A couple of assassins, one highly trained but rusty, the other in over her head, are the heroes of two new thrillers featuring targets so appalling that our sympathy goes straight to their would-be killers. These are not alternate histories where the outcomes change—the broad outline for each is factual, so we know right from the outset that neither will be successful. The question is whether or not they’ll survive their missions.
Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris zeroes in on June 23, 1940, the day when Kate Rees, an expert American markswoman who’s been recruited by the British secret service, is supposed to pick off the Führer on the steps of Sacré-Coeur. (The three hours referred to in the title reflect the duration of Hitler’s actual, single visit to Paris.) Rees is powerfully motivated by the recent deaths of her Welsh husband and infant daughter in a Luftwaffe bombing. Blinded by grief and bent on revenge, she doesn’t twig to the dubiousness of the British secret service using an Oregon farm girl with only a few days’ spy training to parachute into France and pull off an assassination of this magnitude. She realizes too late that she might have been set up, and when her attempt fails, she embarks on a race for her life through newly occupied Paris with a dogged German detective just steps behind her.
Cara Black is best known for her contemporary Aimée Leduc investigations series, but this stand-alone, with its resourceful, all-American heroine and breathless pace, allows her to flex a different muscle, aided by her deep knowledge of and affinity for all things French. Depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief over one too many hair’s-breadth escape, this is a superior thriller with much to offer fans of World War II spy fiction drawn to intriguing what-if scenarios.
While Three Hours in Paris is driven by adrenaline and its heroine’s pluck, Deon Meyer’s The Last Hunt is larger in scale. It’s a geopolitically complex, richly populated, and textured book, set chiefly in and around Capetown, South Africa, and Bordeaux, France. Amidst the well-preserved beauty of Bordeaux, Daniel Darret (formerly Thobela Mpayipheli), a retired operative for MK, the military wing of the African National Congress, has made a peaceful and anonymous new life for himself at 55. He’s pulled back into the game when an old contact begs him to join a plot to assassinate the corrupt president of South Africa. (Though the politician, who is still alive but was pressured into resigning, is never named, his identity is obvious to anyone who follows South African politics.)
The Last Hunt is the latest in Meyer’s long-standing Benny Griessel series—new to me, but quite a rewarding discovery. Meyer alternates Darret’s story with the case of a high-end security guard whose murder is investigated by Detective Benny Griessel and his partner, Vaughn Cupido, both honest, likable cops who belong to the Hawks, an elite unit that investigates high-priority serious and violent crimes. The Last Hunt takes place at the height of the president’s misrule, when his massively corrupt practices were shredding Nelson Mandela’s legacy. As the bodyguard case runs out of steam, Darret sets out on his mission to eliminate the president at a hotel in Paris. Darret has to invent his plan on the fly, relying on cryptic e-mails from unknown handlers, but his knack for fluid improvisation hasn’t deserted him. As Darret wends his hazardous way to his target, Griessel and Cupido are drawn into another deceptive murder case, which will provide the crucial strand that braids the plots together.
This is a terrific book, abounding with South African—and French—flavor, political and procedural sophistication, and characters you’d want to have a dop with. (Afrikaans for a drink; linguistic riches abound here as well!)
Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets belongs to a category you might call Schadenfreude noir, where an enviable woman who has it all—glamorous business, movie-star looks, successful husband, tasteful house, adorable child—loses the thing most precious to her, thereby turning everything else to ash, including her marriage and her sanity. How Marin Machado fights her way out of her bad place is played out in Little Secrets, which you may be tempted to slug down in one giant gulp, as if it were the slightly annoying but possibly addictive extra-large double-shot soy-milk sugar-free vanilla latte that is her go-to coffee order.
A truly bad thing has happened to Machado, who owns a collection of fancy hair salons with a celebrity clientele in the Seattle area: her four-year-old son was abducted from Pike Place Market when she momentarily dropped her guard. The disappearance took priority with the police due to the family’s social prominence, but despite video showing the boy leaving the market with someone in a Santa suit, more than a year has passed with no developments known to the authorities or to the private investigator Machado engaged.
Then the P.I. contacts Machado with some startling information: her husband is having an affair with a pink-haired young barista/art student/social-media influencer.
Now Machado has a goal in life, and it’s not doing balayage on J.Lo. What has until now been a psychological mystery accessorized with the requisite luxury-brand names takes a hard-nosed turn into James M. Cain territory, when the enraged Machado asks her best friend, a shady bar owner, if he knows a guy. She wants barista girl gone. Here Hillier shifts into another gear, letting the mistress tell a different story than the one on her super-cute Instagram page, and contrasting Machado’s privileged world with the dark one she enters. Little Secrets may start out as a guilty pleasure, but it moves on to territory that’s vividly emotional (Hillier really gets female fury) and painfully human.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City