The F.B.I. runs the show in two new science-themed thrillers, one focused on neuroscience and Egyptology, the other on the destruction of the environment. But it’s a pair of maverick agents who get top billing, while their bosses are portrayed as vainglorious fools at best.
In this fast-paced but character-rich novel, F.B.I. senior special agent Sayer Altair, a neuroscientist who studies the brains of criminals, is summoned to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body is found at the Einstein Memorial, in Washington, D.C. The setup—the girl’s body is found among a ritualistic arrangement of objects—seems to point to a serial killer, Altair’s specialty, but facial-recognition analysis of the victim reveals something even more startling: the girl was one of 24 high-school seniors on a bus that disappeared on its way to a technology competition in Georgia. In short order, 11 of the boys from the bus are found shot to death near a road in Virginia, along with the two adults accompanying them. One boy managed to escape, and now the hunt is on for the girls.
The tension grows and clues add up with crisp dispatch, abetted by the surviving witness and an art expert who explains the links to ancient Egyptian cosmology that seem to be driving the killer. But Altair and her team are obstructed as they get closer to identifying the murderer and finding the remaining girls, for whom time is running out.
A psychotic killer who babbles in Coptic and steals baboon statuettes from an art museum may be far-fetched, but the ancient-Egypt angle is entertaining, and Altair is charismatic as she tears around Virginia and D.C. on her Matchless Silver Hawk motorcycle. Cooper confidently propels Cut to the Bone to its conclusion, tossing off a gasp-worthy twist toward the end (particularly stunning for fans of this series) with impressive dexterity.
Would the mainstream environmental movement embrace an eco-terrorist whose explosive destruction of targets—a dam and a nuclear-energy facility, among others—results in human collateral damage, some of whom are children? In David Klass’s earnest thriller, it does, making a folk hero of Green Man, whose exploits have the best minds in the F.B.I. coming up empty as they try to find the tiniest clue as to who he is or where he’ll strike next.
Their conventional and fruitless approach is upended when the head of the Green Man task force takes a shine to an intuitive young computer programmer named Tom Smith, who’s the son of a former bureau buddy. A onetime environmentalist himself, Smith is able to slip inside the mind of Green Man, a genius at sabotage, engineering, and misdirection, and think strategically as he would, giving the team insight that leads to a few breaks in the case.
Would the mainstream environmental movement embrace an eco-terrorist?
Meanwhile, we follow Green Man as he goes about his outwardly normal life, playing his role impeccably until the burden and awful cost of his mission begin to take their toll and a few cracks appear, drawing Smith a little closer to his prey.
The author has done his homework, whether it’s explaining the latest in high-tech crime-fighting toys or the mechanics of fracking, which should persuade anyone of its harmfulness. By blending science and technology with plentiful action, Klass has produced a thought-provoking read for those who prefer camping to the beach.
Gliding along on the soft breezes and cushioned luxury of her rarefied life in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, in the South of France, Alice is an American violinist who lives for her art. She’s willfully oblivious of what this pampered existence costs her husband, Michel, who works for a Swiss bank, though he coasts by on charm and admits to having a shaky grasp of numbers. As Open Secrets begins, Michel tells his wife that he’s in some financial trouble which may require the sale of their villa, or perhaps pulling their daughter, Pamela, out of her beloved Swiss boarding school. Michel regards Alice as a brittle objet d’art, too delicate to handle the reality of his dangerous relationship with a volatile Russian client. Feeling the need to confide in someone trustworthy, Michel shares fuller details with his precocious teenage daughter, who adores her father and remembers everything. When Michel drowns in a boating accident (though he is an excellent sailor) and Pamela is kidnapped from her boarding school, Alice casts off her stunned grief to find a strength she never knew she had, pushing herself to the edge to save what remains of her family.
What’s so striking about Open Secrets is South African–born Sheila Kohler’s prose. Literary, elegant, and almost too refined—the characters’ strongest language runs to “Goodness!” and “Good heavens!”—it makes a soft contrast to much of the rawer work in this genre. Kohler’s mise-en-scène—redolent of lavender and jasmine, the swishy softness of Alice’s silk dresses, and the freedom and threat of the sea—evokes the seductive but sometimes lethal European fantasy conjured by writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Piero Chiara, and André Aciman. When the rot that has supported Michel’s lifestyle starts to spread, there’s a certain sad satisfaction in watching it all collapse into a painful but cleansing ending.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City