After taking the publishing world by storm in 2018 with her instant New York Times bestselling debut thriller, Need to Know, Karen Cleveland returns with another standalone novel that’s heavy on suspense and misdirection.
FBI agent Stephanie Maddox, who heads up the bureau’s Internal Investigations division, takes her job and her career seriously, but it’s nothing compared to her role as a single mom to her seventeen-year-old son, Zachary. So when she discovers a loaded gun in his bedroom, her world spins as grief and confusion fill her mind, causing her to wonder how and why her son would have a weapon in his possession—and what he might be using it for.
Before she can get to the bottom of what’s going on, trying to figure out if the gun could be a link to drugs or some kind of gang activity, Stephanie’s world is rocked once again when Scott, an agent with the FBI’s domestic terrorism squad and someone she has a history with, knocks on her door. From awaiting college acceptance letters and talking about life after high school with Zachary to hearing that her only child is believed to have plotted the murder of various government officials, the blows keep coming for Stephanie, who isn’t willing to immediately believe the worst about her kid.
As the story unfolds, Stephanie risks everything to protect her son—but as things move from possible anti-government group connections and a murder plot into a possible Russian conspiracy, she realizes that they’re both in over their heads . . . and that the whole truth may be impossible to uncover.
Some of Cleveland’s fans will no doubt be less than thrilled to learn that her latest is not a sequel to her hit debut thriller. And while Keep You Close deserves to be judged entirely on its own, some might have a hard time doing so because of the popularity of Need to Know (2018). That said, I found Cleveland’s sophomore effort to be another solid offering full of twists, well-timed action sequences, and a strong hook that’ll suck the bulk of her readers in right away. The story reads quickly, though there is an over usage of flashback that makes the timeline a bit confusing, and Cleveland certainly knows how to pull readers along, segueing nicely between chapters.
Whereas the premise of Need to Know compares nicely to Keep You Close—both stories follow strong, smart women (one in the CIA and one in the FBI) who are confronted with the unthinkable reality that a loved one (a husband, or here, a son) might actually be a monster—Cleveland’s latest doesn’t have the same urgency that made her first book so nerve-wracking and unputdownable. What it does have is a more emotionally-driven protagonist, who sometimes lets her feelings dictate her responses and actions, which comes off as genuine and relatable for the most part. On the other hand, it makes her look undisciplined and not very smart, which doesn’t fit her background as an FBI official.
Still, Cleveland excels at stripping down characters in high-stakes government careers and putting their backs against the wall while their worlds come crashing down around them, which is certainly the case here. And just when you think you know where the story’s going, she pivots hard, zipping readers in a different direction fueled by conspiracies and secrets, leading to an explosive final act.
She might get judged a bit unfairly just because of how special her first thriller was, but Karen Cleveland proves she’s more than a one-hit wonder with Keep You Close, another fast-paced thriller that twists and turns its way to an exciting conclusion.
Author: Karen Cleveland
Pages: 352 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: May 28, 2019
Book Spy Rating: 6.5/10
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.