Tag Archives: Psychological suspense

What Remains of Me? Not sure.

remainsWhat Remains of Me, Alison Gaylin’s novel of psychological suspense that has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, is the latest in a number of books I’ve read where my first thought on finishing is “Why this title?”  It’s not written in the first person, so who is me?  The main character is Kelly Lund, and while she has a tough life and scary stuff happens to her, she is uniquely and wholly herself all the way through the entire book.  No remains.  Perhaps I am not deep enough. (I often think this.)

A better title for the book would have been, “Who Are You, Really?”   The characters’ motivations drive the plot, which is thoroughly twisty, sometimes scary, and occasionally sad.  And these motivations, which are revealed at various intervals throughout the book, often rely on ignorance of the real relationships between the characters, their well-kept secrets, and a certain degree of willful blindness.

But perhaps I’m confusing you.  Here’s the scoop:  In 1980, Kelly Lund was arrested as a teenager for murdering her friend Vince’s father, famous director John McFadden.  She admitted it, she shot him, she did the time, although she never said why.  Now it’s 2010, Kelly’s an adult in her late 40s, and married for the past 15 years to Shane Marshall, the younger brother of her former best friend, Bellamy, and the son of film director Sterling Marshall, McFadden’s best friend. They don’t have sex, though, and Shane doesn’t really know why and we’re not sure about Kelly.  Maybe it’s because she’s fooling around with a hot neighbor who makes giant sculptures out of wood, who reminds her strongly of the boy she loved back in the day?  Or maybe it’s even him?

But then Sterling Marshall dies.  Just like John McFadden did – two in the head and one in the heart.  Suspicion falls on Kelly, and it seems like she probably did it, because she came home from a middle-of-the-night drive and put bloody clothes into the washing machine.

The book shifts back and forth between 1980 and 2010.  In 1980, Kelly has a controlling and hardworking mother, a dead twin sister, and a stuntman father she doesn’t see much.  (The dad is heartbreaking, he’s such a good but ruined man.)  She also has new, privileged Hollywood friends who introduce her to alcohol, drugs, sex, and general making a mess of her life.

In 2010, Kelly is under suspicion for Sterling’s death, Bellamy hates her and always has, despite having made it as an artist by exploiting Kelly, Shane still loves her but is confused, and her mother-in-law should be awful, but is actually kind of nice when she isn’t high.

By the end of the unfolding of the intertwined tales, the reader knows

— SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE DANGER 

that Kelly and Shane are half-siblings, that Kelly didn’t kill Sterling but she did kill McFadden, that Bellamy might adore her father, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t kill him to keep him from leaving any part of his estate to his other daughter, Kelly, that Kelly’s mom has been living in a commune for decades with Kelly’s cowardly friend Vince, that the guy she is in love with and imagined was Vince is actually the boy who sat behind her in homeroom and threw spitballs her way to torment her.

Does it all hang together?  Absolutely.   Does Gaylin keep those pages turning?  No doubt. Is it all a glorious soap opera?  Yes, and if it were a movie, half the people in the theater would be asking the friend next to them to explain it to them.   My problem is that the ludicrous plot would come undone if almost anyone would ask a question or tell the truth.    

What Remains of Me is like Pringle’s.  Not really potato chips, but you keep munching away anyway, feeling slightly sick but unable to stop yourself.  Gaylin is a best-selling author and her debut novel, Hide Your Eyes, got an Edgar nom in 2006.  Her Stay With Me was nominated for Best Paperback Original in 2015.  So I am just going to chalk this up to differing tastes, while putting the book firmly at the bottom of the ranking.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

Higashino’s Under the Midnight Sun

midnightKeigo Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X was a finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2012.  I liked it, but ranked it in the middle of the pack and ultimately the Edgar went to Mo Hayder’s Gone (also my pick).  He’s penned a couple since then which have been translated into English, most recently the just-released  Under the Midnight Sun.

The book is lengthier than the usual crime novel, but needs the pages for the sheer sweep of story.  The murder of an adulterous pawnbroker followed by the apparent suicide of the pawnbroker’s lover brings together two children.  Ryo Kirihara is the pawnbroker’s son.  And Yukiho Nishimoto is the woman’s daughter.  Determining what really happened and why is Detective Sasagaki’s lifelong quest.

The book unfolds at a leisurely pace, although it soon becomes clear that there is more, much more, simmering beneath the surface.  Why do bad things happen to those who stand between Yukiho and something she wants?  How does the clever Ryo accomplish so much, just to disappear abruptly and resurface with a different name?

Sasagaki spends decades plumbing the depths of the mystery of the pair’s relationship.  He suspects that Ryo and Yukiho offer the human equivalent of the symbiotic relationship between the goby and the shrimp, with Ryo as the goby.  “One cannot live without the other,” says Sasagaki.  

Under the Midnight Sun offers plenty of suspense as the plot twists along, incorporating characters and perspectives.  Some are unsuspecting victims, others are suspicious.  All are of interest.

My previous review of Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint said it was a cerebral puzzler with minimal drama.   I have to echo that for Under the Midnight Sun.  Some will read a chapter or two, then set it aside and instead pick up the latest Lee Child or John Sanford.  But the patient reader with a penchant for the slow reveal will enjoy how well Higashino weaves the story that leads to a big – understated, but satisfying – finish.

 

 

Back from the Caribbean with a new author!

Darling husband and I are back from our trip to Puerto Rico, Saint Thomas, St. Martin, and St. Kitts via the Celebrity Eclipse.   Besides the rain forest hike and the free-lattes-at-any-time extravaganza, a highlight of the trip was the amazing amount of free time to read.   I brought a few paperbacks and a dozen books on my iPad.  One new-to-me author that I highly recommend, cruise or not, is Michael Robotham.

I started my read-fest with Robotham’s most recent book, Say You’re Sorry.  It features a wonderfully insightful but thoroughly flawed protagonist, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin.   Joe has a complicated life, a stressed marriage to a beautiful woman, a shakier-than-he’d-like relationship with his teenage daughter, and an uncanny ability to size people up.  He also has Parkinson’s disease.

O’Loughlin is pulled into a confusing crime scene by a police detective who is looking for one more nail to put into the supposed-prepetrator’s coffin: a married couple has been brutally murdered and a mentally challenged handyman is accused.  But O’Loughlin sees what the police don’t:  there was someone else there – someone who is now missing – and the scene points to a very twisted, and highly intelligent, murderer.

Complicating the plot is a second protagonist: Piper Hadley.  Teenage Piper and her best friend, Natasha McBain, were kidnapped and held captive by a man they call George, who systematically strips away the girls’ defenses and sexually abuses the more attractive, more feminine Tash.   Piper tells her own story, and Robotham’s evocation of this singular character is simply amazing.

It’s not surprising that the two stories come together and – no spoiler alert here – that the handyman is not the bad guy.  Say You’re Sorry is a complete page-turner – awesome plotting and pacing – coupled with compelling characters.  It left me wanting more.  So I used a few of my preciously guarded wi-fi minutes to download more Michael Robotham.

It was all good.  Suspect.  Lost.  Shatter.  Bleed for Me and a couple more, yet unread.  In Suspect,  Joe O’Loughlin is introduced when homicide detective Victor Ruiz suspects him of murder.  In Lost, Ruiz is fished out of the Thames – short-term memory loss means he has to piece together the last few weeks of his life (with the help of O’Loughlin, of course).   Shatter features a worthy adversary – just as capable as O’Loughlin of seeing hidden truths, but much more capable when it comes to manipulating others.  For evil, of course.

I’m continuing to work my way through Michael Robotham’s books.   Love psychological suspense?  Thrillers with a twist?  You’ll go for Robotham.

Very Bad Men Very Good Book.

“My name is David Loogan.  Most of the manuscripts that come to me are awful, but some of them have promise.  I find the best ones and polish them up and publish them in a mystery magazine called Gray Streets. Maybe it’s not surprising then, that my part in this story begins with a manuscript.  The facts are simple enough.  I found it on a Wednesday evening in mid-July, in the hallway outside my office.  That’s not unusual.  Local authors leave manuscripts out there more often than you’d think.  This one was different, though.  It came in a plain, unmarked envelope and amounted to fewer than ten pages.  It was the story of three murders, two already committed, one yet to come.  And it wasn’t fiction.”

And so Harry Dolan introduces the reader to the crime we are about to examine.  Those aren’t the first lines of Very Bad Men; the author first tells us how Loogan’s relationship with Detective Elizabeth Waishkey – a good cop with smarts and heart – turned to love.  For those who read his debut novel, Bad Things Happen it’s a great way to show what what happened “between books”  in the series. And for any reader, it sets up what Loogan has to lose.

I gave a rave review to the first book.  In fact, I was disappointed that Bad Things Happen wasn’t an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel!  Now Loogan’s back in Very Bad Men, and once again the plot involves the magazine as well as his now-live-in-love, Detective Elizabeth Waishkey and her daughter Sarah.

The story progresses through two points of view:  Loogan’s first person narrative, sharing his thoughts and actions related to the pursuit of the killer, and Anthony Lark’s, the killer himself, which unfolds in third person.

Lark has a list of names:  Terry Dawtry, Harry Kormoran, and Sutton Bell.  These three men, along with Floyd Lambeau and the unknown driver of the getaway car, robbed the Great Lakes Bank 17 years ago.  The robbery went bad, Lambeau was killed and Sheriff Harlan Spencer was shot and paralyzed.   Lark’s out for retribution on behalf of Spencer’s daughter Callie, but we don’t know why. He’ll stop at nothing – including killing innocent people – to accomplish his goal, despite debilitating headaches.  He hears his doctor’s voice in his head, helping him keep it all together.

As in Dolan’s first book, the plot is complex but not convoluted, and the author achieves the miracle of making you care about each and every person in the book – including Anthony Lark.   Bad Things Happen is not a who-done-it but a fascinating why-done-it.  How is the murderer connected to the robbery?  What’s the connection to Callie Spencer’s race for the U.S. Senate?  And who has intrepid tabloid reporter Lucy Navarro?

You won’t see the plot twists coming, but they all hang together, and the ending feels just right.  Nobody’s completely bad, not even the most evil character. You’ll have a hard time putting this one down, because Very Bad Men is a very good book.

Yet more action with What Comes Next

John Katzenbach.  A familiar name, but not a huge name.   Or not yet.  That may change with his new crime novel, What Comes Next.  Katzenbach is a former journalist on the police beat for the Miami Times, and has been published steadily since his debut novel, In the Heat of Summer.  That book won an Edgar for Best First Novel and was made into a fairly popular movie starring Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway (The Mean Season).

I am a total sucker for complicated characters, and the protagonist of What Comes Next is complicated to the max.  Adrian Thomas is a newly retired university psychology professor who has two big shocks in one day.  First, he is diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.  The disease is irreversible and will kill him, but not necessarily quickly.  What it will do quickly is rob him of his ability to reason.  Worse, it may drive him insane.  Hallucinations are common.  Second, he witnesses what is surely a kidnapping.  A teenage girl is there one moment, backpack and stuffed teddy bear on her back, pink hat on her head.  A white van drives up and a moment later all there is in the road is the hat.  But did it really happen?

No surprise to the reader, yes, it did.  16-year-old Jennifer Riggins has been kidnapped by a young couple in love who make their money and get their kicks by exploiting the dark side of voyeurism on a pay-to-view web site called What Comes Next.  (Note to the publisher:   The http://www.whatcomesnext.com web address is available.  Total missed opportunity.)

Professor Thomas goes home, determined to kill himself before he loses the cognitive function that will allow him to do so.  He sits alone with the gun his brother used in his own suicide, but can’t do it… the idea that he must attempt to save the girl prevents him.

This novel of psychological suspense is full of many complicated characters, several of whom — Professor Thomas’ brother, wife and son — are dead.  How and why they died is revealed in their interactions with the professor.  And although Audie (nickname for Adrian) knows that these manifestations are simply memories and projections, he finds them helpful in his quest, bringing him strength and offering concrete suggestions to solve the crime.

Also on hand is cop and single mother Terri Collins, who knows Jennifer and her family and suspects the girl has simply run away again, until Professor Thomas convinces her to consider the alternative.  She works the cop angles while the professor considers the psychological side of things, enlisting a sex offender’s help to uncover Jennifer’s location.

The reader also sees the story from the perspective of the perverse couple, Linda and Michael, and Katzenbach does a great job of making them three-dimensional.  It’s surprisingly easy to be interested in them and feel some sympathy  for them.  Even more effective are the scenes from Jennifer’s point of view.  She’s scared but smart and resilient, and we root for her even as the voyeurs typing in their credit card numbers are rooting against her.

The book builds to a scary and stirring rescue effort as Jennifer is pushed to the bring and Professor Thomas falls apart – no spoiler alert because I will stop now, before revealing too much.  Let it suffice to say that the epilogue is heart-warming but sad and not unexpected.

No surprise, I loved the book.  It knocked me out.  It was all I could do not to gulp it, jumping ahead to see what happens next.  And in fact, I read way past my bedtime and probably missed some points along the way, just from sheer mental fuzziness.   Sounds like re-reading is in order, which I will probably get to do in early 2013, because I’m predicting this one will make the final cut and be one of the five finalists for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, awarded annually in April.

*****

I’m heading out tomorrow afternoon for the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  Very excited!  I look forward to blogging about the experience, but even moreso, I’m looking forward to actually experiencing the experience.