Thrillers provide a guilty pleasure, much like a drink before lunch. That's why they make such great "beach books." They're the perfect companion for that cruelly brief annual period of all play and no work, when a drink before lunch (and even a nap after it) are permitted. They are pure entertainment, literary potato chips unburdened by even the understated morality of a good murder mystery.
These may have you saying to yourself "just one more chapter" well past happy hour.
Nicci French divides her "Beneath the Skin" (Mysterious Press, 378 pages, $24.95) into three parts to examine the suffering of a trio of women targeted by a killer who writes them letters announcing his intentions before he strikes. The repetition of the threat cranks up suspense nicely and French sustains interest with distinctly different victims.
Zoe Haratounian can't get authorities to pay attention to the threatening letters that arrive regularly. One reason is that she's been the object of media attention after stopping a purse-snatcher by throwing a watermelon at him. Tabloid press coverage has brought her plenty of mail from a plethora of crazies. So the police dismiss her fears as irrational. Until she is killed.
When Jenny Hintlesham receives similar letters, the police do pay attention. It's the victim who shrugs off the danger until it's too late.
By the third section, French has created plenty of psychological suspense. Both Nadia Blake and Scotland Yard detectives agree that the letter writer means business. But they don't agree on how to prevent a third killing. This victim fights back -- and the last 30 pages of the book stitch the three stories into one. The result is a textured, elegant novel with writing and characterization that bind an atypical triplex structure.
Perpetrators, not victims, are the protagonists in Donald E. Westlake's "The Hook" (Mysterious Press, 280 pages, $23.95). A chance encounter between two middle-aged writers -- one successful but out of ideas, the other with plenty of ideas and considerably less money -- leads to a plot to kill one man's almost-ex-wife. The scheme is hatched over Bloody Marys in a New York bar lit "as though the place had been designed for adulterers." Well, Bryce Proctorr and Wayne Prentice are writers.
How they make the leap from dreaming up mayhem on computer screens to actually committing it, and then dealing with the messy consequences, makes for a memorable, lively tale. The coldhearted treachery of writers, agents and publishers provides the backdrop for this book.
Westlake pulls off the difficult literary trick of keeping the book light but intriguing until the last paragraphs, when the final plot twist sends the reader into free fall. It's a clever story, told with Westlake's characteristic sharp skill and irony.
International intrigue is a thriller staple, and British journalist Henry Porter puts it to good use in his first novel, "Remembrance Day" (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $25).
Irish-born Constantine "Con" Lindow has returned to England after 15 years in Boston working as a molecular biologist. He is waiting for his brother Eamonn at a London train station when a bus pulls up -- and explodes. His Irish ancestry, and his brother's links to the IRA, put Lindow front and center in the police investigation of the bombing.
Politics and espionage are helped along with computers and cell phones, and Porter constructs a plot knotted enough to provide a series of surprises as the story moves from England to Ireland to Boston and back to England.
Lindow is a little flat -- perhaps it's merely an occupational hazard among molecular biologists -- but midway through the book, Porter moves a second, more likable protagonist to center stage: a police officer who believes in Lindow's innocence and fights the law enforcement bureaucracy to find the real bomber. Like Westlake, Porter saves one big surprise for the end. Getting there is a good read.
Bombs also figure large in the latest book from Robert Crais, "Demolition Angel" (Doubleday, 386 pages, $24.95). Crais deftly straddles the demarcation line between police procedural and thriller in this novel set in Los Angeles, weaving together how police defuse bombs with a story about a police officer whose life has been shattered by one.
When the book opens, Detective Carol Starkey has been reassigned to the criminal conspiracy section of the Los Angeles Police Department after her partner-lover died in a bomb blast that scarred her for life.
Crais gives Starkey plenty of edge: three packs of cigarettes a day, morning cocktails out of the bottle and an attitude that would etch glass. But her character flaws and suicidal lifestyle don't slow her pursuit of a psychopath who wants to rearrange the L.A. landscape into rubble.