The Plot Thickens

This month’s column is a tale of three novels, all bought in local bookstores during Independent Bookstore Day (which was actually Independent Bookstore 10 Days) back in April. I didn’t realize how these three books were connected when I picked them up; now, having happily made my way through all three, I see them as a trio of examples of how broad the category of “crime fiction” can be — and how very much there is to discover in this rich genre.

“These Women” by Ivy Pochoda (HarperCollins Publishers)

I’ve been meaning to read Ivy Pochoda’s work for some time (still intend to get to her award-winning “Wonder Valley”) and so I picked up a brand-new paperback of her 2020 novel “These Women.” It’s a beautifully sculpted modern noir, set in South Los Angeles and told by six diverse women whose stories are connected by a serial killer. The world of this novel is tough and dark and bleak, but Pochoda finds poetry in each of these women’s lives — in the way they’re haunted by ghosts (one by a murdered daughter, another by a memory of a devastating event), in the way they simply get through their days. I found myself especially drawn to Essie, a no-nonsense LAPD vice cop accustomed to being underestimated, and who knows that crime is like the crosswords she meticulously completes every day. “There’s always a solution,” she muses. “The catch is finding it.” You leave “These Women” feeling that you’ve heard some voices not usually heard, and wish they could speak further.

“The Animals at Lockwood Manor” by Jane Healey (HMH)

In another world, or so it seemed, lives Jane Healey’s 2020 novel “The Animals at Lockwood Manor,” a gothic old-house tale set in World War II-era England. I’ll admit to being an absolute sucker for this sort of thing (my recent gold standard: Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger”), and Healey in her debut novel sets the stage beautifully: a vast ancestral home in the English countryside, full of dust-sheeted rooms; a young natural-history museum curator who accompanies a collection of specimens removed from London for safekeeping; a sheltered, faintly Miss Havisham-ish daughter of the house; curious goings-on under the cover of night. Need I say more? The mystery turns out to not be particularly mysterious, but it doesn’t matter; this book has atmosphere to spare (just imagine all that taxidermy), and I devoured the entire thing on one rainy afternoon. Bonus new vocabulary word: “leveret” (a young hare).

“The Bodies in the Library” by Marty Wingate (Penguin Random House)

Marty Wingate is a Seattle author whose books I’ve long intended to explore; “The Bodies in the Library,” winking at me from a shelf at The Neverending Bookshop, seemed just the thing. A contemporary cozy mystery (I’ve never understood exactly what “cozy mystery” means; bodies but no blood, I guess?), this one is catnip for those of a literary bent. Main character Hayley Burke is the new curator of a first edition library at a historic Georgian home in Bath, England — a library devoted to murder mysteries. (This is the dream job I didn’t realize I had always wanted; it even comes with a snug garret apartment. Where do I apply?) Though Hayley is no Miss Marple, she soon finds herself with a mystery to solve: the curious death of a member of the library’s Agatha Christie fan-fiction group. Taking her cue from Dame Agatha, Hayley quickly concludes that detective stories are tales of “subtlety and deviousness and characters and cups of tea and — in the end — order out of chaos.” A nice definition, nestled within an utterly charming book.

Three books, three subgenres, three engrossing journeys. Do you have a favorite — and potentially very specific — genre within crime fiction? Do tell; we surely have more rainy afternoons in store.