He’s a Murderer, a Stalker, a Creep — and an Entertaining Narrator

Caroline Kepnes must be some kind of storytelling sorcerer. How else can Joe Goldberg — stalker, creep, multiple murderer, blamer of everyone else but himself, a “long overdue book, the one you never thought was coming” — be such an entertaining narrator? Even Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s famously amoral character (a clear inspiration for Kepnes), could be enjoyed at a third-person remove, unlike the in-your-face immediacy of Joe’s blinkered perspective.

After wreaking harm and havoc in “You” and “Hidden Bodies,” Joe returns in YOU LOVE ME (Random House, 385 pp., $24.99), having relocated to Bainbridge Island. His latest obsession, Mary Kay, is his boss at the local library. The Joe Goldberg she gets to know is a projection of the self he wants to portray. The Joe readers have gotten to know falls headfirst into Instagram account tracking, not-so-subtle manipulation and, when it suits him, violence. (Listening to Mary Kay bite into a candy cane, he thinks: “Crunch. Like the rock hitting Melanda’s head in the woods.”)

This high-wire narrative act continues to work because Kepnes is brilliant at depicting the cognitive dissonance of someone like Joe. His stalkerish behavior steps over the line again and again, but in a way that is all too familiar to any woman menaced or made uncomfortable by the so-called “good guy.” No doubt he’ll return in future installments, demonstrating the shattered barrier between id and superego.

Nikki Griffin, who returns in S. A. Lelchuk’s second novel, ONE GOT AWAY (Flatiron, 294 pp., $27.99), might be the reverse-funhouse mirror version of Joe Goldberg. The bookstore she owns on the ground floor of a Bay Area building is acceptable cover for the investigation business she conducts in her upstairs office, focusing on the misbegotten deeds of bad men who prey on women. Stalking and punishing the most abusive of the bunch is a personal mission for Nikki.

Nikki has been hired by Martin Johannessen to confront the grifter who’s been fleecing his wealthy, 81-year-old San Francisco mother. Dr. Geoffrey Tyler Coombs, as he calls himself, is posing as an Oxford-educated psychologist, and he’s already bilked Mrs. Johannessen out of $1.5 million, luxury watches and a fully loaded Porsche 911. But when Nikki meets him after trailing him to his fancy hotel, his elegant perfidy soon fades in the face of larger, out-and-out treachery. There will be kidnappings, blackmail and twists that wouldn’t seem out of place in recent television dramas about the fabulously rich.

Private detective novels naturally tilt toward the untrustworthiness of most characters, but Lelchuk delights in showing just how shady everyone turns out to be. This is good business for Nikki Griffin, but I do wonder about the added emotional cost, and if there will be further consequences in subsequent books.

A baby vanishes from her carriage at a neighborhood grocery store in 1930s Harlem, only one of the devastating events that mark Karla FC Holloway’s GONE MISSING IN HARLEM (Triquarterly, 223 pp., paper, $18.95). As she did in her first novel, Holloway chronicles the ripple effects of an early wave of the Great Migration, as the community forged in an uptown New York City neighborhood finds itself under continued threat from the grotesqueries of Jim Crow laws.

Displacement is the theme here, ripping the fabric of the Mosby family from the very first. The influenza pandemic takes one of their family members, and there is no real chance for healing with the onset of the Great Depression, an unwanted pregnancy and the casual cruelty of racism (it speaks to the depth of Holloway’s skill that the most bone-chilling scenes are rooted in the most mundane interactions).

Then there is further pall cast by the shadow of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. It couldn’t happen in Harlem, what with the players being rich and famous, but something close to it could, and does. To survive the onslaught, whether it be kidnapping, poverty or prejudice, the family matriarch, Lilah, “practiced how to act instead of how to be.”

“Murders are motivated by feelings of shame and humiliation provoked in the murderer by the victim; all other motives far below these,” the Croatian author Ivana Bodrozic writes in WE TRADE OUR NIGHT FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S DAY (Seven Stories, 240 pp., paper, $18.95), and the entirety of this political thriller, set two decades after the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, seems haunted by this statement.

Nora Kirin, a journalist working in Vukovar (or “the city,” as the text always refers to it), cannot move past her own intermingled feelings of shame and revenge, bent as she is on discovering who murdered her father years before. These feelings inform her approach to the story she’s working on about Brigita Arsovka, a schoolteacher who seduced a student and then murdered her husband.

Reluctance gives way to a darker give-and-take; Nora emerges from the cocoon of unprocessed trauma in a state that will lead to an act of violence still able to shock the seemingly unshockable. Bodrozic, mediated by Ellen Elias-Bursac’s assured translation, chronicles what a country chooses to remember, and what it consciously forgets, with confidence and grace.

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