Who is the worst of the BAD SUMMER PEOPLE (Flatiron, 261 pp., $28.99) in Emma Rosenblum’s addictive thriller of manners set among the rich and socially anxious in Salcombe, a snooty village on New York’s Fire Island?
Is it Jason, who is married to Lauren but cheating on her with Jen, his best friend’s wife? What about the tennis pro, Robert, who consummates his affair with a married older woman against the racket restringing machine? Or Brian, a hedge fund guy prone to droning on about “how often he rode his Peloton”?
The book opens when Danny Leavitt, “a gangly 8-year-old with a severe peanut allergy,” comes across a body moldering in the sand as he rides his Schwinn bicycle down the boardwalk. “Great, now he’s going to be the ‘dead body’ kid — this is going to be the talk of Dalton,” says his mother, Jessica.
Who is it? Whodunit? Rosenblum snaps back to the beginning of the summer, where she lays out her rogues’ gallery of gossips, hypocrites, cheaters. She’s a keen observer of small, telling details. “As the summer went on, the women’s fillers and injectables wore off,” she writes. “By Labor Day, they all looked like an approximation of their real selves.”
This is a debut for Rosenblum, who spends her summers in Saltaire, clearly the inspiration for Salcombe. (Except for the part about the possible murder.) With so many objectionable characters, it’s anybody’s guess who will end up dead before the summer is over.
The many irresistible elements in Danielle Trussoni’s THE PUZZLE MASTER (Random House, 362 pp., $27) include Mike Brink, a preternaturally brilliant man billed as “the most talented puzzleist in the world.” There’s also an incarcerated woman convicted of the savage murder of her boyfriend — and unable, or unwilling, to utter a word. And there are enigmatic ancient writings and rituals that speak to the nature of God and existence itself.
Does any of this ring a bell? (Hello, “The Silent Patient” and “The Da Vinci Code,” for starters.) It’s a lot to take on, but Trussoni — who was until recently The Times’s horror fiction columnist — plunges headlong into a dizzying narrative that is part romantic quest, part erudite discussion of abstruse subjects and part bonkers adventure story.
It begins when Brink, whose head injury in a high school football game left him with “sudden acquired savant syndrome,” is summoned to a forbidding New York State prison by its head psychologist, Thessaly Moses. One of her patients, a troubled inmate who hasn’t spoken in five years, has produced a mysterious puzzle and scrawled Brink’s name on the back.
“There’s something strange going on here,” Moses tells Brink. “Something I can’t explain.”
She’s not the only one mystified by things outside her understanding.
Kidnapping, car chasing, gunfire, a dachshund named Conundrum, deep forays into the history of porcelain, the death of a famous French doll maker and ancient kabbalist beliefs about how the “movement from pure energy to the material plane happens through words” — the elements accrue at a head-spinning rate. Trussoni has a tendency to mix compelling ideas with rapid-fire plot developments that strain the forbearance of even the most forgiving reader.
Brink is the best thing about the book. When he carves the peel of an apple into “a perfect Archimedean spiral,” finding a “sense of order and well-being” in “the ever-growing distance of the peel from the core,” you can’t help applauding.
Four days after Lars Oback, the man Delilah Walker loved and lost in college, leaves her an enigmatic voice mail message (“You were right; I’m sorry”), she discovers that he is dead, shot in an apparent hunting accident.
Amy Suiter Clarke’s cautionary tale about small-town religious extremism, LAY YOUR BODY DOWN (Morrow, 345 pp., $30), brings Delilah — now in her late 20s and known as Del — back to Bower, Minn., the town she thought she had left for good. Bower is more or less run by Messiah Church, whose credo dictates that women “are created to serve, to be pure, to submit, to be a delight to their husbands.” (These poor creatures are known as Noble Wives, and their philosophy is disseminated to the public by Eve, the woman Lars dumped Del to marry, in a popular blog titled “Noble Wife Journey.”)
Estranged from her parents and from the church since she ran afoul of it as a teenager, Del decides to look into Lars’s death herself. She makes for an inept detective, especially when she opens her investigation by publicly accusing Eve of having an affair and conspiring with her lover to kill Lars. But as we learn, piece by piece, the terrible thing the church did to her, we can forgive Del some of her impulsive self-destructiveness.
Using excerpts from Del’s old diaries and from unpublished entries in Eve’s blog, Suiter Clarke paints a devastating portrait of a cultlike institution and a town in its thrall. It’s even worse than we imagined.