On first picking up Dodgers (Crown, $26), local writer Bill Beverly’s excellent debut, you might think it’s a crime novel. I did. The general structure of the plot is hit-man road trip: teenagers in a minivan set out from Los Angeles to kill a judge for their drug-lord boss. There’s plenty of blood in the book, and lots of running and hiding. But really Dodgers is a Western in reverse. The protagonist, East, has never left LA before he’s dispatched on this hit. He’s never thought about what it might be like to go, well, east. As he roams around the frozen Midwest, he’s more interested in watching other people’s lives than in living his own—understandable, given his line of work. The best section of the novel is a lonely stretch East spends working at a paintball range, growing comfortable in an America very different from the one that used to be his. That comfort can’t last, of course. Dodgers isn’t that kind of book. East’s got to keep moving, discovering new terrain, and though the novel ends at an airport, it feels like he’s riding off into the sunset.
Set in 1980, two years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Javier Marías’s fourteenth novel unfolds when the country’s wounds are still raw. If the Francoists are going to be prosecuted for their evil deeds, now is the time. But would investigating the past help the present? Is “disinterested justice” on a national scale even possible? Taking its title from Hamlet, Thus Bad Begins (Knopf, $27.95) explores questions of revenge, accountability, and deception, putting these timeless philosophical debates in the context of both a political and a personal framework. The latter proves the more difficult to resolve, and the heart of Marías’s deft, well-paced narrative is an unhappy marriage. His narrator, employed as a personal assistant to a renowned, one-eyed filmmaker, is appalled at how badly his boss treats his wife. His curiosity turns to intrigue. He eavesdrops. He spies. He witnesses. He wonders what mystery he’s piecing together—and why. Recounting these scenes years later, he asks what difference it makes to tell the story; since time “is turning everything into fiction” anyway, who cares about this couple? Unfolding in long graceful sentences, this discursive work is as playful as it is thought-provoking. Marías teases with Shakespeare allusions (his main characters, Juan de Vere and Eduardo Muriel, together seem to stand in for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, perennial candidate for the Bard), as well as references to Hitchcock films, making this both a visual and an intellectual experience, a novel to savor as much for its rich games as for its language and ideas.
Set in Athlone, Ireland, in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s suspenseful ninth novel features superb pacing, vivid historical details, small-town secrets, and questions of faith framed as life-and-death matters. The protagonist is Lib, a London nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, who comes to the village fresh from the Crimean War. She is charged with discovering the truth about Anna, an eleven-year-old who has fasted for four months, with no apparent ill effects. Can the girl really be sustained by the love of God alone? As tourists and pilgrims flock to see The Wonder (Little, Brown, $27), Lib and a local nun keep watch around the clock; Lib, at least, is sure that someone is secretly passing food to Anna. Her partner sees things differently, and as the tension between them rises, Anna’s health does indeed start to suffer. But little by little Anna confides in Lib, and as Lib comes to understand what’s really going on, she both revises her notions of the Irish and fears she must commit murder in order to save Anna. The final outcome of the case—which is based on actual events—is as startling startling as it is unforgettable.