‘No Way Back’: sex & drugs propel topical thriller

There is a pleasing Alfred Hitchcock-style undertone to the latest Andrew Gross thriller, “No Way Back,” which William Morrow published today.

The action starts in a New York City hotel with the protagonist in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as in “North by Northwest,” and with the same result: an innocent person is framed for murder and then races against time to find the real perp.

The difference here is that the central character is a woman — aspiring novelist Wendy Gould — and the opening scene is sexually tinged.

The Westchester suburbanite has spent the day in the city trying to push her book a step closer to publication and is meeting a friend for a drink at the Kitano hotel before catching a train home at nearby Grand Central Terminal.

Wendy is still in a foul mood from a fight with her husband, and is attracted to a sexy stranger who comes on to her in the bar. When Wendy’s friend stands her up, and the stranger sits in with the jazz band in the lounge, our heroine decides she’s up for an adventure, and follows the man up to his room.

Wendy gets cold feet, the stranger is nice about it, and while she is fixing herself up in the bathroom, someone else comes into the room.

The stranger is shot, Wendy has to kill the gunman in self defense, and is nearly killed by his partner outside in the hallway.

It turns out that the man she killed is with Homeland Security and the stranger in the bar was a journalist on the trail of a web of conspiracies involving drug and gun shipments across the Mexican border.

“No Way Back” drops us into a nightmare situation that Gross sustains believably as Wendy’s attempts to turn herself in reveal the enormous power of the drug cartels and our government agents who are in league with them.

The novel becomes much more than a chase thriller when Gross introduces a second major character — a Mexican nanny working in Westchester whose past catches up with her in a crowded shopping mall and who must then go into hiding like Wendy.

Gross bolsters his breathless suspense plot with a realistic portrait of the horrors of drugs and crime in Mexico that raises the book’s stakes, and increases our fear for the two brave women at the center of the story.

“No Way Back” gains veracity from the well-drawn urban and suburban settings — there are terrific setpieces in Grand Central Terminal and the Stamford Town Center mall — and the sense Gross gives us that what is happening to Wendy and Lauritzia happens every day in Mexico.

Joe Meyers