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Another blog birthday and recap of my favorites from the last twelve months. I can’t remember a year in which they included so many thrillers, all literary. For a genre that’s supposed to fly on high-octane action, it’s remarkable how much thrust these authors achieve by putting character in the cockpit.

Not that these novels lack compelling plots; on the contrary, they have propulsion to burn. It’s just that the depth of characterization increases the tension, rather than getting in the way, as the common notion of thrillers would have it.

Pieces of eight, otherwise known as the Spanish dollar; date unknown, but after 1497 (courtesy Numismática Pliego via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

How? I think it’s because the protagonists carry around an internal “no—and furthermore.” They don’t need an antagonist threatening them—though that happens, often—because they have so much to hide, and their sense of shame drives them to take risks.

Exhibit A has to be Hour of the Witch, Chris Bohjalian’s tale of a battered woman in 1667 Boston who brings suit to divorce her husband. That makes her suspect in this Puritan town, if not criminal—and she can never admit her great shame, which is that she has sexual desire.

A different secret to hide drives An Unlikely Spy, Rebecca Starford’s novel about a young woman hired by MI5 in 1939 to track British Nazis. From the wrong side of the tracks, the new operative is brilliant at dissembling—she’s pretended all her life she comes from a higher social class than she does—but the self-deception comes at a price.

Social class also pushes the envelope in A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Jago’s story about cut-and-thrust intrigue at the court of James I. An herbalist and fashion consultant, hired to rouse a young, beautiful countess from her depressed stupor, quickly gets in over her head, betrayed partly by ambition but mostly by the ruthless aristocrats she serves.

In M, King’s Bodyguard by Niall Leonard, Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 attracts Europe’s crowned heads and anarchists who’d like to kill them. Since Kaiser Wilhelm is a likely victim, the head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch must work with his German opposite number, who’s probably lying about his identity. Our hero bows to convention outwardly yet holds subversive ideas, among them a sense of decency he knows others don’t share. That makes him fascinating and gives his enemies an edge: they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goals, whereas he draws back.

The World That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman, ventures into mystical territory via a female golem created in 1941 to protect Jewish children from the Holocaust. Much more than a page-turning survival story, this novel, set in France, portrays human characters trying to transform themselves—and a nonhuman character wondering what life means. A beautiful, passionate narrative about life and death, love as miracle and sacrifice, and the nature of grief.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky offers a contest between good and evil through a single character and often reads like a thriller. A young Chinese girl kidnapped in the 1880s and sold into sex slavery in San Francisco fights to free herself. But her face and gender are inescapable, and her shame at how people treat her sharpens her pain to the breaking point. This novel is bleak but essential reading.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff, isn’t a thriller, whatever its title suggests—it’s about Marie de France, an author of fairytales appointed in 1158 by Queen Eleanor of England to run a failing abbey. Marie deploys her considerable social and political skills attempting to put the place back on its feet and to create a haven where the women in her charge can escape men’s influence altogether. That may sound like a fairytale too, but Groff makes you believe, and her prose is spectacular without calling undue attention to itself.

Peter Manseau takes up similar issues in The Maiden of All Our Desires, except that the convent he portrays, though run under similar principles and rendered in similarly tactile prose, is about faith—where it comes from, what it means, and what gets in the way. The residents have secrets, desires, and questions, as well as a different take on dogma—and the bishop’s coming to decide whether rumors of heresy are true. A thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining novel.

So long as we’re talking about women challenging church doctrine, consider The Myth of Surrender, Kelly O’Connor McNees’s story set in 1960 about two pregnant teenagers resigned to giving their children up for adoption at a Catholic home for unwed mothers. But these young women, who think they’ll outrun their shame and bypass a youthful mistake, have unpleasant surprises in store. An old story, to which the author gives fresh punch and stunning twists.

I’ve never read a mystery quite like I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni, in which the detective’s character and outlook drive the story, also a page-turner. Set in 1930s Naples, concerning the murder of an opera star, the narrative shows why hunger and love are the motives for all crime. That truth affects the brilliant, moody, yearning protagonist, who has the reputation of being cold, yet feels more deeply than anyone around him.

Fine novels all, with more than a few thrills to spare.