In This Road-Trip Thriller, Twin Sisters Hunt for Their Missing Mom

HARD GIRLS, by J. Robert Lennon

The twins Jane and Lila Pool are the “hard girls” at the center of J. Robert Lennon’s new thriller. They’ve earned the title. When we meet Jane, it’s “19 years after she ran away from home, 13 years after she married a stonemason, 12 years after her daughter was born and 11 years after she got out of prison and pretended to put the past behind her.”Now, she’s working at a university in upstate New York, where her father, Harry, is a professor.

When an encrypted email arrives in Jane’s inbox, it throws her carefully balanced life off kilter. That’s because it comes from her sister, Lila. The twins haven’t seen each other in over a decade. They haven’t seen their mother, Anabel, for even longer, and Lila, it turns out, has a lead on Anabel’s whereabouts.

Lila’s proposition — the novel’s organizing conceit — is that the two sisters, long ago forged in the same crucible, by the same terrible circumstances, should put their lives on hold, drop off the grid, meet in Missouri and go on a cross-country road trip in search of their mother. It’s an enticing proposition, one that Jane, whatever her misgivings, can’t quite resist.

Their mother’s identity is the novel’s big mystery, and Lennon pads it appropriately. Jane and Lila were, in their youth, avid readers of adventure literature, stories like “The Railway Children” and “Harriet the Spy.” The habit evolved into something like a language between them, while also fueling a belief that their mother, who was “often away and never truly present,” was in fact leading a life as a spy or a serial adulterer, or perhaps adopting one of those lives in service of the other.

Their suspicions were well founded, if not exactly accurate. The tip Lila has received suggests a connection between their mother and a master criminal nicknamed the Holy Ghost, who has a web of international connections à la Carmen Sandiego and a home base in Panama’s mountainous region. If it all sounds slightly fanciful, that may well be the idea: Lennon seems to be enjoying himself, particularly as Jane and Lila hit the road, moving from one indiscreet fount of information to another.

The best of those sources is a man named Gramps, an auto parts restorer and dealer who has a hand in several criminal pies and supplies the Pool sisters with details on their (possible) mother’s (possible) whereabouts. It all comes pouring out in a lengthy exchange connecting U.F.O. watchers to the C.I.A.

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