Top Ten Thrillers of 2016
By John B. Valeri
Let me preface this list by noting that it’s based solely on books published this calendar year that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. No doubt, there are other exceptional titles that I have yet to acquaint myself with. In fact, I highly suspect that my ever-growing TBR piles are stacked with them. (Nice problem to have, right?) Here, without further ado, are my top ten thriller reads of 2016 …
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – Abbott’s latest is a penetrating glimpse into the world of competitive gymnastics in which Katie and Eric Knox have sacrificed all semblances of normalcy so that their “extraordinary” teenage daughter, Devon, can fulfill her promise as an Olympic hopeful despite a tragedy that rocks their seemingly tight-knit but loose-lipped community. Abbott’s books are hard to categorize, but one thing she does brilliantly, among many, is to reveal the angst of female adolescence and how that influences the actions, or inactions, of her characters. Another is her almost voyeuristic exploration of ambition, and what people will, or will not, do in pursuit of a dream.
Moral Defense by Marcia Clark – Though Clark wowed readers and reviewers alike earlier in the year with Blood Defense—the first book in a new series featuring criminal defense lawyer (and occasional vigilante) Samantha Brinkman—its follow-up presents a spectacularly sordid case in which the adopted teenage daughter of a well-respected family is suspected of involvement in their grisly mass murder. Throw in all manner of legal and moral ambiguities, a few mind-blowing plot twists, and an inspired exploration of resonant social issues and you’ve got a stylish story that doesn’t skimp on substance. That Clark continues to unravel the gnarly threads she carefully unspooled earlier is merely the literary equivalent of icing.
The Girls by Emma Cline – Cline’s accomplished debut introduces readers to fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, who becomes transfixed with the enigmatic Suzanne and a group of other freewheeling girls whom she observes at a local park. Tired of her mundane, child-of-divorce existence, Evie insinuates herself into their world and is soon a frequent visitor to the communal ranch that they occupy in the hills of Northern California. Proving her worth begins with petty crimes and deceptions but soon escalates along with a growing desire to impress Suzanne and the group’s ubiquitous leader, Russell. The Girls is a powerful story, at once fresh and familiar, that doesn’t sacrifice subtlety for sensationalism—and that largely succeeds because of it.
Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah – Hannah was chosen by Agatha Christie’s estate to revive her iconic Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and does so for the second time here (following The Monogram Murders). Poirot is invited to a dinner party in which the changing of beloved mystery writer Lady Athelinda Playford’s will has deadly consequences; he must then engage his little gray cells to prevent a miscarriage of justice. The author provides loving nods to Christie’s preferred means and motives for murder while offering a resolution that’s both wildly contrived and deceptively simple. Though the Golden Age of Detective Fiction has long since passed, you’ll feel like you’re reliving it as you traverse these pages.
Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes – Kepnes revisits unforgettable sociopath Joe Goldberg in this charmingly cunning sequel to her Stephen King-endorsed debut, You. After having put his romance with Guinevere Beck to rest, Joe leaves the comforts of New York City to begin anew in Hollywood. The promise of a fresh start, and the potential for finally finding true love, fills him with an all-consuming sense of hope—until he discovers that his past may be about to collide with his present. Both timely and topical, this is a book that will have you laughing one minute and lamenting the next. Hidden Bodies is ambitious in all the right ways and solidifies its author’s place as one of the most unique and undeniable voices of her generation.
Shadowed by Karen E. Olson – The second book in Olson’s outstanding (and criminally underappreciated) Black Hat Thriller series featuring computer hacker Nicole Jones picks up where its predecessor, Hidden, left off: with Nicole forging a new identity in Quebec after being run off of Block Island. Once an Internet addict, always an Internet addict—and a little online play reveals that Nicole, now known as Susan McQueen, has developed a shadow. That somebody has gained access to her laptop and is watching her every move is evident, but it’s the who and why that forms the crux of this suitably claustrophobic caper. Olson, who began her career writing cozies, has found her niche in the darker side of things, and it suits her beautifully.
Blue Moon by Wendy Corsi Staub – On the hundredth anniversary of the infamous Sleeping Beauty Murders—three unidentified girls found dead in bed—scads of amateur detectives and news media descend on the small town for its annual “Mundypalooza” celebration, all hoping to solve the crime and claim a generous monetary prize. Among them is a copycat killer who is hell-bent on revisiting the sins of the past while simultaneously unleashing a reign of terror on a new generation. Staub, who excels at depicting deadly domestic drama, delivers a sinister story that alternates between centuries and characters. Blue Moon is the second in a trilogy that launched with Blood Red and will conclude with Bone White, due out early next year.
Nowhere Girl by Susan Strecker – This book marks a departure into mystery territory for Strecker but maintains its roots in the deep, nuanced portrait of a family in crisis that colored the author’s debut, Night Blindness. In it, novelist Cady Bernard is struggling to deliver her latest manuscript; she’s also struggling to discern the truth of her twin sister Savannah’s violent death sixteen years before. But the closer she gets to finding long-sought answers, the more likely it becomes that she may share her sister’s fate. An admirable and entertaining offering, Nowhere Girl transcends standard whodunit fare by virtue of its emotional resonance. Strecker continues to impress with the depth and diversity of her talent.
All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker – High schooler Jenny Kramer is sexually assaulted at a party and then given a controversial drug that medically erases her memory of the rape. With her attacker on the loose, she and her family enter therapy in the hopes of working through their damaging-yet-disparate feelings. This is a departure for Walker, and the risk largely pays off. She adeptly captures the nuances of a family in crisis and the ways that secrets become insidious within that unit. Under the guidance of a psychiatrist who has his own murky agenda, Jenny and her parents are led down a slow path toward the truth. Or some version of it. But with truth comes consequences, and sometimes those can be deadly.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman –A veteran of the YA genre, Wasserman’s adult debut wisely draws on a tried and true exploration of female friendships. Good girl Hannah Dexter is led astray when fellow outcast Lacey deems her worthy of attention and anoints her “Dex.” Both emboldened and intoxicated, Dex rebels against her family and friends and forays into drinking, drugging, and other dastardly deeds that are meant to impress but carry with them the very real possibility of self-destruction. Wasserman masterfully shows the all-consuming nature of adolescent relationships, in which the line between love and hate is a thin one indeed. The girls’ ultimate act is one that’s shocking, perverse, and frighteningly believable.