Was She Murdered? Kidnapped? Or Did She Fake Her Own Disappearance?

This month’s books all feature women making bad decisions — about themselves, about other people and about how to confront the threats swirling around them. Each is unwise in her own interesting way.

Let’s begin with Detective Elise Sutton, the forensics expert thrust into a bewildering crisis in Wendy Walker’s WHAT REMAINS (Blackstone, 293 pp., $27.99). Shopping for towels at a local megastore, Elise is startled by a shooter firing into the crowd. Her response is contrary to her nature.

“I am suddenly aware that, after 12 years in the department, this is the first time I have drawn my weapon in the outside world,” she thinks. And then, just as the gunman points his weapon at a bystander, she shoots him dead.

Elise’s life depends on rationality, on routine, on thinking through her problems. Being a killer as well as a hero doesn’t do much for her off-the-charts anxiety or her tendency to perseverate, especially when the mysterious bystander slips quietly from the scene before the cops can question him. Was he really blameless victim, or is the story more complicated? No sooner does he surface than he disappears again and begins, with chilling psychological acuity, to stalk and terrorize Elise.

Walker intersperses Elise’s account of her descent into desperate counter-tactics with a separate tale: an investigation into human remains found in a hunter’s shelter in the woods not far away. Though those sections feel less resonant than Elise’s story, part of the fun is figuring out how everything ties together in the end.

Decades after leaving her hometown in the wake of a tragedy, a woman returns to find that the mysteries of the past are determined to reassert themselves in the present. We’ve heard this tale before, but Polly Stewart buoys THE GOOD ONES (Harper, 304 pp., $30) with finely drawn characters who harbor a pleasing passel of secrets.

The woman, an out-of-work professor named Nicola Bennett, has reluctantly returned to her Appalachian hometown to tie up loose ends after her mother dies. Twenty years earlier, Nicola’s best friend, Lauren Ballard, vanished there, leaving behind her husband, young daughter and a few clues — “broken glass, a trace of blood on a wet washcloth, tire tracks in the grass.”

Was she murdered? Was she kidnapped? Did she fake her own disappearance? Lauren had once appeared to be the town golden girl, but her glittery blond surface concealed a mean side and a faithless streak. “The last time I saw Lauren,” Nicola recalls, “she was scraping a key along the side of a new cherry-red Chevy Silverado.”

Nicola decides to stay in town to sort through the emotional debris of the past two decades and to see if she can find out what happened to her friend. Perhaps sleeping with Lauren’s husband and flirting with his brother — her boss at her new job — aren’t the smartest investigative techniques, but Nicola has her own troubled past to contend with.

The ending won’t be for everyone, but the question it addresses is as urgent as ever. Will these people ever find some peace?

“There are traces of her everywhere,” says Tess, the depressed, guilt-ridden narrator of THE GUEST ROOM (Holt, 368 pp., $28.99), speaking of her dead sister, Rosie. As Tasha Sylva’s creepily claustrophobic novel begins, Tess is lurking at Hampstead Heath in London in the middle of the night, hoping that the person who murdered Rosie in this very spot will somehow return to the scene.

This is probably the most rational thing that Tess does in the book. Examples of her other behavior: sending a barrage of deranged and accusatory texts to her sister’s ex-boyfriend, who has been ruled out as a suspect; failing to go to work even though she’s on the verge of being fired; alienating the forbearing policeman in her sister’s case, Detective Sergeant Pettiford, with incessant phone calls and bad tips; and behaving churlishly to the few friends she has left.

When the book begins, Tess has moved into Rosie’s flat in London and is renting out one of the bedrooms to help pay the bills. Tess likes to snoop through her lodgers’ stuff, and that’s how she finds the increasingly alarming, semi-pornographic things that her latest tenant, a hot graphic designer named Arran, has written about a woman in his journal.

The tension mounts. Arran is great in bed, Tess discovers, but clearly he is hiding something, or maybe many things. Sylva does a fine job drawing us into Tess’s desperate and paranoid state, making us feel the “familiar creep of cold disappointment” at each dead end in her sister’s murder investigation. The thrilling ending jumps out of left field. It’s not what you expected.


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