Western North Carolina is known for its waterfalls, mountain views and inns strategically located to capture the tourist trade. Megan Miranda has set her clever new mystery, “The Last to Vanish,” in one such inn and the adjacent town, Cutter’s Pass. The Passage, as the inn is called because it’s a jumping-off point for the Appalachian Trail, draws not only adventure-lovers but also sleuths both professional and amateur. In the previous quarter-century, six visitors — a quartet of buddies remembered as The Fraternity Four and two singletons — have disappeared. The most recent goner, who gives the book its title, was an investigative journalist. The novel opens with the check-in of a guest who gives a pseudonym but is soon identified by inn manager Abby Lovett as the journalist’s brother, ready to do some detecting. Abby tells the story in an unorthodox way, covering the disappearances in reverse temporal order. The structure works well because Cutter’s Pass is rife with secrets — “This town [is] a vault,” Abby muses — all of which Miranda brings skillfully to light. “The Last to Vanish” is a well-wrought example of how important timing can be to a thriller. (Marysue Rucci Books/Scribner, July 26)
Allie Reynolds’s “The Swell” takes place at a quite different vacation spot: a coveted surfing beach in an Australian national park. Sorrow Bay is the beach’s name, and one of its sorriest features is the pair of corrupt wardens who, for a monthly bribe, let a small band of fanatics have the peerless waves all to themselves. The story is told mostly by a sports therapist named Kenna, originally from Cornwall, where she grew up surfing with her best friend Mikki, now a member of the group monopolizing Sorrow. “The Swell” opens with Kenna arriving at Sorrow to pay Mikki a surprise visit. Eyed warily at first, Kenna makes herself useful by nursing her new mates, on whom Sorrow’s waves take a fearsome physical toll. Away from the water, Mikki keeps time with handsome Jack — a relationship that gives rise to foreboding on Kenna’s part: Mikki comes from money, which may be her chief appeal to the perennially broke Jack. The book’s pervasive ominousness can be numbing, but the payoffs eventually come. By the end of “The Swell,” several characters have died violent deaths, and the reader has reason to believe more carnage is coming. (Putnam, July 19)
“My childhood friends were Agatha Christie and Stephen King,” says the eponymous narrator of “Daisy Darker.” The remark highlights the challenge taken on by Daisy’s creator, Alice Feeney: Follow the classic recipe for Christie’s “And Then There Were None”— isolated cast of characters, who get knocked off one by one until nobody is left — and reinvigorate the dish. Feeney sets her whodunit at a family reunion, where Daisy and six other Darkers, plus an honorary member of the clan gather at Seaglass, their crumbling house on a private island off the Cornish coast. The occasion is the 80th birthday of the matriarch, Nana, which happens to fall on Halloween. As the night wears on, one by one the celebrants are being knocked off, an especially harrowing trend because as Daisy explained at the outset, “When the tide comes in, we’ll be cut off from the rest of the world for eight hours.” Daisy’s narration darts back and forth between past and present while an already frightful night is made worse by a thunderstorm, and I forgot to mention that Nana collects clocks, 80 of which tick menacingly in the background. Feeney leavens her plot with humor — as in a flashback featuring Conor, the adjunct family member, who as a teenager livened up a birthday party at Seaglass with his “not-bad impression of Tom Cruise in Top Gun. He wore aviator sunglasses indoors even when it got dark, so was constantly bumping into things and people …” The most striking feature of “Daisy Darker,” however, is not its group dynamics or black comedy or its audacity. A surprise sprung in the final chapters may leave some readers feeling they’ve been had. To say that Feeney breaks the rules of mystery-writing would be an understatement. My own take on the unorthodoxy is this: “You’re getting away with it this time, Alice Feeney, but I wouldn’t try it again.” (Flatiron, Aug. 30)
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.