Tag Archives: psychological thriller

A series of grotesque murders ravages an institution for juvenile delinquents

Suffer the Children, by Lisa Black. Kensington Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

This latest addition to the Gardiner and Renner Thriller series finds the skilled and dedicated forensics specialist Maggie Gardiner in a highly claustrophobic, menacing situation. She and her Cleveland police force colleagues – Jack Renner and his partner, Riley – visit an advanced multi-purpose institution to investigate what turns out to be the first in a series of murders. 

The Firebird Center for Children and Adolescents is a state-of-the-art juvenile detention center, part school and part prison. The inmate-pupils are grouped by age, by learning skills, and by social redeemability. Most, but not all, are victims of abuse, and too many are capable of abusive behavior. Few will ever be normal, but they might be able to stay out of trouble and lead productive lives. In some, sharp intelligence is warped toward brutal psychotic behavior. These are high-risk kids, to put it mildly.

They have psychological switches that go on and off, affecting behavior in unpredictable ways. They are master manipulators who can act normal.

They live in a controlled environment run by security personnel, therapists, and educators with special training. The institution’s leaders are constrained by delicate legal issues and marginal budgets.

Lisa Black, photo by Susan M. Klingbeil

Maggie’s task – discerning, collecting, and interpreting forensic evidence – is one center of interest. The other is how well Ms. Black uses Maggie’s reactions as a lens to enlighten readers about the nature of Firebird, including the personalities of individual children and staffers. Seeing what goes on there, even short of murder, is a harrowing experience. The admirable motives and skills of the professionals seem buried under a cloud. The inmates and the jailors share a no-win situation, and Lisa Black shows us why.

Are various children killing one another? Is a junior mastermind serial killer committing these horrendous crimes? If so, who is it? How are the victims chosen? Where will the evidence point? What will the motive be? Is it anything beyond blind, ungovernable aggression? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 10, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 11 Naples and  Bonita Springs editions, and the October 18 Charlotte County edition, click here: Florida WeeklySuffer the Children

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A haunting serial killer novel with spirited pacing and surprising twists

The Bricklayer of Albany Park, by Terry John Malik. Blank Slate Press. 342 pages. Trade paperback $16.99.

A psychological thriller with a strong dose procedural detail, Mr. Malik’s debut novel is the surprisingly solid achievement of a man who had never before attempted fiction writing. Its success is largely dependent on an impressive amount of well-integrated research, a masterful understanding of Chicago, and an equally keen grasp of extreme mental illness. The author provides plenty of surprises for his readers, as well as a torrent of suspense. 

Most of the novel is presented through two alternating perspectives. One narrative voice is that of Detective Francis (Frank) Vincenti, a once-aimless young man who has become a stellar investigator for the Chicago Police Department. In this way he was unlike his childhood friend, Tony Protettore, who was constantly preoccupied with thoughts of joining the police thoughts.

Readers learn of Frank’s odd friendship with and training by ex-cop Thomas Aquinas Foster, his CPD partnership with Sean Kelly, and his disastrous marriage to Beth – an aspiring lawyer.

Malik

The other narrator is simply known, through much of the novel, as Anthony. A serial killer who hunts down, punishes, and eradicates child molesters, Anthony is a meticulous planner (though sometimes his plans go wrong). Mr. Malik provides the gory details of Anthony’s crimes and stresses the killer’s interest in being celebrated for his work in cleansing Chicago of those who exploit children. Anthony stages his murders and the places where the mutilated corpses will be discovered. He thrives on publicity, and he bates the police officers, who efforts to protect children are insufficient. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 9, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 10 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Bricklayer

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A powerfully imagined novel explores the causes and consequences of an unjust murder conviction

Monument Road, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 256 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

When we first meet Franky Dast, he is just out of prison. Falsely convicted of a double murder eight years ago, Franky, in is mid-twenties is entering a world he has not yet begun to figure out. Largely due to his own efforts, his has been given his freedom. He was betrayed by Higby, a demonic arresting officer who put him on death row, by his ill-equipped public defender, and by a system that had no interest in raising questions about the past. Bitter over the lost years and the taint on his name, Franky gains employment with the Justice Now Initiative, a small organization that aids people facing the same problem of having been unjustly imprisoned.  

A haunted man, Franky is not an ideal employee, but his supervisors nurture him as best they can.

In order to more fully establish his innocence, Franky feels the need to discover who was really guilty of murdering those two brothers, young teenagers, with whom Franky had an innocent encounter that doomed him.

Just as he had done much of the investigative work that set him free, Franky is back at it again, trying to to follow up on the death of those boys and to others whose lives and deaths seem to have linked circumstances and details.

With no bars hemming him in, often confused, and determined to be in charge of his own life, Franky is taking chances that might get him in trouble.

Michael Wiley

This gorgeously crafted, shudderingly dark novel blends the genres of psychological thriller and murder mystery. Many will find the author’s probing of Franky’s tormented psyche to have primary appeal. However, the young man is also an adept reasoner and a bulldog at getting close to people who may have secrets that he needs to draw out.

The version of Jacksonville that Mr. Wiley takes us through is a stretch of the urban and suburban American South blighted by corruption and contamination of all kinds. Autopsies reveal unusually high mercury levels; a powerful judge holds sway over how and whether law –  as actualized in the sheriff’s department and the courtroom – is administered; and the low-end rooming house where Franky rents a room is a sordid, grimy place (although its owner/manager seems to be a competent and caring person). . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 29, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 30 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Monument Road

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Characters bedeviled by trauma and loss explored in bestselling author’s latest effort

The Red Hunter, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 368 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

This delicately constructed thriller explores the distance and proximity between two women whose paths cross in strikingly unusual ways. The younger of the two, Zoey Drake, has lived through a lengthy and ongoing recovery from a devastating childhood trauma. Her parents were murdered before eyes in their rural home outside of New York City. Zoey, who barely survived, has lived with a rage she must control to function effectively. Rigorous martial arts training has been her coping mechanism and her security against being victimized in her adulthood as she was in her childhood. 

She has been reared and put through college by the man she calls Uncle Paul, and she assists him as he struggles with poor health. She supports herself through cat-sitting jobs and by helping her martial arts mentor teach self-defense to young girls. Nightmares haunt her, but she has gained a healthy self-confidence.

The place she was raised in is now occupied by a mother and teenage daughter. For Claudia Bishop, renovating this home is part of an extended recovery from a horrible assault and rape that occurred many years ago. Seventeen year old Raven, herself a troubled young woman, feels the need to follow up on the possibility that she is not the child of the loving man from who Claudia has been long divorced. Perhaps she is the daughter of the rapist. Her quest regarding her identity is one plot driver in this brilliant, complex novel.

Lisa Unger – photo by Jay Nolan

Signs of intruders lead to the revelation that somewhere between the house and the barn might be the buried fruits of a robbery gone haywire. There’s a possibility that individuals connected with the robbery are committed to recovering a million dollars. The theft involved corrupt police. It looks like the handyman Claudia has hired for the renovation was somehow involved, as was his brother – a desperate, soulless character recently released from prison.

Through shifting narrators and points of view, Ms. Unger orchestrates the series of revelations that lead to the final outcome. The suspense is almost unbearable in this fast-paced psychological thriller.

I don’t know of another writer working today who brings us characters with such precisely rendered emotional complications. Of course, they are put in situations – or can’t stop remembering situations – that give them a lot to process. Sometimes they are presented from a third person perspective, and sometimes they are briefly narrators. It’s not easy to make such (unrecommended) shifts work, but Lisa Unger makes it a compelling feature of her art. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 26, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the April 27 Naples, Palm Beach, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Red Hunter

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Brooding spirits, lost voices of The Hollows make their claim, again

Ink and Bone, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 352 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

If you’ve never been to The Hollows before, that upstate New York community that passes for normal while hiding its truly haunted nature, then you’re in for a big surprise. Restless spirits fester in The Hollows. They cry out for recognition. They have stories to share.  In time of trouble, residents and visitors may sense that there is something strange going on – some kind of invisible force. There seem to be voices, sometimes cries, in the wind.  InkandBone

There are people who are sensitive to the spirit world, whether they wish to be or not. These are the same people who have psychic powers which grant them glimpses of the future, or of the hidden past. They are called upon by the spirits. Eloise Montgomery has lived among the haunted, and among the rest of us, for her whole life: “Eloise told her [granddaughter Finley] long ago that a haunting was a relationship, that the dead clung to the living only as much as the living clung to the dead.”

Finley Montgomery, a twenty-year-old student at the local Sacred Heart College, also has this power, and sometimes the spirit voices and her strange dreams overwhelm her. Only Eloise is able to help her. And she will need all the help she can get to avoid being pulled under by what she must confront.

There is a long history of children who have gone missing in The Hollow. For almost a year, Merri Gleason has tried to find her daughter, Abbey. She feels that if Abbey is not already dead, she soon will be if she’s not found. She contacts Jones Cooper, a former police officer now working as a private detective. Though Jones is a down-to-earth guy, a man of facts, he is open to the paranormal. On the right kind of case he will consult with Eloise. Finding Abbey is one such case.

Lisa Unger credit Jeff Unger

Lisa Unger credit Jeff Unger

It’s a case that can’t help but suck fiercely tattooed Finley into it, much to her peril.

Ms. Unger orchestrates her gripping, eerie novel so that readers alternate among several plot strands, trying to guess if and how they will come together. Tracking down Abbey is one strand. Witnessing the imprisonment and attempted escapes of a young girl called Penny is another. Readers are teased with the idea that Penny is not this girl’s actual name by the introduction of another girl referred to as Real Penny. Perhaps the one we meet is a replacement for one who fled or died. And perhaps there have been others who have been called Penny. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 1, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 2 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda /Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ink and Bone

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“The Undoing,” by Averil Dean

MIRA. 288 pages. Trade paperback $11.99.

A close-knit trio of friends comes undone in this dark, suspenseful tale set on Colorado’s slopes.

What am I doing reviewing a book from an imprint that bills itself as having “the brightest stars in women’s fiction”? Hey, if Lee Child could offer such strong praise for a novelist’s work, I had to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. Dean’s new offering, The Undoing — which follows Alice Close Your Eyes in 2013 — is a dazzler.

To my mind, it’s not “chick lit” at all. Though certainly the work of an extremely talented woman writing primarily for women, this psychological thriller crosses the line into literary fiction. Stylistically and structurally, it is a mind-bending and mind-opening experience. There is little “feel-good” here, rather a mountainside filled with pain and understanding.

TheUndoingcover

Structurally, Dean puts together a backward walk from disaster to its genesis. In the tiny town of Jawbone Ridge, Colorado — near fabled Telluride — a trio of young adults has been murdered. Essentially, they have turned on each other after a short lifetime of living together intimately in almost every way one can imagine.

No, we do not enter at the time or the scene of the murders, but years later, we look over the shoulder of Julian Moss, a once-renowned skier who had been inside the same circle as the core trio. He has been drawn back to the Blackbird Hotel, which was the enterprise and home of the people who died there. From this scene, set in 2014, Julian leaps to his death after re-reading a note that has haunted him for years: “Julian — I know what you did.”

Averil Dean

Averil Dean

The note is from Celia, the central and most elusive figure in the novel. Raised with her action-oriented stepbrother, Rory, she formed an eerie symbiosis with him from childhood that turned stressful and dangerous in their teen and young adult years. The relationship was complicated by the third partner, Rory’s best friend, Eric. Eric, more an intellectual type, loved both Celia and Rory in complex ways.

These friends, a holy trinity of some sort — and ultimately an unholy one — were also competitors, vying for dominance through need and manipulation. The young men were lured to participate in Celia’s vision of owning and operating the Blackbird Hotel. Celia’s esthetic stamp is on the furnishings and decoration. Eric’s money allows her vision to be realized. Rory supplies the construction skills needed for repairs and improvements.

The three, for a while, live Celia’s dream. In 2009, the fulcrum year of The Undoing, disaster befalls their relationship.

As the note suggests, Julian had upset their equilibrium. His negative momentum took the small chinks in the ties between the three mutual lovers and widened them. They had something he needed to be part of, but couldn’t.

After introducing the fatal year of 2009, the author takes us several steps backward in time. Scenes set in 2008 help us understand 2009. A late 2007 scene presents the beginning of a relationship between Celia and Julian, who is considerably older than the other three. July 2007 includes Eric’s purchase of the Blackbird Hotel on behalf of himself, Celia, and Rory.

Then the narrative plummets backward to 2003.

You get the idea.

All along the way, Dean examines the ineffectual parenting and the destructive blood relationships in which the members of the trio were raised. These configurations are central to a dizzying interplay of causes and effects: tendencies, blocking forces, and outcomes. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: The Undoing | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“The Murderer’s Daughter,” by Jonathan Kellerman

  • Ballantine. 384 pages. Hardcover  $28.00

This taut new thriller features a memorable, series-worthy heroine.

When it comes to psychological thrillers, Jonathan Kellerman has been at the top of the heap for three decades. His Alex Delaware series is an institution. In this truly frightening stand-alone effort (though Delaware is briefly mentioned), Kellerman introduces a character who could conceivably head a new series.

Gorgeous Dr. Grace Blades, a brainy 34-year-old, has a private practice as a psychologist who aids victims of trauma. However, she is a victim of childhood trauma with the capacity to wreak havoc on others. Her sense of justice is very personal.

We first meet Grace at the age of 5, the neglected child of an unmarried pair of slackers, Ardis and Dodie, who hold menial restaurant jobs and barely exist in a cruddy trailer park. Grace learns to take care of herself and teaches herself how to read. She’s a prodigy in a cultural wasteland.  43626.jpg (200×226)

After this brief introduction, the author takes us almost 30 years ahead, providing several chapters on the successful Dr. Blades. They reveal her skilled and caring professionalism, her ethical business practices, and her quiet confidence.

We also discover the risk-taker part of Grace that vies with her control-freak dimension. Self-control and self-stimulation alternate like a perilous seesaw trying to reach a point of balance.

Structurally, the narration involves two alternating timelines. One focuses on a short period of present time in the life of Grace the psychotherapist and thrill-seeker. The other takes us through several stages of her development, usually marked by a change in the institution or foster home where she resides.

Eventually, of course, the timelines meet. Along the way, Kellerman provides a detailed exploration of how children in such circumstances are likely to be treated and what the consequences might be. More importantly, he builds our understanding of how Grace in her mid-30s is a product of the nurturing — or lack of it — she received during her development. She is also a product of her own willpower and self-creation.

Part of Grace’s preparation for life is watching her parents wage bloody war upon each other. Her mother, Dodie, stabs her tormenter, Ardis, her father, who dies. Then Dodie plunges the knife into herself, first instructing Grace to remember what she sees.

She will.

Grown-up Grace enjoys exercising power, particularly sexual power, over men. She lives a secret nightlife of trysts in which she is the controlling temptress. On the occasion that drives the main plot, Grace rehearses some lies, dresses to kill (pardon me), and goes to a bar expecting to entice a partner for the evening. A man calling himself Roger takes the bait. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Murderer’s Daughter | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“Losing Faith” by Adam Mitzner

  • Gallery Books 384 pp.

This smart courtroom thriller manages to humanize the law.

Like many a top-drawer legal thriller, the fast-pacedLosing Faith is also a psychological thriller. Charged with the murder of a judge with whom he was having an affair, Aaron Littman is the only one who seems to know that he is innocent.Even though the legal details of the case, the portrayal of the give-and-take in the courtroom, and the inside look at how a major law firm operates are all handled with authority and vivid detail, it is Aaron’s emotional ride that gives the book its strongest hook and its high-powered suspense.

When the liberal judge originally assigned to the Nicolai Garkov case is found no longer competent because of advancing Alzheimer’s, Judge Faith Nichols takes over. The indictment against Russian Mafia player Garkov covers a wide range of criminal activities, most notably laundering money for a hedge fund that finances terrorists.

Garkov manipulates the hiring of Aaron as his defense attorney to fight the government charges. Why? Well, he knows that the judge whose ruling determines his fate is Aaron’s lover. Neither Aaron nor Faith would want that secret exposed, as it could be both marriage and career ending. That’s a lot of pressure. adam-mitzner

But if Faith succumbs to blackmail and acquits Garkov, she will not get the Supreme Court appointment that is otherwise a sure thing. That, too, is a lot of pressure.

Before matters unfold much further, Faith is found murdered — beaten to death. The growing body of evidence points toward Aaron, whose colleagues were not happy when he besmirched the Cromwell Alton firm’s prestigious name by linking it to Garkov.

Aaron’s colleague, mentor, and good friend, Sam Rosenthal, chooses to defend Aaron against the murder charge. Before everything explodes in Aaron’s face, he decides he’d better admit his infidelity to his lawyer and to his wife.

The emotional heart of the book involves Aaron’s attempt to redeem himself. More and more, he is forced to admit that the case against him would impress a jury. And, given his indiscretion, he is not a sympathetic character. Having his wife, Cynthia, stand by him would go a long way toward countering his negative image.

Beyond the problem of appearances, Aaron is truly contrite. He has come to value what he’d nearly thrown away. After her initial outrage, Cynthia decides to give Aaron a second chance. Mitzner’s portrayal of the ebbs and flows of this rebuilding process, which also involves their two daughters, is delicately and movingly drawn.

Waiting in the wings in case the Littman marriage fails is Aaron’s junior partner, Rachel London. She is deeply in love with him, and, though Aaron has aided her career in the firm, he has backed away from her too-obvious longings. Of course, she is a brainy babe. So was the judge. Cynthia is a looker, too.

The government’s case, presented forcefully by Victoria Donnelly, is largely circumstantial, but still compelling. Once the adversarial force has mounted its attack, the art and science of legal gamesmanship becomes a fascinating center of interest. The defense tramples on the concept of timely discovery and disclosure, but mostly gets away with it. Mitzner carefully draws the conduct and personalities of the lead attorneys, Rosenthal and Donnelly. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Losing Faith | Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“The Book of Stone” by Jonathan Papernick

Fig Tree Books  2015
400 Pages    $15.95

Review by Philip K. Jason

In a Brooklyn warehouse, part gun range and part synagogue, trouble is brewing.

Who is susceptible to the morbid attractions of terrorism? Our popular media have made clichés out of half a dozen answers. Jonathan Papernick has created a terrifying novel that illuminates the dark corners of those souls who will give their lives for a cause without regard for their own suffering or that of others.

Though this beautifully written book teems with fully realized supporting characters, most of the insights derive from the portrait of the central character—Matthew Stone. This portrait is so magnificently painted, Matthew is so brilliantly and precisely individualized, that the stock responses to the important question are overwhelmed and transformed. No more glib talk. Real life.

We meet Matthew, a twenty-five year old loser with no job, no accomplishments, and no self-worth, as he shakily responds to his father’s death. Judge Walter Stone is a version of “the great man.” A giant in his profession, disgraced by his own drives, he had given Matthew the toughest kind of love—absence and denigration. Yet he remained a giant among militant Zionists.

Papernick

Papernick

The judge’s father, also a Zionist hero and a similar kind of disapproving parent,was a feared gangster.

Through his father’s horde of books, books annotated with what seem like clues for Matthew’s destined role in life, and through the approaches of Jewish terrorist leaders planning a major offensive, Matthew finds his cause. Or is he carefully manipulated into it? Or is it his genetic patrimony?

Those handling his indoctrination understand his needs and play upon his fears and insecurities. . . .

To read the entire review as posted on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: The Book of Stone by Jonathan Papernick | Jewish Book Council

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A psychological thriller with a valiant recovering victim

“Cold Cold Heart,” by Tami Hoag. Dutton. 390 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Dana Nolan is the ninth victim of a serial killer known as Doc Holiday who had abducted, beaten, and raped her. By strength of wit and will, Dana had managed to murder the man whose intention was to have his ninth victim die like all the other eight. We meet Dana in a Minneapolis hospital where she has spent much time already trying to recuperate from the physical and psychological trauma. Indeed, she almost perished, and her progress is excruciatingly slow. 9780525954545_medium_Cold_Cold_Heart

Her face is a fright mask and her body wears a number 9 inscribed by her torturer. She has had serious wounds attended to, and more operations lie in her future. Brain damage being among her injuries, Dana is far from a smoothly functioning human being. Her memory is greatly impaired, thus her identity needs to be rebuilt. One of the great strengths of the book is Ms. Hoag’s representation of Dana’s initial condition and then her desperate fight to put herself back together.

Once she returns to her mother and stepfather’s care in Indiana, her recovery is compromised by other people’s expectations and judgments. She needs rest, quiet, time with herself, and an effective course of therapy. Her protective mother’s instinctive hovering, suggesting, and reminding is overwhelming rather than nourishing. Her selfish stepfather cannot help but signal that he finds the freaky Dana a burden that his political campaign can’t tolerate.

Dana needs to write herself a set of directions to find her way around the house in which she was raised. Also, her censorship mechanisms are impaired. She will blurt out embarrassing thoughts without having consciously formed them.

Tami Hoag, credit Jan Cobb

Tami Hoag, credit Jan Cobb

What’s the mystery? From one perspective, it is whether and how Dana will recover and what recovery will mean. It’s clear early on that the post-trauma Dana will never be the same person as the accomplished, sunny television reporter she had become.

The primary plot mystery, however, involves relationships among a quartet of high school students going back almost a decade: Dana, her sports hero boyfriend Tim Carver, her best friend Casey, and Casey’s boyfriend John. The four prepared to go their separate ways after graduation, but Casey soon vanished without a trace. She and Dana had a bit of a spat before Dana’s disappearance, though Dana is hard-pressed, unable, or unwilling to remember it.

What happened to Casey? Is she alive? Had she been another Doc Holiday victim or the prey of a similar predator?

Something within Dana needs to get to the bottom of this mystery. In this pursuit, she quickly finds herself reconnected with Tim, who is now a deputy sheriff in town. Upon high school graduation, Tim went off to be a cadet at West Point; it’s not clear why things didn’t work out. She also contacts the retired officer who was once in charge of tracking Casey down. This man, in the late stages of cancer, is a nasty wreck whose questions and demands force Dana to fight for those memories she has not yet be able to retrieve. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 11, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click  here:   Florida Weekly – Cold Cold Heart

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