May Roundup

May Roundup

Like all the best thriller writers, John Sandford excels at plot, place and police procedure.

But his uncommon villains — such as the school board that votes unanimously to have a local reporter killed, the rich psychopath who murders while serving in the U.S. Senate, and the demure Southerner who doubles as an expert hitwoman — set him apart.

Clayton Deese is something special: a freelance enforcer who inflicts massive pain to injure or shoots to kill — and who dines on the dead.

He’s the subject of the chase in “Neon Prey” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $29, 400 pages), the 29th novel featuring Lucas Davenport, formerly of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and now a deputy U.S. marshal.

When Deese, who sometimes works for New Orleans lawyer-bail bondsman-loan shark Roger Smith, skips bail after being charged with a brutal assault, a massive graveyard is discovered in a swamp near his house. And some of the bodies show evidence of cannibalism.

When Davenport and his colleagues discover that Deese has a shady half-brother in Los Angeles, they head there, only to find that the sibling is the head of a home-invasion crew. An attempt to capture the cannibal fails, and the marshals travel to Las Vegas, where the carnage continues and the corpses pile up.

In addition to the Davenport series, Sandford is the sole author of 11 Virgil Flowers novels, four Kidd books and three stand-alones. With gritty plots, plausible characters and snarky humor, “Neon Prey” — like his entire canon — rocks.

But if you snack while reading, you’ll want to consider vegetarian or vegan options.

***

When Jean Harris, headmistress of a tony Virginia private school, fatally shot Dr. Herman Tarnower of Scarsdale Diet fame in 1980, Americans paid special attention, a common reaction when high-profile crimes involve the well-to-do.

Such murders also make for enticing fiction, and Liv Constantine’s “The Last Time I Saw You” (Harper, $26.99, 320 pages) offers satisfying entertainment.

Lily Michaels, a pillar of Baltimore society and a champion of good causes, seems to have the good life — until someone ends it by bashing her skull. Her widower, physician Harrison Michaels, is devastated, as is their daughter, surgeon Kate English.

But worse awaits Kate, as someone sends her messages, packages and warped nursery rhymes that promise that she’ll be the next to die.

Who killed Lily, and who is tormenting Kate? Her long-estranged friend Blaire Barrington, who reappears for Lily’s funeral? Kate’s husband, architect Simon English, who spends much time with his comely assistant? Someone in Kate’s social circle? Her daughter’s nanny?

Constantine, the pen name of a two-sister writing team, follow up their début, “The Last Mrs. Parrish,” with another stand-alone novel that successfully synthesizes whodunit and thriller.

Elevating the tension and providing transparent but easily missed clues, the sisters concoct a seamless story of lies, secrets, infidelity and the ghosts of the past, which lead readers to multiple suspicions before concluding with a double twist.

***

A college friend, asked about a first date the previous night, smiled sardonically and answered, “Pearl Harbor. A date which will live in infamy.”

Another first date concentrates the mind in Wendy Walker’s thriller “The Night Before” (St. Martin’s, $26.99, 320 pages).

After a bad breakup, Laura Lochner takes a leave of absence from her job as a financial analyst in Manhattan and moves back to her Connecticut hometown to live with her sister, Rosie Ferro; Rosie’s husband, Joe; and their toddler, Mason.

Looking for love in available places, she connects with Jonathan Fields via an internet match service and meets him for a date, encouraged by Rosie and driving her sister’s car.

But the next day, Laura’s failure to return frightens Rosie, who soon begins looking for her with help from Joe and a family friend. Along the way, Walker’s characters reveal disturbing information about Laura’s past, and readers begin to wonder who poses a danger.

Walker couples her intriguing storyline with an unusual time structure. Laura narrates the events on the night before her disappearance becomes evident, while Rosie is the focus of the search for her sister in real time. Adding to the narrative banquet are excerpts from Laura’s sessions with her therapist, all of which took place months before the date. And all three devices amplify the tension with which Walker infuses her novel.

With serial shocks, complete command of her characters and deft handling of an unusual framework, Walker triumphs in this creepy but compassionate thriller.

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Jay Strafford, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch editor and writer, now lives in Florida.

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