Just when you think it’s not possible to sell a publisher on a female protagonist who’s well into middle age, along comes Becky Masterman’s compelling thriller “Rage Against the Dying.” Her protagonist, Brigid Quinn, is 59, a retired FBI agent who burned out after years of working undercover, disgraced because she killed an unarmed perp. Her specialty: investigating sexual homicides. She’s haunted by the disappearance of a young protégée whom she trained to decoy a serial killer.
When a man named Floyd Lynch confesses to what have become known as the “Route 66 murders” because the victims’ mutilated bodies are found posed at the highway’s edge, Brigid emerges from retirement. She’s found a tenuous peace in a brief happy marriage to man who has no idea she was an FBI agent (”No one likes a woman who knows how to kill with her bare hands.”). Lynch claims to know where more bodies are hidden, and he knows details that only the killer could. But Special Agent Laura Coleman, who reminds Brigid of her younger self, convinces Brigid that Lynch didn’t do it. Neither of them can convince their male colleagues.
“Rage” is compulsively readable, a page turner with a believable hero like none I’ve seen before in crime fiction. She’s powerful and flawed, needy and tough at the same time. The story is bold and surprising with twists and turns I didn’t see coming. The ending satisfies. And this is just Masterman’s first thriller. I’ll be looking forward to the next.
Anyone who lived in Charlestown or South Boston back in the day will feel right at home in Stephan Talty’s South Buffalo in “Black Irish.” Residents call the neighborhood “the County.” It’s a tight-knit community of Irish immigrant families with a rampant distrust of outsiders. Even though Detective Absalom “Abbie” Kearney grew up there and was adopted by the town’s legendary Detective John Kearney, with her “black Irish” hair, blue eyes, and Harvard degree, she’s treated as an outsider. It’s an uneasy homecoming when she returns to care for her ailing dad and investigate a series of torture killings that may be connected to a secret society with ties to the Irish Republican Army.
The first murder victim is discovered stuffed into a small crypt in a church, and the novel opens with this killing rendered from the victim’s viewpoint. Each new murder is gruesome in a different way, and Abbie becomes convinced that the killer is telling a personal story. But she hits a wall of silence when she questions relatives and friends of the victims, and soon it seems as if the killer is playing with her, leading her from one corpse to the next and dropping clues that cut frighteningly close to home.
Buffalo feels like downscale Detroit, its highway system “a network of veins laid across a dead heart.” The characters are just as vivid, especially Abbie, who is constantly being challenged to prove herself while trying to win the love of her adoptive father before he loses himself to Alzheimer’s.
Another kind of secret society, this one of mean girls, lurks behind a high school girl’s apparent suicide in Kimberly McCreight’s “Reconstructing Amelia.” Amelia, a brilliant student who identifies with Virginia Woolf and has read “To the Lighthouse” a half-dozen times, falls to her death from the tower of her Park Slope private school. Her mother, Kate, who is single and a successful but overworked attorney, is stunned with grief. Though she knows her daughter would never kill herself, the police quickly rule the death a suicide. It seems like a reprieve when Kate gets the text message, “Amelia didn’t jump.”
The story is driven by Kate’s need for answers. Piece by piece, the book reconstructs what happened. Amelia’s exchange of text messages with friends including the mysterious Ben, a series of nasty blogs cataloging the school gossip in the run-up to the death, and Amelia’s first-person account of the weeks preceding her death are interspersed in Kate’s journey to uncover the truth.
It took me awhile to get comfortable with this crazy-quilt narrative structure and zigzagging timeline, but eventually Amelia drew me in. She’s a believable teen, dealing with peer pressure and bullying while coming to terms with her own sexuality. Too bad the story torpedoes its credibility when Kate finds a police lieutenant who not only restarts the investigation but willingly takes Kate along with him. No amount of reconstruction would get me to swallow that.
RAGE AGAINST THE DYING
By Becky Masterman
Minotaur, 320 pp., 24.99
By Stephan Talty
Ballantine, 336 pp., $26
By Kimberly McCreight
Harper, 400 pp., $25.99Hallie Ephron’s is the author of “There Was an Old Woman” and “Never Tell a Lie.” Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.