Four chilling debut thrillers for your summer reading list

On The Shelf

Four Summer Thriller Debuts

The Other Black Girl
By zakiya dalila harris
Simon and Shuster: 355 pages, $27

Arsenic and Adobo
By Mia P. Manansala
Berkeley: 336 pages, $16

Walking Through Needles
By Heather Levy
Polis: 320 pages, $26

People Like Them
By Samira Sedira
Translated by Lara Vergnaud
Penguin: 192 pages, $17

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There are mystery readers who can reckon the seasons based on when their favorite authors publish another entry in a beloved series. But amid the household names piling up in TBR stacks come new voices that will make it worth reshuffling the deck. These four new and forthcoming mystery debuts deserve to be in your rotation through the height of summer.

By zakiya dalila harris
Simon & Schuster: 355 pages, $27: June 1

Leading the pack is Harris’ perceptive exploration of racism in publishing, wrapped up in a whip-smart story of young women at war in the workplace. Nella Rogers is an ambitious, middle-class Black girl from the Connecticut suburbs who’s toiled for two years as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, a tony Manhattan publisher. Although it’s only an entry-level position, all of Nella’s colleagues and superiors are white — except for the mailroom clerks and IT specialists.

Set in the 1980s, you guess? Well, there are flashbacks to 1983 when Wagner boasted the only Black editor-and-author duo in publishing, Kendra Rae Phillips and Diana Gordon. They collaborated to produce “Burning Heart,” a groundbreaking novel with a young Black female protagonist that might sound like the early work of Toni Morrison (who was also a pioneering book editor).

But no, the novel’s present action is set in 2018, a time when the percentage of Black people in publishing hovered around 5%. Wagner still publishes Gordon, to ever-declining sales, while a bestselling white Wagner author has turned in a manuscript with a stereotypical Black character that calls to mind the “American Dirt” controversy. Phillips, meanwhile, vanished without a trace not long after “Burning Heart” came out — a mystery Nella is obsessed with unraveling.

Tossed into Wagner’s current sea of whiteness is another Black girl — Hazel-May McCall, also hired as an editorial assistant. Nella hopes for a sister-friend and confidante but Hazel, with her perfectly coiffed locs, Harlem ZIP Code and tales of a grandfather’s death in a 1960s protest, blazes past Nella to instant acceptance. Is Hazel’s more “authentic” Blackness the secret of her success? Or did the other Black girl stick out her foot to hasten Nella’s fall? When Nella starts finding notes on her desk urging her to “Leave Wagner. Now,” her bestie Malaika says what Nella is loath to admit: “If that isn’t a hate crime, I don’t know what is.” But microaggressions aside, who at Wagner would be that blatantly racist?

The novel’s epigraph — “Black history is Black horror,” a quote from L.A.-based Black author Tananarive Due — suggests there’s something more sinister afoot. What that is, and its impact on Nella, Hazel and other Black women who populate the novel, elevates “The Other Black Girl” to something more complicated, less “Get Out” and more “The Bluest Eye.” This is fitting, since Toni Morrison once said: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Harris has done exactly that and readers everywhere, including those who work in publishing, will be better for it.

A dog has paws on a woman's shoulder as she adds an ingredient to a pot on a book cover.

By Mia P. Manansala
Berkeley; 336 pages, $16

In Manansala’s deceptively breezy debut, Lila Macapagal has left Chicago, a philandering fiancé and her undergraduate program in hospitality. She picks up the tatters of her life by helping out at her Tita Rosie’s cafe in small-town Shady Palms, two hours outside Chicago. Tita Rosie’s place is failing in part because Lila’s high school flame, a local food blogger named Derek Winters, has been badmouthing the restaurant in an effort to shut it down. On one of his hate visits, Winters, a diabetic, is complaining about Lila’s ube crinkle cookies made with purple sweet potato jam when she grouses, “Would it kill you to say something nice?” As if on cue, Winters convulses and falls face-first into a bowl of ginataang bilo-bilo (a coconut-rice dessert).

Lila is arrested for his murder. Before you can say “oh my gulay,” Lila, out on bail, teams up with Adeena, her Pakistani American best friend, to sleuth and eat their way through Shady Palms’ ethnic hot spots, all targets of Winters’ wrath. Along the way, hunky would-be suitors emerge for Lila, while Adeena finds a girl who sparks her interest. In the process, Manansala touches on issues that matter to Filipino and other marginalized communities, including police abuses, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, domestic violence and gender fluidity.

Bolstered by recipes for Lila’s ube crinkles, Tita Rosie’s Chicken Adobo and more, Manansala, a Chicago Filipina, has reinvigorated tired tropes to create a multicultural, queer-friendly culinary mystery, making “Arsenic and Adobo” an envelope-pushing, world-expanding debut that goes down easy.

Lightning hits near a wooden shed on a book cover

By Heather Levy
Polis: 320 pages, $26: June 29

Now for something a little darker. Artistic but sheltered in Blanchard, Okla., in 1994, 16-year-old Samantha Mayfair fantasizes about her 15-year old stepbrother, Eric “Arrow” Walker. Arrow and his father, Isaac, swept into the small town, infiltrating the home Sam shares with her mother Jeri Anne and Grandma Haylin. As much as she yearns for the well-traveled Arrow, she’s suspicious of Isaac — but also fascinated, especially by her stepfather’s hands, which she sketches incessantly.

Sam and Arrow are inexorably drawn to each other, at first through their shared interest in Greek classics and later because of an attraction they can’t ignore. Their furtive, charged encounters are juxtaposed with chapters narrated 15 years later by the grown-up Arrow. Eric works as an Oklahoma City handyman, slowed by a mysterious jagged scar on his calf. Cashing a check at a client’s bank, he encounters Sam, now a bank supervisor. Eric’s extreme reaction, and the way he follows Sam home after the bank closes, suggests a darker secret.

Subsequent chapters reveal the story of the teens’ romance and Isaac’s mounting rage, which spills over into physical violence toward his son and something worse for Sam — until Isaac suddenly disappears. Fifteen years later, his body is unearthed on the farm once owned by Sam’s mother and suspicion falls immediately on Eric, who had good reasons for wanting his father dead.

The ensuing police investigation unites the uneasy pair in ferreting out the truth. Equally important, Sam and Eric are forced to acknowledge what happened on that farm and determine whether they can move forward, together or separately, from the trauma inflicted on them when they were teens unable to process it all.

“Walking Through Needles” is a challenging but worthwhile read, a standout for its frank but sensitive exploration of trauma and desire.

Snow falls on houses and trees without leaves on a book cover.

People Like Them

By Samira Sedira
Translated by Lara Vergnaud
Penguin: 192 pages, $17: July 6

Inspired by a 2003 mass homicide, “People Like Them” is a potent little mélange of psychological suspense and racial tension from the Algerian-born French author of three previous novels. (This is her debut in English translation.) After a freak pole-vaulting accident in high school leaves him gravely injured, Constant Guillot recovers and rebuilds a modest life for himself, his wife Anna and their two daughters as a high school coach. All is well until flashy Bakary and Sylvia Langlois arrive at a village wedding. The Parisian couple were invited at the spur of the moment but immediately draw the villagers’ attention for their handsy displays of affection and Bakary’s face, so dark it “melted perfectly into the night.”

“People Like Them” is set in 2015, a year bookended by the January terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and the November mass murders throughout Paris. Removed from France’s urban capital and the racial conflicts underlying the attacks, Carmac’s homogeneously white villagers have little contact with the outside world, except for two regulars at the village bar, comical but bigoted old veterans of the Algerian War. They conflate “brutish” Bakary with the Senegalese Tirailleurs, sharpshooters in the Algerian War. As Anna notes, “we’d never had any Black people in Carmac.”

Bakary runs his own travel company in Paris — an inconceivable feat to the old barflies — but, craving an “authentic” life in a French village, is building an enormous chalet on the edge of town. Bakary soon befriends Constant, charming him and other enthralled locals into investing in a banking proposition. But when Anna, bored at home and needing additional income, suggests working for the Langloises as a housecleaner, relationships subtly shift, with disastrous results.

The novel’s bucolic but unsettling portrayal of small-town jealousies and greed, class divides and incipient racism contrast sharply with courtroom scenes interspersed throughout, which can be jarring in their theatrics and gallows humor. Both could be attributed to Sedira’s background as a playwright and actress, which makes “People Like Them” seem at times more like a film — lulling and then horrifying the observer in its portrayal of village life gone terribly wrong.

Woods is a book critic, editor of anthologies and author of the Detective Charlotte Justice procedurals.






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