Tag Archives for " thriller "

Nelson DeMille’s new bestselling thriller

bestselling thriller: The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMilleThe Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Revolutions usually replace one group of incompetent autocratic [pigs] with another, and the real losers are everyone else.” So believes “Mac” McCormick, the cynical protagonist of Nelson DeMille’s new bestselling thriller, The Cuban Affair. Up to a point, it seems to be a fair representation of the author’s own perspective on Cuba, the setting of this cleverly conceived adventure story. Mac steadfastly professes to be indifferent to politics, but elsewhere he betrays his own, and the author’s, comfortable acceptance of the one-sided views of the Cuban American activists who enlist him in a harebrained scheme to sabotage the thaw in relations between the two countries.

Doubtless, there are a great many things very wrong about the way the Castro brothers have run Cuba over the past half-century and more. The country is, in fact, a police state. In every neighborhood, there is a local “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution,” or CDR, which reports suspicious views and activities to the police. Journalists whose reports depart from the government line are arrested and jailed. Dissent is quickly crushed. Cuban prisons currently hold dozens of political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch, although far from the hundreds that were imprisoned in years past. (Frequently, dissidents are jailed but soon released, making it easier for the government to insist there are “no political prisoners.”) Yet by far the worst outcome of the Cuban Revolution is the nearly ubiquitous poverty created by the inefficiency and incompetence of the country’s state socialist system. Half the population survives on less than $1 a day.

It’s important to recognize all those problems—but they are by no means the whole story. In Cuba, literacy is universal. Healthcare is free and available to all, provided by a state-run healthcare system that is widely recognized as excellent. (Cubans live as long as Americans at less than a tenth the cost, and infant mortality is lower than America’s.) Cuba’s free, universal educational system puts school systems in the rest of Latin America to shame: “pupils in Cuba’s lowest income schools outperformed most upper middle class students in the rest of the region.” And there is very little serious crime. Yet none of these facts are acknowledged in The Cuban Affair. The picture presented of Cuba today is unrelievedly bleak.

Nelson DeMille‘s new novel is essentially a conventional adventure story—another bestselling thriller in a long line of such books from DeMille. Mac McCormick is a decorated former US Army captain who now operates a charter boat out of Key West who believes such things as “Honesty is the best policy, unless you could lie and get away with it” and “I spent most of my money on booze and broads and I wasted the rest of it.” He is recruited by a group of Cuban Americans from Miami with a promise of a $3 million payoff. Their plan is to enter Cuba with a Yale University educational tour, desert the tour group, and make their way hundreds of miles from Havana to recover $60 million in cash hidden away there in 1959 when a banker fled to the US. As I’ve noted, it’s a harebrained scheme. Nobody should be surprised when it all goes awry.

You’ll find my reviews of many much better thrillers at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

She’s missing, presumed dead, and now the mystery starts

presumed dead - watch-me-disappear-janelle-brownWatch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Gone Girl and its many less successful imitators have crowded bookstore shelves in recent years, so my natural tendency is to yawn when I come across another novel that marketers or critics compare to it. However, Janelle Brown‘s new thriller, Watch Me Disappear, merits the comparison. A forty-something Berkeley housewife mysteriously disappears, and what we think about her steadily erodes as the story unfolds. In the end, we’re left shaking our heads, a little dizzy from all the surprises we’ve encountered as the tale reached its resolution.

Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan lives with her husband Jonathan and fifteen-year-old daughter Olive in Berkeley’s Elmwood District, in an old brown-shingle home just off College Avenue. They’re a seemingly typical upper-middle-class Bay Area family. Jonathan is a senior editor at a magazine that covers the tech industry. Olive is a junior at a private, all-girls preparatory school in Oakland. And Billie, though an artist in her younger years, has devoted herself to homemaking.

Now, however, Billie has been missing for nearly a year and is presumed dead. In the years immediately before her disappearance, she had left home from time to time for long weekends to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. But she hasn’t returned from her last backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. She has simply disappeared, and a protracted search has failed to turn up any clue as to what happened to her. In his grief, and his concern for Olive, Jonathan has left his job at the magazine to write a memoir about his life with Billie. He’s now in financial straits, struggling to pay the mortgage and dodging calls from Olive’s school about her tuition bill—and he can’t access the money from Billie’s $250,000 life insurance policy because there’s no death certificate. Billie is only presumed dead.

Then things get worse.

Gradually, Jonathan begins to learn unsettling facts about the life Billie led after running away from home at age sixteen. To make matters worse, Olive begins having conversations with her dead mother. She insists that Billie is alive and wants to be found. As Jonathan and Olive separately pursue investigations into their disappearing wife and mother, Billie’s past life comes back to haunt them.

Watch Me Disappear is suspenseful to a fault. Though a little slow on the uptake, the novel speeds up as the complications multiply—and most readers will be surprised by the ending.

Check out my review of Gone Girl here: A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss. You may also be interested in reading my reviews of 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).


Karin Slaughter’s engrossing new thriller, “The Good Daughter”

new thrillerThe Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The Good DaughterKarin Slaughter‘s new thriller, her nineteenth novel, is set in rural Georgia, like most of the Grant County and Will Trent novels which established her reputation. She was born there and now lives in Atlanta—and it shows. Slaughter’s characters are clearly native to the area. They might live in one or another neighboring state, but nowhere else.

Samantha and Charlotte Quinn are now in their early forties. Known as Sam and Charlie to family and friends, they’re the daughters of Russell (Rusty) Quinn, a criminal defense lawyer who has gained the enmity of nearly everyone who lives in the region. He has defended murderers and rapists, often successfully, and frequently receives death threats as a consequence. (“There was not one low-life alleged criminal in Pikeville, Georgia, that Rusty Quinn would not represent.”) Both Sam and Charlie are also lawyers. Sam is a hugely successful patent attorney in New York; Charlie defends children.

Twenty-eight years ago, their mother, Harriet (“Gamma”) Quinn, was murdered in the kitchen of their home by two young local men as her daughters looked on. Fifteen-year-old Sam was shot in the head and buried alive. Twelve-year-old Charlie escaped by running through the woods adjoining their farm. The action in The Good Daughter alternates between the murder scene and the present day and shifts perspective from one daughter to the other as well as other characters. Their somewhat different recollections dramatically illustrate the unreliability of memory.

The story is anchored in the present because Charlie accidentally witnessed a school shooting. A teenage woman shot the principal of the middle school she’d attended and a little girl who was visiting her mother, one of the teachers. Separated from her husband, she had visited one of the other teachers to swap cellphones which had gotten exchanged when they spent the night together. As the story unfolds, the repercussions of the school shooting gradually coincide with the events on the day of Gamma Quinn’s murder. Slaughter masterfully weaves the two plots together, building suspense to a crescendo in the closing pages of the novel. Her novels have sold thirty-five million copies and have been international bestsellers—and it’s no wonder. Karin Slaughter is without doubt one of today’s most talented and accomplished thriller authors. I rush to buy every new thriller she writes.

The three women characters central to the plot in this new thriller are all brilliant. The mother, “Harriet Quinn wasn’t called Gamma out of a precocious child’s inability to pronounce the word ‘Mama,’ but because she held two doctorates, one in physics and one in something equally brainy that Samantha could never remember but, if she had to guess, had something to do with gamma rays.” Sam has inherited her mother’s smarts: at forty-four, she’s about to become a named partner at one of the world’s leading firms of patent attorneys. Charlie, who is much closer to her father, is only a little less intelligent.

For reviews of other books in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. For a reviews of two of the author’s earlier novels, see Karin Slaughter’s tale of neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia and Violence abounds in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series. At Karin Slaughter’s series of Grant County thrillers, I’ve reviewed all six novels in that series.

Secrets and lies in a young adult thriller, and it’s not science fiction

young adult thrillerThe Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let’s start with a confession. I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction ever since reading The Windup Girl, which I regard as one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. The future scenario the author portrays is compelling and strikingly imaginative, and I’ve found much the same evidence of creativity in his other science fiction novels. So I turned to another of Bacigalupi’s books, The Doubt Factory, expecting more of the same. It’s not. This one, set in the United States today, is a contemporary young adult thriller, pure and simple. Combining the author’s clever plotting and fluid prose with deft development of characters who are unique and believable, The Doubt Factory is an accomplished example of his craft. I liked it a lot even though it isn’t science fiction!

Alix Banks is a 17-year-old senior at an exclusive Connecticut prep school, daughter of the founder and chief executive of a public relations firm, Banks Strategy Partners. She lives with her parents and hyperactive younger brother, Jonah, in a luxurious suburban home near other wealthy executives and professionals. Alix is a top student and track star at Seitz Academy, but she has to work to get the top grades she and her parents expect. By contrast, her friend Cynthia effortlessly earns all As. Cynthia spends evenings and weekends “partying,” and routinely invites Alix to duck her parents and come along.

Meanwhile, a young man named Moses Cruz is somehow monitoring Alix’s every move at home and at school through surveillance devices that are obviously well hidden. Then Moses shows up in the quad at Seitz Academy in the midst of a massive prank that draws all eyes to him. Someone, somehow, has caused an enormous red tag (“2.0”) to show up on the side of the chemistry lab and released a prodigious number of white rats inside. As the rats scurry away over the quad, the headmaster attempts without success to detain Moses. A tall black man dressed in fatigues, he’s obviously out of place at Seitz, where students wear uniforms. Alix is fascinated and runs after him as he makes his escape from campus security and the police who’ve been called to the scene.

Moses calls his team 2.0. Like him, the other three are all brilliant teenage renegades: a Goth coder, a young gay man, and a 12- or 13-year old mechanical genius. They’re obviously up to something, but we won’t learn what until much later in the story. Whatever it is, it has something to do with the “Doubt Factory” of the title, but that name doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the novel.

The Doubt Factory is an action-packed young adult thriller and the story of an unlikely romance as well. It’s all based on a monumental secret and the lies that are told to protect it.

FYI, my review of The Windup Girl is here: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Another novel set in the same imagined world is here: Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. For my reviews of dozens of other thrillers, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Multiple murder in the Australian outback

multiple murderThe Dry: A Novel, by Jane Harper

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve ever been to the desert in central Australia, you’ll find it easier to envision the setting in Jane Harper‘s thriller, The Dry: the featureless landscape, the stifling heat, the desolation, the sheer loneliness that the landscape inflicts on you. The novel is set somewhere south of the desert, in drought-ridden farming and sheep-herding country, but it still conjured up memories of my brief visit to the Alice Springs area more than a decade ago. It’s difficult to understand how or why anyone would choose to live in such a place. It’s somewhat easier to picture a multiple murder in such a forbidding environment.

Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra twenty years after he and his father had fled the town, hounded by accusations that one or the other of them had murdered Aaron’s teenage friend, Ellie Deacon. He’d been living ever since in Melbourne, far to the south, lately working as a federal investigator specializing in financial fraud. He’d returned reluctantly to attend the funeral of his boyhood best friend, Luke Hadler, his wife, and five-year-old son. They’d all been brutally shotgunned to death in a gruesome multiple murder, and Luke himself was suspected both by the townspeople and the police who’d been called in to investigate. But Luke’s parents are certain their son didn’t kill his family and himself. They’ve pressed Aaron to find out what happened. Against his better judgment, Luke has consented to stay for a week to look into the case.

Aaron quickly finds he isn’t welcome back in Kiewarra. He’s still suspected of murdering Ellie Deacon two decades earlier. Unfortunately, Luke had no alibi for the period when Ellie was killed. He’d only avoided arrest because Luke had persuaded him to tell the police that the two of them were together at the time. It hadn’t then occurred to Aaron to suspect that Luke was only gaining an alibi for himself, but now he wonders because all evidence points to murder-suicide in the deaths of the Hadler family.

Are the two mysteries connected in some way? We suspect as much, but any explanation will clearly be a long time coming in this award-winning novel. With few allies other than Luke’s aging parents, Aaron struggles against fierce resistance from the townspeople and his own suspicions as the investigation unfolds. Jane Harper tells the tale through flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years and narrative about the increasingly complex case that only slowly becomes clear as Aaron pursues the elusive truth.

To read my review of another, somewhat similar mystery, go to An engrossing small town thriller. For links to dozens of other mysteries and thrillers, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

A Swedish thriller without crazed serial killers

Swedish thriller The Lost Boy (Fjällbacka #7) by Camilla Läckberg

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you read Scandinavian noir but have had your fill of deranged serial killers, pick up a copy of The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg. Like the preceding novels in her bestselling Fjällbacka series, The Lost Boy shines with in-depth characterization and complex plotting that offers surprises to the very end. If you’re insightful about psychology, you might pick up well in advance on a couple of the plot’s major twists and turns—but it’s very unlikely you’ll catch them all. Camilla Läckberg is good!

In a devastating car crash, Ericka Falck’s infant nephew died and she was forced to undergo a Caesarian to give birth to premature twin boys. To compound the terror, Ericka’s husband, Detective Patrik Hedström, immediately collapsed from what appeared to be a heart attack. But months have passed, and finally all’s well in the Falck/Hedström home. The twins are thriving, their two-year-old sister dotes on them, and both Ericka and Patrik are fully recovered: Patrik had collapsed from stress, not a heart attack. But Ericka’s younger sister, Anna, was in the car and suffered an abortion in the crash. Now she is despondent and unresponsive to her children, her husband, and Ericka.

Against this backdrop, six other stories begin unspooling. A former classmate of Ericka’s has hidden in her cottage on a nearby island with her five-year-old son; her husband has been murdered, and they hope to evade the same fate. In flashbacks to the 1870s, a young woman living on the same island has been virtually enslaved by her cruel husband. A brother-and-sister team of con artists, having swindled a fortune from the town of  Fjällbacka, is preparing to flee. The town’s treasurer has been murdered, too. A battered wife and her two children are holed up in Copenhagen, having fled Sweden. And Patrik’s incompetent boss, the chief of police, is getting on the nerves of the two younger lesbian women who live with him and his girlfriend. (One of them is her daughter.) Yes, a whole lot happens in a Camilla Läckberg novel!

If there is any overarching theme to The Lost Boy, it’s domestic violence. The investigation Patrik and his colleagues undertake into the murder of the town’s treasurer gives them (and the reader) a window on the issue and how it’s dealt with in Sweden.

About the author

Camilla Läckberg was born in Fjällbacka, Sweden, the setting for all her novels about Patrik Hedström and Ericka Falck. She has written ten novels to date in the Fjällbacka series. As best I can tell, all have been translated into English. The most recent, The Witch (2017), isn’t available in the United States at this writing. Of the other nine, six have appeared in Kindle editions. I’ve now read and reviewed all six.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

My 1000th post: revisiting my 10 most-read book reviews

book reviewsSeven and a half years after I launched this blog, I’ve reached a milestone: this is my 1000th post. Nearly 900 of those posts are book reviews. I’m listing here the 10 most popular over the past three years. Four of the 10 books reviewed are mysteries and thrillers, two are trade novels, and four are works of nonfiction.

In addition to individual book reviews, I’ve posted more than 100 commentaries. A large proportion of those are listings of good books in individual categories, such as books about espionage. At the bottom of this post I’ve included the six most-read of these listings.


Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel?

The veteran LAPD detective and his young Latina partner take on the 10-year-old murder of a mariachi musician—and find it fraught with politics and other complications.

Donna Leon’s best detective novel?

Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police connects three seemingly unconnected crimes despite interference from his feckless boss.

A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War

A young Indian man, risen from poverty in Mumbai to become dean of the Indian opium traders, plays a central role in dealings with the increasingly assertive Chinese government in the late 1830s.

Is John Sandford’s latest novel the start of a new bestselling series?

Leaving behind Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, Sandford’s new protagonist is a Special Forces veteran and political troubleshooter in Washington, DC, who grapples with a paramilitary force set up by a rogue governor.

A terrific murder mystery set in Stalin’s Soviet Union

During Stalin’s terror in the 1930s, a Moscow detective tackles two murder cases and finds himself in conflict with the secret police and the notorious criminal gang, the Thieves.

She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff, and you wouldn’t want to mess with her

In a story based on fact, a young woman in New Jersey during World War I takes on a wealthy man and the thugs who surround him after he refuses to pay for damages to her car.

Hard-boiled crime fiction set in contemporary Chicago

A lone wolf P.I. is offered a fortune to find a corrupt former Illinois governor who disappeared from the courtroom after sentencing to prison two years earlier.


The science of decision-making

Bestselling author Michael Lewis relates the story of the two brilliant Israeli psychologists who turned economic theory on its head by revealing the extent to which humans are irrational.

Dispelling the myths of autism

During the 20th Century, painfully slow discoveries in psychology and neurology led to today’s modern understanding of the autism spectrum against the resistance of the psychiatric profession.

A brilliant analysis of racism

In a letter to his teenage son, an African-American public intellectual explores America’s original sin of racism, grounded in the lie that some of us are “white” and others “black.”

The kidnapping that shook America

The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst triggered the firebombing of a radical safe house in Los Angeles, a years-long FBI investigation, and Hearst’s ultimate pardon for collusion two decades later.

Other books worth reading

14 great nonfiction books

15 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers

10 great science fiction novels

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

10 great recent books by Berkeley writers

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

Crimes against humanity in Scott Turow’s latest legal thriller

legal thrillerTestimony by Scott Turow

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In an interview on May 23, 2017, Scott Turow explained how he came to write a novel about a case at the International Criminal Court involving the massacre of 400 Roma (“Gypsies”). “‘In 2000, I was at a reception in The Hague and found myself in a circle of lawyers who said you have to write about this—it’s an amazing case,’ he recalls. ‘Usually when people say they have an amazing case it’s about their divorce, but this actually did sound fascinating.’”

The story the lawyers told triggered his memory of a brief exposure to Roma culture 40 years earlier, when Turow had observed a large group of Roma stealing ashtrays from a hospital. The incident puzzled him. He couldn’t understand why they would antagonize people they might have to deal with in the future. “‘What I later learned when researching for this book is that there’s no tense but the present in the Roma language and no written or oral tradition for passing down information. Their history goes only as far back as the oldest Roma alive. So that’s a big cultural difference from us.’” And that difference emerges dramatically in Turow’s mesmerizing latest legal thriller, Testimony.

Most of Turow’s earlier novels involve attorneys in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, and are courtroom dramas. Testimony somewhat departs from the pattern. Bill ten Boom is a successful Dutch-American lawyer—from Kindle County, like the others—who moves to the Hague in the throes of a mid-life crisis to accept a job as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ten Boom, who goes by the name “Boom,” works with a Belgian forensic anthropologist in search of evidence about a crime against humanity that may have been committed by a now-fugitive Bosnian war criminal—or by American soldiers at a base near the site of the atrocity. Evidence emerges pointing in either direction. Boom’s investigation is complicated when he becomes involved in a torrid affair with the woman who brought the case to the court, an advocate for the Roma. Esma Czarni, beautiful, charming, and possibly brilliant, is also thoroughly untrustworthy.

But Czarni is not the only confounding character in the tale. You’ll also meet Laza Kajevic, the former president of Bosnia who has been on the run from war-crimes investigators for a decade. “Kajevic was in a category of his own, a political leader whose charisma and rage had been enough to lead an entire nation into a realm beyond conscience.” Equally fascinating are General Layton Merrill, the former top NATO commander hounded from the military in disgrace over adultery, and his former master sergeant, who describes herself as a “bull dyke cross-dressing half-breed.” She is a genius at logistics.

Though the story opens at a pre-trial hearing in an ICC courtroom, the action that follows is set elsewhere, mostly in Bosnia. Turow’s description of the poverty-stricken villages, the tragic history of the land, and Roma culture is unfailingly moving. He’s clearly a dogged researcher—and a talented wordsmith.

Boom’s perspective on his work is firmly grounded. “I know this much,” he tells the investigator assigned to him. “Justice is good. I accept the value of testimony, of letting the victims be heard. But consequences are essential. People can’t believe in civilization without being certain that a society will organize itself to do what it can to make things right.”

In his acknowledgements at the back of the novel, Turow writes, “I share with Boom the belief that, given the enduring reality of wartime atrocities, the ICC is indispensable in making the world more just. I hope that in time the United States lends its moral authority to the Court by ratifying the treaty we signed . . . I regard US fears of the Court, while far from fanciful, as misplaced and at odds with the US’s long-term interest in supporting the rule of law around the world.”

About the author

Over the past 30 years, Chicago attorney and novelist Scott Turow has written 11 works of fiction. Included are some of the legal thrillers most familiar to readers—and moviegoers, as several have been adapted to film. Among those you might recognize are Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and Reversible Errors. All three were bestsellers and made their way into theaters. Turow has also written three nonfiction books. His work has been translated into 40 languages and has sold a total of more than 30 million copies.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller

pedophilesThe Crow Girl: A Novel by Erik Axl Sund

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages.

To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how complicated this story is. It’s a tale about pedophilia, serial murder, unhappy marriages, dissociative identity disorder, a fundamentalist Christian sect in Lapland, the Great Famine in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, and Swedish police procedures. Got that? No? I understand. I could never have imagined a single story linking all these themes.

The Crow Girl opens like so many other crime stories. The mutilated body of a young immigrant boy is discovered, and Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg from the Stockholm police is assigned to the case. But neither the police chief nor the prosecutor who both have authority over her will provide her with the necessary resources. Then the bodies of two other young boys are found nearby. Evidence links the three murders, so Kihlberg is faced with tracking down a serial killer, on her own time when necessary.

To gain insight into the psychopathology of serial murderers, the Superintendent enlists the help of a brilliant psychologist, Sofia Zetterlund. It soon develops that both women are stuck in unhappy marriages, so you’ll quickly begin to wonder where that will lead. And that’s only the first of a long list of complications and surprises that come to light again and again in this masterful tale.

The Crow Girl is the first book in the Victoria Bergman trilogy. The remaining two books in the trilogy are not yet available in English translation, nor is the authors’ fourth novel.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion

con men - Out on the Rim - Ross ThomasOut on the Rim, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Ross Thomas‘ inimitable thrillers were originally published between 1966 and 1994. (Ross died the following year.) More recently, most of his work has been brought out in new editions, each with an introduction by a prominent contemporary of his who wrote mysteries and thrillers, too. Introducing Out on the Rim, one of Thomas’ last novels, Donald E. Westlake comments “The dialogue zings, the story twists like a go-go dancer, and you often can’t tell the players even with the program.” Amen to that.

Published in 1987 and set a year earlier, Out on the Rim is a roller-coaster of a tale that moves from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, to Manila and Cebu City in the Philippines, to Hong Kong, and back to Washington, DC, for a typically ironic and very satisfying conclusion. The focus of attention is Booth Stallings, a “terrorism expert”—he holds a Ph.D. and wrote a book on the subject—but Thomas shifts the point of view from Stallings to each of a number of other intriguing characters whose principal occupation seems to be double-crossing each other.

There’s Artie Wu, the brilliant and corpulent “Pretender to the Chinese Imperial Throne.” (He claims to be the illegitimate son of the illegitimate son of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor.) Wu’s partner in crime is Quincy Durant, a sociopath who works cons with him. Others frequently refer to him as “that f***ing Durant.” Maurice Overby, “House-sitter to the Stars,” known to most as Otherguy Overby (the other guy always did it), is also a con man. He always works at an angle about 45 degrees off course from everyone else. Georgia Blue, a cashiered former Secret Service agent, may not be licensed to kill, but it’s clear she is fully capable of doing it. Alejandro (Al) Espiritu, who fought the Japanese with Stallings, is now the leader of a rebel movement in the south of the Philippines. Also appearing are Al’s wife and sister, assorted CIA agents, a Philippine homicide detective, and an Australian expatriate in Manila who is selling secrets to so many governments that he can’t keep them all straight. As Donald Westlake says, “you often can’t tell the players even with the program.”

Shortly after his 60th birthday, Booth Stallings is recruited to return to the Philippines after more than 40 years to reconnect with Al Espiritu. His assignment is to persuade the rebel leader to accept a $5 million bribe to leave the islands for exile in Hong Kong. Stallings will be paid a fee of $500,000 for the job (about a million dollars in 2017). To help carry out this dangerous assignment, he turns to Otherguy Overby, who connects him with Wu and Durant. Stallings plans to fly to Manila with the other three men, but then the man who recruited him insists that his bodyguard, Georgia Blue, join the team. Immediately after their arrival in the Philippines, the trouble starts—and it doesn’t let up until the very end of this delightfully convoluted story.

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