Doubleday, £20, pp320
Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is a phenomenon: 23m copies sold around the world. Her latest novel is better still: shocking, moving, full of heart – a deeply layered and intricately plotted thriller that explores how ordinary people can turn to murder. Opening with the discovery of a man’s body on a canal boat in London, Hawkins goes on to show how past trauma and heartbreak are woven deep into the lives of her three main characters: lonely Miriam, who lives on the canal boat next door, whose brutal experience as a teenager still casts a shadow over her life; Laura, a troubled young woman who was seen leaving the boat with blood on her clothes; and Carla, the murdered man’s aunt, whose life was derailed more than a decade earlier. Moving back and forth in time, Hawkins slowly reveals how these women are still dealing with experiences so traumatic, so tragic, that it is impossible to fully recover, building her story to a devastating conclusion. Laced with humour and packed with moments of sheer horror, A Slow Fire Burning shows a writer at the height of her powers.
Hodder & Stoughton, £20, pp448
When Stephen King is on form, there is no writer like him and it is clear from the moment Billy Summers ) opens that he is on song here. Billy is an Iraq vet, a sniper and assassin for hire, but he still thinks of himself as a good guy: he only takes a job if the target is a genuinely bad person. He’s approached to do one last assignment, one that will bring him a huge payout and dispatch an evil man. The catch is that he’ll have to embed himself in a small town called Midwood, posing as a writer, for the months before his target arrives. This is where King has always excelled, depicting the small kindnesses, cruelties and tensions that make up ordinary life. It’s a joy to watch Billy settling into his new identity – a reader, like Billy, almost forgets what he’s in Midwood to do. But as Billy takes on his author mantle for real, writing about the horror of his time in Fallujah, his worries about his approaching hit grow. “If noir is a genre, then ‘one last job’ is a subgenre. In those movies, the last job always goes bad. Billy isn’t a robber and he doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, but this last job thing nags at him just the same.” Billy knits together three stories – Billy in Midwood, Billy in Iraq and in a final, whirlwind section as he and an unexpected new companion set out for revenge.
Faber, £14.99, pp320
Stephen King looms large in the clever, claustrophobic, horror-tinged Dream Girl as well – or at least his novel of a trapped writer, Misery. The award-winning Lippman tells of the celebrated writer Gerry Anderson, who made his name and his fortune with his novel Dream Girl, but who finds himself trapped in a hospital bed in his Baltimore penthouse after a fall. With only his PA, Victoria, and night nurse, Aileen, for company, hazy from the drugs he’s taking to control the pain, Gerry is increasingly confused and frightened. Why is a woman calling him, claiming to be Aubrey, a character from Dream Girl? What does she want from him and why can no one else hear the calls? Gerry, who is pointedly reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, thinks back over his relationships with the women in his life. None of them could be threatening him – he’s always treated them well, hasn’t he? With a cameo appearance from Lippman’s detective, Tess Monaghan, this is smart and many faceted, a devastating implication of one man’s self-deception, and creepy as hell.
Orion, £20, pp448
This is the final part of Joanne Harris’s trilogy of crime novels, after Gentlemen and Players and Different Class, set in St Oswald’s school, featuring the elderly Latin master Roy Straitley. The boys’ grammar school has a female head, Rebecca Buckfast, for the first time in its history and has opened its doors to girls. That’s quite enough for Straitley to be dealing with, but then some of his favourite students discover a body in the school grounds on the first day of term. As Straitley, in his typically dry way, puts it: “The past two years have been hard for us all. Multiple scandals; a murdered boy; revenge, abuse and public disgrace… The last thing we need this year, of all years, is any more excitement.” When he brings his find to the new head, it turns out she has a story of her own to tell, one of a brother who vanished years ago and of murder and ambition. Moving between the perspectives of Straitley and Buckfast – “in his old black gown and his chalk-smudged suit, he looks like the last piece of dead skin left on a quickly healing wound” – she thinks of her new sparring partner. This is a worthy conclusion to an excellent series. Straitley and his wry, acerbic humour will be much missed. Ave atque vale.