Brinkmann, who is living a life of rather serious crime, and Antonia Miller, a dedicated and passionate police officer. Rival criminal gangs set the stage for the action, which comes rapid-fire. Plenty of killing, lots of violence, yet the real tension and underpinning of the story has more to do with the feelings of the characters, particularly the two women. They must each tough it out in a male-dominated world, but we also see Sophie in her role as mother of a disabled son, and both women in varying roles of friends and lovers with other people in their lives. Make no mistake–these are women whose lives are lived at the edge, and they must deal with violence and betrayal where it most hurts. Soderberg is a skilled story teller, but even more skilled at portraying the nuances of feelings like confusion, doubt and moral ambiguity. That is a skill harder to come by, particularly in a thriller, and what keeps me reading him.
Dragonfish, by Vu Tran
With a distinct premise and plot, Tran’s debut novel is set in a Las Vegas most of us would not recognize. It involves the hunt for an elusive Vietnamese woman, Suzy, whose step-son wants to find her after she disappears. An even darker side of Vegas must be combed by Suzy’s ex-husband Robert, a police officer who barely knew her during their marriage years ago. His search has him searching in seedy, run-down casinos and strip malls. Many of them hide underground aquariums stocked with illegal fish, including the dragonfish. A second story line features Suzy’s narrative to a daughter she abandoned when she came to the U.S. In a way, it is almost a second story, with lyrical, beautiful passages. I thought this was a unique thriller, particularly strong for a debut, with nary a CIA/FBI/ISIS terrorist about. I will be on the lookout for more writings by Tran.