I can’t say that I enjoyed Nathan Oates’s A Flaw in the Design (Serpent’s Tail), but I certainly read it at speed in a state of high stress and anxiety, as the tension built inexorably and I began to feel just as haunted (hunted?) as the author’s protagonist. Gil is a creative writing teacher at a university in rural Vermont, happily married with two daughters. He has been estranged from his sister for years, having found her son, Matthew, looking on while his daughter struggled to surface in a swimming pool. His sister and her husband have since died in a car crash, and Matthew, now 17, has come to live with Gil, Molly and their daughters.
While the women of his family appear to forgive the past and take Matthew at face value, Gil is convinced there is something evil in the teenager: that he is taunting his uncle – and that something dreadful lies ahead. He watches for “those small moments, carefully hidden for the most part, when Matthew’s true self peeked out”; he watches him talk to his daughter, waiting for Matthew to hit her, but all he does is pour a glass of water “as if he was just a thirsty teen, an orphaned kid, and not at all what even now Gil saw in him: a terrible, violent monster, waiting patiently for the moment to strike”. It’s all horribly claustrophobic, in the best possible way, as Gil starts to dig into Matthew’s past and present while his own behaviour becomes more unstable.
Harlan Coben’s latest is less stress-inducing but equally compelling. I Will Find You (Century) has a deliciously implausible premise – delicious because readers know we can trust Coben to find a nail-bitingly exciting way out of the set-up he outlines. In this instance, David Burroughs has been in prison for five years for the brutal murder of his beloved three-year-old son, Matthew. David doesn’t remember doing it, though all evidence points his way; he was so devastated at the trial that he didn’t put up a fight. Then his former wife’s sister turns up – his first visitor for years – and shows him a photograph that features, in the background, a boy of around eight who looks exactly like Matthew. David suddenly finds his mojo and decides to break out of prison and investigate. Fortunately for him, the odds are in his favour, and so begins a fantastically breakneck prison break/fugitive adventure story. It’s all a bit preposterous – although I fell hard for the wise-cracking FBI agents – but Coben is such an old pro that he makes it work.
Katie, too, is haunted by a crime from her past in Alex North’s The Half Burnt House (Michael Joseph). More than a decade earlier, she left her teenage brother, Chris, at home alone for the afternoon so she could spend time with her boyfriend. When she arrived back, there were police everywhere, because a passing man had tried to cut off Chris’s face (yes, you read that right). Katie is now happily married to that same boyfriend, with a young daughter, Siena, when she discovers that a man has been horribly murdered in a nearby mansion, and that Chris, who has disappeared, is the prime suspect.
She investigates and discovers a web of secrets and brutality that stretches back for decades. “Something terrible and incomprehensible” lies ahead, Katie realises. “Something that had always been coming for you, but which you wouldn’t even see until it swerved in out of nowhere and changed your world forever.” North, author of the bestselling The Whisper Man, handles the complicated plot with skill while bringing his troubled characters to life amid the horror.
Ali Lowe is channelling Liane Moriarty in The Running Club (Hodder & Stoughton), a whodunnit set in the exclusive Australian town of Esperance, a picture-perfect beach location (“you pay for paradise”), exclusively peopled with dreadful human beings. It begins as a body is found next to the town’s running track, after which we get to know the local running club’s members: wealthy Carole, who is married to handsome Max, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks and who used to date Shelby, who is the twin of shy Lottie… and so on. Each character gets their say as we move between past and present, learning why the whole cast might have it in for the victim. It’s a fun way to while away an evening.
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