3 Fast, Funny & Sharp Thrillers

It feels like I've broken through a logjam in my reading this summer, and I'm back to cranking through books like I used to be able to do. At least, I'm cranking through the books that have the magical qualities that I look for in my fun reading: a great plot, a likeable lead character, a swift and sassy writing style. In short, I'm always on the lookout for a new writer who has stepped into the shoes of Elmore Leonard or Lawrence Block or Thomas Perry.

Through some combination of luck and fate and sharp-eyed bookshop spotting, I've just read three new-ish books in the past couple of weeks that brought to mind all three of those landmark thriller & mystery writers. If, like me, you are a fan of all three of those writers, this post is going to fill your weekend with great reading.


The book for fans of Lawrence Block:
Something Missing
by Matthew Dicks
Broadway | 9780767930888 | $22.95 | July 2009

I should preface this by saying that my favorite Lawrence Block character is not Keller, the sardonic hitman, nor is it sad-eyed alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder.  It's always been that light-hearted scamp, the gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr (newbies should begin at the beginning: Burglars Can't Be Choosers.). 

Like Bernie Rhodenbarr, our hero in Something Missing is a careful, meticulous burglar with a few personality quirks.  For his entire adult life, Martin has been supporting himself in a cautious manner by stealing small quantities of household goods and precious items that won't be missed from a "client list" of families that he burgles repeatedly.  He's so careful in his planning and execution that he is able to go back time and time again.  He has worked out a series of rules that guide his daily rounds:

  • If the missing item will be noticed, don't acquire it.
  • Never spend more than 15 minutes in a house.
  • Never fall into a routine for entering or leaving the premises.
  • Never, ever run on the stairs lest you break a leg and have to call 911 from inside a home.

He's been making these rounds for so many years that Martin has begun to feel a kind of kinship with his "clients".  When Martin accidentally knocks a client's toothbrush into the toilet, his OCD traits and his feeling of responsibility to the clients force him to deviate from the rules and his careful planning.  And that small accident sets him on a whole new path of rule-breaking and risk-taking.

A speedy read, a fun tour through an ethical burglar's brain, a surprising thriller.

The book for fans of Thomas Perry:
Beat The Reaper
by Josh Bazell
Back Bay Books / Little, Brown | 9780316032216 | $14.99 | paperback coming Sept 2009

The first Thomas Perry novel I read was not one of his Jane Whitefield thrillers, though I do love his elaborate descriptions of how Jane helps her clients disappear.  It was a story of a disappearance gone awry: Sleeping Dogs, the sequel to The Butcher's Boy.  In Sleeping Dogs, Perry related the adrenaline-revved, bloody tale of a mob hitman who just wanted to stay retired and hidden.

Beat The Reaper is an updated take on the same basic plot - an incredibly talented hitman goes undercover after a double-cross, spends the next 8 years in Witness Protection learning to be a doctor.  And one day, while making his rounds at the grungy New York hospital where he's working, a former associate ID's him.

The best thing about this story - aside from the inventively imagined scenes of mayhem - is the narrator's voice.  Dr. Peter Brown (formerly Pietro Brnwna, mob hitman) tells his own story of violence, love, betrayal, and revenge in a wry, knowing first person. 

And Josh Bazell has layered his story with an insider's knowledge of the ugly side of hospitals, internecine mob warfare, Witness Protection schemes and medical mysteries that could be ripped right out of House.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been mentioned as a likely lead in a film adaptation of Beat The Reaper.

The book for fans of Elmore Leonard:
Starvation Lake
by Bryan Gruley
Touchstone / Simon & Schuster | 9781416563624 | $14 | March 2009

Right off the bat, there were a few clues that had me thinking of Elmore Leonard as I started reading Starvation Lake.  First, it's set in Michigan, longtime home and setting for some of Leonard's most memorable novels.  Partly Detroit, but mostly the tiny northern vacation town of Starvation Lake. 

Second, our narrator of the novel is that beloved Dutch Leonard character type, the disgraced pro on the run.  Think of Get Shorty's Chili Palmer. 

Third, Gruley mentions Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing in his afterword, referencing his dictum against an author's perpetrating "hooptedoodle": "Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip".  Gruley likes to keep it plainspoken and fast-paced, just like Leonard.

So, the book opens and it's dead of winter in Starvation Lake.  Crack reporter Gus Carpenter is back in the town where he grew up, just ahead of a whole chain of lawyers and lawsuits resulting from an investigative series he wrote for a Detroit paper.  He's gotten a job as editor of the local paper, but even with his big city experience, for most of the locals, he's still just the former goalie who blew the big championship game

When the snowmobile that once belonged to the hockey team's long-missing coach turns up on the shores of Starvation Lake, a whole lot of the town's ugly history is about to be brought back to the surface with it.  And Carpenter and his star reporter are either going to blow it all out in the open, or they're going to be forced to bury the lead one more time.

I always like to be surprised when I'm reading a mystery like this.  Another great writer I thought of while I was reading Starvation Lake was Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series - buried secrets, missing family members, and wealthy men with motives.  But Gruley found ways to surprise me, and keep it from just being an iced-over Lew Archer mystery.