Review by New York Times Review
THERE ARE a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art. The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child's books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique - Who gave Harry that Fire-bolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info? The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes "Pride and Prejudice" so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions. "Breaking Bad" kept a few secrets from its audience, but for the most part it was fantastically adept at forcing Walter and Jesse into choice, into action. The same is true of "Freedom," or "My Brilliant Friend," or "Anna Karenina," all novels that are hard to stop reading even when it seems as if it should be easy. Both the pleasure and the limitation of many thrillers, like THE STRANGER (Dutton, $27.95), by Harlan Coben, is that they rely so heavily on that first kind of tension. Their fealty is always only to the next page, then the next, then the next, and so they're wanton with our interest, constantly planning new seductions for it along the way. It makes them deeply immersive in the moment, but strangely evanescent: in other words, beach reads. As far as beach reads go, though, Coben's are among the best. In "The Stranger" he again takes a happy suburban family and destroys it, which, judging by his sales, is just the frisson that a lot of the members of those families are looking for. This time around his victim is Adam Price, a New Jersey lawyer; one evening, a man approaches Adam with the devastating news that his wife, Corinne, faked her last pregnancy, and worse still that their two sons may not be his. Coben describes Adam's search for the truth behind these allegations - and the identity of the person who made them - with masterly skill, springing surprises, raising stakes, seamlessly integrating other victims of the "stranger" into Adam's tale. He's also a smooth, funny writer. James Patterson chivies his reader along toward his next plot point, but Coben likes to pause and make the kind of ephemeral observation that Ian McEwan so accurately called "one of the writer's great pleasures" - at a lacrosse game, for instance, Adam thinks of how "we pretend otherwise, but we watch only our own child," or at another moment, contemplating tragedy, how "the world moves on, which is an outrage." Still, the real point is the chase. After Adam confronts her, Corinne leaves, and he tries with increasing desperation to pull her back, hoping to salvage their life together. The book's denouement is enough to make you later to bed than you wanted. And yet throughout, both he and we are more happened-to than happening, waiting on those secrets. When they arrive, of course, they seem diminished in importance, and a day or two after I finished "The Stranger," I found I had already forgotten many of its particulars. Coben, Child - they get accused of writing the same books over and over. But if each new book makes the reader amnesiac, does it matter? Another new domestic novel, less mechanically proficient than "The Stranger" but more likely to linger in the reader's mind, is THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE (Algonquin, $24.95), by Heidi Pitlor. It belongs to the booming microgenre of the missing wife, and in this case that's Hannah Hall, whose husband, a climatologist named Lovell, becomes alarmed after she fails to pick up their kids at school one day. There's an enormous technical difficulty with this kind of book: The author must hold the husband in a state of weird suspension throughout, since he's either (a) a murderer or (b) the victim of terrible circumstances. (Not surprisingly, it was Gillian Flynn who most adroitly solved this difficulty, just one of the innumerable brilliancies of "Gone Girl.") At the same time, it's a perfect microscope with which to examine the inexhaustible fascinations of marriage, and as Pitlor flashes between the day of Hannah's disappearance and Lovell's uneasy consideration of their past resentments, she finds a nice voice - thoughtful, lyrical, unforced. Because of this, and because it's a quick, light-footed read, "The Daylight Marriage" ends up just about surmounting its flaws of construction, even its unsatisfying solution. "Oh, my whole life feels like an epilogue right now," Hannah says in the last fight she and Lovell have before she vanishes, and it's ambiguous clues like this that keep the reader curious - and perhaps also clarify the popularity of this style of book. Culturally, we're at a strange moment halfway between the old notions of what a woman's life can be, and the new ones. Marriage, children, suburbia: Is escape from these things a dream, or a nightmare? Coben and Pitlor both work within the textbook definition of the thriller, which is to take an ordinary life and turn it upside down. Historical thrillers, by contrast, often look for moments where the whole world is upside down, and see what's come unstuck. That's what Francine Mathews does in the excellent TOO BAD TO DIE (Riverhead, $27.95), a dramatization of Ian Fleming's career in naval intelligence. The story tracks James Bond's creator from Cairo to Tehran across an eight-day period in 1943, when Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met, in part to plot the invasion of Normandy. It's an inspired setting - an astonishing array of historical figures cross the page, from Alan Turing to Averell Harriman to Lavrenti Beria. Fleming, though, is the star. Handsome, sharp and patriotic, he also seems irretrievably wounded by the isolation of his youth at boarding school and the early death of his father. In the book's crackerjack cold open, which captures an entire certain field of Britishness in a few pages, he gets the news of that death from a sympathetic headmaster, who nevertheless proceeds to beat him with a slipper for a minor infraction. It seems convincing, thereafter, when Mathews has Fleming constantly escape into half-formed daydreams about a spy with a license to kill. His foe here is an appropriately dread one, the "Fencer," a German agent plotting to kill the big three Allied leaders while they're in one place. With the assistance of a mysterious beauty, Fleming endures torture and betrayal to prevent that from happening. The book is best when it sticks close to him; its attentions become too diffuse in its middle section, as each character takes a turn at center stage, as if Mathews was unable to resist the richness of her research. Fortunately, most of "Too Bad to Die" is fast, fun and wonderfully intelligent. When Fleming is kidnapped, she writes, "Ian was given a dark suit, abominably cut, and a white dress shirt" - and that "abominably cut," its darting flight into Fleming's consciousness, is the kind of moment that makes this novel wholly worthy of its ingenious subject. The genre that Bond helped pioneer is at a down moment. As John Updike wrote in 2005, "the spy thriller still pines for the Soviet Union," and at least from a distance, these days, spying seems to have turned into one more desk job, with fewer dead drops, less chicanery at border crossings, and our country's murky, awful, transnational enemies perhaps too elusive to provide a foil as compelling as Karla. In THE SWIMMER (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99), Joakim Zander tries valiantly to transfer some of the Cold War's old cat-and-mouse verve to our times, in part by making his villains corporate, an interesting gambit. The book is primarily the story of Klara Walldéen, a young political aide in Brussels whose ex-boyfriend draws her into an explosive secret, a trove of photographs showing torture even graver than that at Abu Ghraib. Facing off against the mercenaries responsible for these atrocities, Klara finds an unexpected ally, the swimmer of the book's title, a disillusioned old Langley hack. At moments, particularly in his depiction of George, a coked-up publicist shanghaied into cahoots with the baddies, Zander handles this material well. He's a smart, fluid observer - but of what? Like so much spy fiction, "The Swimmer" seems to be a pastiche of a pastiche, its stylishness (as translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) borrowed from other authors' guesswork. A character "lacks the deadly, quicksilver intelligence of a Navy SEAL, so he's probably Special Forces." Um, O.K.? If the world of "The Swimmer" is unearned, its twists are nevertheless half engrossing, promising enough that Zander may join the league of novelists currently writing decent espionage stories of the new century, like Olen Steinhauer and Alex Berenson. But it's hard to care when all of them work so definitely within the same etiolated tradition - epigones of Deighton, le Carré, McCarry. Some genius needs to come along and dissolve this genre, then build it again on the ruins. It was fine when the old spymasters who inspired Zander did it, but I have an appeal to make to the authors of scientific thrillers: Please stop saving the world. For once just save Seattle, or something. The trouble is that saving the world means coming up with a genuinely existential threat to humanity, which so often forces writers into cartoonish depictions of evil. It's this broadness that ultimately sinks THE DOOMSDAY EQUATION (Morrow/HarperCollins, paper, $14.99) by Matt Richtel, which otherwise has the makings of a good thriller. The book's premise concerns a complex algorithm that can predict global conflicts. The algorithm's inventor, Jeremy Stillwater, was a brash Silicon Valley Wunderkind, now disgraced because his program's predictions failed. He's still brash, however, which has cost him the two people he really loves, his girlfriend and her son. It's them he considers when his program suddenly warns him about a massive impending catastrophe. Could it be right this time? The way Richtel sets up Jeremy's impossible task, as well as his possible redemption, is good. It's his enemies that let us down. The fatal moment comes after about a hundred pages: "Of course," one of the bad guys ruminates, "there is only one book, the Bible, the word." So, Dan Brown territory. Jeremy pursues these zealots, who are supposed to be tech-savvy, invincible, invisible and legion, though apparently they're also stupid enough to set up a secret passcode that's simply an exchange of lyrics from one of Bob Marley's best-known songs. The book proceeds toward its showdown without the result in doubt. Instead it's liveliest in small moments - a few brief acidities about start-up culture and many insightful thoughts on technology, for instance the Internet's power to create "such a huge sample size of language that it betrays what we, the human race, think." The strong setup and sharp elbows of "The Doomsday Equation" prove that Richtel has the potential to write a blockbuster one day. He might just have to go smaller to do it. THE WORLD is in trouble again in THE DEAD LANDS (Grand Central, $26), by Benjamin Percy. "No one knows where the flu came from," he writes. Well, I do! It came from George R. Stewart, then Stephen King, then Cormac McCarthy, and they have a lot to answer for. As I read the solemn, torpid opening chapters of Percy's book, my heart fell: another pandemic, another set of scraggy toughs, some sputtering electricity and frontier justice, a few wryly evoked leftovers from the glossy, taken-for-granted old world, the one we live in now. Another post-apocalyptic novel. These are so ubiquitous now that writers are obliged to offer some slight wrinkle to the formula; Emily St. John Mandel made "Station Eleven" about a troupe of Shakespearean actors, and drew them so persuasively that they overcame their stale backdrop. (Precisely what good actors should do.) Percy's idea, too, is agreeably loaded with signifiers: Starting out from a heavily fortified St. Louis, a man and a woman who happen to be named Lewis and Clark go on a long journey toward a possible fresh beginning for mankind. After its portentous start, "The Dead Lands" picks up some speed, and Percy creates sharp, memorable characters, in particular St. Louis's malevolent mayor. The problem is how waterlogged the whole enterprise is by seriousness. Once you've killed off more or less everyone alive, it's all right to write a brisk story and let the implications of the situation look after themselves. There will be fans of the post-apocalyptic who adore the solemnity of "The Dead Lands," but to me it seemed - like our planet in the future, it would appear - mostly lifeless. That would be the least apposite word to describe the dark, bloody triumph that is I, RIPPER (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), by Stephen Hunter. As its title indicates, this novel consists in part of a diary of Jack the Ripper, whose killing spree in the fall of 1888, a gravely over-farmed piece of fictional turf, is revivified by Hunter's careful tending. The diary is convincingly mad, alternatively even-tempered, hallucinatory and cackling, and complementing it are the retrospective reports of "Jeb," a sardonic music writer on Jack's trail. Both characters are too eager to offer the pat reflection that the murders represent a decisive turn toward "modernity," whatever that is, but the book's characters are great, its race to capture the murderer is beautifully tense, and it has one of the best twists I can remember in any recent historical thriller. The only reason to avoid "I, Ripper" would be its unforgiving brutality. Some lines, among hundreds of similar ones: "My gloves were heavy with blood and smeared with near-liquid fat.... I sawed. I jabbed. I cut off her nose, cheeks, eyebrows and ears." Is there a utility to this, beyond voyeurism? Looking something horrific directly in the face, I suppose. There's a common observation that we read thrillers in order to explore the darkness of life safely, thereby negating it. This, rather than mere bloodletting, is probably Hunter's purpose. He wants to know how humans can do what humans can do, down to the worst of it. Those thrillers that truly transcend their debt to momentum often have that spirit, and it may be that the news of the world these days - the beheadings, the violence against women - has yet to superannuate our need for their bleak exorcisms. Alas. CHARLES FINCH is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Last Enchantments."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 31, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review
*Starred Review* A CIA agent, burned out by three decades of lies, betrayals, and disastrous Agency cross-purposes. A Swedish Muslim with a shadowy past writing a PhD dissertation on private security companies in the Middle East. An ethically challenged lobbyist working in the EU capital of Brussels. And a beautiful Swedish aide to an EU parliamentarian. Their lives will variously intersect, reconnect, or collide and some lives will end. First-novelist Zander has written a truly polished and compelling thriller that nods at all the standard thriller tropes. It begins in Damascus in 1980 when a car bomb kills the CIA agent's wife, and it moves through three decades and locales in Syria, Brussels, D.C., Paris, Stockholm, and a remote Swedish archipelago during a fierce winter storm. The plot will resonate with readers appalled by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the George W. Bush administration's embrace of private firms like Blackwater. Tension and action abound. But it is the depth of Zander's characters and the quality of the writing, which at times touches elegance, that make The Swimmer a winner. (It's already a best-seller in Europe, with rights sold in 28 countries.) Zander looks to be a very talented new branch on the flourishing tree of Scandinavian crime fiction.--Gaughan, Thomas Copyright 2014 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Swedish author Zander's entertaining first novel owes more to Forsythe and Ludlum than to Larsson and Mankell. An unnamed narrator, who is a retired spy living in Virginia, addresses his late wife in his mind, telling her a convoluted tale that begins with her death and continues across the world over the next 33 years. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Shammosh, who's in a Ph.D. program at Uppsala University, is working on a book about the privatization of war when he hears from an old friend who has information proving that the CIA and private contractors used torture on captured terrorists. Shammosh ends up with the info and goes on the run with his former lover, Klara Walldéen, an E.U. parliament aide. Given Zander's literate, descriptive style, it's easy to see why this thriller has been a bestseller in Europe, though American readers may find it overlong in arriving at the inevitable conclusion. Agents: Astri von Arbin Ahlander and Christine Edhäll, Ahlander Agency (Sweden). (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Billed as Homeland meets Stieg Larsson and already an international best seller, this Swedish thriller from debut author Zander lives up to the hype. Klara Walldeen was raised by her grandparents on a remote archipelago in the Baltic Sea and is now an EU Parliament aide in Brussels. Ex-boyfriend Mahmoud, a graduate student writing his dissertation on the privatization of war, arrives in Brussels to give a presentation and then reaches out to Klara when he ends up in a dangerous situation. They're soon tracking down a laptop full of classified information and being chased across Europe by someone intent on killing them. Meanwhile, an American spy finds his past catching up with him and tries to make it right by helping Klara. Back in Sweden, truths finally begin to emerge after a brutal convergence of the hunters and the hunted. VERDICT The chapters alternate between different and not always named characters and jumps from one decade and locale to another, which makes the novel's beginning both intriguing and disorienting. Despite the potential for some initial confusion, the book rewards with a suspenseful story of international espionage and political misdeeds. [See Prepub Alert, 8/11/14; library marketing.]-Melissa DeWild, Kent District Lib., Comstock Park, MI (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
An international thriller with the pace and intensity of a Jason Bourne adventure, Zander's debut follows the intertwining stories of a young Swedish woman and a washed-up American spy.It's 1980, and a car bomb detonates in Damascus, killing the mother of a baby girl. Skip ahead three decades: It's 2013, and Swedish graduate student Mahmoud Shammosh (dissertation topic: "The Privatization of War") receives an anonymous email requesting a meeting. "I have information that's of interest to us both," the note says, followed by an unsettling warning: "Be careful, you're being watched." Meanwhile, in Brussels, George Lw, lobbyist for the world's biggest PR firm, receives a sinister assignment of his own from a shadowy American company. Among his instructions? Bug the office of a young parliamentary aide named Klara Walldenwho just happens to be the estranged ex-girlfriend of Mahmoud. Why is George tracking Klara? He's not sure, just as Mahmoud isn't sure why he's being watched, just as Klara isn't sure whydays laterMahmoud has suddenly reappeared in her life streaked with blood. But when Mahmoud and Klara find themselves in possession of dangerous information, one thing becomes clear: All three of them have been unwittingly thrust into a world of international conspiracy, and the stakes are life and death. Skillfully moving between the past and the present, from Sweden to Syria to Washington and back again, Zander weaves an increasingly tight web of intrigue and suspense with Klara at the center. And if the novel occasionally veers toward spy-movie clichs, it's quickly reanchored by the strength of its characters. Beyond the blood-pumping chase sequences and requisite shootouts, there is real humanity here. A compulsively readable page-turner with unexpected heart. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.