Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Shane's book 33, 2010)

Adam Kindred, in London for a job interview, runs into a scientist in a restaurant. The man leaves behind some papers and Kindred, finding a phone number among the documents, calls and offers to return them. He arrives at the man's flat to find him dying from a stab wound. Hearing the killer elsewhere in the flat, Kindred flees, only later realising that he is now the prime suspect. [amtap book:isbn=1408802856]

So begins Boyd's thriller which weaves together climatology, pharmaceutical testing, religious cults and the seedy underworld and sets them in a contemporary London that feels wonderfully authentic.Boyd is particularly good on the ways that we can be tracked nowadays. Bank cards, mobile phones, CCTV and numerous other technologies can follow us through the modern city. In that sense, the classic Hitchcock template - the man on the run for reasons he doesn't quite understand - was ripe for an update.

Kindred has to live on the streets: "That's how you disappear in the twenty-first century - you just refuse to take part in it. You live like a medieval peasant: you scrounge, you steal, you sleep under hedges."

Gradually Kindred acquires a new identity, the help of a friendly policewoman, Rita, and begins to realise that he needs to solve the case himself.

It's fairly familiar stuff and, as with many thrillers of this type, Boyd's plot relies on several coincidences and implausible turns of events. The initial set-up in particular requires a significant suspension of disbelief. While it's true that Kindred gets himself into a tricky situation, the strongest indicator of his guilt is not anything that happens in the scientist's flat but the fact that he goes on the run. Boyd goes to great lengths to construct a scenario in which Kindred's decision not to go to the police is convincing but it still feels more like a writer's plot than a believable circumstance.

Likewise, and for no good reason, Rita turns out to be the policewoman who found the scientist's body. She's been transferred to a different section by the time Kindred meets her so their meeting stretches belief - so much so that Boyd has to address the coincidence in the text.

Still, a book like this is not about those details. The important thing is to sit back and enjoy the ride - and it is enjoyable, peopled with intriguingly odd characters and seemingly unstoppable villains. There are even one or two genuinely moving moments along the way. It's a light read but an entertaining one.

King Death by Toby Litt (Shane's book 26, 2010)

I haven't read any Toby Litt before, though I've meant to. He has been working his way through the alphabet with his book titles, starting with the short story collection Adventures in Capitalism and reaching K with his latest, King Death. [amtap book:isbn=0141039728]

It's another literary thriller, something that has become an accidental theme of my reading this year. King Death opens with a couple, Kumiko and Skelton, who are on an early morning train into London when they see a human heart, apparently thrown from their train, land on the roof of Borough Market. At the next stop, Kumiko rushes to investigate and Skelton reluctantly follows.Kumiko was already close to ending the relationship and uses the mystery as her opportunity to strike out on her own. The more passive Skelton carries out his own investigations in a bid to win her back. Thus, in a piece of slightly cumbersome symbolism, each is trying to solve the mystery of the heart.

The search leads them to medical students at Guy's hospital. Kumiko moves into a student house, while Skelton gets himself a job as a hospital porter. They narrate alternate chapters and Litt has a lot of fun juxtaposing their impressions of events, particularly Skelton's frequent misreadings of Kumiko. In the opening chapter, for example, Kumiko says that "it was already over between us", while Skelton is under the impression that they are sitting "in a kind of exhausted but not uncontented silence".

King Death is an odd mix of contemporary romance and gothic thriller. It's enjoyable but only if you can overlook a few implausible events. For example, it's hard to believe that anyone, even someone with medical training, would recognise with certainty a human heart glimpsed for a moment from the window of a moving train. Likewise, it's an extraordinary turn of luck that sees both Skelton and Kumiko separately infiltrate the inner workings of Guy's.

And then there's the book's conclusion which, though tense and clever, brings to a head a completely different mystery to the one that kicked off the book. Again, it's a little hard to believe that the pair could solve both mysteries. In fact, it's not entirely clear why Litt needed two mysteries in the first place.

The two leads are charismatic enough, though the supporting cast is somewhat interchangeable. I had trouble working out exactly who was responsible for the stolen heart because I couldn't tell the suspects apart.

It's all a little silly but it zips along at a good pace. I didn't dislike it, despite the sloppy plot.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (Shane's book 24, 2010)

I read several books that I would describe as 'literary thrillers' this summer, purely by coincidence. There was Costello's Big If, Beauman's Boxer Beetle, one by Toby Litt that I've yet to review and this, by Dan Chaon. Of the four, this was easily the best. In fact it's one of the best books I've read all year. [amtap book:isbn=0345476034]

Chaon - pronouced Shawn - tracks three pairs of characters across an America where few people are who they appear to be and identities are shed and assumed with alarming ease and frequency. And Chaon picks some great locations for his story to unfold, among them an abandoned motel, a forgotten magic shop, an Arctic ice station and a cabin in the woods.

The book opens with Ryan being driven to hospital, his severed hand sitting, packed in ice, beside him and his father, Jay, behind the wheel. Before we can discover Ryan's fate the story switches to Lucy, eloping with George Orson, her lover and former teacher. No sooner has their journey begun than Chaon switches view again, this time alighting on Miles, heading to the arctic circle in the hope of finding his mentally disturbed twin brother, Hayden.

With Miles in place, we switch back to Ryan, then again to Lucy and so on in this fashion as Chaon gradually draws the three stories together. Miles teams up with Lydia, whose sister Rachel seems to have run away with Hayden. Ryan and his father are deep in an identity fraud racket, assuming false identities and moving money from one bank account to another. George Orson is trying to get some money from an enterprise that is probably not legal and soon he and Lucy have to assume false identities too.

Linking Ryan, Lucy and Miles is a sense of aimlessness, an inability to find a direction in life. All three find direction by latching onto someone more driven than themselves - Jay, George and Lydia, respectively. However, all three are, to an extent, led somewhere that they don't want to go.

Chaon controls his plot with masterful ease. He slips backwards and forwards in time, giving us enough information to feel like we're keeping up, while in fact he remains one step ahead. The finale is ingenious and certainly took me by surprise.

It's a great thriller but, as I said above, it has literary quality too. Chaon's characters are not merely pawns to be moved around the board in search of maximum tension, they are rounded people with believable emotions and motivations. Even the scene where Ryan loses his hand, which could be played for thrills, is delivered with freshness and genuine horror. We know that Ryan will lose his hand so Chaon is working without tension and instead makes the scene moving - a much more challenging task but one that he pulls off brilliantly.

There are occasional flaws - towards the end it starts to feel that Chaon has created a slightly implausible super-villain - but overall the book is a great success. It's dark and haunting.

Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman (Shane's book 23, 2010)

A couple of months ago I took author Ned Beauman to task for some pompous, though possibly satirical, remarks about writers who use Twitter. Beauman's mother, Nicola, runs Persephone Books, and I suggested on Twitter, rather sarcastically, that his might have helped 25-year-old Ned get his book deal. Ned got in touch, offering to send a copy of the book to prove that he had got his deal on merit. [amtap book:isbn=0340998393]

I've no idea whether Beauman's mother and her contacts helped him get a deal. For all I know, Ned submitted his manuscript anonymously and nobody involved knew who they were signing. What I can say is that his debut novel is perfectly decent. It's flawed but not bad.

One strand of the book, set in the present day, involves Kevin, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a metabolic disorder that causes him to smell of fish. Driven to solitude by his condition, he spends his time online in forums for collectors of Nazi memorabilia, whose company he prefers to that of those in the trimethylaminuria forums. Kevin occasionally works for Grublock, a property developer who also collects Nazi memorabilia. Sent by Grublock to see a private investigator, Kevin finds the man dead and is plunged into a murder investigation.

The second strand of the novel, set in the 1930s, centres on Philip Erskine, an entomologist with a taste for eugenics and fascism. He's also a repressed homosexual, as fictional fascists so often seem to be. From Max Aue in The Kindly Ones to Lt Gruber in Allo Allo, one never has to look far to find a gay Nazi. I've no idea why writers do this but it's in danger of becoming a cliche.

Anyway, Erskine takes an interest, professionally and personally, in Seth 'Sinner' Roach, a boxer and a remarkable physical specimen. He's small but powerful, much like one of Erskine's beetles. He's also Jewish, so the fascist, in addition to being gay, has also fallen for a Jew. What extraordinary bad luck.

Erskine's eugenics experiments hold the key to Kevin's murder mystery and Beauman gradually draws the two strands together. It's a fairly satisfying read and one that moves along at a decent pace. However, Beauman tries too hard to lift this above the level of a conventional thriller, which is what it is. Far too much is packed in and it often feels like Beauman is simply dumping onto the page excerpts from his wide-ranging research notes.

He also overcooks a lot of his prose, working in deliberately outlandish metaphors that jar with the otherwise straightforward writing and, to me at least, feel forced. However, I've read a couple of reviews of this book that have praised exactly that technique so perhaps it's just me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Shane's book 24, 2009)

I'd read so many good things about this novel - in the press and from otherwise respectable people on Twitter - that I thought I'd give it a try. Unfortunately this Swedish murder mystery is terrible. It's badly written, it's poorly structured and, worse than either of those, it's dull.

Larsson was a left-wing journalist who originally set out to write a series of ten murder mysteries. He died after completing just three. The parallels with Sjowall and Wahloo are obvious but while the Martin Beck series relishes the banality of police work and yet remains compelling, Larsson's debut is sensationalist and action-packed but thoroughly boring. Where Sjowall and Wahloo are playful and subtle, Larsson is po-faced and blunt.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWTDT) has three sections. In the first, Mikael Blomkvist, a principled, crusading financial reporter at Millennium magazine, is disgraced when he loses a libel action to a wealthy industrialist, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom.

[amtap book:isbn=1847245455]

In the second section Blomkvist is approached by Henrik Vanger, another wealthy industrialist whose grand-niece, Harriet, disappeared 40 years earlier. Vanger, convinced Harriet was murdered, asks Blomkvist to solve the mystery, under the guise of writing a biography of the Vanger family.

In the final section, Blomkvist gets his revenge on Wennerstrom and saves Millennium magazine for another sequel. Throughout all this Blomkvist is aided by Lisbeth Salander, a dysfunctional punk and hacker who gives the book its title. Salander is anti-social and lives life on the margins but, like seemingly every other woman in the novel is unable to resist the lure of the middle-aged and charmless Blomkvist.

There aren't many plot holes but the structure is slack and the book could easily lose 100 pages or more without consequence.

The first section of the book is quite promising, despite Larsson's clumsy labouring of the point that violence against women is a bad thing. That's hardly the most penetrating observation but nevertheless Larsson begins each chapter with some worthy statistics. One, claiming that 18 per cent of Swedish women have at some time been threatened by a man is followed later by news that 46 per cent of Swedish women have been subjected to violence by a man. Both alarming stats, to be sure, but how is it possible for more women to be actually assaulted than threatened?

The middle section is like a different novel, and a really, really bad one. Larsson piles one serial killer thriller cliche onto another as Blomkvist investigates Harriet's disappearance.

[Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers...]

He uncovers a serial killer guided by the Book of Leviticus who trains his son to be a serial killer too. While the father is a slavering maniac, the son becomes one of those ice-cold evil genius serial killers who has a torture room in his basement and disposes of his victims at sea to ensure they'll never be found.

While this sort of thing might cause Thomas Harris to wake up stuck to the sheets, to me it just sounds laughably daft. If it was mooted as an ITV weeknight thriller, even Robson Greene would consider it beneath him.

Moreover, this kind of schlock writing gives the impression that Larsson's message about violence against women is there simply to lend legitimacy to the very silly plot. First, in the real world most women are abused by husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers rather than by cackling serial killers. Second, the victims in this book are all anonymous and interchangeable. The empathy created by Sjowall and Wahloo in Roseanna or by Bolano in 2666 is entirely missing here.

It's a woefully shallow piece of work. Larsson's dialogue is wooden and his characters are underdeveloped. Only Salander is fully realised and, to me at least, she seems like a cartoon or video game character who has wound up in a novel by mistake. Her presence just makes the story more implausible.

In that context, Larsson's constant parade of statistics begins to make sense. He doesn't have the skill as a novelist to make his point through the story so he needs stats to do it for him instead.

There is some truly awful writing in places too. In one scene Salander's mother watches "sadly and anxiously" as her daughter leaves. Larsson ends the scene with the wretched: "It was as if she had a premonition of some approaching disaster."

Overall though, Larsson is simply lazy. The third and final section of the book is mostly just a list of events recounted in emails. It feels like the writer just can't wait to get finished.

I can't say I blame him. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is terrible; the worst book I've read all year.