Nineteen-year-old Samantha Morpeth has reached the end of her tether in Christopher Brookmyre’s “The Last Hack.” Her mother is in prison on drug and gun charges, and Sam’s been left to fend for herself and her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down syndrome. Sam’s days consist of her wending her way between her school, Lilly’s school, and the spectacularly unhelpful welfare offices, all the while realizing that her dreams of going to university are vanishing in a giant puff of miserable smoke. Until, that is, someone starts blackmailing Sam online, and she transforms herself from victim to self-described “supervillain.”
But it’s when her path crosses that of the recently-disgraced-and-somewhat-vindicated Jack Parlabane, journalist, private investigator, and Brookmyre irregular, that things really hit the mystery-heist stratosphere. Part-“Mission: Impossible,’’ part-“Ocean’s Eleven,’’ part-“Die Hard,’’ part-“To Catch a Thief’’ — and containing winks to all four — “The Last Hack” delves into industrial espionage and hacking culture, demonstrates some seriously impressive social engineering at work, and fiercely embraces those old-fashioned qualities of loyalty and unconditional love.
A highly entertaining writer — his books have won awards for their comic as well their crime-fiction elements — Brookmyre is tenacious when it comes to exploring the most cynical aspects of his characters while peppering his writing with amusing and spot-on details. Whether he’s describing a party venue where the hors d’oeuvres are “so on-trend that the leftovers are likely to be binned in a few hours for being out of fashion rather than for any of the ingredients being past their use-by dates” or throwing around a wry joke about British “Apprentice” boss Alan Sugar, Brookmyre clearly relishes wordplay and one-liners as much as he enjoys crafting a finely-tuned thriller.
In “He Said/She Said’’ by Erin Kelly, Kit and Laura are in the throes of young love and attending an eclipse-based festival in Cornwall when they stumble upon an apparent crime in progress. Fifteen years later, the two are married, expecting twins and, following the earlier event and its traumatic aftermath, keeping their digital footprints scrupulously clean: They’ve changed their names and circled protective wagons around their family life, only raising their heads above the proverbial parapet when chasing their beloved eclipses across the globe.
As the book opens, Kit is off to the Faroe Islands for an eclipse while the very pregnant Laura is nesting at home, worried, as ever, that her husband’s journey might bring too much exposure. So, what are they so afraid of?
It’s a tribute to Kelly’s sleight of storytelling hand that the disclosures are incremental but relentless in their chilling effect. This is Kelly’s sixth psychological suspense novel — including the recent novelization of TV’s “Broadchurch” — and she’s already more than proved her mettle. Here, as in her other mind-blowing works, she concerns herself as much with her characters’ emotional baggage as with precise, engaging plotting and adrenaline-bursting twists.
Her ability to tack nimbly between timeframes gets nicely showcased as well, as we veer between the past and the present, learning more about what happened 15 years earlier and the impact of Kit and Laura’s own oddities and foibles. Just don’t get too complacent when reading Kelly: She’s always got extra cards up her sleeves.
Finally, a Zodiac-Killer-like psychopath is terrifyingly on the loose in Meg Gardiner’s “UNSUB.’’ Detective Caitlin Hendrix’s policeman father had investigated a serial murderer 20 years earlier, an unsuccessful pursuit that led to her dad’s breakdown and left one massive cold case on police books. Now it seems that history may be repeating itself as the Bay Area finds itself plagued by vicious and intricately-planned killings reminiscent of the earlier ones. In fact, Hendrix and her colleagues fear that the maniac previously known as the Prophet has returned: The grisly murders feature the Prophet’s sadistic signature, and whoever is carrying them out appears to have Hendrix, the daughter of the Prophet’s previous police nemesis, in the crosshairs.
“UNSUB’’ — law-enforcement shorthand for “unknown subject” — is an unnerving read, enhanced page after page by Gardiner’s language as well as by the killer’s penchant for arranging death tableaux that are both gory and creepily cerebral. From page one — “The black sky poured through the bedroom window. Shadows crawled along the ceiling” — Gardiner puts us firmly in Hendrix’s head and body; we are forced to breathe along, whether Hendrix’s nerves are “tuned to an ultrahigh frequency, adrenaline crackling through her like static . . . ” or she’s experiencing a core-deep queasiness, “down to her bones.” Gardiner’s heebie-jeebies-inducing thriller, which CBS is adapting as a television series, shimmers with Hitchcockian elements as well as old-school horror.
THE LAST HACK
By Christopher Brookmyre
Atlantic, 432 pp., $25
HE SAID/SHE SAID
By Erin Kelly
Minotaur, 400 pp., $25.99
By Meg Gardiner
Dutton, 384 pp., $26
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.