Surprise is one of the great pleasures of reading a good crime novel, so it’s always a challenge to review one without spoiling the fun. It’s particularly difficult to review “A Tap on the Window” by Linwood Barclay because the surprises start in the opening pages and don’t let up until 500-plus pages later when the novel ends.
Chapter one opens on a dismal, rainy night in front of a bar in a suburb of Buffalo: “A middle-aged guy would have to be a total fool to pick up a teenage girl standing outside a bar with her thumb sticking out.” Familiar territory, right? Creepy guy, desperate girl. Or maybe clueless guy, larcenous girl? Cal Weaver is determined not to pick up this girl when she taps on his car window and says just about the only thing that would get Cal, a former cop/private detective, to give her a lift.
The plot twists as the story shifts and morphs and one bad decision leads to the next for a man whose life is already mired in a lifetime of bad decisions and the attendant guilt. Cal’s son threw himself off a roof two months earlier and Cal and his wife, Donna, are like ghosts who pass silently by each other in the same house. Cal is obsessed with finding out who sold his son the drugs that made him think he could fly, and Donna obsessively draws portraits of her dead son, never quite getting it right.
I’m a sucker for rich stories about fathers and sons, for family drama mixed with solid detective work, and this novel has it all. One caveat: Do not read the jacket copy before you start. You won’t want to spoil even one of the surprises.
When I saw the title of Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s “The Boy Who Could See Demons” I immediately thought of the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense” with its boy who sees dead people. The comparison turns out to be apt. Both are stories about a boy and his psychotherapist, and in both the psychotherapist’s secrets turn out to be even more extraordinary than the boy’s.
The psychotherapist in the novel is Dr. Anya Molokova, a rising star who believes childhood schizophrenia should be aggressively diagnosed and treated. The boy, whom we know through his diary entries, is 10-year-old Alex Connolly. Right away he tells us, “People look at me funny when I tell them I have a demon.” His demon’s name is Ruen, and Alex has been seeing him since he was 5. Ruen appears in various guises — an old man, a ghost boy, a monster with a red horn — and tells Alex things that the boy couldn’t possibly know on his own. Ruen insists he’s Alex’s friend but, as we soon learn, he wants Alex to kill someone.
Anya’s growing attachment to the boy and her determination to have him hospitalized while his mother recovers from her latest suicide attempt worries her colleagues at MacNeice House, a child and adolescent treatment center in Belfast, Northern Ireland. None of them realizes how profoundly she is troubled, too, by the anniversary of her daughter’s suicide and her mother’s long battle with mental illness.
The characters in this suspenseful page-turner are sympathetically drawn, and the twist ending is a corker.
Annamaria Alfieri sets “Blood Tango” in Buenos Aires in the spring of 1945 at one of history’s great turning points. “Turmoil had stalked the nation for over two years. . . . chaos prowled ever nearer” after the country’s most powerful and feared leader, Colonel Juan Perón, is removed from office. As his future hangs in the balance, his mistress, Evita Duarte, a hyperbolic “tiny sylph of a woman” with her “rage against injustice and hunger for fame,” comes into her own.
During a tumultuous farewell rally for Perón, a young seamstress, who is wearing a dress that Evita gave her and who has styled herself to resemble her idol, is stabbed to death. The story shifts to police detective Roberto Leary. He wonders if the killer mistook the seamstress for Evita, or if she was stalked and killed by her brutal father or abusive husband, from whom she had been hiding.
Leary faces a formidable challenge as the murder investigation inevitably gets embroiled in the political upheaval with its larger-than-life personalties. His judgment becomes clouded when a memorable, passionate tango dance ignites his lust.
This ambitious novel doesn’t romanticize its historical figures. As Evita might have wanted, the common people are its stars.
THE BOY WHO COULD
By Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Delacorte, 288 pp., $26
By Annamaria Alfieri
Minotaur, 272 pp., $25.99