Because summer vacations are perfect for escapist reading, publishers release a torrent of thrillers. Many are close to science fiction in their ludicrously improbable plots and their near-superhuman heroes and heroines. All such authors ask is that the reader hold on tight and turn the pages without asking questions. Some few thrillers aim higher, telling tales that hew closer to reality and generate suspense not just through surmounting perils but by making the reader feel a part of the conspiracy. These three are currently the best of that kind.
In Jeff Abbott’s Adrenaline, Sam and Lucy Capra are a CIA couple stationed in London, expecting their first child, and working on the penetration of international criminal gangs. One morning Sam answers his mobile phone to hear Lucy insisting that he leave his building at once. He races outside, watches the building explode, and then sees his wife ride away with an unknown man.
To the CIA, both Sam and Lucy are damaged property. Sam’s interrogator demands, “Are you a traitor or a fool?” - because if Lucy is guilty, he should have known. The rest of the book is a frantic chase from London to New York to Amsterdam. Sam has his innocence to prove and a stolen family to find, but in his way are the crime syndicate he was close to breaking and superiors who are playing their own hand in this game of post-Cold-War espionage. The body count is high, the level of cynicism higher: when a Chinese element within the gangs is described as “I suspect their father is the devil and Mrs. Ling won custody,” take the accusation seriously.
Peter Spiegelman’s Thick as Thieves examines just such a criminal syndicate from the inside. Their leader, Carr, romanticizes taking from the rich to keep for themselves as a post-modern version of Robin Hood: “black cats tippy-toeing in the black night” to steal from “smiles which are tight and entitled.” He wants one more big score to secure a secluded retirement with his cohort, Valerie - “her long limber body is like a burning fuse.” Yet the more he plans, the more he senses something wrong, and once he begins “working the paranoid calculus,” the more permutations of possible betrayal he imagines. He imagines one too few.
Suppose that hackers gained control of your social media sites and your email to portray you as someone you were not and so ruin your life. Suppose they do it for sport, as a game: your life is “modified. ... Alterations are made. Like putting a rat in a maze and moving the walls when it’s not looking.” Michael Marshall’s Killer Move adopts that premise.
Bill Moore is a real estate agent in the Florida Keys, upwardly mobile, willing to take chances, even break a few rules to get rich. He is about to enter what Rod Serling called “The Twilight Zone.” Every aspect of Moore’s life is affected, his marriage, his job, even his personal freedom. One of his tormentors gleefully tells him, “sometimes in life we pass by the side of things, ... like standing in the shadow of monsters in the night.” Given the threat of identity theft, Killer Move is chilling to read.
Besides the stylish prose, credible characters, and clever plots, Abbott, Spiegelman, and Marshall are alike in warning about the amorality of governments and the invasive power of technology. You will sleep less well after reading any of them, and you will wonder how much of their fiction is truth.