“The Outsider” by Stephen King

The Outsider

Stephen King has written so many bestsellers, of which so many have been made into very successful movies, that he is practically a household name. Yet, I had not read any of his books before I picked up The Outsider. It was a revelation — he writes so well! I was sucked into Outsider right away and it was impossible to put the book down until I had finished it. Also, its considerable length — which may be off-putting in some other books — only served to enhance my enjoyment of this one, as it meant more of the book that I could sink my teeth into.

The Outsider starts with the heinous murder of an eleven year old boy, who has not just been sexually violated but also gruesomely mutilated. All eyewitness accounts, as well as fingerprints and DNA, point to a popular school teacher and baseball coach who has been the pillar of the local community, and he is arrested. But it turns out that he was actually in a different city many miles away with a group of his fellow school teachers attending a literature convention, and there is actual video footage of him attending a book reading at the time when the boy was killed. So how could he be in two places at once? This is the fundamental mystery in The Outsider, and it is explored though a varied cast of characters, police interviews, investigations, and unexpected twists and turns. The fast pace of the book is maintained throughout and it is like a thrill ride up to the very end.

Had I been a little more familiar with Stephen King’s other books, I would have seen the   supernatural angle coming. After all, he is not known as the “master of horror” for nothing. Like all his other books, The Outsider also eventually relies on an otherworldly phenomenon to explain the mystery. For me, this came as somewhat of a let-down, as it seems that you can seemingly get away with anything if you put a supernatural angle to it. Even something bizarre can be explained, and you end up feeling cheated with the explanation rather than satisfied.

But the supernatural is undoubtedly Stephen King’s mojo, and it does not detract from how well written and riveting The Outsider is. I read it over the course of a long flight with a layover of several hours, and it was a godsend, providing me with not just much-needed distraction from the discomfort of travel but also unadulterated enjoyment for the entire duration of the book, from the beginning right up to the end.

The Outsider
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal White

Lethal White is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike detective series written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I love this series, just as I had loved the Harry Potter series before it, and in preparation for the release of Lethal White — which I was able to read right away as I had pre-ordered it — I went back and re-read all the earlier books in the series, starting with Career of Evil, the third book, and then the first two, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm.

The series is set in contemporary London and has two main characters: Cormoran Strike, an army veteran in his late thirties who lost a leg in the war, has returned to civilian life, and is trying to establish himself as a private detective; and Robin Ellacott, who comes to him as a temporary secretary for a week but ends up staying on and becoming a key part of the detective firm. Each book is focused on one key case. However, it is not just about the cases and how they are solved — there are so many authors writing thrillers these days — but also about how the investigations are tied into the personalities of Strike and Robin, their personal lives, and their relationship with each other, which is not only that of mutual respect but also has strong undercurrents of romantic tension that continue to build up over the course of the books in the series.

Strike is not a conventional hero by any means — he is overweight, very hairy, has a bit of a belly, is constantly eating burgers and the standard British fish-and-chips, and is constantly smoking and drinking beer. Robin, on the other hand, is more conventionally pretty, in addition to having a lot of character, integrity, and a genuine passion for investigative work. This is something her fiancé and later her husband, Matthew, just doesn’t get. Meanwhile, Strike has his own relationship issues with a stunningly beautiful but very damaged woman, Charlotte, with whom he has had an on-again, off-again toxic relationship for over sixteen years. They are just breaking up — after their worst fight, which well may be the last straw for Strike — at the start of the first book, and this happens to coincide with Robin’s arrival in the agency as a temp, newly engaged and on cloud nine every time she looks at her engagement ring. J.K. Rowling brings her trademark brilliance and mastery to how the relationship between Strike and Robin slowly evolves from being forced to work together, to a grudging respect, to something that neither of them wants to analyze in case it affects how well they have started working together. Robin goes from being a secretary to assistant detective to junior partner in the firm, proving herself to be indispensable in solving the tricky cases in each book, which include the apparent suicide of a famous model in The Cuckoo’s Calling, the gruesome murder of a writer in The Silkworm, and tracking down a psychopathic killer who has a personal grudge against Strike in Career of Evil.

The case in Lethal White is in two seemingly separate but somehow connected events — a claim that a child had been strangled and buried a long time ago, and the blackmailing of a minister in the British parliament who dies of what seems to be suicide but is actually murder. Surprisingly, horses play a major part in this book — in fact, the name of the book, “lethal white,” come from a genetic disorder that afflicts some breeds of horses, causing their foals to die just a few days after being born. The case happens against the backdrop of the 2012 Olympics in London, and there are several political events that play a major role in the plot, including the government-mandated austerity measures imposed in the UK during this time, the lingering impacts of the economic depression of 2008, public demonstrations and street protests by activists, political scheming and intrigues, and even the abolishment of the death penalty, which happened in the UK in 1965 but which provides a pivotal plot point.  Strike and Robin are eventually able to solve the case, and this time, they have the help of one of the additional employees Strike has been able to take on in the firm thanks to his burgeoning fame bringing in more business.

Given how much I loved the earlier books in this series and how eagerly I was awaiting this next book, I have to say that Lethal White was a huge disappointment in terms of the actual case that had to be investigated. The plot was extremely convoluted and had so many threads and aspects to it that it seemed to be all over the place. The progress of the relationship between Strike and Robin was relatively better done, and from that respect, Lethal White was less of a thriller that you can’t bear to put down and more of a drama about two people and their relationship with each other. Compared to Career of Evil — my personal favorite of the series — which starts with Robin getting a package containing the severed leg of a woman and just gets more riveting as it progresses, there was nothing which even came close to that level of thrill, suspense, and danger in Lethal White.

Just as with the Harry Potter books which were eventually adapted into movies, the Cormoran Strike books have been adapted for TV — the show is already out on BBC —  and in my opinion, once this happens, it is extremely difficult for an author to maintain the quality of his or her writing. It happened with Harry Potter — Book 7 came out well after the release of the first movie adaptations and it was simply not as good as the earlier books. Lethal White seems to have suffered from the same fate — its writing seems to have been subconsciously influenced by its upcoming dramatization and suffers as a consequence, losing its intensity, its focus, and I would even say, its purity. There are too many characters, too many events, too many plot points, and even the final setting where the villain is nabbed seems more melodramatic than genuine. Of course, this is nobody’s fault — how could any author turn down the opportunity for a dramatic adaption of their work? And how can the imagery from this adaptation not blunt their creativity, their imagination, their inspiration?

But it is such a pity for readers like me who love their books so much.

Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel
Author: Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: September 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Delirio” by Laura Restrepo

Delirio.jpg

I decided to read this book because I wanted to practice my Spanish, read something that reminded me of my family’s culture and the culture I grew up with (the author being Colombian), and I had already read a book that I really enjoyed by this author (Isle of Passion, a novel based on a true story of a group of people who were forgotten in the island of Clipperton).

This book was about a couple, Augustina and Aguilar, and the mystery of what happened to his wife while he went on a business trip for four days. When he returned, he found his wife in a mentally deteriorated state. She exhibited absurd behavior like setting up pots of clean water throughout the house so as to cleanse their home or behavior like rejecting her husband. For the next few days, he embarks on the journey of trying to discover what happened to his wife. This question is what intrigued me to continue reading.

The story is told in such a way that you get little hints and glimpses of what could have happened to Augustina, which in turn causes you to draw all the possible scenarios. These little hints are given to us through different perspectives of characters and different periods of time. These perspectives/time frames do not directly discuss what happened to Augustina during those 4 days that Aguilar, her husband, was gone but rather, tell the stories of different people that in some way are related to Augustina. These details are all important to understanding Augustina’s history and why she may be where she is today.

What I loved the most about this book were the different details mentioned of things that are particular to Colombian culture such as ajiaco, a typical dish from Bogotà (the city where this story takes place), empanadas, or fruit stands on the sides of the road, etc. There were also different references to literature or music as some of the other characters are into art, which was also a treat for me.

Some parts were a little harsh for me to read through since it discusses strong sexual content/violence/strong language. However, each of these parts were important to understanding different characters or situations. At times, I’d simply skip or skim through if I understood the general idea of what was being said. But I suppose the details do add the effect that the author intended it to have upon the reader and unfortunately, these are the realities for some people’s lives.

Overall, it was a book that, surprisingly, I breezed through since I was dying to know what happened to Augustina and how all these details would come together. Although, I read this book in Spanish, there is also an English translation available. (It is called Delirium.)

Delirio
Author: Laura Restrepo
Spanish Publisher and Publication Date: Alfaguara, 2004
English Translation Publisher and Date: Vintage International, March 2008

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The Kind Worth Killing” by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing

Being an avid fan of the mystery/thriller genre of books, especially when interspersed with more literary fare, I recently picked up The Kind Worth Killing which was written about in this forum by another contributor. A few weeks ago, I had also read and written about Strangers on a Train, a 1950s novel which was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock and which, according to the first write-up, had seemingly inspired this book. While I found The Kind Worth Killing a better read than Strangers on a Train, it does not come anywhere close to crime thrillers such as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, despite the best efforts of the publisher to promote it as such.

The book starts with two strangers, Ted and Lily, meeting in an airport bar where they share some drinks. They are on the same flight and manage to sit next to each other and continue their conversation. Ted has just discovered that his wife is cheating on him and he jokingly remarks that he would like to kill her. Lily asks him why not, in all seriousness, and offers to help him. It is definitely an intriguing plot line which draws you in, and while the rest of the book does not quite live up to its initial intrigue, it is interesting enough to keep you going. Do they actually go through with killing Ted’s wife? Why is Lily encouraging Ted to do this and why is she offering to help? Has she killed before, given that she thinks that some people are “the kind worth killing?”

While Ted and Lily don’t actually switch murders in this book as the main characters do in Strangers on a Train, what the two books have in common is that there are no twists as such, making them more of thrillers than mysteries. What I did find especially remarkable about The Kind Worth Killing is that you are actually rooting for the murderer, given his/her compelling back story. And just when you think that he/she got away with it — and are almost happy about it — the last three lines of the book unexpectedly throw a wrench into it. Justice might be served at all.

While the opening of the book immediately drew me in and the end showed some creativity, the rest of the book was unfortunately a standard, run-off-the-mill potboiler, with crass generalizations and stereotypes — beautiful wife, rich husband, wife wants to kill the husband to get his insurance money, wife seduces a not-too-bright guy and encourages him to kill the husband, husband falls for another beautiful woman, detective investigating the case also falls for a beautiful woman, and so on. And of course, there is plenty of sex. The quality of the writing was also quite pedestrian and far from classy.

Overall, The Kind Worth Killing is the equivalent of a popcorn flick — entertaining, even somewhat thrilling, but eminently forgettable as soon as it is over.

The Kind Worth Killing
Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 2015

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train

I was alerted to this book by the recent write-up of The Kind Worth Killing, which was seemingly inspired by Strangers on a Train. While I had not read any books by Patricia Highsmith before, I have seen other movies based on her novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol, both of which were very good. Strangers on a Train was her first novel and it was made into a movie by none other than Alfred Hitchcock shortly after it was published in 1950. The book, therefore, came with an impressive back story and I was prepared to be wowed, especially given that I enjoy thrillers in general.

The plot line of Strangers on a Train is very intriguing. Two men, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train, they both have someone in their lives they’re unhappy with, but instead of “sucking it up” as most people do, one of the men, Bruno, floats the idea of getting rid of their respective nemeses by doing exchange murders — he would kill Guy’s ex-wife and Guy, in turn, would kill his father. Like most people, Guy shies away from Bruno when he proposes this plan and is very happy to see the last of him when the train journey ends. Or so he thinks. Bruno actually goes ahead with killing Guy’s ex-wife, and subsequently keeps up the pressure on Guy to carry out the exchange murder — kill his father. Ultimately, Guy caves in and does it, but his life subsequently becomes a living hell, plagued by guilt and Bruno’s continued presence in his life. Because it turns out that Bruno is a psychopath and cannot leave Guy alone, despite the fact that Guy ultimately succumbed to his pressure and killed his father.

Strangers on a Train is really a psychological thriller, and it does a great job in capturing Guy’s perspective, starting from his chance meeting with Bruno on a train, his desire to get away after Bruno proposes his bizarre “exchange murder” idea, his consternation at the murder of his ex-wife and his horror at the growing realization that Bruno might be responsible, his dread once Bruno starts stalking him, the constant pressure from Bruno that makes him eventually kill Bruno’s father, and living in constantly torment and dread after the murder. In contrast, we don’t get inside Bruno’s mind that much and cannot really understand why he does what he does.

I found Strangers on a Train an enjoyable read in parts, but not particularly gripping. The premise of the story was more interesting than its execution — it was not very well developed, and the end was especially disappointing. The writing style was also quite pedestrian, which didn’t help to redeem the book. Overall, it seems like the kind of book which could be made into a good movie by a talented director, rather than a book that can be enjoyed in and of itself.

Strangers on a Train
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Original Publisher and Date: Harper & Brothers, 1950
Reprint Publisher and Date: W. W. Norton & Company Norilana Books Norilana Books, August 2001

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Kind Worth Killing” by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing

It seemed like fate when Ted Severson accidentally met the beautiful Lily Kintner in an airport pub. Eventually he starts talking about his personal life and how his marriage with Miranda is going down the spiral and soon enough … Lily offers to help.

A deadly game begins there.

The author seems to have got the inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. However, the best thing about this book was that at a certain point when we, the reader, think everything is predictable about this story, it suddenly takes a dangerous turn.

That single factor makes it a much better read than other similar works. I was literally like, “Oh, where did that come from,” at that point.

The story is narrated from a first-person point of view. So the story gets explained by each major character separately. However, the author has not taken any special care to make them “sound” different. The writing style remains a constant throughout the book for all characters.

Out of the lot, Lily Kintner was the most interesting one. You will start rooting for her and supporting a particular “obsession” of hers even if you suspect that she may not be doing the right thing.

It’s hard to write more about this book without spoiling anything. Some of the tactics used in the book to kill have zero logic if you think hard about them, but it doesn’t matter really since it is a thriller. The book is a good read. Yes, perhaps the ending could’ve been slightly different.

But then again, some of them are the kind worth killing!

The Kind Worth Killing
Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 2015

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“The Child” by Fiona Barton

The Child

The Child follows up on Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, which I had written about last year. I am an aficionado of the mystery/thriller genre and I had found The Widow a very good book in that genre. It was not spectacular by any means – far from contemporary hits like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, let alone classics such as Agatha Christie’s many books – but it was a well written, entertaining, and gripping read. Barton’s new book, The Child, is in the same genre, and while it is as well written as The Widow, I would have to say that its entertainment and gripping quotient was a notch lower.

The mystery in The Child is that of a dead newborn baby, whose remains are discovered when some buildings are demolished in a London neighborhood and the construction site is being dug up for a new development. While the exact year of death cannot be determined from the remains as they have been buried for many years, the fact that they are wrapped up in a specific kind of plastic bag provides some clues on a possible time frame. A DNA test reveals a match with a woman, Angela, whose newborn baby mysteriously disappeared shortly after it was born from the maternity ward of the hospital she was in. While Angela has two other children who are now grown up and have kids of their own, she has never gotten over the disappearance of Alice, the name they had given the baby. The discovery of the remains on the building site gets her hopes up so she can know once and for all what happened to her baby and get some closure, even though it means definitively knowing that Alice is dead.

Just when everyone was certain the dead baby was Alice, a wrench is thrown into the mystery when further testing shows that the remains had been buried on the site at least ten years, if not more, after the date that Alice disappeared. So it is still Alice? If so, were the remains hidden somewhere else for over a decade and then buried at the building site? Is that even possible? And if, does that make any sense? Or is this another baby? But no other baby was reported missing in that time. And what about the DNA match?

This is the central mystery in The Child, and while Angela is one of the main characters in the book, there is also Kate, the intrepid reporter who is fascinated by the case and keeps digging into it, and Emma, another woman who happened to live at the housing development at the time when the remains were buried. Emma has a deeply disturbed past and secrets of her own, and for some reason, the story of the baby’s remains becomes one she gets obsessed with.

The mystery is, of course, resolved at the end of the book, and just as in The Widow, in a satisfying, entirely believable way, without any “curve ball” type of plot twists. While there is sufficient intrigue in the story to make The Child as much of a page-turner as The Widow, it wasn’t a book that I couldn’t put down — I read it over the course of a week rather than a day — and in that respect, I would have to say that it was not as gripping as Barton’s first book.

The Child
Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: Berkley
Publication Date: June 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Tell No One” by Harlan Coben

Tell No One

When I started reading this book, I had this funny feeling that I knew this story, everything including the climax (that’s a nice feeling to have if you have not experienced it). As I progressed, the feeling became stronger but I couldn’t remember when or where it happened. Soon it dawned to me. I had seen a movie adaptation of this book a long time ago. I didn’t knew the movie name then.

I have to admit that even after that, the book managed to keep me on the edge of my seat until the very last page.

It is one of the best suspense thrillers that I have read. The story remains solid throughout the book. There’s romance, suspense, there are murders and twists to keep you engaged. And I felt that all the characters had a soul, even the secondary, not so significant ones.

You will feel sympathy for the main character, Dr. Beck, when you know the tragedy that happened in his life. And you will most certainly get chills from a man named Eric Wu and his way of handling people.

The story unfolds at a fast pace and there are enough thrills at the end of each chapter. And it ends with a beautiful flourish. You need to be extra sharp while reading the ending or you may lose some important information.

You can surely race through this book in a matter of hours. I highly recommend it for people who are looking for thrilling page turners.

Tell No One
Author: Harlan Coben
Publisher: Dell
Publication Date: August 2009

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel” by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk.jpg

I picked up The House of Silk thanks to a comment that was posted in response to my take on Anthony Horowitz’s book, Magpie Murders, a few months ago. While Magpie Murders was a classic whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie — whose books I find thoroughly entertaining, even today, and even after multiple re-readings — The House of Silk is directly based on the style of Arthur Conan Doyle best known for his Sherlock Holmes detective books. In fact, The House of Silk is not just inspired by Sherlock Holmes, it is, as the title states, an actual Sherlock Holmes book. This means that it is written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, as the original books were, and features the same characters in the same setting. It’s almost as if Arthur Conan Doyle rose from the ashes and gave us another Sherlock Holmes book, or if there was another book in his canon that was lost and was discovered only now. In fact, that is the premise of The House of Silk — that it was written over a hundred years ago by Dr. Watson but was sealed until now because the “case” that was solved in the book was too shocking and too controversial for those times.

I found the premise very successful in its execution — the book is indistinguishable from the original Sherlock Holmes books and transports you back to 221B Baker Street, the London address where Sherlock Holmes lives and which forms the base setting for all his cases. At the time of this book, Dr. Watson is already married but his wife is away visiting friends, so he returns to live at 221B Baker Street as he used to and continues to be Holmes’s trusted right-hand man and chronicler of this case. Their intrepid landlady, Mrs. Hudson, plays only a small role in this book, but the loyal Inspector Lestrade has a large part to play. The case starts off being a relatively straightforward one of an art theft and a murder threat, but soon balloons into something a lot more sinister — the brutal murder of a young boy, an underground opium den, another murder that Sherlock Holmes himself seems to have committed and is arrested for, an orphanage for boys that does not quite seem to be what it purports to be, and a conspiracy that seems to go so high up in government levels that even Sherlock Holmes’ well-connected brother, Mycroft Holmes, cannot help.

As with all Sherlock Holmes books, The House of Silk is a thrilling ride that takes you back to the familiar setting of Victorian England, and the case that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have to solve gets increasingly darker, complicated, and dangerous. Fans of the original books will revel in the resurrection of their favorite detective, and there is no doubt that Anthony Horowitz is an extremely talented writer who has shown that he can match the writing styles of Agatha Christie as well as Arthur Conan Doyle to a tee. The only problem I found with the book was with the intent of the premise — it pointed to something “so monstrous” and “so shocking” that the book had to be locked up for a hundred years. However, when the finale came, I did not find it to be as big a deal. While I can appreciate that Horowitz needed to find a way to explain why a new Sherlock Holmes book was being published now, the explanation he chose was not very compelling.

But despite the problem I found with the intent of the premise, its execution, as I mentioned earlier, was spot on, making The House of Silk a terrific read.

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: November 2011

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Misery” by Stephen King

Misery1

This was one of the few “page turners” that I’ve read. I got pulled into Misery the moment I read the plot summary. Technically, it is something that could happen to anyone, any unlucky celebrity to be precise.

It starts with a back-breaking accident to a famous novelist and thankfully he gets rescued by his number one fan. Hold on. It’s a Stephen King novel. The man who is famous for his thrillers and killers. I’ll have to take that “thankfully” back… I won’t spoil anything here, but I guarantee you that it’s not a horror story (but a scary one).

There are books that can give us surprises, good scares, heart breaks, adrenaline rush and so forth. For this book, courtesy the title, I was expecting a miserable time for our lead character and was prepared to sympathize with him even before I started reading. But I got a surprise right away when I learned that “Misery” was, in fact, a character’s name in the book (Misery Chastain is a beautiful name). And our lead did not have a miserable time. He had something worse!

Here’s some more leverage to get you start reading. The book was adapted into a movie in 1990 and Anne Wilkes (the female lead character) was portrayed by Kathy Bates. Ms. Bates won the Best Actress Oscar and the Golden Globe for the role.

Then again, if you have already read the book then you might be a tad disappointed with the way the film turned out. I can’t say it was totally bad but it could have been much better. I’m not sure how to put it. Let’s just say that there’s a big difference in using an axe to hack someone versus using a hammer for the same thing.

Ouch. Gruesome! I know. But it’s Stephen King. Not me. So the example demands gruesomeness… 🙂

You can expect some heart-thumping moments in the book. And it beautifully (or should I say, rather casually) portrays a writer’s agony and thought process in creating something new.

With Halloween around the corner, you could get your share of thrills by reading Misery or by watching the movie. I won’t suggest both.

Misery
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Viking Press
Publication Date: June 1987

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders

For those who love mysteries—and I very much belong in this category— Magpie Murders is a double treat. It is a mystery within a mystery, a classic whodunit (short for “Who [has] done it?”) within a whodunit. Agatha Christie was the undisputed queen of this genre, and I find her books absolutely riveting and impossible to put down until the end, when the detective finally reveals the murderer. I have always wished she was still alive and writing, so I wouldn’t have to make do by re-reading her books over and over again.

This is why I was delighted to come across Magpie Murders. Not only did it provide twice the thrill by being a book within a book, it had also one of the most innovative plot lines I have come across so far. A book editor of a publishing company, Susan Ryeland, is given the manuscript of the latest book by their most successful author, Alan Conway. The name of the book is Magpie Murders, and it is the ninth book in his widely popular crime series that is modeled almost entirely on Agatha Christie books—they also feature a Poirot-like detective and are set in small English villages in the 1950s. While Susan dislikes Alan Conway as a person, she loves his books and starts reading the manuscript. It is reproduced in full, and we are reading it with her. This is the “inside” book, and it is every bit as riveting as any Agatha Christie mystery, just as well-written, just as suspenseful, just as impossible to put down.

Therefore imagine her agony, as well as ours, when she comes to the end of the manuscript and finds that it is not complete! This is just before the big reveal when the detective gathers all the suspects and presents the solution to the mystery with a flourish. Needless to say, she can’t wait to get hold of Alan Conway to find out what happens. But then it turns out that he has died, ostensibly from suicide, going by the letter he sent to her boss, the head of the publishing company. In a quest to find the missing chapters of the manuscript, not just for her company but also to get the solution to the mystery in the book, Susan dig deeper and becomes increasingly convinced that Alan may have been died of murder rather than suicide.

This is the “outer” mystery, and while it is set in contemporary times and therefore easier to relate to, I have to admit that I didn’t find as gripping as the inner Agatha Christie-like mystery in the fictional book that Alan Conway wrote. Thankfully, Susan finds the missing end chapters of the inside book, so we find the answer to that mystery. And of course, by the end of the book, we get to know the mystery behind Alan Conway’s death as well.

The fictional Alan Convoy’s fictional book was so good, and such a terrific stand-in for Agatha Christie fans, that I wish Anthony Horowitz would keep writing these books in addition to the other books he writes.

Magpie Murders
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: June 2017

 Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water

Into the Water is the new book by Paula Hawkins, whose debut novel, The Girl on the Train, was such a huge success, not just commercially but also critically — it was on the New York Times Bestseller list for over four months following its release in 2015, which surely has to be a record, at least for a first book. I absolutely loved that book and wrote about it shortly after I reread it last summer and found that I enjoyed it as much as the first time I read it. Naturally, my expectations were really high from Into the Water, although I was also afraid that it wouldn’t be as brilliant as The Girl on the Train. After all, wasn’t it possible that the resounding success of her debut novel had blunted the artistic sensibilities of the author as well as her drive and motivation? Could Paula Hawkins really come up with something that would be as good as The Girl on the Train?

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about not enjoying Into the Water as much as I did The Girl on the Train. It is as brilliantly written and as much of a taut, suspenseful thriller as The Girl on the Train – I couldn’t put it down and read it in the course of an evening, staying up till the early hours of the morning to finish it. I simply had to know what happens.

Into the Water is set in a small town in England that has a river running through it, one part of which happens to be a treacherous spot where people can drown – either by jumping into the water or by being thrown off. This spot, known to locals as “the Drowning Pool,” has a troubled history, with many women losing their lives there – hundreds of years ago, when people believed in witchcraft, women thought to be witches were thrown into the water, and more recently, it has become somewhat of a suicide spot for troubled women to end their lives. The book begins with the death of a woman, Nel, in the drowning pool. Did she jump into the water or was she pushed? Nel’s death seems to be connected to the death of Katie, a teenage girl, in the same spot about six months ago, which was believed to be a suicide. It’s also possible that the connection actually began with the death of another woman, Lauren, in that spot thirty years ago.

The story is told from the points of view of several characters: Nel’s long estranged sister, Jules, who is forced to come back to the town she and Nel grew up in; Nel’s teenage daughter, Lena, who also happened to be Katie’s best friend; Katie’s mother, Louise; the local detective to whom the case is assigned, Sean, who is also Lauren’s son; and several other characters including Katie’s brother, Sean’s wife, Sean’s father, the high school teacher with whom Katie was having an affair, and last but not least, a local psychic who everyone thinks is crazy but who actually has some important insights into what actually happened. Nel, who was a single mother, had always been obsessed with the Drowning Pool, and her research on it was not appreciated by the others in the community, particularly those whose lives had been affected by it, such as Katie’s mother, Louise. Katie’s brother was just a young boy, but he had seen his mother go out the night Nel died – had she something to do with Nel dying in the water? And why exactly had Katie committed suicide? Why was Jules estranged from her sister all these years? If Nel had indeed killed herself, maybe if Jules had responded when Nel had reached to her, she wouldn’t have been so troubled as to commute suicide? Why was Lena so difficult? Was it normal teenage rebelliousness compounded by the irrevocable loss of her mother, or was she hiding something? Why did Sean seem disturbed so often in the course of the investigation?

By the end of the book, you, of course, get the answers to these questions and things make sense. I was gratified to find the quality of the writing to be as good as The Girl on the Train, and it was just as suspenseful and thrilling, making it impossible to put the book down.

That said, while I thoroughly enjoyed reading Into the Water, I don’t see myself re-reading it with the same level of enjoyment as The Girl on the Train. For one, there are many more characters here, and not only is it initially confusing to the reader, I think it is also more difficult for the author to “get inside” the heads of so many characters, leaving us with a little more than a cursory understanding of many of them, even though they narrate their parts of the story in first person. Also, the reason behind Jules’s estranged relationship with Nel did not seem very convincing. And finally, I felt that the book does not sufficiently clarify every single question — and it could be because there were too many interconnected threads in the plot.

In short, I found Into the Water a great read, but not the kind of book I would go out and buy a copy of for my personal library, as I did for The Girl on the Train.

Into the Water
Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Defending Jacob” by William Landay

Defending Jacob

Of late, it has been difficult for me to find books that hold my interest. I regularly listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast and also subscribe to Bookmarks magazine, so I am up to date with which are the hottest books being published – what critics are saying about them, as well as their authors in the course of the many interviews they do as part of their book promotion tours. I borrow these books from the library with great enthusiasm, but very often, I just don’t find them interesting enough to stick with them beyond the first few chapters – they don’t hold my attention or make me care enough about the characters to make reading them a pleasure rather than a chore.

Therefore, I decided to take a break from “heavy-duty” reading and go back to that genre which, when well done, is impossible for me to put down – a good old-fashioned murder mystery. I grew up on hundreds of Enid Blyton mystery books as a kid in India and I subsequently graduated to Agatha Christie – my all-time favorite mystery writer — whose books I can still read again and again and enjoy them even when I know whodunit (“Who [has] done it?”). Along the way, I also discovered that I like courtroom dramas, a great example of which are books by Jodi Picoult (see my review of Small Great Things). This is why when I came across Defending Jacob, it seemed to me like a no-brainer to give it a try and end my long dry run of finding something to read that I could actually finish. I’m happy to say that it worked. I was riveted by the book and finished it in the course of a day.

Defending Jacob tells the story of a regular family that is suddenly thrown in turmoil when the son, Jacob, is charged with the murder of a boy, Ben, from the same school, who is found stabbed to death in the neighborhood park. Jacob is the only son of Andy, who is actually the Assistant DA (District Attorney) of the small town near Boston where the murder happens and is given charge of the case. It is a real shock to the community, which has been crime-free until now — all the kids go to the local school and most of the parents have known each other since their kids started school in kindergarten. Andy and his wife, Laurie, are well liked and highly respected members of this community, and they remain so even after the murdered boy is found until it turns out that their son, Jacob, may have done it. They are then, of course, immediately ostracized. To his parents, Jacob seems just like any other high school adolescent boy – sullen, introverted, and uncommunicative — and it’s impossible for them to tell if these are normal or the signs of a killer. Complicating the fact is that Andy is descended from a family with a history of violence, with at least three generations of men prior to him convicted of murder and his father still in prison because of it. Andy has successfully disassociated himself from this aspect of his family’s history – even Laurie does not know about it – but now the issue comes up when the case goes to court. Is there such a thing as a “murder gene,” and if so, has Jacob inherited it?

Andy is removed from the case as soon as Jacob comes under suspicion and the book tells the harrowing story of the family’s long ordeal in the days leading up to the trial and the trial itself. The story is extremely well told without resorting to melodrama or clichés, making it extremely believable. And of course, it is a mystery that leaves you guessing – did Jacob do it, or someone else, such as the convicted pedophile who was often in the park where Ben was murdered? The fact that Ben bullied Jacob and that Jacob owned a knife that he had bought earlier naturally throws suspicion on him, along with the discovery of a single fingerprint found on Ben’s jacket that matches Jacob. Then there is the whole online world that Jacob inhabits — all the Facebooks posts among the school kids some of which openly accuse him of the murder, and the “cutter porn” chat rooms (focused on violence and torture) that he frequents and occasionally even contributes to. All of these are pretty incriminating, but are they sufficient for the jury to pronounce Jacob guilty without a reasonable doubt?

There is the proverbial twist at the end of this book, as with many books of this genre, but it is not something related to this crime itself – in fact, it is so believable that you do not feel for a minute that you have been cheated or that some information was withheld from you deliberately to throw you off the track. It ends on a solid conclusion rather than a shaky one, unexpected for sure, but not at all contrived. All in all, it was a very good read.

Defending Jacob
Author: William Landay
Publisher: Bantam
Publication Date: September 2013

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Widow” by Fiona Barton

the-widow

Contrary to what you would expect this book to be from its title – a tragedy or at least a drama – The Widow is actually a crime thriller. And a really good one at that – I couldn’t put it down until I had got to the end, to the “bottom of the mystery,” as they would say in our much-beloved Five Find-Outers mystery series by Enid Blyton that we grew up with in India.

Set in England, The Widow is a debut novel by Fiona Barton, who, I wasn’t surprised to learn, is a journalist, given the fluency and quality of the writing. The “widow” in the story is Jean, whose husband has just died in an accident. But there’s an entire back story to their marriage that gradually unfolds in the course of the book. Her husband, Glen, turns out to be a pedophile who may have abducted a two year girl, Bella, from her house. It takes a lot of digging and investigation to hone in on Glen as the probable suspect. The detective in charge of the case is convinced that he is the man. But there is no conclusive proof, and even though Glen is charged and brought to trial, there is not enough evidence to convict him. In the meantime, Jean is obsessed with kids but for a different reason — Glen is infertile so she cannot have kids of her own. Did Glen kidnap Bella? And if so, was Jean complicit in the kidnapping? Did she want Bella to be her child? And was Glen’s death really accidental or did Jean actually cause it? We don’t really get to know the answers to these questions until the end of the book.

The book’s structure adds to the drama. The story unfold over a span of four years, starting from the time of Bella’s kidnapping to a few weeks after Glen’s death. Not only does it keep alternating between different times instead of being chronological – a fairly common literary device adopted in novels these days – it is also narrated from the points of view of a few key people: Jean, the widow; Bob, the detective who becomes very emotionally invested in the case; Dawn, Bella’s mother, who is single and has a few skeletons in the closet of her own; and finally, Kate, a reporter who is the only one able to get through to Jean, past the media circus plaguing her life for four years since Bella disappeared.

Most crime thrillers have almost an obligatory surprise twist towards the end — they lead you down a certain path almost intentionally and then knock you off the sails with a big reveal. And in the most successful books of this genre like Gone Girl, their sheer brilliance make you forget and forgive the fact that they practically cheated into believing something that wasn’t true. The Widow is not like that. There are no surprise plot twists thrown in like a curve ball; yet, it still has a very satisfying conclusion in which you are assured that justice has been done. It’s far from being the next Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but I found it a very well written, engrossing, and page turning thriller.

The Widow
Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: February 2016

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train has had one of longest runs as a New York Times bestseller. Released last year, it topped the list for 16 weeks in 2015, has been on it for 78 weeks so far, and is still on the list at #6. That is a remarkable achievement for any book, let alone a debut novel. It literally came out of nowhere and became an instant success, drawing comparisons with the 2014 crime thriller, Gone Girl, which was also a runaway hit. However, unlike Gone Girl, whose author, Gillian Flynn had published books before which you could read to get a better idea of her earlier work and her path to literary success, the author, Paula Hawkins, of The Girl on the Train was a totally unknown entity in the publishing world, so you can’t go back to read any of her other books, as most of us would do for authors whose books we love. And while I don’t always find New York Times bestsellers terrific reads (such as the book, The Girls, that I wrote about recently), The Girl on the Train was one book that I unequivocally loved.

Set in London in contemporary times, The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller and murder mystery rolled in one. The mystery at its core is the disappearance of a woman, and the story is told entirely in the form of the narrations of three different characters: Rachel, the main protagonist, who is “the girl on the train” who sees something suspicious related to the missing woman from the train one morning, and whose life, by the way, is falling apart, making her a very unreliable witness; Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife, thanks to whom Rachel’s psychological problems and drunkenness are compounded; and finally, Megan, the woman who goes missing. We learn how their lives intersect early on in the book, but not the whole truth. Unlike books like Gone Girl in which a large part of the narration was deliberately misleading to throw readers off the track, the “twist” in The Girl on the Train comes not from an unreliable narration, but from holding something back instead and not divulging the whole truth. The book keeps you on tenterhooks throughout and rather than feeling cheated at the end, it has a very satisfying conclusion that does not make you feel stupid for not having “guessed” the mystery.

Crime thrillers are generally not known for their writing quality, but I found The Girl on the Train not only very clever but also extremely well written. Not only was it thrilling and entertaining the first time I read it last year, I re-read it again recently and I found it just as engaging as the first time—impossible to put down, and having finished it, needing to read it again right away to better understand the clues leading to the resolution of the mystery. For me, the impetus to read it again came from hearing that it was being made into a movie. While I think that The Girl on the Train has an excellent plot and would make for a terrific movie, there is a certain enjoyment of a good book that comes from your own images of the characters before they are overwritten by the images of the actors playing those parts in a movie, and I wanted to experience this again before the movie comes out.

In conclusion, I would say that The Girl on the Train is a terrific book that deserves every bit of its success, and I find it very gratifying that books like this even find a place in—let alone rule—the New York Times bestseller list, where you typically find more “serious” literary fare. The only question now is whether Paula Hawkins will be a one-book wonder, or we will continue to see more from this prodigiously talented author? While it would be hard to match the success of The Girl on the Train, I, for one, am eagerly awaiting her next book.

The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Penguin Group
Publication Date: January 2015

Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.