In a tony Boston suburb, a 20-year-old woman spends an evening hanging out with some friends and is found dead the next day. The murky, labyrinthine story of Eden Perry’s murder in Stephen Amidon’s LOCUST LANE (Celadon, 301 pp., $28) is told not by her contemporaries but by a rotating cast of adults struggling to extract the truth from their offspring’s piecemeal information (young people are so uncommunicative!).
What emerges is less a straightforward whodunit than a sharp portrait of class divisions and high-end dysfunction — bullying, sexual misconduct, extramarital affairs, shady business deals, hush money — in a community heaving with careless wealth. This is a place where residents think nothing of using wheelchair-accessible bathrooms even when people in actual wheelchairs are waiting outside, where parents cheerlead for their overindulged children “with the breathless enthusiasm usually encountered in the first round of the N.F.L. draft.”
Some of the adults are more sympathetic than others, especially Alice, who is unimpressed by the world she has (foolishly, as it turns out) married into. “Her rage deepened as she pictured Oliver driving around in his Merc like it was a chariot of the gods, paying people off, intimidating them,” she thinks of her husband’s shifty business partner. When her stepdaughter’s skeevy boyfriend makes an outrageously sexist comment, Alice is “tempted to impale him with one of the little plastic spears holding his gyro together.”
Keep an eye on Patrick, a lawyer who may have seen something important that night and who has turned to alcohol to dull his horror at how people behave in this morally blighted community. “Drinking absolutely made you feel better,” he thinks. “And if you drank enough, it made you feel nothing, which was the finest feeling of all.”
Peter Swanson has a clear, conversational writing style that makes even his most preposterous plots seem reasonable. His latest book, THE KIND WORTH SAVING (Morrow, 303 pp., $30), seems straightforward enough, at least in the beginning. Henry Kimball, a high school teacher turned private investigator in Massachusetts, finds himself with a new client: a former student, Joan Whalen, who hires him to find out whether her husband, Richard, is cheating on her.
Alas, when Kimball follows Richard and his lover to the scene of a tryst, he finds them dead — an apparent murder-suicide straight out of classic film noir. From there, the book unfolds into a complex tale of multiple killings over many years involving at least one, and possibly more, murderous psychopaths.
The story is told in alternating timelines. One follows the investigation into the death of the adulterous couple. The other takes place many years earlier, when Joan was a winsome teenager contending with the unwelcome attention of an older boy named Duane, a villain with “bad posture and a low hairline that made him look a little like a cave man.”
How those two stories converge, and the shocking sleight-of-hand twist that is, trust me, impossible to predict, are just two of the many balls that Swanson juggles in this entertaining story. Mostly he catches them all.
A tip for anyone ready to tackle Alex North’s fiendishly complicated THE ANGEL MAKER (Celadon, 336 pp., pp. $28.99): It takes some effort to figure out who the characters are and how they relate to one another. (I had to take a few notes to keep them straight.) The complexity is both a feature and a bug of a story that combines lofty philosophical inquiries about fate and free will with the grisly legacy of a sadistic serial killer.
As the book begins, an elderly man named Alan Hobbes has been found stabbed to death at home. It seems that he was anticipating his murder — he had dismissed his staff and gotten his affairs in order — and knew that his killer was on the way. (“Like he made a deal with the devil,” the detective investigating the case thinks.) Hobbes, a retired philosophy professor, used to teach a course about determinism — the notion that “every action you take, every decision you make, is caused by the state of your brain immediately before it,” meaning that “all your decisions are predetermined.”
In another part of town, a woman named Katie Shaw is trying to find her troubled brother, Christopher, who has gone missing. Is it possible that Christopher is connected to the slain professor? And what does this have to do with Jack Lock, a notorious serial killer from the past who, defending himself in court, argued that he was absolved of responsibility for his crimes because everything he did was predetermined by God?
Adoption, arson, mistaken identity, an old notebook believed to predict the future, corrosive guilt, a crumbing mansion concealing a chamber of horrors — it’s a busy story in multiple timelines with perhaps a few too many ingredients, like a fancy recipe in which not every exotic spice really needs to be there. Some of the questions it raises go unanswered. But deep down it explores an endlessly intriguing one: Is it possible to change the course of fate?
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