Regular listeners of the Book Review’s podcast know that I have a soft spot for thrillers. From time to time, I don’t mind giving up a bit of psychological complexity in exchange for ingenious plotting and the clarity of life-or-death action scenes. (That’s not to suggest the trade-off is necessary: Just look at John le Carré’s nuanced and morally ambiguous spies.) We recommend some good ones this week, from Camilla Lackberg’s “The Golden Cage,” about a vengeful wife, to Lauren Beukes’s “Afterland,” about a pandemic that singles out men, to Alex North’s “The Shadows,” about a copycat killing that brings the past roaring back. There’s also a real-life spy narrative, about the role of the K.G.B. in Russian politics, and a true-crime history about a 19th-century grifter.
For readers who prefer quieter thrills, we recommend Alex Trebek’s memoir, “The Answer Is…,” along with Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection and Colin Dickey’s sympathetic look at true believers in the paranormal.
Senior Editor, Books
THE ANSWER IS…: Reflections on My Life, Only after the outpouring of support following his announcement last year that he had pancreatic cancer did the longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, a private and reserved person, feel he owed something to the public. The “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings has described Trebek as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a Perry Ellis suit.” So perhaps it’s no surprise that Trebek has written what our critic Parul Sehgal calls “a memoir of consummate caginess, one of the wariest I’ve read: a friendly, often funny account marked by a reluctance so deep that it confers a curious integrity upon the celebrity tell-all.”
PUTIN’S PEOPLE: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, This book by the dauntless investigative reporter Catherine Belton is a meticulously assembled portrait of Vladimir Putin’s circle, and of the emergence of what Belton calls “K.G.B. capitalism” — a form of ruthless wealth accumulation designed to serve the interests of a Russian state that she calls “relentless in its reach.” Belton talked to figures with disparate interests on all sides, tracked down documents and followed the money to write a “voluminous yet elegant account of money and power in the Kremlin,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes.
INTIMATIONS: Six Essays, by Zadie Smith. (Penguin Books, $10.95.) In her slender new collection (less than 100 pages) of ultra-timely essays (several written in the past few momentous months), Zadie Smith speaks clearly and forcefully about the murder of George Floyd, the legacy of slavery and the systemic sins revealed by Covid-19. The book also showcases her trademark levelheadedness on a variety of other subjects. “This is a work of minor dimensions at — and about — a major time,” our reviewer John Williams writes.
TRUE STORY, by Kate Reed Petty. (Viking, $26.) In her spellbinding debut novel — about the rippling impact of a sexual assault — Petty uses shifting genres to show the way trauma works on us, how it shapes our lived experience and the way we frame that experience for others. “After a day or two, the book continued to work on me,” Megan Abbott writes in her review, “spurring me to question my own expectations of genre, and even story itself, and their capacity to get at stickier truths about trauma and its reverberations and what we expect from narratives dealing with sexual assault.”
THE KING OF CONFIDENCE: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch, by Miles Harvey. (Little, Brown, $29.) Harvey’s entertaining history of James Jesse Strang, a 19th-century con man who led a breakaway Mormon colony on an island in Lake Michigan, chronicles a manic, anxious, gullible time, not unlike our own. “Rather than a probing biography of a single man,” Chris Jennings writes in his review, “Harvey offers a vivid portrait of the time and place in which a character like Strang could thrive, an era when ‘reality was porous’ and an anxious population cast about for something exciting to believe in and someone confident to follow.”
THE GOLDEN CAGE, by Camilla Lackberg. Translated by Neil Smith. (Knopf, $26.95.) Faye Adelheim appears to have an enviable life — a wealthy husband, a perfect child, a sumptuous Stockholm apartment — until it all falls away. That’s when this stylish thriller gathers steam, taking readers on a whirlwind tour of retribution and revenge. The moral: Never underestimate a spurned wife … or her friends. “It would be remiss not to mention the theme of sisterhood in this smart, unflinching novel,” our reviewer, Mary Kubica, writes. “Women in it are rarely pitted against one another, but are instead united by common experience. Their friendships are empowering in and of themselves, and the dispensability of the opposite sex — except perhaps for sexual pleasure — speaks volumes.”
BLACKTOP WASTELAND, by S. A. Cosby. (Flatiron, $26.99.) In this gritty thriller, set in rural Virginia, Beauregard “Bug” Montage — the owner of a struggling auto shop — is drifting back into his old life of crime. Cosby has a talent for well-tuned action, raising our heart rates and filling our nostrils with odors of gun smoke and burned rubber. Daniel Nieh, reviewing it, calls the book a “thrilling reminder that small-town America has an underbelly, too. … Cosby’s voice is distinctive, and he plays a sharp-tongued Virgil as we descend into the Hades of bucolic poverty.”
THE UNIDENTIFIED: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession With the Unexplained, by Colin Dickey. (Viking, $27.) Why do so many people find paranormal events and ideas so persuasively real? As Dickey explains, it’s not that they necessarily want weirdness, but they do want the freedom of possibility. So there’s beauty in the idea of “a world beyond our understanding, a world we can glimpse here and there but never fully see.” Deborah Blum’s review calls it a “fascinating, troubling, compassionate and — in the end — deeply thoughtful narrative. … Dickey’s sense of history reminds us of the complex reasons our odder beliefs endure.”
LOVE AND THEFT, by Stan Parish. (Doubleday, $25.95.) Though this novel opens with a thrilling set piece — a spectacular Vegas jewel heist — Parish’s true interests lie in his characters, all battered people looking for absolution or, failing that, some form of shelter, maybe in one another. “Attention to sentence-by-sentence pleasure is an undervalued, even disdained, skill among thriller writers,” Adam Sternbergh writes in his review. “But a precision-cut sentence can quicken the reader’s pulse as reliably as a surprise twist or a character’s excruciating dilemma. When a novel delivers all of the above — as ‘Love and Theft’ ultimately does, its racecar engine revving to a smooth and satisfying purr — it can feel to the reader like a kind of miracle.”
AFTERLAND, by Lauren Beukes. (Mulholland, $28.) Beukes brings verve and mordant wit to her neo-noir, coast-to-coast chase novel, set shortly after a pandemic has wiped out 99 percent of the men in the world. The author is from South Africa, and sees America with the fresh eyes of an outsider. “Will readers want a pandemic novel at this fraught moment in American life?” Stephen King writes in his review. “Maybe they will. Make that probably. Because our current situation looks pretty good compared with a world where young boys have been declared a natural resource and sperm bootlegging means imprisonment.”
IMPERFECT WOMEN, Although there’s a murder at the heart of “Imperfect Women,” it’s not a conventional detective story. Its real mysteries concern love, friendship, obligation and the disappointments that come with the passage of time. “The book creeps on you slowly, like a fog,” Sarah Lyall writes in her review, “until you find yourself enveloped in this tangled skein of relationships, eager to see how all this is going to play out, who is going to betray whom and in what way.”
THE SHADOWS, by Alex North. (Celadon, $26.99.) In North’s assured thriller, the narrative shifts between past and present as a man in his 40s returns to his bleak hometown and learns of a recent murder that appears to be a copycat of one that rocked his adolescent world. This is absorbing, headlong reading, an inventive play on classic horror. “North is aware of how a good horror novel can subtly rearrange a reader’s surroundings, charging them with menace,” Flynn Berry writes in her review. “As with all the best illusions, you are left feeling not tricked, but full of wonder.”