Is This Thriller Worth Getting?

The Tenderness of Wolves
By Stef Penney, Simon & Schuster, $25
Once or twice a year, a first-time novelist might so impress you with her ingenuity and passion that you’re willing to overlook a lack of control or plausibility. Stef Penney is not one of those writers. It’s precisely the balance and poise of her book—a literary-historical mystery, narrated from many points of view and set in a nineteenth-century backwoods Canada less populated than Mongolia—that won her Britain’s Costa prize in both the first- novel and overall categories (and made her a best seller there). Penney manages to feint at various genres—period romance, adventure story, Dickensian moral tale, Conradian thriller—without giving over to their limitations. If anything, she can be too decorous: A tawdry but potentially illuminating affair is valiantly resisted; even in a remote outpost swimming with booze and morphine, no one egregiously misbehaves. She deserves her accolades; maybe they’ll encourage her to take a few more risks in the future.

The Exception
By Christian Jungersen, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26
Can a psychological thriller be full of surprises and profound moral implications and still feel overloaded and a bit of a grind? You may be tempted to blame it on the translation of this highly acclaimed Danish best seller, which uses the office politics at a genocide-research center to show how easily the veil of morality can slip away. But the fact is there are several too many explications of the inner workings of nonprofit bureaucracy, along with repetitive descriptions of women “exchanging glances.” Although the action (if not the style) of this 500-page doorstop eventually picks up—and ends with a devastating twist—not a detail is left out along the way. It’s significant that in the first half of the book, the most intriguing bits are pseudo-academic essays on evil and genocide. Perhaps Danes just have longer attention spans, but better pacing and turns of phrase might have gone a long way.

The Dark River
By John Twelve Hawks, Doubleday, $24.95
No one knows who wears the pseudonym John Twelve Hawks, but anonymity didn’t keep the first book in his dystopian “Fourth Realm Trilogy” from the top of best-seller lists. There’s no reason to think his leaden dialogue and ham-fisted prose will deter readers from the second installment, The Dark River, either; after all, our band of good guys (Travelers, Harlequins, and normal citizens living off the grid) is still trying to save the world from the grip of bad guys (Tabula, the Vast Machine, mercenaries) who dream of installing a Bentham-esque Panopticon of perfect government surveillance. The plot is so relentlessly action-packed that even a skeptical reader is soon sucked into its series of sword fights, subway-car escapes, and database hacking. But Twelve Hawks’s main concern is location—the canyonlike mouth of the Holland Tunnel, the moldering Jewish ghetto in Rome, an ancient Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum—and historic factoids make even clunky passages go down smoothly. Like The Da Vinci Code without the shameful aftertaste.

The Red Dahlia
By Lynda La Plante, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, $14
In her earlier Prime Suspect series, Lynda La Plante, a London TV producer, created Jane Tennison, the crime solver embodied to perfection by Helen Mirren. La Plante’s latest novel is the second in a series devoted to Detective Inspector Anna Travis, who’s younger than Tennison and still climbing into her career. As police procedurals go, it’s a good one, even if we’ve seen a lot of these plot devices elsewhere. (The serial killer is a copycat obsessed with the Black Dahlia murders in L.A., a profiler has been called in, the journalist is a smooth-talking jerk, the killer had medical training, and “whoever did the dissection knew what they were doing.”) The point here is to develop the highly capable, slightly damaged Anna, and one gets the sense from the romantic subplots that we’re midway through a series of four books. Which would neatly become a satisfying BBC drama of a dozen or so episodes, and probably will.

Chain of Evidence
By Garry Disher, Soho Crime, $23
Wave good-bye to cuddly marsupials and Ms. Kylie Minogue. In Disher’s Australia, a criminal clan is up to all sorts of trouble on the housing estate, a little girl gets swept into a white van and unwittingly downs Temazepam-laced lemonade (but is this the work of one sick individual or a “paedo ring”?), and the police are mostly a mixed bag of gullibility and vague shiftiness. Well, except for Sergeant Ellen Destry and her mentor–potential love interest, Inspector Hal Challis. Unfortunately, though, they find themselves on opposite sides of the continent, working their way through two very different disappearance cases. As the chapters interweave, there’s no plot whiplash, however—just a delightful foreboding that even worse events are about to unfold.

Is This Thriller Worth Getting?