It’s still dark! But here are some thrillers to help with all the time we are spending indoors.
The title of the Australian writer Jane Harper’s latest novel, THE SURVIVORS (Flatiron, 374 pp., $27.99), refers to two things. The first is a sculpture memorializing a shipwreck whose ghostly remains lie off the coast of Evelyn Bay, a tiny summer community in Tasmania. The second are the traumatized, secrets-harboring residents left behind when a devastating storm killed three of the town’s young people 12 years ago.
After a long exile, Kieran Elliott has returned to Evelyn Bay with his girlfriend and their baby to help his parents move out of the family house. But it is a complicated homecoming. Kieran was indirectly responsible for two of the storm deaths — one of the victims was his brother — and there are those who will never forgive him. Also, there’s a new body to contend with, that of a young waitress and art student whose drowned corpse is found, fully clothed, on the beach. In this tightknit place, everyone is a suspect, and everyone is grieving, in one way or another.
It’s hard to keep track of all the relationships — who loved or hung around with or betrayed or fought with whom, back when Kieran was a teenager and again now — but it’s worth making the effort. Evelyn Bay, utterly dependent on the sea, is a character of its own. As always, Harper skillfully evokes the landscape as she weaves a complicated, elegant web, full of long-buried secrets ready to come to light.
“There are so many ways to kill,” observes a character in RV Raman’s A WILL TO KILL (Polis, 282 pp., $26), a modern-day take on the classic locked-room murder mystery, transported to a remote mansion high in the hills of southern India. “People drown in rivers, fall down stairs, have heavy objects fall on them, die of suffocation in airless rooms or dungeons, and even get scared to death.”
Here at the possibly haunted Greybrooke Manor in Nilgiris, a dozen guests have gathered at the invitation of Bhaskar Fernandez, an eccentric patriarch whose squabbling extended family is tediously dependent on his largesse. Bhaskar is convinced that someone is trying to kill him and has included on his guest list Harith Athreya, a canny private detective charged with looking into a series of suspicious incidents. To disincentivize any would-be killer, Bhaskar has drawn up two wills allowing for two different possibilities: one if he dies of natural causes, the other in the case of his murder. (Bhaskar is a lover of mysteries and enjoys his little games.)
The roads are rendered impassable by a landslide. The lights go out. Greedy relatives and hangers-on circle like so many piranhas. And before we know it, there is indeed a murder — but instead of Bhaskar, the victim is a guest, an artist with a murky past whose body is found, improbably, slumped in his host’s motorized wheelchair. Who did it? And who killed the second victim, not long after?
There seem to be several crimes going on at once, and a lot to pay attention to: an art scam, a drug ring, the falsification of identities, not to mention a spot of adultery. But Athreya is a fine detective with a curious mind, a cool eye for the chance detail, a skill in synthesizing disparate threads and a talent for resisting the insults of the requisite police officer assigned to the case.
The opening scene of Una Mannion’s A CROOKED TREE (HarperCollins, 320 pp., $27.99) will strike fear into the hearts of any former children hose had-it-up-to-here parents ever threatened to kick them and their squabbling siblings out of the car. Driving at twilight one day, Faye Gallagher, a widowed mother of five, actually does it: She stops the car five miles from home and leaves her 12-year-old daughter, Ellen, by the side of the road. Darkness sets in; the hours pass. Why hasn’t Ellen come home?
That single shocking moment reverberates through the book, bringing unexpected consequences for the family and their neighbors. The menace in this moody, meticulously plotted debut lies not in preposterous plot twists, but within the mysteries of dysfunctional families, close-knit neighborhoods harboring dark secrets and adolescents’ imperfect, and sometimes disastrous, understanding of the world of adults.
The book, set during the 1980s, is narrated by 15-year-old Libby, who desperately misses her father, a charming but feckless Irish immigrant who was separated from her mother and who has recently died, leaving Libby with a precious gift, “The Field Guide to the Trees of North America.”
Living by Valley Forge Mountain in Pennsylvania, Libby takes refuge in the woods and in particular the crooked tree at the heart of a secluded spot she and her best friend, Sage, call the Kingdom. There she escapes her dysfunctional life with an overtaxed mother who offers little in the way of solace or supervision.
The plot unfurls slowly. A villain arrives in the form of a mysterious man with long blond hair driving a black Camaro. There’s also the unsettling presence of Wilson McVay, an older boy who listens to punk rock, takes drugs and has a reputation for violence and lawlessness. Before the story is over, everyone will have some growing up to do.
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