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The best recent thrillers – review roundup | Books

The Australian newspaper dubbed it “sunburnt noir” or “Southern Cross crime” back in July – a tentative label for the swell of excellent crime writing coming out of Australia these days, by authors such as Jane Harper and Emma Viskic.

Chris Hammer’s extremely accomplished debut novel, Scrublands (Wildfire), adds another voice to the trend. Set in the blistering heat of a remote Australian town ravaged by drought and threatened by bushfires, this is a complex, meaty, intelligent mystery.

Martin Scarsden is a journalist with PTSD who is sent by his editor to Riversend (population 800). A year earlier, the town’s charismatic young priest inexplicably shot dead five members of his congregation, before he was killed himself. Martin is writing a “one year on” piece, but soon finds himself drawn into the mystery of why Byron Swift summarily executed these five men in this town as “hot as Hades”.

Hammer’s writing is so evocative the heat practically rises off the pages of Scrublands; a scene where the town’s men fight a bushfire is brought to life in terrifying style. He gives his story deliciously noirish overtones, from the gorgeous bookseller with “troubled green eyes” named Mandalay Blonde (“Everyone calls me Mandy”), to the gloriously named local drunk, Harley Snouch, and the Black Dog Motel. Plagued by nightmares and insomnia, “somehow, in this dried-out town, [Martin] can feel his blood beginning to course once again”.

From devastating heat to snow: in Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party (Harper Collins) a group of old friends from university travel to an exclusive lodge in the remote Scottish Highlands for New Year. We know from the start that this reunion isn’t going to go well. By 2 January, a body has been found and a huge snowstorm means the party can’t leave the property. Foley goes on to carefully, slyly circle the truth, moving her narrative back and forth between the discovery of the murder and the friends’ arrival in the lodge. They might have known each other for years, but “even as they laughed and jostled and teased one another, I could sense something underneath it – something off”, the lodge’s manager, Heather, tells us.

Moving between characters – the attractive one; the successful plain one; the newcomer to the group – it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot these old friends are hiding from each other.

Foley excels at the small details that make up a person. Beautiful, vain, life-and-soul-of-the-party Miranda is skewered by her best friend Katie, who reveals her as someone who will turn up with a fake tan and “say something like, ‘Oh yes, I spent a lot of time in the sun recently – I tan so easily’ and abruptly change the subject”.

Foley builds the tension cleverly and creepily, underlining the point that old friends aren’t always the best. “I look around at the others. They’re all grinning, but their faces, in the light thrown from the Lodge, look strange, spectral, and their smiles look like snarls,” says Miranda.

Lizzy Barber’s debut My Name Is Anna (Cornerstone) is one of those thrillers in which it is almost impossible not to flick ahead: it’s the story of a little girl who was kidnapped in Florida as a toddler. Fifteen years later, the story flits between her point of view – now the daughter of a Carrie-style religious mother, unable to stop dreaming of a name that isn’t hers – and that of her younger sister, trying to live a normal teenage life in London while a media circus continues to hound her family, and her mother obsesses over her whereabouts, “smothering me with all the excess love she has, enough for three of us, not two”.

Sometimes Barber’s notes of doom are a little overwritten – even tulips have “tight-lipped petals on the verge of spilling their secrets” – but for me, this was a genuine gallop to the denouement.

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