Murder, Mayhem and Menace: New Crime Fiction

Ah, sinkholes. So random, so terrifying, they turn neighborhoods into “oozing wounds” — especially when grievances fester angrily underneath the surface. Sarah Langan plumbs these literal and metaphorical depths as they rip apart a once-bucolic suburb in her disturbing and mordantly funny new novel, GOOD NEIGHBORS (Atria, 296 pp., $27), a departure and an extension of her early horror fiction.

Set six years in the future (smartly sidestepping the need to reference anything pandemic-related), the book maps the lives, loves, dramas, prejudices and growing conflicts among the residents of Maple Street, all of whom moved to this parabola-shaped section of Sterling Park seeking betterment, conformity, upward mobility and — in the case of friends-turned-rivals Gertie Wilde and Rhea Schroeder — cover for past identities too ugly and traumatic to reckon with in their present mom selves.

No wonder the sinkhole that opens up, which swallows a child and leaves other children to clean up the psychological messes of their parents, kindles tensions into an outright war. Employing a clever narrative structure that flashes even further into the future to ratchet up the suspense, Langan maps the consequences of these battles and the viciousness that erupts between those who professed love for their friends and family with merciless precision.

Brody Ellis knew he wasn’t doing the right thing, resorting to robbing convenience stores so that his younger sister, Molly, could continue medications to treat her disability. But, he reasons, “there was sometimes a difference between what was right and what was necessary.” Too bad Brody’s decisions aren’t just desperate, but, as the dizzyingly plotted thriller LOLA ON FIRE (Morrow, 392 pp. $27.99) reveals in short order, on a level of catastrophe that traps him and Molly in a level of grudge going back decades, long before either was born.

It takes a little while for Rio Youers to rev up the story, and the connections between present-day Brody and Molly and the titular, early 1990s-era Lola are too diffuse for the first third of the book. When the strands coalesce — and that knitting is both obvious and heartfelt — the novel motors on at blinding speed, incorporating broken families, bottomless desire for revenge, and a denouement that makes the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre seem like mere trifle. What sticks with me, though, are the quiet moments, where the wounds of long-ago personal sacrifices have room to heal.

The mother-son bond at the center of QUIET IN HER BONES (Berkley, 374 pp., $27.99), a nervy and unsettling noir from Nalini Singh, has been in suspended animation for 10 years. That’s when the willful, fiercely complicated Nina Rai disappeared from her home in a wealthy New Zealand enclave, a night when her teenage son, Aarav, heard her scream and then — nada. He’s moved forward, if transforming inner turmoil into a slow-burn best seller about an unreliable psychopath counts as progress. The Porsche, the royalties and the model girlfriend say yes. The car accident, the fractured memory and the move back to his childhood home say otherwise.

Then Nina’s body is found in her car in a densely wooded forest, clearly there since her vanishing, and Aarav’s frozen emotional state flips to boiling hot. The subsequent investigation he conducts, interrogating his cold, abusive father, neighbors with divided loyalties, and especially his own motivations and inconsistencies, unfolds with a heady mixture of heart and dread. Aarav is a legitimately and believably unreliable narrator; the cracks in his neurological foundation are healing in asymmetrical fashion, the better to shield him from the truth about what loving his mother actually meant, and how many other lives — including his own — it cost.

The brief life and mysterious murder of the Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe is well-trod fictional territory; Anthony Burgess’s last published novel, “A Dead Man in Deptford,” Louise Welsh’s moody novella “Tamburlaine Must Die” and Ros Barber’s novel-in-verse “The Marlowe Papers” rank among the most superior depictions. Such illustrious efforts, thankfully, did not deter Allison Epstein, whose debut, A TIP FOR THE HANGMAN (Doubleday, 384 pp., $26.95), presents Marlowe as supremely capable, something of a trickster, a consummate liar, a fiendish lover — and someone capable of murder well before his own disputed demise.

Her Majesty’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, finds Kit at Cambridge and, coldly impressed with the young man’s intellect (arguing both sides of the celibacy question with equal effect naturally turns heads), assigns him to infiltrate the household of Mary, Queen of Scots. Epstein, in modern prose mixed with period research, conveys Kit’s horror at watching Mary and others hang, and the base thrill he feels at being part of dangerous games that supersede his official duty to country.

The suspense is palpable, as is the sense of doom, as Marlowe finds himself in thrall to a devil’s bargain and his own inner demons. Epstein breathes life into a celebrated figure, which makes his demise all the more abrupt and horrific.

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