My teenage daughter looked at a trio of psychological thrillers on my desk and asked, Which is the scariest? The answer depends on how you like to be scared. One is a bleak, violent chiller; one is ripped from the headlines and psychologically acute; one is so creepy you want to take a shower after reading it.
“The Crooked House” by Christobel Kent (FSG, $26), from Great Britain, is the horror movie of the bunch. It opens with a hair-raising scene in the bedroom of a 14-year-old girl. “When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. . . . It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.” Esme is about to be the only person spared in the shooting of her family — her mum, her dad, her brother, her young twin sisters.
In the next chapter, it is 13 years later. Sent away, raised by a relative, she has changed her name to Alison and severed all connection to her past. Now a clerk at a publishing house in London, she has never again set foot in the “poxy little dump” of a town where the tragedy occurred. But her new boyfriend insists that she accompany him to the wedding of friend there.
Anxiously returning to the scene of the unsolved crime, she confronts people who know perfectly well who she is, people who have secrets to keep. If the unfolding situation involves too many of those people and those secrets, Kent’s muted narration and indelible imagery keep the panic level high: “A fold of bloodstained nylon. A mouth half open, the gleam of baby teeth. An arm flung out, torn.” Very hard to put out of your mind.
Also from Britain, Fiona Barton’s “The Widow” (New American Library, $26) looks into the abduction of a 2-year-old girl using the back-and-forth narrative perspective that worked so well in “Gone Girl” and A.S.A. Harrison’s “The Silent Wife.” Here there are three angles.
One is that of Jean Taylor, a beautician whose husband was accused and acquitted on a technicality for the disappearance of baby Bella two years earlier. Now that Glen Taylor has been struck and killed by a bus, the press has returned in droves to see if Jean is ready to talk.
The other angles on the story are that of the journalist and the detective who investigated the original case, both still obsessed with it. The newspaperwoman has made her reputation as a crack interviewer. As she puts it, “When you’re talking to real people — people without an ego or something to sell — it can be complete exposure of one person to another, an intense intimacy that excludes everyone and everything else.” Jean doesn’t see it quite that way. “Makes me feel I’m chatting to a friend. That she’s just like me. Clever really, but maybe it’s what she does every time she does an interview.” Though much of the mystery is given up early on, the dance between the characters is so interesting that you keep reading to learn how they reveal themselves to one another.
“The Winter Girl” (Doubleday, $24.95) by Matt Marinovich is American, and the nastiest of the bunch, unpacking the secrets and proclivities of one very, very dysfunctional family. Naturally, you don’t see it at first — Scott and Elise seem like a normal Brooklyn couple, a photographer and a speech therapist, both currently unemployed. They’re staying at her father’s house in Shinnecock Hills while he succumbs to terminal illness in a hospital. “That’s the terrible thing about watching a parent die,” Scott says of his failing father-in-law. “One day they look like they’re ready to check out, and the next doctors might be talking about a five-year-plan.” Scott’s narrative voice is the strength of the book, with his ironic asides and sharp comments on his marriage. Since he hates Elise’s father — and believe me, you will, too — he doesn’t get involved in the caretaking; instead he becomes fascinated with the deserted house next door. Not so deserted after all, it turns out. As this complicated plot of abuse and violence unfurls, the psychological realism falters, though the portrait of the Hamptons in winter remains icily clear. This one I wouldn’t want my teenage daughter reading.
Matt Marinovich will read from “The Winter Girl,” Feb. 27 at 4 p.m. at Southampton Books, 16 Hampton Rd., Southampton; 631-283-0270, southampton-books.com