06.04.09

5 Hot Summer Thrillers

Depraved serial killers, hard-bitten cops, sleuthing journalists, and femme fatales—read our roundup of the can’t-put-down thrillers that will keep you on the beach well past sunset.

Maybe it’s the sand, or maybe it’s the sun, but summer seems to be the one time of year when even those with the most mandarin literary tastes—whose idea of slumming is to reread one of Doris Lessing’s minor works—are likely to drip sunblock on an actual page-turner. Here are five new can’t-put-down page-turners to devour in one sitting.

The Scarecrow
By Michael Connelly

One of the most anticipated books of the season is Michael Connelly’s The Scarecrow, a followup to 1997’s The Poet, the book that introduced reporter Jack McEvoy. In The Poet, McEvoy teamed up with the FBI to catch a killer preying on cops, making a name for himself as one of the best journalists around.

Now, 12 years later, McEvoy is being forced out of his job at the Los Angeles Times, yet another victim of budget cuts. Hoping to go out on a high note with one last story, he investigates the case of a young drug dealer accused of murder, a crime the teen’s family claims he didn’t commit. What McEvoy uncovers is not just a big story, but a life-or-death situation involving an especially devious serial killer.

There are few authors with both the journalistic background—Connelly was a crime reporter for the Times—and the writing chops to produce such a fascinating thriller. If The Scarecrow isn’t quite as fine as the best of Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, it’s still one of the best books of the summer.

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Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child Delacorte, 432 pages, $27 ()

Gone Tomorrow
By Lee Child

Lee Child rebounds from a pair of disappointing efforts his last two times out with Gone Tomorrow, one of his most entertaining Jack Reacher thrillers in some time. Child has long been one of the best contemporary thriller writers, so it’s a pleasure to see him return to form.

Jack Reacher, former Army MP, now itinerant white knight, is riding a subway car in New York City when he spots a woman he’s convinced is a suicide bomber. It turns out he’s wrong, but when the woman winds up dead anyway, Reacher is thrust into a plot pitting him against the cops, the feds and a cabal of international terrorists.

As with all of the Reacher thrillers, the scenario is not always believable, and sometimes Reacher’s motivations stretch credibility. But there’s no denying the compelling nature of Child’s storytelling. He sucks the reader in right from the first chapter and unspools a good, old-fashioned adventure story that demands you keep reading to find out what happens next.

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Wicked Prey by John Sandford Putnam, 416 pages, $27.95 ()

Wicked Prey
By John Sandford

After 18 previous novels featuring Minneapolis Police Detective Lucas Davenport, John Sandford has proven among the most reliable of thriller writers. He won’t knock one out of the park every time, but he’s all but guaranteed to deliver your money’s worth. Wicked Prey is further evidence of Sandford’s skills, a taut story of cat and mouse with the always entertaining Davenport on the hunt.

In Wicked Prey, the 2008 Republican National Convention has come to town, and all manner of shady characters, both political and criminal, have crept out of the woodwork to take part. Among them are an especially violent gang of thieves who embark on a reign of terror across the Twin Cities, with Davenport and his men responsible for stopping them.

Sandford has been writing Grade-A thrillers for so long that it would be easy to take him for granted, ignoring the dedication to quality storytelling that has kept him on top for 20 years now. But that would be a mistake. He understands on a fundamental level how to tell a good story, taking flawed but likable characters and spinning them into a plot filled with action, velocity, and suspense. It sounds like a simple formula, but executing it is a feat that few can match with the skill that Sandford regularly does.

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Look Again by Lisa Scottoline St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages, $26.95 ()

Look Again
By Lisa Scottoline

Lisa Scottoline takes a break from her popular series of legal thrillers with Look Again, the story of Ellen Gleeson, a strong woman who’ll do whatever it takes to protect her family.

Ellen is a journalist, but her real passion in life is her three-year-old adopted son, Will. She’s enjoying her new role as a mother when a flier arrives in the mail publicizing a kidnapped child—with a picture of a young boy that looks exactly like Will. Ellen is immediately struck by a horrifying thought: Could this missing child be the same little boy that she adopted?

Being a reporter, as well as a mom with a conscience, Ellen can’t just leave it alone. She begins to investigate, hoping to prove that her son isn’t the kidnapped little boy. What she finds instead is a chilling story filled with doubt and heartache.

Scottoline mines the tension and fear of this scenario without ever crossing the line into exploiting the situation. (Few things ruin a novel faster than an author who crassly puts children in jeopardy just to earn a thrill.) Look Again is easily Scottoline’s best novel to date. There are moments that might be intense for some parents to read, but the story generates significant suspense that will keep readers enthralled.

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Roadside Crosses by Jeffery Deaver Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $26.95 ()

Roadside Crosses
By Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver returns to his latest creation, series character Kathryn Dance, in Roadside Crosses, the third book to feature the body-language expert for the California Bureau of Investigation. Dance is billed as a “human lie detector,” and she needs all her skills as she tracks a troubled teen preying on other kids who bullied him via the Internet.

Deaver is one of the best thriller writers at incorporating the latest technology into his plots, and he’s got the world of social networking and blogs down cold, from the flame wars to the lingo to the dysfunctional personality types. That dose of realism adds a fresh, contemporary edge to the story.

Deaver puts the emphasis in his books on intricate plot twists rather than breakneck pacing, which makes Roadside Crosses the perfect book for a quiet summer afternoon where a little relaxation—accompanied, naturally, by a jolt of suspense—is the order of the day.

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David J. Montgomery has written about authors and books for many of the country's largest newspapers.