Not everyone is having a great summer in the Hamptons. Or so it seems in three new novels set on the East End.
Corey Halpern, the recent Southampton High School grad who centers Jason Allen’s debut thriller, “The East End” (Park Row Books, 304 pp., $26.99), may have pranked once too often. This likable but troubled kid from a blue-collar family taunts the super-rich summer visitors he disdains by sneaking into their mansions and pulling stunts like dumping salt into their milk.
His latest sortie, though, may ruin more than a bowl of cereal. Prowling a lakeside mansion, Corey spies on billionaire owner Leo Sheffield, poolside with a suicidal boyfriend 30 years his junior. Anguished that closeted Leo won’t openly declare his love, the boyfriend “snorts coke as if in a solo competition for the most fiendish dope fiend of all time.” He loses his balance, topples into a swimming pool and drowns.
While a wife with “the forceful personality of a rooster” heads out from Manhattan, Leo desperately needs to bury the corpse and the case. Corey, meanwhile, decides to extort a million from Leo in return for his silence. The stash will spring Corey from Southampton and set him off to college.
Corey heads a slate of desperate characters. His mother, a maid at Leo’s estate, is hooked on klonopin and cheap red wine. She’s menaced by a physically abusive husband who’s trying to cut debts by peddling pills. And the father of Corey’s girlfriend has been in prison since she was 12.
The book jacket bio says author Allen “grew up in a working-class home in the Hamptons, where he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs for wealthy estate owners.” Clearly he knows whereof he writes so well in “The East End.” The book resonates with Allen’s empathetic, affecting look at the struggles of some yearlong residents of the Hamptons — the ones who don’t make the Styles section of The New York Times.
As Jamie Brenner’s amiable if predictable “Drawing Home” (Little, Brown; 358 pp., $28) opens, Henry Wyatt, 83, a successful minimalist painter and longtime resident of Sag Harbor, drops dead in the bar of the American Hotel. Thirty years earlier, Wyatt had moved from Manhattan to the village, where he built on Actors Colony Road a “house called Windsong [that] sat like the jewel in a crown.”
Wyatt’s will stuns his survivors. He bequeathed his cottage and his paintings, worth millions, to 14-year-old Penny Mapson, a budding artist he’d mentored. In Manhattan. Art patron Bea Winstead simmers. A diva you love to hate, Winstead worked with Wyatt to build his career; she’s convinced he meant to leave his estate to her. She charges out to Sag Harbor to challenge the will, leading to a face-off with Penny’s mother.
As their battle plays out by the village’s familiar landmarks — the boat dock, the Whaling Museum, the American Hotel — Sag Harbor emerges as a revered, venerable character. Waiting for the jitney to Manhattan, Penny watches passengers “stand right in front of the burned-out pit [of the Sag Harbor Theater, victim of a fire] and just check their phones, not giving it a second glance. … People who lived in town knew exactly what was missing.”
“The Better Sister” (Harper, 311 pp., $26.99), Alafair Burke’s observant thriller, kicks in when U.S. attorney Adam Macintosh is stabbed to death in his East Hampton beach house. Was the motive robbery? Or did someone or some group want him dead? Or was he murdered by his 16-year-old son, Ethan, with whom he’d had a turbulent relationship?
The plot focuses on these questions, but “The Better Sister” is more than a standard-issue whodunit. The underlying mystery becomes the mystery of character. In crisis, Burke’s men and women pivot in startling ways.
Chloe Ann Taylor, Macintosh’s widow, gained renown by writing a series of articles about rank-and-file women who had suffered sexual abuse — “the women who worked in factories and on sales floors … waitresses and bartenders.”
She also appears to be a valiant stepmother who rescued Ethan from his abusive, alcoholic mother, Nicky, Adam’s first wife and Chloe’s sister. But when Ethan is jailed to await trial for murdering Adam, Nicky turns sensitive and compassionate while Chloe, it turns out, is compromised. Who, indeed, is the better sister?
Burke, a professor at Hofstra University School of Law, caps her story with a keenly detailed trial taut with suspense. The case spins with reversals — it isn’t over even when it’s over.