Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley Jackson is brought back to life in a quietly disturbing tale worthy of its subject.


Author Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”; The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle) casts a long and chilling shadow. The psychological thriller Shirley, from Susan Scarf Merrell (A Member of the Family), follows in its namesake’s tradition.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in small-town Vermont while she wrote and he taught at Bennington College in the 1960s. In this book, Fred and Rose Nemser, Merrell’s inventions, are newlyweds and move into the Hyman-Jackson home when Fred becomes a graduate student and teaching assistant. Rose, our 19-year-old narrator, is pregnant, recently rescued from a childhood of poverty and family dysfunction by her new husband; she is staggered by Shirley’s big house, big family and art. Stan takes Fred under his wing, tutoring him in both their profession and in marriage. Shirley’s mentorship of the malleable Rose is more complex.

Rose wants to write about Shirley; she wants to replace Shirley’s children in their mother’s heart; she wants to be Shirley. In her devotion, she can’t help wondering about the phone calls that go unanswered every night, and the female student who went missing so many years ago (whom Shirley and Stan so emphatically did not know). Naturally, not all of Rose’s overtures are welcome.

An apt tribute to Shirley Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel recalls Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson’s fans are the clear winners here; Shirley, Stan, Fred and Rose may not be so lucky.

This review originally ran in the July 29, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 letters.

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.

This review originally ran in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 6 croissants.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A detective novel by the horror master in which a mass murderer torments a retired cop who fights back.

mr. mercedes

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens in a present-day depressed Midwestern metropolis, where retired detective Bill Hodges is haunted by the one who got away. It has been several years now, but he can still see the job fair, the long lines of unemployed people who’d waited overnight in the cold, the ghostly gray Mercedes accelerating through the crowd, the gristle and gore dripping from its fender as it drove off. Hodges is considering suicide when he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer.

Hodges is reinvigorated by a second chance at solving the cold case, with a few unlikely allies. The neighbor kid who mows Hodges’s lawn contributes computer skills and a surprisingly strong sounding board for new theories. The sister of the car’s original owner is both a delightful foil to the former cop’s depression and a potential love interest. Her niece brings the challenge of dealing with mental illness, but also a steely resolve, to this dubious crime-fighting team. While tracking Hodges’s efforts, Mr. Mercedes simultaneously follows the Mercedes Killer himself. He’s a loner who works two jobs, lives with his mother and attracts no attention, but harbors creepy inclinations worthy of Stephen King.

King’s fans will recognize his talents with suspense, finely drawn Americana and the horror of pure evil lurking in the everyday. His characters are as true-to-life and likeable as ever. As the improbable heroes and the Mercedes Killer rush toward a crashing finish, Mr. Mercedes is proof yet again that King can still terrify his readers without invoking the supernatural.

This review originally ran in the June 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 ice creams.

Maximum Shelf: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 27, 2014.

I am pilgrimA woman is found dead in a ratty New York City hotel. Despite the outward hallmarks of a “simple” murder–one motivated by rage, sex or money–it quickly becomes clear that this is an intelligent and carefully planned crime. The room is awash in sulfuric acid, and the victim has been stripped of her face, fingerprints and teeth. A powerful antiseptic has been used to destroy all DNA on the scene. Detectives link the crime to a borrowed library book about investigations, written by one of the world’s best professional investigators, a man who doesn’t officially exist. The author of that book happens to be present at the crime scene: he is the unnamed narrator of I Am Pilgrim, an intricately plotted thriller of global proportions, and the debut novel by screenwriter Terry Hayes.

Hayes has made an inspired choice in selecting an unnamed narrator to tell this story–information can be meted out methodically, with all the oblique references and foreshadowing one might expect from a secret agent. We learn from the man who eventually consents to the code name “Pilgrim” that he has a complicated past in many cities and countries around the world, including the small Turkish town of Bodrum, which is improbably linked to the murdered woman in New York City. When detectives learn that the hotel room in question had been occupied since the morning of September 11, 2001, more questions are raised–who checks in to a NYC hotel on that morning?–and international implications begin to be theorized. Pilgrim planned to be on hand at the scene only as a consultant, to assist his friend, NYPD homicide detective Ben Bradley. But perhaps he belongs there after all.

As it turns outs, the nameless murder victim in New York City is the least of Pilgrim’s concerns.

On the other side of the world, years ago, a young boy watched his father’s beheading at the hands of the Saudi Arabian government. That boy has grown up to become a mujahid and go to war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and has now taken on a false Lebanese identity while hatching a grand plan to take down the “far enemy,” the Western world as embodied by the United States. This unnamed man is nicknamed “the Saracen,” as our narrator is called Pilgrim, and the central plot of I Am Pilgrim is the buildup to their final standoff.

A retired chief of the most secret intelligence agency in the United States, Pilgrim is called in by the President himself after three bodies with various nationalities are found, scorched and disintegrating, in a grave of quicklime in a deserted village in the Afghani desert. The Saracen has been hard at work for decades. No crude airplane hijackings for him: the destruction of the Western world will require brilliance, finesse and absolutely thorough preparation. With his test run in the desert complete, he’s ready for the biggest scheme of all. And as good at his job as Pilgrim is, the Saracen is his match.

The coincidence of Pilgrim’s presence in the N.Y.C. hotel room will ease his transition back to full-time work on a seemingly unrelated assignment, and he reenters the underground world easily enough. Disguised as just another FBI agent, he’s sent to Turkey, ostensibly to investigate the suspicious death of a young American billionaire there. In reality, he’s hunting the Saracen. One of the many successes of I Am Pilgrim is that within 600-plus pages of mysteries within mysteries, a plethora of subplots all link together smoothly. In seeking the Saracen, Pilgrim hopes for no less than to save the world, but he is also concerned with his cover mysteries, including the death of the American billionaire in Turkey–despite local investigators having ruled it accidental, and having tried to close the case–and the murder of the still-anonymous woman in the shabby hotel in New York.

Within this elaborately plotted thriller of international espionage, Hayes inserts a charmingly detailed past and personal story for Pilgrim and his supporting characters, including Detective Ben Bradley and the U.S. director of national intelligence, who is nicknamed the Whisperer. (Hayes has a fondness for aliases.) Pilgrim’s childhood, Bradley’s heroism and modesty, and the Whisperer’s rise through the ranks of secret government agencies are realistic and enthralling. I Am Pilgrim not only circumnavigates the globe but also reveals an appreciation for and study of fine art, and references world history in building its background. In these ways, whimsy and realism are advanced in parallel by the rich context, strong characters and framing elements Hayes employs.

This debut novel is lengthy, but uses every line to full effect; the page count is necessary to pursue the involved and involving story Hayes has planned. Fully wrought characters and an ambitious, but impeccably designed plot are unfurled at a breakneck pace; the reader’s only problem will be finding time to race through I Am Pilgrim in as few sittings as possible.

Rating: 8 doses.

Come back for my interview with Hayes later this week!

Wolf by Mo Hayder

A truly petrifying home-invasion thriller filled with blood and unexpected twists.


Wolf, Mo Hayder’s (Birdman) seventh novel starring Detective Inspector Jack Caffery, may be her most terrifying yet. In the secluded hills of Somerset, England, Oliver Anchor-Ferrers recuperates from surgery with his wife, daughter and dog gathered around him. Their remote country home is mostly peaceful, but lies near the scene of a murder that rocked the family 14 years earlier and continues quietly to haunt them. Then a home invader imprisons the Anchor-Ferrers. The isolation of their estate works against them, and their family pet is their only hope of contact with the outside world.

Meanwhile, the gruff but likable detective continues to fight his own demons, chiefly the still-unsolved case of his brother, who disappeared when Jack was young. The trail has gone the worst kind of cold, with most of the principal players now dead. To find closure, he’ll have to work with the reticent and uncanny drifter known as the Walking Man, who seeks help of his own–he wants to find the owner of a lost dog that crossed his path. Accompanied by the runaway pup, hot on the trail of his own mystery, Jack closes in on the Anchor-Ferrers estate hidden in the woods.

A complexly plotted thriller, Wolf ranges widely over the arms industry, pedophilia rings, space technologies and more. Hayder repeatedly teases her readers with apparent answers to the puzzles she presents, but keeps them guessing. Intricate, intelligently constructed and featuring fully developed characters, Wolf is an absolutely chilling and disturbing read.

This review originally ran in the May 9, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 little dogs.

book beginnings on Friday: Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


This is a new novel about Shirley Jackson, styled after that author’s own creepy-crawly work. It begins:

“You have green eyes,” she said. I handed her my end of the fitted sheet and she tucked the corners deftly together, folded again to make a smooth square, her knob-knuckled fingers making quick work of a task I’d never had to do. Bed-making I knew too well, but, oh, the luxury of a second set of sheets!

“No,” I said. “My eyes are blue.”

How’s that for a spooky beginning? Coupled with that cover – good stuff!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mad and bad

The Mad and the Bad exemplifies “hard-boiled.” It is both spare and opulent, and very bloody and French.

Stiff-backed, glass in hand, he left through the side-door, and Julie hesitated for a moment before pouring herself a brandy which she downed, standing, in a single gulp, reminded of a time when, freezing cold at dawn, she would stand at a bar and wash down black coffee with four shots of calvados at the start of a day of wandering, tears, fatigue, and despair.

I am not always pleased by that many clauses (you know I prefer semicolons to commas!) but I like this lengthy sentence and its evocations. Freezing cold at dawn with black coffee and booze, tears and despair? It’s almost a cartoon of noir. Almost.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: That Night by Chevy Stevens

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 30, 2014.

that nightIn the small town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island in the late 1990s, Toni Murphy can’t wait to graduate from high school. Her parents are totally hassling her: they disapprove of her boyfriend, Ryan; her mom is controlling and angry; her father has become distant. A group of popular girls at school is determined to make her life miserable, and her too-perfect little sister, Nicole, has recently started hanging out with those very girls. Toni and Ryan intend to save a little money, get an apartment together and, eventually, leave town for good. Things are a bit rough at home, but they have a plan, and they are so close….

Then, one night, Nicole is killed. Toni and Ryan are convicted of her murder and sent to prison.

Nicole’s killer–or killers–not only took the life of their victim, but effectively Toni and Ryan’s as well, and the young love they shared: once out on parole they will never be allowed contact again. Toni and Nicole’s parents’ lives are ruined as well. Their mother holds onto her rage against her elder daughter, and their father’s indecision about whom to support ends up supporting no one.

Seventeen years later, Toni is being processed out of prison and into a halfway house when we meet her in the opening lines of That Night, the fourth novel by Chevy Stevens (Still Missing). She is frightened and unsure of how she’ll readjust to the outside world. It was so painful on the inside–being separated from Ryan and everything she knew–that the only way she could cope was to shut down. She stopped writing to Ryan in the men’s prison, asked her father to stop visiting and got into a lot of fights. Now that she’s out, her fellow parolees at the halfway house want to continue with violence, and Ryan wants to renew contact. He’s intent upon solving the crime they’ve been convicted of, but violating the parole conditions that forbid contact could land both of them back in prison; anyway, Toni feels the best way to move on is to put Nicole’s murder behind her. In returning to her hometown, however, she finds that no one else is ready to do that. Her mother is still furious, believing Toni killed her little sister; her father is still unsure whose side he’s on; it’s nearly impossible for an ex-con to get work, and even harder for her to keep it. And Toni’s high school nemeses, Shauna and her henchwomen, are still around, and still have a bone to pick. She makes just one friend: a rescue pit bull named Captain.

Slowly, Toni begins to settle in. Back in Campbell River, she goes to work at the Fish Shack, where she waited tables in high school–now they keep her (and her prison tattoos) hidden away in the kitchen. She lives with Captain on a small boat and checks in with her parole officer daily. Toni has now experienced severe bullying, incarceration and an egregious failure of the criminal justice system; at 34 years old, she’d like to just be left alone to put together whatever life she can. She doesn’t visit her parents, but she does see Ryan hanging around the marina where she lives. He’s pushing ahead in investigating Nicole’s death, against Toni’s advice, and he has his eyes on the girls who picked on her in high school–Shauna and her clique testified against Ryan and Toni at the trial, and Ryan wants to know why. What really happened that night? As Ryan’s investigations approach the truth, the events of 17 years ago feel very recent indeed; Toni may be in danger–and she may not be the only one.

That Night shifts back and forth between the events of 1996, when Toni’s teenaged world fell apart, and the present, with Toni newly released from prison and struggling to rebuild her life. Both are told in first person by Toni herself, although in two subtly different voices: that of the rebellious teen with short-term concerns and long-term dreams, and that of the ex-con whose hard-won and carefully constructed defense system is still brittle. This nonlinear style highlights Toni’s sense of confused and harried apprehension, of disruption. Flashbacks allow the reader to visit Toni behind bars, and these scenes, too, are evocative and disturbing.

Stevens matches the success of her previous novels with character-driven drama and a clear commitment to the particular nuances of her Vancouver Island setting. A strong sense of foreboding and a thoroughly compelling plot keeps her reader guessing, while a hint of romance broadens the appeal. Toni’s gritty, emotional, traumatized persona is both gripping and sympathetic. Foreshadowing and terrifying suspense are riveting in Stevens’s sure hands; readers will want to keep all the lights on as That Night moves into its final acceleration.

Rating: 6 dog walks.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Stevens!

Teaser Tuesdays: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mr. mercedes

A new Stephen King! HOORAY! I think it will be as excellent as I hope it will be.

Hodges eats this diet of full-color shit every weekday afternoon, sitting in the La-Z-Boy with his father’s gun – the one Dad carried as a beat cop – on the table beside him. He always picks it up a few times and looks into the barrel. Inspecting that round darkness.

He can really paint a scene in a few words, can’t he? I won’t say too much more; the book will be out in just a few weeks and I think I’ll be able to recommend it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

A disturbing thriller of missing children in a small English town, masquerading as a quiet tale about political red tape.

light shining in the forest

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) begins as an eccentric, dreamy tale of an ineffectual pencil-pusher and a family distraught over a missing child whose trail has gone cold. A forester named Geordie works alone on a clear-cut at the English-Scottish border and remembers his missing stepson. A smarmy, self-satisfied career bureaucrat named Norman revels in his latest assignment: in a new pilot program of the British government he is given the title of “Children’s Czar” to the North East region, along with a hefty salary and a fine office and nothing to do. He sits at his fancy desk sipping lattes and waits to receive a mission that never comes.

Geordie’s stepson has been missing for months; but when more children go missing in a sleepy town nearby, an ambitious young journalist wonders if a children’s czar might be just the one to show some concern. Despite Norman’s repeated protest that his job is “strategic, not operational,” he is eventually goaded into action. When the unlikely team of journalist and bureaucrat initiates an investigation into the missing children, Light Shining in the Forest begins to accelerate into a thriller of great suspense and intensity. What started as a story of a surreal forest and quiet distress becomes a terrifying view into the mind of a monster, with religious overtones and paranormal possibilities and a panicked journey into the heart of the forest. Torday delights in creepy details as he turns his created world on its head; readers will be tempted to stay up late to finish reading but will need to keep all the lights on.

This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 library books.

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