Book Review

License to Thrill

EW reviews four new suspense novels -- We rate the latest releases by Mo Hayder, Peter Abrahams, Joseph Finder, and Joseph Kanon

EW reviews four new suspense novels

Lessons learned from a recent bumper crop of thrillers: Beware of beautiful women; scrub your fingernails after manhandling a bloody corpse; and, above all, never, ever steal from a yakuza kingpin, especially if he employs a she-male bodyguard called Nurse.

One of the characters in Mo Hayder's dazzling The Devil of Nanking tries this last trick, and soon his entrails are strung through the trees like party streamers. In this exceedingly creepy book, Hayder's third, the diabolically gifted British author spins a fascinating mystery from the legacy of Japanese atrocities during World War II. Grey, a troubled young Englishwoman, comes to Tokyo to track down an elderly Chinese professor, Shi Chongming, who is rumored to have film footage of particularly grisly Japanese war crimes. Chongming makes her a deal: Grey can screen the film after she infiltrates the inner circle of an octogenarian gangster whose security chief, the aforementioned Nurse, wears stiletto heels and pencil skirts, and does her best work with a butcher knife. Hayder alternates between Chongming's wrenching account of his experiences in 1930s Nanking and Grey's unwholesome adventures as a hostess in contemporary Tokyo, the two narratives becoming more and more engrossing as they gradually, ghoulishly intertwine.

You know you're holding a first-rate thriller when you take it with you in the car to read at stoplights. Peter Abrahams' marvelous Oblivion tweaks the conventions of the Michael Connelly-style whodunit to create a novel that is at once classically suspenseful and completely fresh. In the first few chapters, Nick Petrov comes on like the stereotypical world-weary L.A. private eye with a broken marriage and a tough/tender heart. The Santa Ana winds are blowing when a provocatively dressed woman hires him to track down her missing teenage daughter. He quickly finds the drugged girl and is escorting her to the hospital when suddenly Abrahams explodes the plot. To describe the details would spoil the pleasure. In short: Petrov loses his memory, loses the girl, and for the delicious remainder of this strangely lovely book tries to find her again, piecing together a bizarre and macabre mystery using faculties (like intuition and empathy) that weren't previously in his repertoire. In short, punchy chapters, Abrahams strips away the brittle veneer of this stock character to reveal a confused new Petrov, off-kilter, sweet, and slow. His reflections are funny and often a little stupid, even as the twisty, ingenious horror story turns out to be anything but.

Joseph Finder takes no such innovative risks in Company Man, a slick, serviceable thriller that lacks both the brooding atmosphere and narrative daring that make Nanking and Oblivion such standouts. After 2004's hit Paranoia, this solid product should cement Finder's reputation as a reliable chronicler of the perils lurking in e-mail and the executive suite. Nick Conover is a recently widowed family man and CEO of a Michigan office-furniture company, a bland, likable, all-American Everyman straight out of John Grisham's playbook. After laying off thousands of workers, Conover now suspects that local waitresses spit in his salad. Then someone — possibly a former employee — manages to penetrate the high-tech security system in his gated community, disembowel the family dog with one of Conover's fancy German kitchen knives, and toss the pooch into the pool. Conover borrows a gun and a few nights later takes out an intruder wandering across his newly seeded lawn. He spends the rest of this puffy but propulsive novel trying to cover up the crime — and both the crime and the cover-up turn out to be a lot more complicated than they initially appear.

Joseph Kanon has concocted an even more byzantine cover-up in his earnest historical thriller Alibi. In 1946, young American soldier Adam Miller goes to Venice to visit his wealthy mother, who has recently become involved with a suave — or is it shifty? — Italian aristocrat named Gianni. Then Adam's new Venetian girlfriend, Claudia, denounces Gianni as a Fascist informer, the monster who condemned her to a concentration camp and her Jewish father to death. Claudia's public outcry leads to a sloppy, brutal murder and the painfully slow unraveling of a web of historical crimes so complex that you may need a pencil and graph paper to keep track. Alibi is too somber and too long, but the emotional and moral stakes keep shifting so unpredictably that you won't want to stop reading.

Nanking and Oblivion: A

Company Man: B

Alibi: B-

Originally posted Apr 11, 2005 Published in issue #815 Apr 15, 2005 Order article reprints
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