Thriller Night

As summer recedes, booksellers are awash in white-knuckled tales of suspense. From Joseph Finder’s “private spy” story to the conclusion of Robert Ferrigno’s Assassin trilogy, here are the best.

08.28.09 6:50 AM ET

by Joseph Finder

With such outstanding books as Paranoia, Company Man and Killer Instinct on his resume, Joseph Finder has built a reputation as one of the finest thriller writers working today. Vanished, his latest novel, will only bolster that reputation. It is quite possibly the year’s best thriller.

There are any number of thrillers that feature CIA agents, cops, lawyers, doctors, even scientists as their stock characters, but Vanished introduces something new: Nick Heller, a former special ops soldier, now working as a “private spy.” He works for a firm that provides intelligence consulting, security, investigation and other semi-clandestine services to corporations, private individuals, even the government.

Heller makes for an intriguing action hero, handy with his fists when he needs to be, but more likely to use his brains, along with whiz-bang technology, to get the job done. Reflecting real-world changes in the contemporary espionage landscape, he’s a new breed of spy—one who does the dirty work that businessmen and the Feds can’t do themselves. But when Heller’s brother goes missing, he becomes involved in a personal mission to find out what happened, drawing on his considerable skills to protect his family.

Finder has long been one of the best in the business at combining roller-coaster plots with well-developed characters, sharp writing and up-to-the-minute story details. With Vanished, he not only continues that tradition, but takes it to an exciting new level. Heller is a promising new hero, one of Finder’s best creations yet, and Vanished is an excellent start to a new series.

Heart of the Assassin. By Robert Ferrigno. Scribner. 368 Pages. $25.95.

Heart of the Assassin
by Robert Ferrigno

Robert Ferrigno brings his “Assassin” trilogy to a close with Heart of the Assassin, the final chapter in what has become an ingenious look at what the United States might be like if it underwent an Islamic revolution. Ferrigno posits a world in which America, wracked by years of economic devastation, moral decay, and never-ending conflicts, has undergone a civil war, splitting into two very difference sections: one a conservative Christian nation based in the former American South (“The Bible Belt”), the other a moderate Islamic Republic, centered in the city of Seattle.

Against this startling backdrop, Ferrigno has cast an intriguing, fast-paced thriller that sees the Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt both threatened with attack from the expansionist Aztlán Empire (formerly Latin America). In order to find a solution to this imperialist threat, Rakkim Epps, a biologically enhanced covert operative and hero of the series, must journey into the nuclear wasteland that is Washington, D.C. in an effort to find a holy relic that can bring the two halves of the United States back together.

Heart of the Assassin differs from the first two books in the trilogy with a more heartfelt and human focus. Rakkim is now married with a son, giving him both more to care about and more to lose, yet he’s willing to risk everything to save the country he loves. Heart still has the amazing sense of imagination of Prayers of the Assassin, and the action and suspense of Sins of the Assassin, but it also has an emotional resonance that brings the series to a fitting close.

The Defector. By Daniel Silva. Putnam. 480 Pages. $26.95.

The Defector
by Daniel Silva

Daniel Silva is one of the most consistent – and consistently excellent – writers in the international thriller genre, annually producing novels of both exciting adventure and thought-provoking insight into world affairs. His new blockbuster thriller, The Defector picks up six months after the conclusion of Moscow Rules, Silva’s previous book, to feature Israeli art-restorer and Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon.

Gabriel is hiding in the Umbrian hills, enjoying some private time with his new bride, when Russian spy Grigori Bulganov, the defector who saved Gabriel’s life in Moscow Rules, is captured by the ex-KGB oligarch he betrayed. Gabriel must abandon his idyllic life and put everything on the line to save his friend.

A lot of writers shy away from politics in their novels to avoid alienating potential readers. But including real-world details and events can also add verisimilitude and depth to a story, something Silva does quite well. When he explores the situation in contemporary Russia, he lays it out as it really is, the good and the bad together, and thus creates a convincing foundation for his fictional story.

Silva jumps from location to location with ease, leading Gabriel on a whirlwind adventure through the murky world of international thugs, arms dealers and spies. Gabriel is one of the truly unforgettable characters in espionage fiction, a haunted man who has sacrificed everything, including perhaps his soul, to protect the country of Israel. The Defector is another winning entry in this top-notch series.

Undone. By Karin Slaughter. Delacorte Press. 448 Pages. $26.

by Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter has made a name for herself by writing dark and gory thrillers, an image that stands in sharp contrast to her physical appearance as a petite young woman. But few writers, male or female, have the ability and the willingness to go so deeply into the dark, troubling recesses of their characters’ minds.

Slaughter’s latest novel is Undone, a book that brings together for the first time the characters from her two separate series. Dr. Sara Linton, still recovering from the death of her husband, has left rural Georgia and moved to Atlanta where she works at a large urban hospital. One night a patient is brought into the E.R., a woman who was tortured and brutalized by her captor before finally escaping. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents Faith Mitchell and Will Trent are investigating what happened to the woman when they discover another victim, and then another. They realize a killer is on the loose and, with the help of Sara Linton, commence hunting him down.

Slaughter has always been a talented writer, but in recent years her work has just gotten better and better. Undone can be a troubling story to read – it’s violent, disturbing and almost too realistically spun – but its razor-sharp suspense and emotional depth make it a very worthy one.

The Dead Room. By Chris Mooney. Penguin UK. 384 Pages. £6.99.

The Dead Room
by Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is one of those writers who has somehow flown mostly under the radar during his career, popping up here and there when included on “best of” lists or nominated for an award. His most recent novels haven’t even published in the United States as of yet, which is a shame, because his thrillers are better than half of what gets published here.

Mooney’s latest book, which can be ordered from the UK or many independent bookstores in the U.S., is The Dead Room, the third book in the series featuring Boston forensic investigator Darby McCormick. (The book that introduced Darby, The Missing, is currently the only one available from an American publisher.)

The Dead Room opens with a mother and son victimized in their home, the mother executed and the son left clinging to life. As the investigation unfolds, Darby and the police discover evidence leading them to a possible suspect – a man who allegedly died twenty years before. This revelation uncovers a decades-old mystery that involves police corruption, conspiracy, and possible ties to Darby’s own father.

Mooney cranks up the tension and suspense throughout The Dead Room, eventually leading to a slam-bang conclusion that will leave blisters on your fingers from turning the pages so fast. Darby McCormick is one of the best heroines in thriller fiction: smart, resourceful and tough as nails. Here’s hoping she’ll be making an appearance at a bookstore near you very soon.

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David J. Montgomery is a critic for The Daily Beast and has written about authors and books for many of the country's largest newspapers.