The best recent thrillers – review roundup

A bipolar artist hunts down a killer in Peter Swanson’s best thriller yet and two Nordic noirs unsettle and delight

Artist Henrietta “Hen” Mazur and her husband, Lloyd, are politely enduring a tour of their new neighbours’ home in the fictitious West Dartford, Massachusetts when Hen spots something in Matthew Dolamore’s study that almost causes her to faint – an unusual fencing trophy she immediately identifies as stolen from the apartment of a man killed over two years ago in an unsolved murder. “Her vision blurred, and her legs felt as though water were rushing through them, then she gathered herself.” As Matthew watches her reaction intently, Hen and Lloyd leave, but he doesn’t think much of her suspicions: Hen, it turns out, is bipolar, and over a three-month period became intensely obsessed with the murder of the man, Dustin Miller, reading everything she could about the case and studying every unsolved homicide in New England for the past 10 years in her desperation to crack the case. So Hen decides to look into Matthew herself. “They had a secret, the two of them, and there was no better way to start a friendship than with a secret.”

Before She Knew Him (Faber) is Peter Swanson’s fifth novel, and it is deliciously good – dry, intelligent, perfectly paced, there is more than a touch of the Barbara Vines about the delicately played out, delectably dark relationship that develops between Hen and Matthew. Everyone keeps telling Hen she is experiencing a manic episode, but despite her name, she is no confused headless chicken. Hen is astute, matter of fact and determined, and this is Swanson’s best thriller yet.

Stina Jackson’s first novel, The Silver Road (Corvus), is set over the course of a summer in remote northern Sweden – “silent and glowing in the midnight sun” – as Lelle searches for his teenage daughter Lina. She disappeared without a trace three years earlier, after Lelle dropped her at a bus stop for a journey she never took; he has spent the summers ever since driving the region’s Silver Road, looking for her down small tracks and in long-abandoned cabins. “He wouldn’t give up until every millimetre was covered, until every strip of road and dead-end track and despoiled forest clearing was turned inside out,” writes Jackson. “Lelle didn’t sleep in the summertime. Not any more. He blamed the light, the sun that never set.”

While he searches, and while his ex-wife rallies social media and organises remembrance marches, another girl has arrived in the evocatively named town of Glimmersträsk; Meja is 17, the daughter of a troubled mother who has hooked up with a questionable local, and she’s terrified of the acres of “deep, dark” forest that now surround her. The birdsong is “hysterical, unsettling”, the pine trees threatening. And it turns out there is indeed danger lurking in the woods. Elegantly translated from Swedish by Susan Beard, Jackson’s debut is unsettling and absorbing, the endless light of the northern summer giving a strange, almost dreamlike quality to her story.

“What do you think,” asks a television journalist at one point in Samuel Bjork’s The Boy in the Headlights (Doubleday), “of the prospect that we who live in a small country like Norway may now be dealing with a second serial killer in less than a year?” It’s a fair question, but one that readers of crime series have to learn to accept is moot, if they’re to enjoy watching their crack team of detectives in action. The Boy in the Headlights, translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund, is the third outing for Bjork’s special unit, a team of “Norway’s most talented investigators” headed by Holger Munch, and including the particularly brilliant Mia Krüger. (She has an enjoyably silly propensity for stream-of-consciousness moments of enlightenment as she considers a crime: “Antifreeze in the heart. A syringe. Cold. Ice. Fire? Heat? Ice and fire? Her pen flew across the sheets now. She wasn’t even aware she was smiling.”) This time round, they’re after a killer who starts by murdering a ballerina and leaving her body in a mountain lake. The chase is frantic, the plot far-fetched and nutty, but that’s all part of the fun.

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Contributor

Alison Flood

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