The disappearance of a child is every parent's worst nightmare, but what if the child disappears to escape from a nightmare? Opening in Baltimore in the present day, but largely set in Australia in the early 1990s, Felicity McLean's accomplished debut The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone (Point Blank, £8.99) is narrated by 12-year-old Tikka Malloy, who lives across the street from the Van Apfel girls.
The story begins with distressed 13-year-old Cordelia “Cordie” Van Apfel emerging from the Outback into the Sydney suburb from which she disappeared the week previously – but where has Cordie been? And where are her sisters, Ruth and Hannah? Curious and creative, Tikka blunders through the story as our perceptive but innocent guide as she leads us through a suburban labyrinth in which a cruel monster hides in plain sight. It’s a stunning piece of literary ventriloquism from McLean, who gives Tikka an offbeat but wholly believable voice (“Cordie kept strange, private things curled up in her carelessness”) as she delivers a child’s-eye view of domestic horrors reminiscent of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything (2010).
Set on a semi-tropical island off the coast of South Carolina, Rebecca Kauffman's The House of Fripp Island (Serpent's Tail, £12.99) opens with a prologue narrated by a character "watching from behind the screen that separates the living from the dead". The events of the novel take place 20 years previously, when two families – one wealthy, one blue-collar – share a vacation home: Lisa and Poppy were childhood friends who have always stayed in touch, even though their lives diverged sharply once they left school.
The identity of the murder victim is revealed in the final chapters, although Kauffman’s third novel is less concerned with the who and why of the conventional crime novel than it is with the minutiae of inter-family dynamics when a belated reunion gives rise to comparisons, resentments and frictions. As beautifully detailed in its tiny jealousies and betrayals as it is in its descriptions of Fripp Island’s lush flora, Kauffman’s follow-up to The Gunners (2018) is an absorbing read.
Set in Cape Haven on the Californian coast, Chris Whitaker's We Begin at the End (Zaffre, £11.99) centres on two characters: Chief Walker, the cop who keeps an eye on a town where nothing exciting ever happens, and the self-styled outlaw Duchess Radley, the 13-year-old daughter of Walker's old friend Star, who is forced by her mother's alcoholism to care for her six-year-old brother Robin.
When Vincent King is released from prison after serving a sentence for the murder of Star’s sister Sissy some decades previously, the scene is set for a contemporary Western noir, albeit one complicated by the fact that Vincent is Star’s childhood sweetheart and Chief Walker’s best friend. Whitaker’s third novel is written in an arrhythmic and abrupt style that smartly captures the stops and starts of a life punctuated by tragedy, and he’s excellent at fleshing out the complexities of messy relationships in a novel where the heroes and villains are at times interchangeable.
The 13-year-old Duchess is a little too precocious to be truly believable, especially when she begins waxing philosophical about the nature of good and evil, but otherwise We Begin at the End is a sprawling epic of betrayal, faith and misguided loyalty.
Michelle Dunne's While Nobody is Watching (Bad Press Ink, £7.99) opens as a paranoid thriller in the classic mould, with Cork-based youth worker Lindsey Ryan receiving anonymous threatening messages that include a funeral wreath left hanging on her front door. Are the messages a prank, or do they represent something more sinister?
Lindsey, ex-Irish Army and suffering from PTSD ever since the fateful day when she failed to prevent an IED from exploding in the Golan Heights, isn’t in the best possible frame of mind to distinguish between twisted practical jokes and meaningful threats; by the same token, Lindsey has never been a woman to back away from a fight.
Set against a backdrop of Cork’s less salubrious back streets, and populated by a colourful cast of addicts, prostitutes, young offenders and former soldiers, While Nobody is Watching is a fast-paced thriller with a flawed but dynamic heroine at its heart. There’s a red herring too many in the story’s middle third, and quite a few ostensibly hardboiled characters who belatedly reveal hearts of gold, but Ryan herself is a gripping character as she battles her invisible enemies, the most vicious of which is the guilt which makes her life a living hell.
There's a valedictorian quality to the title of Scott Turow's The Last Trial (Mantle, £12.99) which is quickly confirmed in the novel's prologue, where we discover the octogenarian defence lawyer Sandy Stern – who featured in Turow's debut, Presumed Innocent (1987) – collapsing in court and left "motionless on the table, like a Spartan on his shield, stark and horrifying".
Living with cancer, Sandy has agreed to defend the Nobel Prize-winner Kiril Pafko against charges of fraud, insider trading and murder brought when Kiril is accused of knowing that his new wonder-drug was killing cancer patients undergoing experimental trials.
That Kiril Pafko is not entirely innocent will come as no surprise to Scott Turow’s fans, especially as Sandy himself regards Kiril as something of a flake, but while the plot is as forensically detailed as always in terms of its courtroom drama, the greater fascination for fans of the courtroom thriller may lie in Sandy’s appraisal of his life’s work as he tries to decide if his professional dedication was worth the personal sacrifices he has made: “So again, Sandy Stern confronts a fundamental truth of his existence: The law is humanity’s sanctuary, where we retreat from unreason.”
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His latest novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)