2 First-Rate Suspense Novels Deliver Chills, Thrills — And Stunning Endgames

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 13, 2018 10:00 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For our book critic Maureen Corrigan, suspense and summer go together like gin and tonic. Here's her review of two very different kinds of mystery novels - one that's been out for a while, the other brand-new, both featuring memorable female heroines.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Summer offers some breathing room for me to catch up on good books I've missed - as well as to ferret out promising new arrivals. And in the more relaxed days of summer, my hands reflexively reach out for a mystery. My first pick after Memorial Day was "The Dime" by Kathleen Kent, which was one of the nominees for this year's Edgar Award for best mystery. I've been curious about this novel because Kent's heroine, Brooklyn-born police detective Betty Rhyzyk, is gay. And there's been a dearth of queer detectives in mainstream mystery fiction over the last decade or so. If Kent decides to write more novels starring Betty Rhyzyk, it will be a boost both for the genre and for the cause of diversifying the detectives who walk down the mean streets of hard-boiled fiction.

"The Dime" opens in Dallas, Texas, where Betty has reluctantly relocated because her partner, a radiologist named Jackie, needed to be closer to her ailing and homophobic mother. The family friction, along with the routine razzing that Betty faces from male colleagues on the force, is simply part of the daily nastiness of her world - along with an escalating drug cartel war. Kent doesn't overplay the social commentary. Instead, she shows how Betty has to navigate situations differently - how, for instance, she feels pressure to always be ready with a cheeky comeback to the taunts to safeguard her standing and restore the karmic balance in the station house.

What really makes "The Dime" special is not just the fact that it features a lesbian detective. Rather, it's the fact that it shoves its lesbian detective into one of the most breathless, inventive and - be forewarned - violent suspense plots I've read in a long time. Halfway through, "The Dime" accelerates into warp speed, and Betty has to draw on all her Brooklyn, Polish, tough-girl moxie to fight her way out of an imprisonment that would have made Harry Houdini hang his head in defeat. I don't want to ruin things by talking any more about the plot, but I'll just say that the opening epigraph of "The Dime" should reassure anxious readers. It's identified as a Chinese proverb that says a patient woman can roast an ox with a lantern.

If "The Dime" caught my attention because of its progressive heroine, Ruth Ware's just-published mystery, "The Death Of Mrs. Westaway," genuinely knocked me out by its flawless, faithful adherence to tradition. This is a suspense tale so old-fashioned I'm hard-pressed to recall even one element that doesn't derive straight from the it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night playbook. Among other Gothic delights, there's a crumbling mansion, a disputed inheritance, an orphaned heroine and a grim housekeeper whose signature supper dish is gristle stew.

"The Death Of Mrs. Westaway" is a perfectly executed mystery very much in the mode of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca." Somehow Ware takes all these tarnished suspense tropes, gives them a brisk working-over with a polishing cloth and recovers the ageless beauty of the tried and true. The novel opens on - well, on a dark and stormy night as a lone young woman scurries her way homeward along a deserted seaside promenade.

Harriet Hal Westaway is 21 years old. She never knew her father's identity. Ever since the hit-and-run death of her mother three years ago, Hal has been eking out a living reading tarot cards in a seedy resort town on the English Channel. When she arrives home to her chilly flat, Hal surveys the bills that have come in that day's mail. Two letters stand out in the pile. One is a threat from a loan shark she naively borrowed money from months ago. The other is a missive from a solicitor's firm in Cornwall informing her of the death of her maternal grandmother and summoning Hal to a reading of the will. The tantalizing phrase substantial size of the estate catches Hal's eye.

The only catch is Hal knows that her mother's mother died decades ago. The lawyer must have confused her with another Harriet Westaway. Hal is a person of integrity, but she's also desperate. That loan shark has a reputation for cutting deadbeats like her to ribbons. Mulling over her options, Hal resolves to travel to Cornwall and use the cold-reading skills she's developed to suss out personal details about her tarot card clients to pass herself off as the missing Westaway granddaughter. When she arrives at the family mansion, she's shown to an attic bedroom whose small window features iron bars and the words help me scratched into the glass.

"The Death Of Mrs. Westaway" is superb. In addition to its brooding atmosphere and labyrinthine mistaken-identity plot, this novel also gives us a heroine of real depth in Hal. As Ware vividly depicts, Hal is hemmed in by her poverty as much as she is by the iron bars of her bedroom. I predict that lovers of first-class suspense will want to shut out the sunny delights of summer, burrow into one or both of these very different books and read until the stunning endgames here are played out.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Dime" by Kathleen Kent and "The Death Of Mrs. Westaway" by Ruth Ware. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Paul Schrader, the writer and director of the new film "First Reformed," and its star, Ethan Hawke, who plays a minister in a spiritual crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST REFORMED")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As Ernst Toller) Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.

GROSS: "First Reformed" has echoes of Schrader's early film "Taxi Driver." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. And I'm grateful to Dave Davies for hosting last week while I took the week off. I'm Terry Gross.

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