Tag Archives: police

A journey into the dark side in present-day Scotland


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A review of Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin

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Maverick detective John Rebus, recently retired, is trying to get back on the police force in Edinburgh, but not everyone is happy about that — especially a detective named Malcolm Fox, who heads up the equivalent of the department’s Internal Affairs office.

“‘The file on you,’ Fox said eventually, ‘goes back to the 1970s. In fact, to call it a file is doing it an injustice; it takes up one whole shelf.’

“‘I’ve been called into the headmaster’s office a few times,’ Rebus conceded.”

So it goes in the topsy-turvy life of Ian Rankin’s thoroughly unconventional detective. Rebus is brilliant, though he operates astride the fine line between what’s legal and what’s not, and slips over it from time to time for the sake of getting results. Not only does he close nearly all his cases, but he’s also the only person on the force who has ever managed to put away Edinburgh’s notorious crime boss, Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty.

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rebus is now working as a civilian employee of the department in a unit devoted to investigating cold cases. The work is unrewarding, and Rebus sees it only as a stepping-stone to getting back into active duty again. Then along comes a chance encounter with a woman who claims to see a pattern in the disappearance over the course of a decade of a number of young women along the A9 highway leading north from Edinburgh to the coast. As Rebus looks into her story, he begins to suspect that she’s right — and, for some reason Rebus finds mysterious, he’s the first person on the force to give her the time of day. To do justice to the investigation, Rebus manages to draw his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, now a Detective Inspector, into the case. Soon other detectives pile on in the increasingly fraught investigation as it moves forward, grabbing headlines throughout Britain.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is the 18th and most recently published of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. It’s also, I’ve learned, the third in a new series of books about Malcolm Fox.

This is my second venture into the work of Ian Rankin. Previously, I’d read only Doors Open, which I thoroughly disliked. (You can read my review by clicking on that title.) The dimensionality of the characters in this book compared with the overdrawn caricatures of Doors Open made it, for me, a much more satisfying read. For what it’s worth, Rankin is, reportedly, Britain’s best-selling author of crime novels.

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Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective


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A review of The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

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For many years, Americans have been dipping into the seemingly bottomless store of crime novels from Scandinavia with noteworthy enthusiasm. Not so long ago, Stieg Larson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dominated the best-seller lists almost as surely as have Harry Potter and the various Shades of Gray. Earlier, many of us got hooked on Henning Mankell’s brilliant creation, Kurt Wallander — certainly, I did, having read all of those superb Swedish detective novels. Earlier still (1990s), the best-selling Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow captured wide attention, and in the 1960s and 70s there was the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Most recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about a Norwegian novelist, Jo Nesbo, and his anti-hero, detective Harry Hole. The Redbreast is my introduction to Jo Nesbo’s nine novels about his complex and often exasperating fictional detective. I have to say I’m impressed. Nesbo’s plotting is fiendishly complex, and his insight into character runs deep. As a writer, he (or perhaps his translator, Don Bartlett) matches up to any of the other Scandinavian crime writers, and he’s a damn sight better novelist than most of the Americans who write best-selling murder mysteries.

In The Redbreast, Harry Hole finds himself on the trail of a would-be assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity unknown to him, but so is the target. To begin with, all he knows is that someone has paid a fortune to acquire what is described as the assassin’s rifle of choice, and he’s determined to discover who bought it, and why. Meanwhile, having screwed up a major assignment and created an international incident in the process, Hole is ordered to investigate a neo-Nazi organization and sidetrack his work on the rifle. Naturally, he ignores the orders and doggedly pursues the trail of the overpriced murder weapon. His journey yields a new perspective on Norway during World War II, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and many misguided young Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Third Reich. The historical references are both integral to the story and fascinating for an American whose experience of Nazism has come exclusively from books and film.

Previously, I reviewed the second and third books in Larson’s trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’ve also reviewed Mankell’s The Man from BeijingThe Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, and The Troubled Man, the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. (The titles are linked to my reviews.)

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Enough already! An open letter to Janet Evanovich


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A review of Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich

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Dear Janet (if I may be so bold),

Maybe it’s me, but I doubt that. After you’ve written — what is it? 50? 51? — novels all told, I think you’re losing steam. Notorious Nineteen is, of course, the 19th in your Stephanie Plum series, and it shows. Here are a few of the most prominent signs:

  • Not one but two cars Stephanie is driving are blown up;
  • Lula consumes at least 8,000 calories of junk food in a single day;
  • Ranger rescues Stephanie from imminent death not once but twice;
  • A really bad guy gets blown up trying to kill Stephanie; and
  • Morelli and Stephanie still aren’t ready to get married after talking about it for 10 years.

Truth to tell, some of this is funny as it happens, which is why I kept reading this series of comic novels so long. But the humor is fast fading, and so is the guilty pleasure I’ve taken so long in this series.

I don’t know about you, Janet, but I’m ready to put Stephanie out to pasture at last. Appearances notwithstanding, she’s really pushing 60 now, right? Isn’t it time to lay off the staff on that assembly-line writing factory of yours and see what you can do on your own again?

Think about it. You may not be able to write anything original, but you won’t know unless you try, no?

Your erstwhile fan,

Mal Warwick

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Louise Erdrich’s haunting new novel of a brutal crime on the reservation


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A review of The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

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At its best, fiction transports us to places we’ve never been, immersing us in the lives of people we would never meet. The most powerful fiction leaves behind indelible memories, endowing its characters with meaning more vivid than life.  Louise Erdrich received the National Book Award for The Round House, which is powerful beyond measure and achieved all this and more.

Erdrich centers her tale on a bright 13-year-old boy named Joe Coutts. When we first encounter Joe, we think we may have met him before. He’s the nice kid who lives down the block or around the corner, riding his bike, usually with his friends, through a middle-class suburb, getting into mischief. His father’s a judge, his mother a civil servant. How could his life be all that interesting?

But Joe’s parents aren’t really like our neighbors, and they don’t live in a middle-class suburb or a prosperous urban neighborhood. Though well-educated and well-off by local standards, they are members of the tightly interwoven Chippewa community confined to a reservation in a barren stretch of North Dakota or Minnesota. And The Round House is a tale of a brutal crime that afflicts the Coutts family and lays bare the deep fault lines in their community.

As we get to know the Couttses and the many members of their extended family, we gradually become acquainted with the cruel legacy of racism that constrains their lives to this day. Sometimes we laugh along with them at the humor, marvel at the beauty of their story-telling, sigh with despair at the loss of the old ways. But we are never unaware of the uniquely disadvantaged circumstances they and their neighbors find themselves in.

The Round House is Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel. She is an enrolled (i.e., official) member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation whose grandfather was tribal chairman around the time of her birth in the 1950s. For three decades, she has been writing highly acclaimed works about her Native American heritage and the interaction of Native and majority communities. (Her father was German-American.)

An extended account of Erdrich’s life and career appears on Wikipedia, with numerous details about her long, tragic marriage to anthropologist Michael Dorris, whom she met as a student at Dartmouth College in the 1970s. Knowing some of the details of her life, it’s easy to understand how Erdrich can write of the pain her characters suffer.

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The Rodney King riots, war crimes, and a small-town power elite

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A review of The Black Box, by Michael Connelly

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Harry Bosch never dies — but he gets older as Michael Connelly’s superb series of Los Angeles police procedurals continues growing longer. In The Black Box, the 18th of the Harry Bosch novels and the 33rd of Connelly’s books, Bosch’s mind is undimmed but his body is showing signs of age as he digs deeply into a 20-year-old mystery that haunted him as a cop on the beat.

Now a seasoned detective in the LAPD’s Open Unsolved Unit, Harry jumps at the chance to take a crack at the unsolved murder of Anneke Jesperson, a Danish war correspondent who mysteriously died of a gunshot during the Rodney King riots in South Central L.A. Harry and his partner had been called to the scene of her murder 20 years earlier but because there were so many victims they were forced to move on to yet another murder scene as soon as they’d called the coroner. However, once Harry has begun to dig his teeth into the scant evidence available, his boss in the Open Unsolved Unit begins an intense effort to force him off the case. As in so many of Harry’s cases, police politics has intervened, and he finds himself forced to battle the LAPD all the while he pursues the growing signs of a conspiracy in Jesperson’s murder and the involvement of war crimes in the case.

In most of the Harry Bosch stories, events unfold exclusively within Los Angeles. However, the Jesperson case takes Harry far afield into California’s Central Valley, where he is forced to confront the grim presence of a small town’s power elite. There, the story takes a turn reminiscent of the late Ross McDonald’s 18 Lew Archer novels, which I devoured when much younger.

As always, Harry’s dogged persistence wins the day, and Connelly’s spare but smoothly flowing writing is fully satisfying. In previous posts, I’ve reviewed two of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, The Reversal here and The Drop here

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The 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012

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1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.

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2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.

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3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.

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4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.

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5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.

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6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.

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7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.

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8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer

The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.

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9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”

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10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.

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John Sandford’s latest best-seller: Murder on the run in rural Minnesota

A review of Mad River, by John Sandford

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Virgil Flowers is not my kind of guy.

For starters, Virgil is a “pistol-packing, shit-kicking” type who drives a pickup and loves fishing, hunting, and arguing in bars about the best country singer of all time. The son of a conservative Lutheran pastor in rural Minnesota who still goes to church with his parents from time to time, he’s been divorced three times. He is also about six-one, blond, and thin, so if you know me you know I hate him. On the other hand, he’s an accomplished nonfiction writer who has been published in The New York Times Magazine and is now about to sign a contract for a major piece with Vanity Fair.

Oh, and by the way, Virgil is also an agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) who has piled up so impressive a record on high-profile cases that he has the governor on speed-dial – and he is the protagonist of a series of crime novels set in the upper Midwest by the pseudonymous John Sandford, who was an award-winning journalist in another life and under a different name.

In Mad River, Virgil has no sooner returned from a vacation in, of all places, the Bahamas when his boss, Lucas Davenport, assigns him to follow up on a brutal and seemingly senseless murder in a small rural town near Virgil’s home base in Mankato. One murder has turned into two by the time Virgil arrives in Bigham, the site of the first murder, and two more are discovered before Virgil and the disreputable local Sheriff can puzzle out what happened the first time around. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that a couple of local young people, or maybe three of them, have gone on a killing spree. Mad River tells the unfolding tale of Virgil’s, and the Sheriff’s, rush to get to the killers first—Virgil, to take them in for prosecution, the Sheriff, to kill them on the spot.

This latest best-selling work from John Sandford – number six in the Virgil Flowers series – bears all the characteristics of the author’s trademark mastery of suspense. The story unfolds unpredictably, and, for a change, even ends in surprise. Nonetheless, I think Sandford (or his editor) may have been asleep at the wheel on this one. With only a few exceptions, every character in this novel, major or minor, is described as “thin” – not “skinny,” “slender,” “rail-thin,” “emaciated,” “skeletal,” “reedy,” or “light-weight,” but simply “thin.” To my mind, this seems an abuse of the writer’s spare, colloquial style, and as an editor by nature I find it offensive. Anyway, do Minnesotans really eat that little?

All told, Sandford has written 34 novels, including 22 in his “Prey” series, in which Lucas Davenport of the BCA is the central character and Virgil Flowers is usually in the supporting cast. In this blog I’ve previously reviewed Phantom Prey, Storm Prey, and Stolen Prey in the Davenport series and Shock Wave featuring Flowers.

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Surprises galore in this beautifully crafted novel of crime and punishment in Atlanta

A review of Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

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In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.

The action in Criminal shifts repeatedly from the present day to 1975 and back again, and the connections between the events in those two years become clear only well into the book. Amanda is a central figure in both strands of the story – beginning her career in the Atlanta Police Department in 1975 and nearing retirement amid the latter-day events. Will Trent takes center stage on the contemporary scene, his new romance with Dr. Sara Linton blossoming and then sorely tested as the action unfolds.

The novel opens in 1975 with the disappearance of Lucy Bennett, a rich girl gone bad, hooked on heroin and working the streets under the thumb of a pimp who goes by the name of Juice. Only in the final pages of the novel do we come to understand fully what happened to Lucy, and why.

Slaughter writes from an omniscient perspective, shifting the viewpoint from time to time as one character or another moves on-stage. Her prose is spare and pulls no punches. Although her characters harbor secrets that will only later be revealed, there is nothing manipulative about the author’s failure to disclose what they know any more quickly than they themselves would be likely to do so.

Slaughter’s research into the Atlanta Police Department of the mid-1970s was extensive, and what she reveals about its egregiously bad behavior in that era is deeply troubling. Amanda Wagner’s experience as a rookie officer, and that of her female friends, is shocking – though perhaps no more so than what female officers experienced at the time in other law enforcement departments where their presence was a novelty. Slaughter’s sensitive treatment of race relations during that era is no less revealing.

To date, Karin Slaughter has written a total of 12 novels featuring Will Trent and Sara Linton. I previously reviewed Broken and Blindsightedboth of which are set in the small Georgia town where Dr. Linton previously ran a children’s health clinic and served part-time as medical examiner. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Slaughter’s novels.

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Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain

A review of Liberation Movements, by Olen Steinhauer

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Mystery piles atop mystery in this fourth installment of Olen Steinhauer’s five-novel cycle of life behind the Iron Curtain. The previous books were set in decades past, the post-war 40s, 50s, and 60s. In Liberation Movements, the action takes place in 1968 and 1975, relating two seemingly unconnected stories that only much later merge, raising yet more mysterious questions.

Structurally, the plot revolves around Peter Husak and Katja Drdova, the former a Czech student in Prague who reacts with diffidence to the 1968 uprising against Communist rule, the latter a homicide detective in a neighboring country a few years younger than Peter whose story unfolds in 1975. As the action rockets forward through alternating chapters set in these two pivotal years, the connection between them slowly emerges. Along the way, we find ourselves caught up in an airplane hijacking engineered by Armenian terrorists, an investigation of a seemingly trivial seven-year-old murder, and troubling reports of parapsychological research by the secret police, and we catch glimpses of a mysterious secret policeman known to be close to the Lieutenant General who heads the secret police. Truth to tell, it’s monumentally confusing for a long time.

The five members of the homicide department form a loose thread that links all four novels. Though the cast of characters shifts over the years, there is always at least one principal actor who was on the scene in The Bridge of Sighs, the first book in the cycle, set in 1948. In Liberation Movements, the connector is Colonel Brano Sev, the close-mouthed secret policeman who occupies a desk in the homicide department, now an old man with a formidable reputation for toughness and results. (Emil Brod, a rookie in the first book, has become chief of homicide by 1975 but stays in the background.)

Brano Sev plays a central role in Liberation Movements, as does his young protégé, Gavra Noukas, a closeted gay man new to the Militia. Under Brano’s tutelage, Gavra’s life becomes enmeshed in the improbable story of a beautiful young woman with alleged psychic powers and her shadowy handler in the secret police.

Liberation Movements is rich with fully developed characters and the fascinating interplay of seemingly unrelated plotlines. The story of the 1915 Armenian genocide weaves in and out of the tale. Sadly, the book is flawed by the author’s failure to resolve the biggest mystery of all. It’s well worth reading nonetheless, for Steinhauer’s mastery of character development and his sure way with words.

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A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss

A review of Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

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I think I may be in love with Gillian Flynn.

This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.

Amy is the Golden Girl, raised in wealth and privilege in New York’s intellectual society, brilliant and drop-dead gorgeous. She is Amazing Amy, the subject of her loving parents’ eponymous series of children’s books that instilled in a generation a powerful sense of right and wrong. Amazing Amy is everyone’s ideal.

Nick is a son of Missouri, a Tom Sawyer-like figure who grew up near Hannibal and literally once held a job impersonating Huck Finn for tourists. Himself drop-dead gorgeous and a brilliant writer, Nick is the perfect husband for the perfect woman.

As this story unfolds in Flynn’s expert hands, we learn more and more about these extraordinary people. At length, we figure out that things can’t possibly turn out well. But we can’t possibly guess how.

The style with which this thrilling tale is told is simply intoxicating. Gone Girl is one of the very best novels of of suspense I’ve ever read. For once, a novel is topping the New York Times bestseller list that isn’t (a) written on James Patterson’s assembly-line, (b) a potboiler about the rich, powerful, and famous, or (c) female S&M porn. If you have even remote interest in thrillers, read this book.

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