Three Smart New Thrillers

Stop trying to improve yourself and enjoy these diverting but not formulaic reads

Did you vow to read weighty classics or Shakespeare’s plays during shelter in place?

Stop lying to yourself. Right now you need entertaining reads that are diverting but not formulaic. Here’s a trio of smart new thrillers that fit the bill, from one that syncs fearsomely close to our current reality to a literary take on the worst Caribbean trip short of Fyre Fest.

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday/Random House, March 17, 2020)

Thriller

Warning: If you’re not the sort of person who’d be up for watching Contagion right now, Bohjalian’s latest may be too much, too soon. Even the rest of us will shiver just a little bit at Bohjalian’s prescience.

He writes taut, plot-driven New York Times bestselling thrillers like 2018’s The Flight Attendant, which opens with the titular character waking up post-bender to find a murdered man next to her in bed. The Red Lotus is his 20th novel, and it opens with a similarly shocking set-up.

ER doc Alexis is in Vietnam with her boyfriend, Austin, on a bike tour. He’s peeled off for a solo trek, ostensibly to visit the sites where his father was wounded and his uncle killed during the war. But Austin never returns. He’s found dead in a ravine, and Alexis quickly discovers he was lying about the real reason they visited the country. Cue biological weaponry, a mysterious evil dart enthusiast, a lot of rats, and assorted folks traipsing about New York and Vietnam on the hunt for the truth.

Interludes about the spread of plagues and the inner workings of pathogen-research labs are creepier than usual given the news, as are Alexis’ insights about working in an emergency room: “The one universality of every ER patient Alexis saw was this: they hadn’t planned on coming. The people she saw never woke up and noted a scheduled visit to the ER on their calendar or phone.”

Not as overt but no less powerful is Bohjalian’s slow crafting of Alexis, from her understandable frustrations with her mother to her own fraught way of dealing with mounting anxiety. It makes The Red Lotus gripping reading even without the headline-adjacent story.

Perfect Little Children, Sophie Hannah (William Morrow, Feb. 4, 2020)

Thrillers

British author Sophie Hannah writes poetry, short stories, and all sorts of mysteries, from updated Hercule Poirot tales to crime thrillers that hinge on identity. Her newest, Perfect Little Children, is unquestionably the latter.

Beth is driving her teen-age son to sports practice when she sees Flora. More than a decade ago, the two young mothers were the best of friends, with kids just about the same age. They haven’t seen each other since the day their friendship splintered.

She lingers, wanting to watch Flora and her teen-agers get out of the car. She hears the familiar names: Thomas and Emily. But the children who get out of the car aren’t teen-agers. They’re exactly the same age as Thomas and Emily a dozen years ago when she and Flora were friends. “Why haven’t they grown?” Beth thinks in horror.

So starts an addictively twisty yarn in which Beth turns amateur detective, sometimes with her husband and daughter in tow, to unmask these potential Children of the Damned. While Perfect Little Children ends up more Big Little Lies than Rosemary’s Baby, it’s nevertheless full of truly spooky moments, particularly after Beth digs more deeply into Flora’s mercurial husband, Lewis.

Hannah goes way beyond the plot-driven content of most thrillers to include riffs on motherhood wars, gender politics and racist teachers getting their comeuppance. They’re small pieces in the bigger puzzle of Beth’s life that make Perfect Little Children eminently relatable in addition to entertaining.

Saint X, Alexis Schaitkin (Celadon/Macmillan, Feb. 18, 2020)

Thrillers

Schaitkin’s debut takes a parent’s worst nightmare and spins it into something as mesmerizing as the fictional Caribbean island that serves as her novels setting.

Saint X is a resort-filled playground for the wealthy, “a lovely nowhere suspended in gin-clear water.” Like the other guests, the Thomas family is there to enjoy cosseted indolence on vacation with their 18-year-old daughter Alison and her younger sister Claire, just 7.

But on their last night there, Alison disappears. Police find her body on a deserted cay and arrest two men from the island who work at the resort, since Alison partied with them that night just before she disappeared. There’s not enough evidence to charge them, though, much to her parents’ chagrin.

From here Schaitkin fast-forwards. Claire is a grownup in New York, though she goes by Emily now. One night she gets in a cab and the driver’s voice makes her freeze. It’s Clive, one of the two men from the resort. He doesn’t recognize her, and she later decides to tail him to see what she can discover.

What makes Saint X such an extraordinary novel among thrillers is that Schaitkin insists we see the humanity in every single one of her characters. Whether in brief reminiscences between the action or revisiting the same event from the perspectives of different people, she unpacks motivations, class and most of all privilege. It’s not didactic or preachy, just full of acute observation.

Clive muses on the iPhone left in his cab: “You are invisible to them, you are the back of a head, and then suddenly you are indispensable. Suddenly they are, like, super-appreciative. Suddenly you are a lifesaver, boss. When he meets whoever it is this time to return the phone, and they try to hand him five bucks, or fifty (how variable, their sense of the value of what he has done for them), he will shake his head and politely refuse … he will know that they are thinking that he is a deeply good person.”

The result is a mystery that’s thought-provoking far beyond its plot.

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *