“Fortunately, the world is thick with fools,” the pretentious artist Watanabe declares as he unveils his latest provocation: Cassius Seven, a $50,000 watch that cannot be removed — and that is designed to eventually kill its wearers by slitting their wrists.
Is it an elaborate joke? A piece of performance art by someone who usually works with “extreme materials, like decommissioned jets and tsunami debris”? A macabre exit strategy for a society beset by despair and full of people in need of “escaping the inevitable by claiming it for themselves”?
As Stona Fitch’s DEATH WATCH (Arrow, 250 pp., paperback, $18.95) begins, Watanabe is looking for an advertising agency bold (or foolish) enough to market this preposterous invention. Told by a company minion that the watch is in fact harmless — that it’s all a hoax — Coe Vessel, an ad executive hungry to land his next big client, performatively straps one onto his own wrist, becoming the O.G. consumer and merging self and campaign. That helps touch off a buying spree, and soon money is pouring into Watanabe’s coffers, even as the watch becomes the subject of intense cultural debate. “Is Death Watch the High-Art Harbinger of the End-Time?” asks The New York Review of Books.
Then people start to die, beginning with one of the first customers, a 33-year-old financial adviser named James Lorber whose Cassius Seven attacks him on the sidewalk near the Boston Common.
A sendup of rich people, advertising and the luxury watch industry, “Death Watch” is more of a cerebral inquiry into the sheer nihilistic idiocy of the modern condition than it is a heart-pounding work of suspense. But you can’t escape its strange logic, or its shocking ending.
Eager to test the Fusion Initiative, a diabolical surveillance system his tech company devised with the U.S. government, a megalomaniacal billionaire named Cy Baxter presents an intriguing challenge to 10 citizen volunteers. Anyone who can evade the system for an entire month will receive a cool $3 million in cash.
Spoiler alert: Baxter, who founded the social-media company WorldShare and is a turbocharged amalgam of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, is not the hero of Anthony McCarten’s crackling GOING ZERO (Harper, 295 pp., $30). He’s the kind of guy whose accountants “have made it a challenge for even him to work out what he owns and what he merely controls. He doesn’t really care either way, as long as they get WorldShare’s tax bills down to zero.”
The volunteers are laughably inadequate against the formidable range of drones, cameras, virtual-reality devices, satellites, A.I.-enhanced research techniques and facial- and other-recognition technologies arrayed against them. (The descriptions of how they try to outwit the Capture Team, and how quickly they are discovered, are priceless.) But, for some reason, the volunteer known as Zero 10 — a “single, childless, nearsighted,” book-loving librarian from Boston — is the last one standing, still free with only a few days to go.
How can some random “unsavvy citizen,” as Baxter thinks of this woman, outwit the world’s sharpest spyware experts? The answer is more tangled than you might think, and a great deal of fun. Though the book can’t quite sustain its irresistible early momentum, it shimmers with alarming portents about the state we find ourselves in. Even the most extreme surveillance techniques described here sound unpleasantly plausible.
Baxter is certainly committed to his point of view. “Privacy is passé. Privacy is a prison. People can’t wait to give it away,” he rails. We’ll be the judge of that.
Sally Hepworth’s THE SOULMATE (St. Martin’s, 327 pp., $28.99) begins as Pippa Gerard, standing at her kitchen window, spots a woman walking toward a nearby cliff, a notorious spot for suicides. Even as Pippa’s husband, Gabe — celebrated in the neighborhood for his ability to coax people back from the edge — goes outside to help, the woman plunges to her death.
But why did Pippa see her husband reaching out toward the distressed woman, something he had been instructed never to do, and why doesn’t his story quite add up? The shock Pippa feels as the police begin asking pointed questions is nothing compared with the shock the reader feels as, bit by bit, Hepworth thickens the plot with unexpected information.
The book is many things: a crime story, a psychological study, a blueprint for how and when to mete out information in a thriller. But most of all it is an inquiry into the mysteries of marriage and commitment, and into what we owe our spouses and one another.
Pippa, who narrates much of the book, insists that she adores her husband. But there are signs that their relationship has not always been smooth. Once, she notes in a jocular aside, she took an online survey called “Is Your Partner a Sociopath?”
“The thing about marriage a lot of people don’t understand is that you don’t get everything,” Pippa says.
The dead woman, who narrates some of the chapters herself, turns out to be named Amanda. She has a few things she would like to discuss about her own marriage, and about what actually happened on the cliff. “Unlike the scores of people who have come to this spot before me,” she says, “I did not come here to die.”
If you and your friends were commemorating the anniversary of your harrowing collective escape from drowning, perhaps you would not hold your reunion in a remote area prone to flooding. But who said that the characters in Megan Miranda’s THE ONLY SURVIVORS (Marysue Rucci Books, 335 pp., $28) were inclined to let logic guide their behavior?
Ten years earlier, Cassidy Bent and a group of her high school classmates were passengers in two vans that sped off a winding mountain rode in a storm and plunged into a ravine rapidly filling with water. Ten students and two teachers died that night; nine made it out alive. (Two of the survivors have since died, one by suicide and one under murky circumstances, and now there are seven.)
Soon the ones who are left are acting more like a crime family bound by omertà than bereaved friends taking solace in one another’s company. Why can’t they be honest about what happened to the people who died that day? “I wondered if the purpose of this retreat, all along, was to keep one another from speaking honestly,” Cassidy observes.
The plot is first-rate, and Miranda expertly generates a steady thrum of anxiety. But it’s hard not to be distracted by the raggedy storytelling and the thicket of logistical complications in which the author ensnares her characters.
One thing is clear, and it’s what gives this novel its propulsive suspense: The story the group has told ever since the accident — that they “didn’t know what happened to the other students” — is not true.
It’s three months into her self-imposed exile in a remote beach community in Washington, and Emma Carpenter is drifting away from the world. “Very little frightens her — the worst thing that can happen to any human already happened to her months ago,” Taylor Adams writes in the creepily satisfying THE LAST WORD (Morrow, 352 pp., $30). “But she fears what she becomes when she’s alone, where her mind will go if she lets it wander.”
We won’t learn for some time what happened to Emma, only that she is an emotional wreck who keeps sane by compulsively reading mystery novels on her e-reader. (Join the club!) But something very weird has happened: She seems to have inadvertently started a feud with the author of the atrocious book “Murder Mountain” after impulsively awarding it one star on Amazon and refusing to rescind her negative review even when he asks her to.
Is it possible that this thin-skinned writer, H.G. Kane, has tracked Emma down, despite her efforts to remain incognito? If it’s not Kane, then who keeps trying to break into her house? And can she keep her dog, a delightful golden retriever who likes to wear a “Don’t Stop Retrievin’” bandanna, safe from the murderous rage that is about to be visited upon her?
If many thrillers suffer from an inability to live up to their initial promises, “The Last Word” is the opposite: It gets more clever and interesting as it goes along. It’s not just a suspenseful story about a woman in extremis fighting for her life, but a fine exercise in authorial misdirection and an incisive metacommentary on crime fiction and true-crime writing. Also, it’s unexpectedly moving.