Nicci French
Simon & Schuster, £14.99, pp464

Tess isn’t sure what to do when she finds a scribbled drawing of a figure falling from a tower in a pile of her daughter Poppy’s pictures. “He did kill her,” the three-year-old tells her, before sobbing and wetting the bed. Poppy can’t explain to Tess what she’s frightened of, but Tess knows there’s something wrong and as she prods away at the mystery around what Poppy might or might not have seen, she becomes increasingly concerned about almost everyone in her life. “I felt mad, infected with fears,” she thinks. “Everyone thinks this is inside my head, but what if it isn’t? What if I’m right to feel such fear and dread?”

Tess is the protagonist of the latest outing for husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write as Nicci French. The Unheard is excellent – a breathless read brimming with misdirection and fear, as Tess tests the limits of what she can get away with in the name of protecting her little girl, “her ears like a hawk’s, her eyes, on stalks, taking in the world and all its messed-up, conflicting meanings”.

James Han Mattson
Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp416

Just in time for Halloween, James Han Mattson has produced Reprieve, a chilling blend of horror and thriller that explores racism and the desperate desire to belong with skin-crawling exactitude. The novel’s creepy heart is Quigley House, an “extreme haunt” venue where visitors have to try to make it through a series of increasingly horrific rooms to win a cash prize. When Bryan, Jaidee, Victor and Jane turn up, they do well at first, but one of them will wind up dead before they finish.

Moving back and forth in time, Mattson reveals how the team all ended up in this house of horrors – from Jaidee, the Thai student trying and failing to assimilate in America, to Bryan, the cousin of Quigley employee and horror aficionado Kendra. Kendra’s just a teenager, but has a job working in the car park at Quigley after moving to Nebraska following the death of her father.

Mattson leans into the horror motifs he uses – “the house loomed, pressing aggressively against the dark, an enormous slab of story book terror” – while also giving them a cynical shake. Clever, insightful and unnerving.

‘Insight and warmth’: Liane Moriarty. Photograph: Penguin Random House

Liane Moriarty
Michael Joseph, £20, pp496

Apples Never Fall, the latest novel from Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers author Liane Moriarty, opens as the four adult children of Joy Delaney chat in a cafe about whether they should report their mother missing. She has left nothing behind except a garbled text message and, as the days pass, the police start asking questions about the scratch on her husband Stan’s face and about the odd young woman who moved into their house the previous year.

Moriarty is excellent – amusing and astute – on the small indignities and annoyances that make up a marriage, a family and a life. As we learn more about the Delaneys’ past and present – Joy and Stan’s years running a tennis coaching business; the children’s attempts to make it in the world of tennis – the police start to realise that no one is telling the truth. And Joy still hasn’t returned. Though Apples Never Fall is a little baggy, it possesses the insight and warmth that Moriarty brings to all her books.

Peter Papathanasiou
MacLehose Press, £16.99, pp320

The Stoning is the first in a new series from debut author Peter Papathanasiou. Opening with the murder by stoning of a teacher in the outback Australian town of Cobb, it introduces us to DS Giorgios Manolis, the son of Greek immigrants. “Jesus,” thinks Manolis, looking at photos of the crime scene, “this was Old Testament shit.”

Manolis, a typically grizzled, handsome detective with a broken personal life, grew up in Cobb then moved away. Returning, he finds a town sizzling with tension between the white people and indigenous Australians and between locals and refugees at a nearby detention centre. “Multiculturalism is the greatest failed experiment,” one local tells him. “Look around you, look at the town, there’s no Aussie faces any more,” complains another.

In a town no one visits and everyone wants to leave, and where people eat strips of crocodile meat and the heat is pitiless, Papathanasiou conveys how the temperature infuses every interaction. Deliciously dark outback noir.

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