The best recent thrillers – review roundup

A Chicago cop causes ripples in a remote Irish village, darkness descends on Dartmoor, and the return of SJ Parris’s 16th-century heretic and spy

The Searcher

Tana French
Viking, £14.99, pp400

Cal Hooper is a disillusioned former Chicago police officer who has left the force and moved to a remote village in the Irish countryside in an effort to find who he is again. “I got weary… bone weary,” he says, as “every morning got to be like waking up with the flu, knowing he had to trek miles up a mountain”.

He’s fixing up his ramshackle home when the back of his neck starts flaring: someone is watching him. “Bored kids, ten to one,” he thinks, but he keeps an eye out, and eventually discovers a local boy who needs his help: Trey’s big brother has gone missing, and nobody seems to care. Cal is forced to abandon his “newfound talent for letting things be”, drawn into Trey’s desperation by his “urgency, so concentrated that it shimmers the air around him like heat coming off a road”, and soon finds himself causing ripples in this tiny community as he tries to investigate without appearing to investigate, search without appearing to search. He has “a sense of being surrounded by a vast invisible web, where one wrong touch could shake things so far distant he hasn’t even spotted them”.

This is a standalone thriller from Tana French, author of the excellent Dublin Murder Squad books, and it finds her in barnstormingly good form.

The Last Good Man

Thomas McMullan
Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp320

There is an enormous, unfinished wall looming over the Dartmoor village at the heart of Thomas McMullan’s debut novel. Duncan Peck is a stranger who has fled the city, where fires burn and violence is rife, for the safety of his cousin’s village, but as he arrives, he sees the villagers dragging a man from a bog. “But there is no gratitude in the hunted man’s eyes, and no colour in his cheeks as his hands and feet are bound in rope, as he is lifted into the wheelbarrow and carted off at the head of an ordered procession.”

Walking closer, Peck sees words scrawled in red paint on the huge wall, condemning the captured man. The village is everything Peck hoped for, with a tight community, school and tea room, but there is a darkness just below its surface, and his beloved cousin, James Hale, seems to be at the heart of it. Anyone can write their accusations on the wall, anonymously and without the need of proof, and Hale will see they are punished.

There are hints of The Crucible and The Lottery here, as the atmosphere grows increasingly febrile and cruel. As one villager says: “There have been more punishments lately… The mood is turning sour.” Disturbing and claustrophobic.

Mark Billingham
Mark Billingham contributes to the festive anthology, Afraid of the Christmas Lights. Composite: PR

Afraid of the Christmas Lights

By Val McDermid, Sophie Hannah, Mark Billingham and more
ebook, published independently by the Criminal Minds Group, preorder on Amazon for £1.99

A stellar array of contributors have lined up for this anthology of festive crime stories, all royalties for which will go to organisations providing support to domestic abuse survivors. There’s Mark Billingham, giving an insight into what Christmas is like for his beleaguered detective Tom Thorne (pretty lonely, unsurprisingly, until he’s given a case in which the apparent body of Father Christmas is found under the tree). There’s Sophie Hannah, with a twist on a divorce case, while Harriet Tyce gives a queasy-making glimpse into how a life takes a turn for the worse in a short prequel to Blood Orange.

Phoebe Morgan’s contribution, in which a practical wife attempts to dispose of her husband’s body while also popping on the roasties for Christmas lunch, is light and fun, while Victoria Selman – who came up with the idea for the anthology after raising money for the Samaritans with previous collection Afraid of the Light – contributes Hunted, a short, sharp chase scene with a twist that sends you right back to the start on finishing to check it really works (it does). An enjoyable selection to dip in and out of.

The Dead of Winter

SJ Parris
HarperCollins, £9.99, pp240

SJ Parris gives us a glimpse into the younger years of Giordano Bruno, her 16th-century heretic and spy, in this collection of three beguiling novellas. In The Secret Dead, the 18-year-old Bruno has just taken holy orders in the Naples of 1566 when he runs up against the hypocrises of the Dominican Order. Where did the girl’s body found by Fra Gennaro really come from, and why, if she is a vagrant girl discovered in the street, is her sister looking for her?

In The Academy of Secrets, Parris traces the fallout when Bruno meets Giambattista della Porta, the “finest mind in Naples”, whose thirst for knowledge equals his own. In A Christmas Requiem, he is summoned to meet the Pope – and his memory tricks don’t go down as well as he might have hoped. “Naples is too small for you,” Bruno is told, but in order to leave “you must learn the arts of flattery and humility as well as plain-speaking, because if you can’t temper your views, and keep some of your thoughts to yourself, one day you will talk yourself into the arms of the Inquisition”.

To order The Searcher, The Last Good Man or The Dead of Winter, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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