The best recent thrillers – review roundup

A post-Covid murder mystery, a puzzle in the mountains of India and a fictional take on the spy cops scandal are among this month’s crop

The Guide

Peter Heller
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99, pp257

Peter Heller’s exceptionally good The Guide is set in a post-Covid world, one where “the first virus had mostly burned itself out and been vaccinated against, and other novel viruses had moved over the world and hit different countries more or less hard”. These days, “those who could afford it spent more and more time on retreat in the remotest places”, in this case an exclusive resort in the Colorado mountains, where the rich and the famous come to fish and decompress. Jack is a fishing guide – he’s also the protagonist of Heller’s wilderness thriller The River, but The Guide works as a standalone – and he’s here to work and to try to get away from two deaths that left him reeling. Kingfisher Lodge is one of the most beautiful places he’s ever been – Heller is incredibly good at writing about nature – but “something was off, as it had been at this place from the first moment he was shown his quarters”. The security fences seem designed to keep people in, rather than out; he hears a scream late at night; he finds a fishing boot, half buried in the scrub. As Jack digs into the mystery, with the help of his client, he discovers a frighteningly plausible nightmare.

A Will to Kill

RV Raman
Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99, pp272

Investigator Harith Athreya is invited by the millionaire Bhaskar Fernandez to a party at his remote Greybrooke Manor, high in India’s Nilgiri Mountains. They’ve never met before, but Bhaskar – who has a large and complicated family – has recently written two conflicting wills. One is to be used if he dies by natural means; the other if he dies “unnaturally”. A Will to Kill is a slice of sheer pleasure: a locked-room mystery – because of course there is soon to be a death at Greybrooke Manor – which blends the feel of golden age classic crime with the modern world, while presenting a proper, thorny puzzle. There are Cluedo-esque maps of the manor and family trees to enjoy, as well as Athreya himself, the sort of brilliant detective who is a joy to watch piecing together the answers. As Raman writes, he’s already “cracked the triple murder at Qutub Minar last year, retrieved the stolen Nizam jewels the year before and proved that the British diplomat’s recent suicide was actually murder… his success rate is unmatched”. There are elements of the supernatural believed to be stalking Greybrooke Manor, but even when Athreya’s imagination seems “to perceive something baleful and ominous” in these foggy mountains, he “shrug[s] it off with a hiss of irritation”. Bravo.

Skylark

Alice O’Keeffe
Coronet, £16.99, pp416

Inspired by the “spy cops” scandal, Skylark tells the story of how activist Skylark – young, idealistic and the veteran of many a protest – meets Dan, a newcomer to their group who, as readers know from the start, is actually an undercover police officer sent to infiltrate them. Opening in “old London, before the dawning of the sourdough age”, the novel goes on to trace their burgeoning relationship, Dan living a double life, Skylark giving him everything – although as she looks back on conversations, she sees beneath them “subterranean faultlines, great cracks and earthquake-ridden chasms running from their two small fragile human bodies right up to the highest echelons of the great capitalist-democratic institutions of the state”. O’Keeffe brings the world Skylark inhabits to vibrant life, painting the passions of her activists so vividly that the reader – and Dan himself – are drawn into their desire to change the world. But the consequences of Dan’s deception are always looming on the horizon, and as his superior officers start to realise quite how deeply he has embedded himself into the activists’ group, they start planning to withdraw him. His betrayal, when Skylark finally learns the truth, is devastating.

Mercy

David Baldacci
Macmillan, £20, pp416

David Baldacci’s FBI agent Atlee Pine has been searching for her twin sister, Mercy, for decades, ever since, aged six, she was abducted from the bed next to her. In Mercy, the hunt is due to come to an end. Pine and her assistant Carol Blum are heading back to Georgia to “pick up a very, very cold trail”. As they trace what happened to Mercy – her imprisonment at the hands of an incalculably cruel couple; her escape; her subsequent disappearance – Mercy herself comes closer to discovering the truth about who she really is. “I know all families are dysfunctional, but mine seems to be the undisputed world champ in that competition,” says Pine as she also delves into the lies she has been told about her parents. It’s great to finally see who Mercy really is, and Baldacci dangles the lure of the sisters finally meeting with tantalising skill. Multilayered and brutal, this is a fitting conclusion to Pine’s quest – but hopefully not the last we’ll see of her.

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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