“If you pretend with all your energy and focus, you can forget that you’re pretending.” That’s the essence of successful acting, as Chris Pavone explains in Two Nights in Lisbon, that zone you enter where you become one with your character. In three new thrillers, it’s a skill that’s central to each of the heroines, whose talents range from those of gifted amateur to experienced professional. All are fiercely committed to their performance goals.
As a young woman, Ariel Pryce trained to be an actress, which proved useful when she fled her bleak Park Avenue marriage to re-invent herself with a new house, name, and baby in a rural Long Island town. At the beginning of Two Nights in Lisbon, she has recently added a new husband to her modest household, and the couple is on a business trip to Lisbon when he disappears from their hotel early one morning. Ariel goes to the police and the U.S. Embassy, where she has trouble getting the authorities to take her seriously—he’s only been gone a few hours—but when she receives a ransom demand, they kick into gear.
It’s hard to say more about this charged, multifaceted thriller without giving away too much, but Ariel’s story is not as it seems. Pavone sustains a disorienting state of ambiguity for most of the book, in which the truth is oh-so-faintly discernible if you look hard enough. But you will likely be too distracted by Ariel’s frantic, 48-hour tear through Lisbon, or the efforts of the C.I.A. and a couple of local police detectives who are smarter than they appear.
Pavone never turns Ariel into an action figure; rather, she hints at her motivation with pointed asides on materialism, economic disparity, social media, and sexual assault. There are many moving parts here, all smoothly and satisfyingly integrated into virtuosic performances by Ariel and her creator. Bravo to both!
Forgetting that you’re pretending is a skill that’s central to these heroines, whose talents range from those of gifted amateur to experienced professional.
There’s no doubt about the heroine’s mission in Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule: Hannah Rokeby, an unqualified law student, fakes her résumé and an idealistic attitude to get hired by the Innocence Project so she can prevent a prisoner’s exoneration.
She is convinced that the man who’s spent 11 years in jail for murder is the same person who ruined her alcoholic mother’s life years before. The possibility of his release is untenable to Hannah, so she becomes a mole intent on sabotaging the Project’s case. But the challenge of maintaining her deception begins to wear her down when she digs further and finds that her certitude about the prisoner’s guilt may be ill-founded.
It’s hard to go wrong with a premise this good, and McTiernan takes the blindered, stubborn Hannah through some gutsy improvisations that culminate in an unorthodox courtroom scene. Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age tale about a young woman growing wise enough to know when to drop her act and let go of the past.
Katie Barstow really is an actress, quite a famous movie star, in fact, but in Chris Bohjalian’s The Lioness she’s also a high-value prize in a kidnapping scheme that never feels quite right. Bohjalian does a fine job of getting the reader emotionally invested in Barstow and her glamorous cohort of 60s Hollywood characters on safari in the Serengeti by giving them well-developed backstories. The Lioness is also wonderfully atmospheric and full of fascinating detail about the moment when the tide of big-game hunting—and great white hunters—in Africa began to turn in favor of photographic safaris.
The only fly in the gin-and-tonic is the abduction plot, and the spasms of extreme violence that shove it forward. Bohjalian specializes in thrillers that explore unusual subjects, but this time it feels as if he would rather have written something along the lines of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (a fictionalized version of the Richard Burton–Elizabeth Taylor romance that took place during the filming of Cleopatra). Who needs to throw these poor people to the lions when you’ve already got such fantastic beasts roaming Hollywood?
Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule is a coming-of-age tale about a young woman growing wise enough to know when to drop her act and let go of the past.
Judith Potts is incapable of pretending to be anyone other than herself. In The Marlow Murder Club, Robert Thorogood transforms Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple into a thoroughly emancipated and independent septuagenarian crossword-puzzle creator who barges into the police investigation of her shady art-dealer neighbor’s murder. She lives alone in a large inherited house on the Thames (where she punts and skinny-dips when she’s in the mood) and is abetted by two local Marlow ladies, a lonely dog-walker and a bored housewife; together they make a formidable, if somewhat erratic, detecting team.
This wacky-oldster-as-amateur-sleuth business is not new, but seldom has it been executed with such grace, humor, and skill. Judith is like a character out of a novel by Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Taylor who has thrown off those tiresome midcentury social constraints and just lets herself rip. The Marlow Murder Club is a pure pleasure to read—as refreshing as a dip in the Thames on a hot day.
It may also prompt you to check in with the original Miss Marple, so while we’re on the subject of actresses and deceptive women, we’d be remiss not to mention The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, in which a poisoned cocktail, a beautiful but troubled American film star, and a houseful of guests collide lethally at a party. As Miss Marple tries to trace the pattern in the fabric of the party guests’ backgrounds, she lands on the sorrows of motherhood, which also plays a part in Hannah and Ariel’s motives. The desire for vengeance plays out differently for each woman, but in the end they all have to face their true selves in the mirror.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City