Psychological suspense is a genre that needs to be handled with kid gloves. Too much reality — or too much foolishness — and the pact made with the reader to believe in the unbelievable is broken. Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen seem to have mastered the formula in AN ANONYMOUS GIRL (St. Martin’s, $27.99), a creepy-crawly tale about putting your trust in a stranger; specifically, in a strange psychologist.
Jessica Farris, a young theatrical makeup artist living on peanuts, sneaks into a high-paying “morality and ethics research project” being conducted by Lydia Shields, a psychology professor at New York University. Anticipating a formal printed questionnaire, Jessica is disconcerted to be bombarded with highly personal questions. “Subject 52, you need to dig deeper,” she’s prompted by the dauntingly elegant Dr. Shields, who knows Jessica is an impostor, but finds her interesting. And dig she does, revealing herself so completely that Dr. Shields focuses exclusively on her. Although this will no doubt set off alarms for discerning readers, Jessica seems oblivious to the unlikelihood of such a setup. And indeed, it turns out that Dr. Shields is really looking for an attractive (and rather dumb) young woman to test her husband’s fidelity.
Given the rather far-fetched premise of this tale of mutual sexual obsession, the authors do a neat job of ratcheting up the suspense when Jessica begins going out on assignments to pick up married men in bars. And it comes uncomfortably close to being a justifiable betrayal when Dr. Shields’s husband has an affair with Jessica, confirming his wife’s previously unfounded hypothesis that he’s “an unrepentant adulterer.” At least he has the discretion to warn his lover about his wife. “She’s dangerous,” he says. “Watch yourself.” But it’s the danger that makes infidelity such fun, and the authors know exactly how to play on their characters’ love of danger to bring them to the brink of disaster — and dare them to jump off.
You could choke on the bone-dry atmosphere of SCRUBLANDS (Atria, $26.99), Chris Hammer’s gritty debut novel about a sex scandal that has left a small Australian desert town reeling. A year has passed since a church shooting torched the parched landscape of Riversend, where everyone talks about the punishing weather but few have the stamina to take it without boiling over into rage or despair.
The chary locals are less forthcoming about the lingering horror of the mass shooting in which a young priest took the lives of five members of his elderly congregation. A journalist named Martin Scarsden has been assigned by his editor at The Sydney Morning Herald to write a feature about how the town is coping with the trauma, only to be told by Mandalay Blonde, the owner of a bookstore, that the real story is why the priest carried out the killings in the first place. And while he’s at it, why not find out if the accepted motive of pedophilia holds up. Taking up the challenge, Scarsden delves into the history of this cursed town and its haunted inhabitants, emerging with a sensitively rendered back story about people who have willfully blinded themselves by staring into the sun too long.
The only thing sadder than a majestic hotel fallen on hard times is one with a dead body in Room 413. Detective Aidan Waits of the Manchester police force finds the corpse, its jaws locked in a hideous death grin, in Joseph Knox’s edgy noir mystery THE SMILING MAN (Crown, $26), and for his sins catches the case. Those transgressions include a meth habit that pretty much puts Waits in debt to his hard-nosed superior officer, Superintendent Parrs, who holds him on a short leash. “It’s convenient to keep a compromised officer around the place,” Parrs gloats. “Someone I’ve got so much dirt on that I can use him for special jobs.” Here, “special” means “illegal,” and Waits uses his burglary skills to plant drugs on a suspect. Despite these unorthodox ploys, he’s a smart guy who understands that “sometimes you confound expectations, sometimes you grow into the thing that people think you are.”
Thirty years ago, six teenagers went camping in Brinken Wood. Five of them came out alive, and one of them was never seen again until now, in the opening pages of SHE LIES IN WAIT (Random House, $27). This enjoyably chilling suspense tale by Gytha Lodge conveys both the thrills and the dangers of being a teenager on the brink of adult independence. Aurora Jackson never had the chance to taste those thrills before the dangers caught up with her, leaving her bones behind to be found by a rebellious little girl poking around in the woods. Lodge tells the story in interlocking time frames that shift from the present to a summer day in 1983 when 14-year-old Aurora was allowed to hang out with her older sister Topaz’s “strange, anarchic, brilliant and beautiful friends.” The obvious questions of how she died and at whose hand are properly dealt with. But the fascination of this story is in the character studies of the surviving children, all grown up now and participants in a dark mystery that they all wish had never seen the light of day.