This month's Killer Books

Recommended by members of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA)
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Click on title links to buy last month's selections from one of our member stores; downloadable e-books shown when available.
September  Killer Books, edited by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha’s, Ann Arbor, MI, :

CREEP, by Jennifer Hillier(Gallery, $23.00, e-book available),  reviewed by Tracy Allerton, Murder on the Beach, Delray Beach, FL, : It has been a great couple of months for debut authors: First came the gripping S.J. Watson thriller Before I Go to Sleep inJune, and now another excellent psychological thriller:  Creep, by Jennifer Hillier, an addictive story about the ramifications of sexual addiction. The "recovering" addict in question is popular and beautiful Seattle psychology professor Sheila Tao, whose affair with a grad student turns out to be a big mistake. Huge.

Sheila's teaching assistant, Ethan Wolfe, pursued Sheila for months before seducing her into a steamy relationship. When Sheila breaks off the affair after her boyfriend, wealthy investment banker Morris Gardener, proposes, Ethan becomes obsessive and jealous, threatening to blow her engagement - and her career - out the water by releasing revealing photos from their trysts. He also dons a disguise and brazenly has an "interview" for a job with Morris at his company.

As the mind games and stalking behavior escalate into a deadly situation for Sheila, she is forced to break off her engagement via voicemail and tell Morris and the university that she is leaving town. But a disbelieving Morris hires a PI to help him track her down and find out what happened. With well-drawn characters and shifting perspectives, Creep builds to a series of tense confrontations between and among the characters, with a satisfying ending and one more creepy surprise in store. Addictive, indeed.

BOOK OF LIES, by Mary Horlock (Harper Perennial, $14,99,  e-book available), recommended by Barbara Tom, Murder by the Book, Portland, OR, : 
This book tells two stories, both set on the Isle of Guernsey. Guernsey, if you don't already know from either Elizabeth George's story, A Place of Hiding, or the surprising hit, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, was the only place in Great Britain that the Germans captured.
One is the story of Emile Rozier, who was a young child during WWII, and his quest to defend the reputation of his brother, Charles, who spent three years in a concentration camp, accused of spying on the Germans. Strange that a spy against the Germans would have the defend his reputation, eh? That's part of the fascinating aspect of this part of the book. Because so many of the people involved in the WWII story are dead, it is through transcripts and letters that we hear the story of how Charles found himself in the predicament which led to his imprisonment.

The other story is of Emile's teenage daughter, Catherine. From the start of her part of the book, she confesses to killing another teenager. Cat's tale begins a couple of years after her father's death, and she and her mother are still dealing with their loss. To make matters more miserable, although Cat is smart, she is also plain-looking, not popular, and awkward. When the rich and popular Nicolette befriends her, Cat finds herself caught by a force beyond her naive understanding. Of course, it is Nic whom Cat has killed. It takes the rest of the book to learn (sort of) why Cat killed Nic.

I suppose the danger with books that are two stories in one -- and so many of today's books are -- is that the reader might like one of the stories much more than the other. And I'm sorry to say that I enjoyed the WWII story a lot more. It's hard-hearted but I couldn't really maintain an interest in Cat's plight. She was a tough character to like and understand, as well.

Guernsey's war history is fascinating and sad. No doubt, as expressed in this book, the families are still feeling the repercussions of what happened then. Mary Horlock deftly tells that part of the tale in a sensitive manner. That story unfolds to an unexpected and creative conclusion, and it's this that makes the book worth reading.

GHOST HERO, by S.J. Rozan,
(Minotaur, $25.99, e-book available), recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha’s, Ann Arbor, MI, :

S.J. Rozan, now 11 books in to her series alternating between the voices of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, gives us a Lydia entry, a fast paced novel set in the high stakes Manhattan art scene. With a Rozan novel, you always learn a bit along with a great story. In this one, you get to learn a bit about Chinese art and Chinese dissidents. The "Ghost Hero" of the title refers to an artist who died in the Tieneman Square uprising, and what’s got the art world all abuzz is the idea that the ghost hero, Chau, is still alive and creating new work. Someone has hired Lydia and Bill to look into it, and, it turns out, someone else has hired another investigator, Jack Lee, for the same purpose.

Rozan is a past master at taking an incredibly complicated plot but making it seem – to the reader – not complicated, thanks to her clear and concise style of writing. She is able to convey both emotion and humor in a very compact manner, a manner that feels like a particularly American style of writing. As the plot develops, Lydia and Bill join forces with Jack Lee, even to the point of meeting his client (who had demanded absolute confidentiality). Jack’s client is annoyed and goes so far as to fire Jack, but as he’s been shot at in the line of duty, he sticks with the case, and Lydia sticks with her own mystery client and his much smaller retainer.

As the story proceeds Rozan sketches in the details of the Manhattan gallery world with memorable aplomb, and there are certain characters that are difficult to forget. The most memorable, though, might be Bill’s impression of a wealthy Russian collector with lots of "bling." Lydia literally has to look away.

With alternating scenes of humor and action Rozan advances her story, and as a reader you become more and more invested in wanting to find out exactly what happened to Ghost hero Chau. She’s such a good writer she keeps you guessing, and like only the very best writers, the true story isn’t revealed until the very last paragraph. It was an unexpected development, but not one she hadn’t laid the groundwork for.

The complicated plot threads are neatly tied up as are the emotional ones – though the relationship between Lydia and Bill, never absolutely defined, still remains somewhat up in the air. This is another bravura effort from a supremely talented writer.

(Crown, $24, e-book available), recommended by Stephanie Saxon Levine, Murder on the Beach, Delray Beach, FL, :

Willow, a recent transplant to The Hollows, a small town outside of New York City, tries to act tough, but when she sees a man digging up a body in the woods, she drops her cell phone and runs for home. The digger brings the phone back to her.  He introduces himself to her mother,who is intrigued by his story.  He has been searching for his mother, who disappeared many years ago, and has hired a retired detective and a psychic to learn her fate.  The psychic "sees" a man jumping into a river to rescue someone and is, himself, drowning.  That man, Jones Cooper, suffers from the events of the previous year, in which he  admitted his role in a crime and resigned as Chef of Police. Nonetheless, he is drawn in, compelled to solve the mystery.  As he does, we are introduced to a variety of characters and, as readers, treated to a story that builds in tension to a terrifying climax. 

Jones Cooper, his wife, Maggie, who is a psychologist, the aforementioned psychic, and several other characters appear in Fragile, Lisa Unger's previous mystery, likewise set in The Hollows. I was so impressed by Fragile that I recommended it to our Sunday Sleuths mystery discussion group.  Darkness, My Old Friend  creates a vivid setting, builds tension, develops memorable characters, and provides the reader with a satisfying conclusion.  Lisa Unger is an amazingly impressive storyteller. The reader doesn't need to have read Fragile to appreciate Darkness, My Old Friend. But many readers will want to do so.   

The  SIXES, by Kate White (Harper Collins, $24.99,  e-book available),  recommended by Stephanie Saxon Levine, Murder on the Beach, Delray Beach, FL, : When celebrity biographer Phoebe Hall's seemingly perfect Manhattan life takes a double hit-- her long-term boyfriend leaves and she is accused of plagiarism--she gratefully accepts an offer to teach at a small college in Pennsylvania where her former boarding school roommate is president.  

 When a female student is found drowned in a nearby river, secrets begin to emerge.  Rumors of a college society known as The Sixes trouble Phoebe, who had met the murdered coed. Obsessed with solving the murder, she examines possible links between the dead girl and The Sixes, as well as other unsolved crimes. Suspects abound, and in the process of narrowing the field, Phoebe experiences, for the second time in her life, the terror of being the target of hostility on a small campus.  

The Sixes is a suspenseful fast-paced mystery, with the added fillip of romantic interest. What's more, Kate White treats us to a dynamic character in Phoebe, one who learns and changes as she solves the mystery. The Sixes demonstrates Kate White's skill as a mystery writer. On a final note,  The Sixes gave me the vicarious experience of life on a small town college campus.  It left me grateful that I attended a commuter college, and eager to read more of Kate White's books.