Gothic Thrillers: The Guest List and The Sea of Lost Girls

For now, I am content with easy mysteries and psychological thrillers; I just finished reading The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman.  Both reminded me of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with a cast of women betrayed by a male villain, who satisfyingly  gets his at the end – with a surprise twist.

The Sea of Lost Girls

Goodman’s tales are old friends; I’ve read The Lake of Dead Languages (2001) through to The Widow’s House (2017).  The Sea of Lost Girls has her usual Gothic flavor, set in an academic setting, this time in an old boarding school in Maine, with a haunting past of dead girls and ghosts.  Tess, the heroine and former student, returns as a teacher with a past.  A young girl is murdered near the beach with suspects ranging from the heroine’s son to her former lover and her husband.  Goodman weaves the psychological thriller around the lives of past abuses and present day secrets.  A fun and quick read.

The Guest List

Foley’s The Guest List has a wedding fueling its thrills and a remote Irish island provides the chills. The horror on the night of the wedding jolts the opening, and the rest of the story backtracks to lead the reader to the big reveal.

The groom is a handsome TV star, but slowly his chiseled looks take on the aura of a Dorian Gray.  His college buddies confirm his background and lurid past, as they party as the guests from hell.  Five narrators, each marking separate chapters, slowly weave the story to its surprise ending: the wedding planner and owner of the island, the bride, her young half sister and bridesmaid, the best man and old college buddy of the groom, and Hannah, the wife of Charlie, former lover of the bride.  The story evolves slowly, giving the reader time to assimilate the characters and try to guess the victim as well as the murderer, but it was a surprise to me.  Fun and satisfying.

The Suspect

9781101990513  I have an App on my phone called Libby, my link to ebooks on my library system.  I often browse and intermittently find books, but sometimes Libby magically produces an ebook I’d forgotten I ordered.  Fiona Barton’s The Suspect caught my eye when it was first published in January.  By now, most of you have probably read it but no spoilers here just in case.

Every parent’s nightmare may be having their teen age girls go backpacking in Thailand on their own, and when the two young girls in Barton’s story, Alex and Rosie, suddenly disappear, their parents are notably frantic.  The story connects  the lives of the families with both a newspaper reporter, Kate Waters, whose son is also in Thailand working through a break from law school, and with the detective on the case.

Barton informs the reader about how the girls are coping by intermittently backtracking to them in Thailand.  The reader knows more than the parents but it isn’t long before all the characters serendipitously come together.  Comically, the police and reporters are sometime tripping over one another, but Kate Waters is Barton’s star investigative reporter, always a step ahead.

Murder is the focus, with the pursuit of the suspected killers.  The book is a fast read and a fun whodunit, with notable asides on social media, international law, and parental responsibility. The ending pulls the plot together, with a surprise smoking gun.

The Suspect is Barton’s third book in the Kate Water series which began with The Widow in 2016, but you don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy Kate’s detective skills.   Have you read it yet?

 

Tangerine

shopping-1  A page-turner, with traces of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Hitchcock’s Gaslight, with two unreliable narrators, and with no “girl” in the title, Christine Mangan’s Tangerine has all the elements of a chilling thriller.  I was sorry to have it end.

Alice and Lucy meet as roommates at Bennington College in Vermont – Alice, the frail wealthy orphan with a trust fund and Lucy, the poor striving local girl on scholarship.  Although the plot proceeds predictably, with Lucy insinuating herself into Alice’s confidence, and Alice depending on Lucy to shore up her insecurities, the story makes a sharp turn when Alice finds true love with a Williams College boy in her senior year.

As the story shifts to Alice escaping to Tangier with her questionable husband, Lucy reappears in her life, and the mystery of the exotic surroundings adds to the intrigue.  Murders – more than one – dot the scenery, and Lucy evolves into a dangerous yet persistent terror.

Through flashback the reader understands Alice’s trauma filled life, with the death of her parents and the murder of her college love.  Referencing writer Paul Bowles, the novelist who wrote about Westerners who lose themselves in Morocco, Mangan gives Lucy and her shady Moroccan friend Youssef the motivation for  evil, ” You must read him {Bowles}, if you want to understand this place.” The “Tangerine” of the title refers to a native of the Moroccan city, Tangier, and the narrators do lose themselves there.

Poor Alice – despite her efforts – she seems doomed and outwitted at every turn.  This book is a movie waiting to happen.

After reading the book in one sitting, I decided to find Paul Bowles, and have ordered his The Sheltering Sky from the library.  The New York Review of Books offered a useful resource for his life and writings in Tangier – The Hypnotic Clamor of Morocco.

Related ReviewNew York Times: Trusting in the Sheltering Sky

The Woman in the Window

shopping   Although I had sworn off all books with a girl or woman in the title  and anything recommended by Gillian Flynn, I read The Woman in the Window in one sitting after a fellow reader insisted, giving me the real name for the A.J. Finn pseudonym.  If you are a Hitchcock fan, you will see traces of favorites like Gaslight and Vertigo in the plot, with Rear Window playing a leading role.   If you are an astute problem solver, you might figure out who the real villain is – I didn’t.  If you want a thrilling psychological drama, with an unbalanced Ph.D. (psychologist) as the lead character, The Woman in the Window will keep you turning pages to the finish.

Anna is an agoraphobic psychologist, who drinks her day away with red wine while keeping tabs on her neighbors in her stylish and expensive neighborhood, through the lens of her camera.  Although Finn offers hints for the cause of her disability, the reason is revealed much later, after Anna has befriended the new neighbor, psychoanalyzed the frail son, and thinks she has witnessed a murder.  The author maintains the suspense by exaggerating Anna’s helplessness while, at the same time, teasing with references to the old black and white horror/mystery movies she continually watches during the day – when she is not watching her neighbors.  The actor James Stewart plays in the background while Anna tries to decipher what has happened – has she tipped over into insanity or witnessed a crime.  No spoilers here – have your own good time reading it, maybe with a glass of red wine – and all the lights on.

The Fall Guy

9780393292329_198   James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  With astute observations of those around him,  Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.

When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first.  Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.

As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail.  This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all.  Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.

When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions.  The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect.  The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.

Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –

…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”

I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent.  The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.