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Women Whose Books Thrill and Leave You Breathless
These emerging talents spin webs of suspense that snare us and won’t let go until the last page.
Date night at the movies? Think again. A recent Saturday Night Live skit portrayed a bevy of women eager to ditch their husbands and boyfriends for an evening and dive right into a streamed Netflix or Hulu thriller, texting OMG!!! and Munch-scream emojis to their sisters and girlfriends.
And who among us doesn’t love a murder show? Many a pulse-raising film or television dramatization is inspired by an original book or books, though, from Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries to P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh series to Killing Eve, which was based on Luke Jennings's Codename Villanelle. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve sheltered in place with the village cozies and gritty urban dramas, even the romantic and pictorial sweep of Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Dame Christie’s Death on the Nile. And often we’ve sought out the printed version from an independent bookseller or library.
As the season turns, there’s a bumper crop of female writers who have enlarged the thriller form, writing in a literary register while probing themes of equity and complex connections to family, career, and culture. Thrillers offer tantalizing plots and moods—whodunit, how and why, is that dead body or just a MacGuffin?—that these writers flesh out in innovative ways, sifting through clues to an ever more incomprehensible and consequential world. From a secretive veiled society in Pakistan to Iowa’s cornfields, from Greenland's glaciers to New York’s hip-hop salons, these emerging talents spin webs of suspense that ensnare us and won’t let go until the last page. The future is bright for these scribes of our darker impulses.
Gender politics simmer beneath the surface of Pakistani American Ahmad’s elegant, atmospheric debut as the title protagonist, a policeman, seeks answers to questions that have haunted him since childhood, when he was torn away from his mother and sister in the Mohalla, an enclave in Lahore’s walled ancient city. But the times they are a-changing, and revolution is in the air; Ali must confront his volatile feelings for his domineering father as murder and mayhem trail him. Ahmad toggles back and forth between the 1940s and 1960s, evoking a culture rooted in tradition but teetering into modernity, the ways patriarchy imprisons men as well as women, its “shadows cast by the looming kothas…those gloomy, crumbling buildings.”
In Ferencik’s supple, dazzling novel, Val Chesterfield, a Massachusetts-based linguist with a passion for dead Nordic tongues, tumbles into a perilous Arctic maze that wends back and forth to her own troubled psyche. A climate scientist in remote northern Greenland reaches out to Val with an inexplicable puzzle: He’s unearthed a 15-year-old girl—alive—from an ice crevasse, babbling in fragments and sentences that bear no resemblance to any speech on earth. Stricken by a fear of flying but armed with Ativan, Val makes the trek to the same frigid camp where her twin brother had committed suicide—or did he? As the pieces click together, she finds herself at the edge of a menacing Arctic twilight, yearning for connection and her comfort zone: “I felt safest in my office, alone with my books, charts, runic symbols, and scraps of old text; and when I deciphered a chunk of language—even a word!—a thrill of understanding juddered up my spine. The distance between me and another human being, just for that moment, was erased.”
Lights, camera, corpse: When Desiree Pierce, a 25-year-old Black reality-TV star, is found dead on a Bronx playground, everyone’s quick to write her off as an overdose, a victim of her own self-destructive drives. But her estranged half-sister, Lena Scott, thinks otherwise, dodging a phalanx of complacent investigators and Mel, their larger-than-life father, a hip-hop entrepreneur—and placing herself in jeopardy. Garrett’s taut novel dishes up the glitz of the haves and the struggles of the have-nots in a New York cleaved along lines of race and class, infusing classic noir storytelling with Big Apple glamor and buzzy texts and tweets—#pageturner.
Reminiscent of the work of Dan Brown, Shepherd’s absorbing, inventive second novel showcases the art of mapmaking as one young woman’s obsession puts her in the sights of a determined killer. Nell idolizes her father, Dr. Daniel Young, a legendary cartographer; but a painful estrangement erupts after they bicker over a cheap-gas station map. When he’s later found dead at his desk in the New York Public Library, Nell grasps that the map is a valuable rarity, a portal into a world not found in any atlas. Her quest for the truth leads her upstate and a “little phantom town…the secret hidden on it.” How can an entire community simply slide off the grid and disappear? Shepherd toys expertly with the known unknowns, how we navigate the gloomy backroads of the heart
The gaslight specters of Daphne du Maurier’s work imbue this brooding, nuanced tale as the gifted Walsh—a recent pick of the Good Morning America Book Club—reckons with why we deceive those we love. To the outer world Leo and Emma seem like a blissfully married London couple with unusual but satisfying jobs: she’s a marine biologist while he writes obituaries. Together they dote on their young daughter, Ruby. But lymphoma stalks Emma and her family; the clinic visits and uncertain prognosis chip away at the pastel façade of their lives. All it takes is the passing gravitational pull of an unknown man to throw them off-kilter. And when Leo composes his wife’s obituary—just in case—his research leads to mortifying questions: Who is this woman who claims to be his wife? Why is she barnacled in secrets?
We all know the trope, or think we do: A 20-something woman is found dead in a cornfield, and the investigating officer recognizes the victim as a childhood friend. But just as surely as Mare of Easttown brilliantly tweaked the police procedural format, so does Erin Young in her lean-limbed, gripping new novel, the first in a series. Wisecracking, gimlet-eyed Sergeant Riley Fisher pursues a possible serial killer in an Iowa county caught between the ambitions of Big Agriculture and failing family farms. Young’s plot blazes outward like a prairie fire as the body count mounts and Riley’s own past surges into the present, testing her instincts in crime scene after crime scene, “shards of amber light sparking off waterways and wetlands, home to deer and turtles, beavers, and snakes.”