Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States. Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey. One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car. Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up. Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.
This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch. These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters. As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.
The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life. These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest. And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories. Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn. In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.
Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession. This real-life quote from Constance says it all:
“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”
She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job. That’s pretty much all there is to it. I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on. These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.
If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s. Check it out here.
And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!
In Dennis Lehane’s creepy and suspenseful Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck arrive on Shutter Island to find a missing inmate from Ashecliffe Asylum. What seems like a routine investigation is swiftly put off the rails by the uneasy atmosphere at Ashecliffe, and all of the secrets the people in charge seem to be keeping. Teddy has his own demons to work though at the same time, having recently lost his wife.
I can’t believe I’m only getting to this novel now. I never saw the movie, either, so the ending remained unspoiled for me. I enjoyed the dark, film noir feel of this, with the tortured war veteran and his dark past, his solitary nature, his desire for revenge. He’s a great character, flawed yet remaining sympathetic.
The plotting of this novel is so intricate and so well-constructed. I can’t out-do the Kirkus reviewer on this one: it’s a “lollapalooza of a corkscrew thriller.” You start questioning your own sanity by midway through, and I mean that in the best possible way. The twist is revealed in one of the best scenes I’ve read lately, where the stakes are high for everyone involved and the emotion of it all seems very real.
The setting is fantastic, both gritty and Gothic, perfect for the story. Ashecliffe is depicted as a brutal relic from another century, and its maximum security isolation on an island is perfect.
Lots of diverse readalikes present themselves for this one, depending on what you enjoyed the most. Noir and crime fiction from the 1950’s might really appeal to you, if you liked that aspect of the story. The grittier the better. There’s also something very Gothic about the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger at the asylum. You might enjoy John Harwood’s The Asylum (I talked about it here). I also thought of The Boy Who Could See Demons while reading this, which you can read more about at this post.
If you want just a smidge more of the Nazi subplot, some aliens, and a ton of Sarah Paulsen, you might want to check out the second season of American Horror Story, which took place at an insane asylum in Massachusetts. Here, I can show this clip on a family-friendly blog (trust me, the entire season is just as nuts as this, but in different ways).
I love this kind of guessing game! Uh, let’s see:
- It was Earth all along
- Turns out it’s man
- It’s made of people
- Nicole Kidman was the ghost the whole time
- The entire novel was a dream
- The entire novel was a paranoid delusion
- The entire novel was a fantasy played out in a snowglobe
- Identical twins
- Christopher Walken is a robot
- They’ve been dead the entire time
- It’s the sled
- He’s been dressing up like his dead mom
- There are two killers
- It was an Army test
- It was aliens
Is there a prize if I guess correctly?
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an engaging and twisty thriller with plenty of psychological suspense and tension. Pinborough has a background in writing horror and dark fantasy, and it really shows here. The story involves Louise, a single mother in London. One night she meets a guy named David in a bar, who confesses he’s married. And then it turns out that David is Louise’s new boss, and they both find it difficult to deny their attraction. On top of that, Louise becomes friends with Adele, David’s troubled and mysterious wife.
Louise gets dragged into the dysfunctional relationship between David and Adele, and she’s not sure which of them she can trust. If she can trust either of them to be telling the truth about their backgrounds and pasts.
The narrative goes back and forth between Adele and Louise, and with Adele in particular, you’re never quite sure how much to believe. As the book goes on, you’re drawn into an intense triangle between these characters–the friendship between Louise and Adele, the passionate affair between Louise and David, the mysterious and perhaps sinister marriage of David and Adele. The plot is intricate, playing with past and present, with perceptions and secrets, until the final confrontation and shocker ending.
Yeah, about that ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will tell you this, my fellow thriller and mystery fans: it’s definitely unpredictable. Dirty pool. So blatantly entirely impossible that you’d ever figure it out that this is all I could think of after finishing:
My Lionel Twain-esque initial reaction aside, though, I did enjoy this novel immensely. It’s well-engineered, it’s atmospheric, it’s twisty, and the cat-and-mouse aspect is great fun. I liked the growing sense of dread and unease, and the crazily building tension.
Just open your mind to the idea that you’re in a psychological thriller that doesn’t play by the usual rules. Once you get over the shock, it’s actually pretty refreshing!
Lo Blacklock is a reporter for a travel magazine, and she just got a great opportunity: she’s going to cover the maiden voyage of a small luxury cruise ship in Scandinavia. On the first night, however, Lo believes she witnesses the murder of the woman in cabin 10, the one next door to hers. When she informs security, she’s told that there isn’t anyone booked in cabin 10.
All the drunken uncertainty of The Girl on the Train along with all the intrigue of an Agatha Christie manor house murder, with some Patricia Highsmith stuff thrown in for fun. Lo is desperate to solve this bizarre mystery, because she’s positive that she spoke with a woman saying in cabin 10–and just as positive that she witnessed her murder. She finds herself stymied at every turn, and tries to pick out suspects from those on board the ship.
I shared this at Simply Books! on Saturday, and found myself unable to give any detail about the plot and overall feel except for the references I just gave above. One of the other members spoke up and asked, “If people aren’t familiar with the genre and don’t get all the references, is it still a good book?”
Ooops. I was quick to reply with a resounding “Yes!” Because The Woman in Cabin 10 is clever, has a fantastic setting, a main character who’s both flawed and enjoyable, and some great supporting cast members. I won’t spoil the climax and the ending, but I thought it was nicely done and left an eerie sort of chill.
As in many cases, I think I’ve just reached the point where I’m burned out on thrillers. They’ve become a game, almost, since I’ve read so many of them so close together. It’s spot the reference, spot the influence, spot the twist. (I mean come on though one of the characters in this book is straight-up reading a Highsmith novel at one point so those in on it know just where this story’s going…) For me, that’s always been part of the fun of thrillers. I love seeing all that in a novel because it adds layers to my reading experience. There have just been so. Many. Of. Them. I’m tapped out.
If your Thriller mojo is still working, though, definitely give this one a try! Ware’s work is twisty and smart, and she’s a deft hand with misdirection in her narrative. She’s also got a great feel for detailed settings and atmosphere.
This one’s creepier and darker than Girl on the Train, though. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is the intricate and atmospheric story of Nora and Rachel, two sisters with a close but fraught relationship. One night, on a visit to Rachel’s house in the countryside, Nora finds that her sister has been brutally murdered. Nora is determined to uncover her sister’s killer, and this determination quickly turns to obsession. By the time Nora’s behavior leads to suspicion falling on her, you’re not sure at all whether you can believe what she’s been telling you this whole time.
Nora, our narrator, is extremely unreliable, and you don’t know whether to root for her, dislike her, pity her, or a combination of the three by about two-thirds into the book. By that point you’re not so sure about her sister, Rachel, either.
Berry doesn’t skimp on the descriptions of gore. She evokes an atmosphere of constant cold and rain and unease. It’s a wonderfully tense mystery, with a huge psychological element. The narration, as I said, is skillfully done, and Nora pulls you in even as you’re not sure if you’re getting wrong-footed with her or by her.
Rosamund Lupton’s haunting thriller Sister would be the perfect readalike for Under the Harrow. In that one, Beatrice attempts to solve her younger sister’s mysterious disappearance, and ends up uncovering more than she bargained for. The classic Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier might also be a good choice, if you like uncertain narrators and heavy atmosphere.
What was it I said I was looking for in a book? Interesting, complex characters. Lyrical or at least engaging writing. A quick pace. A good idea for a story. Add atmosphere, secrets, compelling twists, and a dark past to that list, and you’ve got The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. It’s everything I wanted!
Jane Hudson, recently divorced, has returned to her private high school, Heart Lake, as the Latin teacher. A townie, she was a scholarship girl always desperate to prove herself. During her senior year of school, both of her roommates committed suicide. And now that Jane is back at the school, one of her students also attempts suicide. When pages of the journal she lost at school start appearing, and one girl dies, Jane is drawn into the present mystery and back into her memories of what happened to her friends Lucy and Deidre twenty years before.
The novel is divided into three parts–the first and third concern Jane in the present, and the middle section goes back to her teenage years, including her family background and the tragic events of her senior year. In the present she tries to solve the mystery of how and why her past is showing up again, and in the past we see the seeds of what is happening now. As past and present meet and more threads are drawn together, the narrative starts to shift within chapters as well as the story nears the climax. It’s a nice stylistic touch.
Heart Lake is practically a character on its own. It’s constantly referenced, the weather is described as it affects the lake, it’s been the silent witness to the secrets of generations of girls. The scenery, particularly the ice of the lake, is given lush description. You feel the cold, and can hear the ice cracking. Latin, the dead language of the title, is also key to the symbolism and clues, so pay attention to names!
The Lake of Dead Languages is a very intricately plotted book, filled with connections and secrets and bonds of secrecy and betrayal. There’s a strong element of the intensity of the parent-child bond (for good and for ill), as well as the intensity of friendship. All of the mysteries are solved in the end, and while you might call it early (as I did), it’s still an atmospheric and satisfying journey.
There’s so much going on in this book that there are lots of readalike ideas. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is an obvious one, with its literary style and story about a college classics clique with dark secrets. In that same vein, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (see here for blog post), or Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which is about a classics teacher at a boys’ school who finds himself upended by changes and a threat from the past.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo, for the stuck-in-a-small-town angle, as well as the family and community connections that last for generations, could also be a good choice. I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, for the atmosphere, dark and intricate secrets, friendships a bit too close for comfort, and lake imagery.
So last time we met I was talking about how I wasn’t able to settle down to anything. I had piles and piles of books that I just couldn’t get into. And then, bam! Two in a row! Two novels read in as many days because I found I just couldn’t put them down.
The Ramblers by Aidan Donnelley Rowley, about a trio of thirty-somethings in contemporary New York City finding love and friendship and coming to terms with their families and relationships, is far from my usual. But I was intrigued from the get-go. I liked the style, the characters, and the depiction of New York City.
At its core, this is a novel about how we’re all a little bit broken in different ways, and about coming to terms with that brokenness and learning to thrive. It’s also a love letter to New York–to the people, the history, the architecture, the culture.
The writing is skillful and insightful, and there are some great comedy bits. The characters are extremely well-fleshed out and three-dimensional in their yearnings and challenges. This novel really reminded me of a wistful, older romantic comedy. These characters aren’t in their twenties anymore, and it shows. Setting the story in the week of Thanksgiving is a nice choice–it’s a time which traditionally lends itself to confronting complicated family dynamics, and Rowley does that really well.
The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer, on the other hand, is much more typical of my usual reading fare. Eight-year-old Carmel gets separated from her mother, Beth, at a storytelling festival, and disappears. The alternating narratives, one from Carmel’s point of view and the other from Beth’s, tell the story of Beth’s search and where Carmel has disappeared to.
I found Carmel’s storyline to be far more interesting, but that could just be because she gets the bulk of the plot. Beth, her mother, is left picking up the pieces of her old life, remaining stagnant until well into the final third. The more I consider it the more I think this wasn’t by accident. But the why of Carmel’s disappearance is out of the ordinary, and it’s incredibly refreshing to read. I won’t spoil it here, but it makes for a riveting story.
Though billed as a thriller, I hesitate to call it that. The pace never quite gets intense enough. There’s also not quite enough tension for suspense. However, both Beth and Carmel have distinct voices and they both grow and change in believable ways. The writing is compelling, leaving you wanting to know when and if the story threads will all come together in the end.
Case Histories is the first in Kate Atkinson’s crime series starring private investigator Jackson Brodie. In this first outing, Jackson becomes entangled in three old cases–a little girl who vanished from her yard, a young woman who was murdered while working at her father’s office, and another young woman who allegedly murdered her husband with an axe. One by one these cases are resurrected, and Jackson finds himself following the interwoven threads of all three.
The plotting is intricate, with lots of characters and several story threads all going at once. By the end every one of those threads has been tied up neatly, and it’s fun to watch them all fall into place. The pacing is leisurely, so it never quite reaches the crescendo of a suspense novel or even a mystery, but it’s still compelling all the way through. With her light touch and sense of humor, Atkinson also manages to make this novel seem like a light one–even though it deals with very heavy crimes, emotions, and dysfunction, nothing ever feels bleak or too dark.
The characters, and the wealth of personality and backstory Atkinson gives them, were all enjoyable. Jackson is a great PI–an ex-soldier and ex-policeman with a heart of gold. He’s got a tragic past and a rough present, complete with ex-wife and shared custody of a daughter. In all, he’s got a very kind and capable sort of vibe–he reminds me a little of a nicer, less manipulative, softer-edged Mackey from the Dublin Murder Squad books. At one point in the novel another character accuses Jackson of “becoming a woman.” Which, while not very nice or politically correct, does get the character across.
I’d offer these as a read-alike to those who enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French. The first is In The Woods. French’s work is darker and more disturbing, with a lot more of a psychological suspense bent, but the Jackson Brodie books still deliver a nice blend of police procedural, crime, and character-driven story. You might also enjoy Christine Falls by Benjamin Black, the first in a series about Quirke, a pathologist in 1950’s Dublin, or Deborah Crombie’s mystery series starring Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Sergeant Gemma James (the first is A Share in Death).
Does it count if I learned about this book specifically because I was doing a search on NoveList in order to fulfill this challenge point? And does it still count if I didn’t so much learn about this book but was rather reminded of its existence because of this challenge?
Why am I asking when I’ve already decided that it does?
I knew of this one, of course. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes was published back in 2013, where it kept coming up on a lot of readalike lists and blogs, and was quite well-reviewed.
It’s a really great readalike for Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in terms of literary style. Great turns of phrase, beautiful descriptions (even in the goriest places), and a lyrical style really elevate this thriller.
As does the intriguingly original plot: in 1931, Harper Curtis finds a time-travel portal in a nondescript Chicago house. He also finds the names of women scrawled on the wall in an upstairs room–in his own handwriting. From there Harper feels compelled by destiny to find each of these women wherever they are in time, and murder them.
(Aside: My husband made a good point: does it really count as a serial killer if the murders are non-linear? Something to ponder.)
But Kirby, a young woman attacked in the early 1990’s, survives. And she sets out to find the killer, using her internship at a Chicago newspaper to hunt for clues.
Chicago is practically a character in this novel, so great is the sense of place in every time period. Though the snapshots are sometimes brief, Beukes still manages to create a perfect sense of time and location with three-dimensional characters. The feel of The Shining Girls is gritty and realistic, even with the sci-fi elements.
If you stay alert for the intricate plotting and shifting perspectives, you’ll be rewarded with an immersive, compelling, sometimes disturbing blend of thriller and crime.
So I’m only just slightly behind the times. At least I got to Mr. Mercedes eventually, just in time for the second in the planned trilogy to arrive on shelves (Finders Keepers hit the street last week).
Bill Hodges is a retired detective considering suicide when the novel opens. He spends his days watching bad TV, eating too much, and playing with the idea of putting a gun in his mouth. One day, Hodges receives a letter that snaps him back–it’s a missive from a mass killer styled “Mr. Mercedes,” who killed eight people when he drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd.
The Mr. Mercedes case had belonged to Hodges before he retired, and he never solved it. Now he’s determined to do so, before Mr. Mercedes can kill again–as Hodges is certain that he will.
Mr. Mercedes is a cinematic and suspenseful crime novel. It’s also an engaging examination of an aging man who thought he was finished being given a renewed sense of purpose. And it’s also a creepy, morbidly fascinating examination of the background and creation of a killer.
This novel has a lot of cross-genre appeal. Horror fans, particularly those who enjoy human horror, will find a lot to like in Brady’s storyline, as well as the well-placed gore. Crime fans will probably respond to the well-constructed cat-and-mouse game as Hodges hunts for Mr. Mercedes. Suspense and thriller fans might appreciate the slow, encompassing build that comes together with ever-increasing pace and urgency.
The one genre group I’m not positive about is straight-up mystery fans, oddly enough. One note I kept finding online was that King himself calls this a “hard-boiled” detective novel. I’m not entirely sure that it is.
You feel the looming threat because you know what Brady is up to, but this world isn’t bleak. There aren’t mean streets. As ever with Stephen King, the streets are regular (if depressed) streets, which makes the horrible things that happen so much scarier and so much more imaginable. Hodges is a nice man, a smart guy who clearly was a crackerjack detective, yearning for a sense of purpose and people to be there for. All through the story he gives off an avuncular sort of vibe. Perhaps it was my reading, but I never got “gritty” or “world-weary” or “streetwise” from this guy. This story is a battle between good and evil (another King hallmark), and never once do you doubt what side Hodges is on.
Your mileage may vary, but I think you might be a little disappointed if you go into this book hoping for a traditional hard-boiled story. You also know the entire time whodunit, and the suspense comes not from a puzzle but from seeing how the criminal will be foiled. Stephen King also is never one to leave his universe entirely at rest and at peace, so you won’t find any traditional justice being served here.
All that said, this is a compelling read with twisted yet appealing characters, a creepy tone, and enough crazy that even citizens of Derry might arch an eyebrow. If you like King’s work and haven’t tried this one yet, or if you want some crime that’s dark and twisty but very readable, definitely pick it up.