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Three New Psychological Thrillers – The New York Times



This month’s thrillers pose intriguing questions. Can one seemingly unimportant decision change everything? What would happen if people could siphon time from the lives of others? And, most chilling: What awful things will parents do to protect their children?

In Kit Frick’s THE SPLIT (Emily Bestler Books, 278 pp., $27), Jane Connor gets a call one night from her needy younger sister, Esme. She’s left her husband and wants Jane to drive from suburban Connecticut to New York City to pick her up, even though a storm is raging. Still burdened by guilt after nearly killing Esme in a drunken car crash years earlier, Jane hesitates. Should she stay or should she go?

This is where the story divides in two, with a “Sliding Doors”-style sleight of hand. Half the chapters, marked “Gone,” play out a scenario in which Jane waits until morning to travel to the city — only to find that Esme has vanished. In the other half, marked “Home,” Jane retrieves Esme that night and brings her to Connecticut — which leads to unexpected complications.

“I suppose all lives have such pivotal moments, paths diverging, cracking in two,” Jane muses, “though the finality of the split registers only when we take stock of the universe we now inhabit, surrender to the swift death of the other.” (She’s speaking about her mother’s move from the family house to a nursing home, but you get the point.)

In each scenario, Frick slowly ratchets up the suspense, introducing supporting characters whose relevance takes time to unfold: the girls’ mother, who’s suffering from dementia; their estranged father; and two boyfriends and a husband who may or may not be up to something creepy.

The biggest secrets, it turns out, lie far back into the sisters’ tangled histories. Are our destinies written in our pasts? I’m not sure Frick adheres fully to the rigorous logic of “Sliding Doors,” in which each decision leads inexorably to the next event, but it’s great fun to watch her two narratives collide and diverge.

Why has a scary, silent woman kidnapped Allie Zerkofsky? Ben H. Winters’s BIG TIME (Mulholland, 275 pp., $29), which begins with Allie trapped in a car with her captor, is a weird and wonderful cautionary tale about futuristic technology run amok. It features the month’s most engaging investigator, a schlumpy bureaucrat roused to action.

After their car veers off the road and hits a tree, Allie jams a shard of broken headlight glass into her captor’s eye and escapes. Admitted to a hospital, she finds that the details of her life are ebbing away. “What the hell is his name?” she thinks, of her husband.

At the same time, Grace Berney — a middle-age mom toiling in an obscure department at the Food and Drug Administration that regulates medical devices — gets a strange assignment. There’s a woman with amnesia in a Maryland hospital who seems to have a “funky device” embedded in her skin. Can Grace identify it?

“What have they done to you?” Grace thinks, as she sees a photograph of Allie.

It’s a good question. The wackadoodle answer involves, for starters, a scientific paper that lays the groundwork for a procedure to isolate and extract time from one person’s life and add it to another’s. Is that why Allie can’t remember anything? And can Grace and her delightfully resourceful child, River, do anything to help?

The tragic specter of Gabrielle Petito, whose boyfriend murdered her on a hiking trip and then went back home, claiming he had no idea where she was, hangs over Dervla McTiernan’s almost painfully gripping new thriller, WHAT HAPPENED TO NINA? (Morrow, 322 pp., $27).

The first voice in the book belongs to Nina Fraser, 20 years old and spending the weekend with her controlling boyfriend, Simon Jordan, at his parents’ secluded Vermont country house. She wants to end their relationship. “For months, for half a year, he’d made me dance around, trying so hard to please him, trying so hard not to upset him,” she says.

A few days later, Simon is back in their hometown, saying that they broke up. But Nina has disappeared. As disturbing details about their relationship emerge, the Jordans hire a lawyer and start stonewalling.

“I’m begging you,” Nina’s mother, Lee, says to Simon’s mother, Jamie. “Mother to mother. I know you understand that I … that we can’t survive unless we know what happened to Nina.”

“You need to leave us alone,” Jamie replies.

Social media muddies the story, of course, especially when the Jordans hire a P.R. firm to spread false rumors about Nina and her parents. Rory, Simon’s father, is rich and ruthless. “Nobody trusts facts anymore,” he says.

Despite its title, the central question posed by this disturbing, enthralling book is less concerned with what happened to Nina (you’ll find out soon enough), but how the parents — all broken, terrified and desperate in their own ways — respond to the exigencies of the moment. The last scene will make your blood run cold.

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