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These Two Thriller Novels Breathe New Life Into An Old Plot

Two buzzy new books from Peter Swanson and Gilly Macmillan lean heavily on Agatha Christie and other mystery cliches with varying degrees of success.

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Since “Gone Girl” opened the genre’s floodgates wide a decade ago, thousands of “twisty” domestic thrillers have risen and sunk in the public consciousness, sporting hyped-up blurbs promising a “blindingly original” plot with a “killer twist.” Readers have braved a surfeit of unreliable narrators, hair-pin misdirections, and shock endings, some of which prove flat-out insane.

Two new psychological thrillers, “The Long Weekend” by British author Gilly Macmillan and “Nine Lives” by American writer Peter Swanson, may not impress themselves into the popular psyche like “Gone Girl” did, though one is both entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful in its own fatalistic fashion, while the other lays on the frenetic emotionalism but fails to transcend the essential absurdity of the genre.

Coincidentally, the action in each novel is launched by a disturbing letter, and the resulting mayhem is driven by the twisted logic of poisoned love. But beyond those superficial similarities, the two thrillers operate on very different levels.

In “Nine Lives,” nine strangers scattered across the U.S. receive the exact same disconcerting letter in the mail, a single sheet of paper containing a typed list of nine names, including their own. Some fret about the letter, some toss it and forget it. When one person on the list is murdered, it could be a coincidence. But when another is killed…

The action occurs in spots from Los Angeles to Maine and seems primed to unfold as a series of local police procedurals. The author evades that tangle by keeping the cops mostly sidelined, save for one Agatha Christie fan, a police detective working the sight of the first murder, a resort town in Maine. The focus stays on the domestic drama and the deaths, which are all the more frightening for being staged with, shall we say, unusual decorum.

Among the potential victims is an FBI agent, a psychotic actor, a trophy girlfriend, an aspiring country songwriter, a repressed English professor, and a retired businessman-author. As the body count mounts, the remaining targets on the list are put on alert by FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who is on the list herself. Were the names chosen at random, or is there something that links these nine people, which makes them each a target of the unknown killer? If there is a link, can it be uncovered in time to catch the killer and save lives?

This is Swanson’s eighth novel, and he knows his way around the thriller genre. The writing is streamlined without being slick, and he even sneaks in some heart, giving his creations room to breathe (at least until they die in a macabre fashion). Even a hitman is humanized — one of several points where you may think you know where the story is headed.

Swanson gleefully upends expectations of who is getting out of the story alive. He opens files on characters and closes them with merciless rapidity. The book has a series of kidney punches that keep one breathless when yet another relatable plucky character who surely has the spunk to make it to the end — doesn’t. “Nine Lives” has a wide streak of fatalism, with one character bluntly observing “death is coming for us all.”

Swanson is a huge Christie fan, and the book includes many — perhaps too many — references to her masterpiece “And Then There Were None.” In fact, “Nine Lives” actually functions as a spoiler. So read Christie first, if you haven’t.

Besides expertly handling multiple points of view, Swanson gets away with the contorted psychological motivations for the killings. The inevitable “unreliable narrator” effect is strained but doesn’t feel ludicrous. Only the final scene feels extraneous, blunting the brute force of what has preceded. Or is it also a Christie homage?

Gilly Macmillan’s “The Long Weekend” has all the necessary attributes of a successful thriller: paranoia, secrets, a crew of neurotics, and an isolated, forbidding setting. That setting is the novel’s greatest strength: Dark Fell Barn, the remote retreat in the North of England where the “long weekend” unfurls.

But the married couples’ weekend — with Mark and Jayne (former intelligence operatives), Paul and Emily (restaurateur, “trophy” wife), and Toby and Ruth (college professor, doctor) — is off to a sour start, as none of the three husbands can make it to Dark Fell, and the women can’t get updates because phone service is unreliable.

But an even darker shadow hangs over the festivities, in the form of an absent fourth couple. Edie is the embittered widow of Rob, who died by drowning months before. Edie’s feelings are clearly hurt by the others meeting up again so soon. But could Edie, a known prankster and grudge holder, actually be disturbed enough to have sent them the gift that awaits them upon arrival — the classy champagne with a note attached, signed “E,” that ends: “By the time you read this, I’ll have killed one of your husbands”?

The husbands all knew each other from school, making the three wives interlopers, linked together by happenstance, not personal friendship, who have to make the best of it for at least one night on their own, not certain if their husbands are still alive.

That dynamic heightens the tension, anxieties further goosed by a titanic storm that separates the protagonists at critical times. A dementia-suffering host who sees odd things, real or imagined, heightens the menace at Dark Fell Barn, which feels suitably dank and forbidding. Unfortunately, Macmillan sometimes gilds that particular lily with ham-handed descriptions: “There’s something unyielding about it. Stubborn and cold. She shudders.”

The wives have problems of their own. Ruth has taken to heavy drinking since having a baby, and husband Toby refuses to bond with the child. Jayne is bringing a gun and an unhealthy interest in the farm’s Neolithic burial chambers. Insecure Emily is wandering about in the storm to no clear purpose. Character flaws emerge under the anxieties and pressures wrought by the threatening letter and the isolation. (And don’t forget the gun.)

Meanwhile, off-stage, a confident, unidentified antagonist has set in motion their own plans for the killer weekend, including a storage locker and a deep freezer. But who will end up doing what to whom?

Macmillan writes in the honorable women-in-distress tradition of Ruth Ware and maintains a nervous tension throughout, enhanced by her use of the present tense. But the intensity can become wearying after a while. She is good at rendering fraught relationships. In fact, the tormented but loving marriage of the financially struggling barn owners ends up more compelling than the jittery interaction of the women guests.

She writes closely observed details on how stressful situations would actually play out in the real world. There’s a nicely devastating irony at the end, when news expected to bring relief instead leads to exposing a delusion.

But although all the standard domestic thriller parts are here, somehow they don’t cohere. It’s a couple of shades too melodramatic. The characters are collections of woes and anxieties with not enough room to live. Ironically, it’s “Nine Lives,” the novel with the crazier synopsis, that renders its character more believably.

Swanson also uses his chapter headings in “Nine Lives” to build up suspense, as the list of potential victims is narrowed. In contrast, Macmillan’s “The Long Weekend” has no chapters, and sometimes one has to figure out whose head we’re in from paragraph to paragraph. Macmillan keeps things frenetic; Swanson’s tale unfolds with a taut sense of fatalism.

In sum: “Nine Lives” is a surprisingly thoughtful killing spree, while “The Lost Weekend” is a disappointment whose chaotic tone perversely makes it feel derivative.

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