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Murder, mystery and mayhem

Suspenseful Brad Parks thriller has a crazy premise

Bruce DeSilva

AP – In the opening of Unthinkable, Brad Parks’ latest thriller, lawyer turned house-husband Nate Lovejoy awakens in an ornate bedroom hours after being drugged and kidnapped.

He is then informed that he is the guest of Vanslow DeGrange, leader of a secret society known as the Praesidium. It seems that DeGrange is able to catch occasional glimpses of the future and has dedicated his life to using that power to prevent major disasters.

The latest threat DeGrange has detected is embodied in the person of an ambitious yet idealistic attorney who is suing a coal-fired plant responsible for large numbers of lung cancer cases.

If she succeeds, power companies around the world will turn to a new anti-pollution technology that will inadvertently trigger an environmental catastrophe and kill a billion people.

The only way this can be averted, DeGrange has divined, is if Nate, and only Nate, shoots her to death. The lawyer in question is Jenny Welker – Nate’s wife.

Initially, Nate suspects this is an elaborate plot by the power company and demands that Lorton Rogers, the man who kidnapped him, provide proof of DeGrange’s powers. But when he gets it – in the form of several accurate predictions including the precise time and date of a tornado – Nate is convinced.

So what will he do? Will he let a billion people die, or will he shoot the mother of his two children? Parks has taken a risk with this novel. It works only if readers can suspend their disbelief enough to swallow its central premise.

Rather than present DeGrange’s power as paranormal, the author offers a pseudo-scientific rational for it that may not satisfy some readers. Those who can accept it are in for a treat.

The story is inventive, well written, fast-paced, and filled with twists. And chapters alternating between Nate’s and Jenny’s points of view add depth and tension.

Peter Heller’s ‘The Guide’, a suspenseful sequel

Julia Rubin

AP – In his new mystery, author Peter Heller pulls off a rare balancing act once again: He gives us fast-paced action and intrigue, interspersed with closely observed, reflective nature writing.

Speed up for the crime-solving, slow down for the Zen.

The guide of the title is Jack, one of the heroes of Heller’s 2019 The River. A few years after that book’s fateful canoe trip through a fire-scorched Canadian wilderness, Jack is now back in his home state of Colorado, suffering from what he likens to PTSD.

Hoping to centre himself by reconnecting with nature, he signs on as a fishing guide at a fancy lodge for the uber-rich tucked away in a remote canyon. Almost immediately, the vibe is weird: gun-happy neighbours, gates that lock people in as well as out, surveillance cameras in unexpected places.

Jack’s celebrity client, a singer going under the radar as Alison K, helps Jack – who isn’t sure he can trust his own instincts anymore – try to figure out just what is going on.

In Heller’s books, nature poses dangers (in The Guide, the world outside the lodge is dealing with the spread of a novel virus). But real evil comes from people, who use the wilderness’ wide-open spaces to commit and hide crimes. Passages celebrating the canyon’s natural beauty are punctuated by Jack’s sense of something unnatural and claustrophobic at the lodge. Peter Heller’s The Guide is a suspenseful sequel.

What holds it all together is the likeable character of Jack. A diffident “cowpoke” with expert backcountry survival skills, he is also a reader, a thinker, a guy who keeps fence-making tools and dynamite in the back of his truck along with volumes of poetry. He’s a Western type with a fancy college degree, a la Norman Maclean, or maybe a younger Walt Longmire.

As in Maclean’s books, fishing gets its own star turn. It’s a source of solace, focus and connection. Heller uses many opportunities to capture it poetically, keeping the river at the centre of this tale, too.

Even as the tension builds for Jack and Alison: “For a couple of hours they moved in the cold current, and the river granted them a measure of her heedless grace.”

Hawkins’ ‘A Slow Fire Burning’ simmers to the end

Rob Merrill

AP – A Slow Fire Burning is a funny title for a book that neither feels slow nor burns very hot. Simmers is a better word.

The third thriller from British novelist Paula Hawkins – whose debut book The Girl on the Train (2015) sold millions and made millions more in theatres with Emily Blunt in the starring role – A Slow Fire Burning continues Hawkins’ penchant for telling stories from multiple points of view. The narrator is omniscient, but the perspective changes among multiple characters.

The story begins with a powerful image: A woman named Laura standing in her bathroom, “shaking uncontrollably, blood pulsing hot and steady from the cut to her arm”.

Pages later, we meet Miriam, who lives on a houseboat in London’s Regent’s Canal and “likes to keep an eye on things”. She is talking to detectives about discovering the “beautiful dead face” of Daniel Sutherland, “his fingertips curled to the floor. As though he was hanging on”, in the houseboat moored next to hers.

 

And that’s when the plot begins to really cook. The next chapter introduces Carla, the aunt of the deceased, who is already mourning the death of her sister just weeks earlier. The three women’s back stories are shared in flashbacks while their lives intersect as the novel builds toward its climax.

The term is overused, but this one is indeed a page-turner. You want to find out who did it and Hawkins reveals just enough to keep readers guessing. The chapters themselves are short and in addition to all the perspective jumps, Hawkins includes excerpts from a fictional novel called The One Who Got Away, which echoes part of the novel’s plot and may or may not help detectives catch the murderer.

To say much more would be to spoil the fun. So back to that simmer metaphor. This one is like a good curry, layered with spices, percolating for about 300 pages, leaving readers sated at the end.

Murder and espionage in Egypt with Sherlock Holmes

Ashley Duong

AP – A missing duke, the tomb of Thutmose IV and Sherlock Holmes all converge in The Return of the Pharaoh, the newest installment of Nicholas Meyer’s take on the adventures of the world-renowned detective.

Meyer’s book brings readers to early 20th Century Egypt, when Watson and his second wife, Juliet, travel to the arid country to combat her tuberculosis. Through the sanitarium at which Juliet is staying, Meyer creates a reflection of present-day COVID-19 protocols: Not only must patients wear masks and gloves, but they are also required to sit at least six feet away from visitors.

A month into their stay, Watson bumps into none other than Sherlock Holmes, who is posing as a colonel. Holmes soon reveals that the Duchess of Uxbridge has employed his services to find her husband after he suddenly stopped responding to her letters during his stay in Egypt.

 

Known to be in great debt, the Duke of Uxbridge appears to have pinned his hopes on “egyptology”’ and unearthing the yet-to-be-discovered, treasure-filled tomb of a pharaoh in order to settle his financial shortcomings. In their efforts to get to the bottom of the case, Watson and Holmes stumble upon a murder, discover a spy, expose an affair and survive a deadly sandstorm.

Written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original books, Meyer’s take on the Sherlock Holmes adventures blends old with new, giving readers familiar stories with parallels to and hints of more modern takes.

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