One for the Books: All kinds of thrillers

I always say I don’t like thrillers, but of course that isn’t completely true. I love a can’t-put-down page-turner. I just don’t like twisted or gory stuff or personal violence. Happily, three recent books by popular authors fulfill most of my preferences.

Ken Follett takes us on adventures in international diplomacy with “Never.” He shows how major conflicts can be sparked by seemingly minor local problems: “Every catastrophe begins with a little problem that doesn’t get fixed.”

Several storylines and characters are introduced in a series of seemingly unrelated narratives, but they eventually converge: the U.S. president and her family, a conflict-encouraging American politician, an undercover operative following terrorists in a North African drug-smuggling operation, two diplomats having a secret and forbidden affair, a Chinese administrative official married to a television star, a South Korean president who has promised unification, and a North Korean military officer acting as a spy.

Each step taken by diplomats and governments seems logical. But each step leads the world down a riskier path. The key is alliances and retaliation … and egos: “Sometimes international politics was just like a Sicilian vendetta … People took revenge for what had been done to them, as if they did not know that their rivals were sure to take revenge for the revenge. As the tit-for-tat went on, escalation was inevitable: more rage, more vengeance, more violence.” So you can tell where it’s headed when the sections are labeled Defcon 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

This is as long as one of Follett’s historical epics. I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, but I didn’t embrace the cardboard-cutout characters as much here as in, say, the Kingsbridge novels. I could have done without some of the lovey-dovey scenes and the domestic situations.

This book offers a long, slow buildup to a very tense situation. I guarantee you will look at the war news differently after you read it. “What could possibly drive you to risk the end of the world?”

Lisa Scottoline’s “What Happened to the Bennetts” starts with a simple crime: a carjacking that ends in a death. The surviving family members in mourning are told they’re in mortal danger from “a dangerous criminal network” and need to go into hiding. When the FBI moves the family into the witness protection program, things get more complex.

What really happened and why? Was the carjacking really random? Whom can they trust? Is there a way to escape the criminal gang that wants them dead? Well, Dad figures it all out: “I had to do whatever it took to get justice … to save my family.” It’s a cracking plotline that kept me guessing, thanks to Scottoline’s ingenuity and knowledge of the legal system.

The action starts immediately and, once the father begins figuring things out, it never lets up. The dad and the main FBI guy are believable characters, and I can still picture them.

It took me almost no time to read, because the pages practically turned themselves.

The title character in Janet Evanovich’s “The Recovery Agent” is Gabriela Rose. She is, indeed, a recovery agent; call her a treasure hunter. Technically, she’s an insurance fraud investigator, but the 30-year-old enjoys going after missing artifacts for a fee. She’s practically perfect: “She was a martial arts expert. She ran five miles every morning. She was a crack shot and a gourmet cook.” I see her as a cross between Stephanie Plum (but not as funny), Lara Croft and Indiana Jones.

Gabriela decides to go after an especially valuable ring to get the funds (“around fifteen million” dollars) to save her Atlantic Coast hometown, which has suffered devastation from a recent hurricane. Luckily, her family has connections to the pirate Blackbeard, and she intends to use them to find some pirate loot. Oh, and she may get help from a ghost named Annie who “talks” to her grandmother.

The adventure takes her to Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, New York City, South Carolina, California, a tropical island or two, and a lost Incan city. Her gorgeous ex-husband Rafer (yes, there’s flirting) accompanies her on her quest, and they’re pursued by an evil “sorcerer” named El Dragón, along with a deadly panther and plenty of snakes and tarantulas.

There are quite a few fatalities, and finally someone asks the question I was asking: “Is the ring worth risking lives?” The response: “This is about stopping a madman. The ring is a bonus.”

It’s all rather silly and not to be taken seriously, with oodles of dangerous situations, chase scenes, bad guys, shootouts and explosions. No, it isn’t realistic, but it is a fun, fast-paced escape.

This is the start of a new series, and I’m looking forward to the next book. As a fan of Evanovich, I really think the main characters will become more fully formed as Evanovich writes new episodes.

Happy reading!

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.