After taking a holiday break last month, The Plot Thickens is back. For a whole lot of reasons, it might feel right this month to focus on books that take us somewhere else — to another time and place far from here.
So “The House on Vesper Sands,” by Irish author Paraic O’Donnell, seemed to be dropped in my lap as a gift from the crime-fiction gods. It takes place in 1893 London, on a series of wintry nights made otherworldly, a character notices, by snow. “He had not considered it before, the way the solid world was made strange by snow, the quiet secrecy it brought to ordinary things.”
Filled with atmosphere so thick you could spread it on toast, “The House on Vesper Sands” begins with a nighttime leap from a Victorian house’s high window, by a destitute seamstress wanting to leave a message to the world. And just like that, we’re pulled in, following a police detective, a female journalist and a lovelorn young man (who becomes, through some delicious maneuvering, an assistant detective) through those London streets. Our mission: to understand why the woman jumped, what the message eerily carved into her skin might mean, and what her connection might be to a string of mysteriously missing young women.
Published in 2018 in the U.K. but only now coming out here (from Portland publisher Tin House), “The House on Vesper Sands” is that rare mystery that’s at once gripping, elegantly written and very funny. Detective Cutter, who really deserves his own Victorian version of a reality show, is the most quotable literary character I’ve encountered in a while; he’s both wise (“A thief is like running water … He follows the easiest course”) and witty. To a butler slow to open a door, he wonders, “I hope I did not put you to the trouble of digging a tunnel, or of crawling up from a well?” And it’s ultimately a poignant ghost story, leaving you thinking about the empty spaces that the dead leave behind.
Also set in Victorian England, but a half-century earlier, is Claire Harman’s 2018 nonfiction work “Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London” (now in paperback from Vintage Books). The two books would make a nice literary double feature on a dark winter weekend. Harman, author of several literary biographies, here delves into the shocking 1840 London murder of elderly Lord William Russell — an act that turned out to have a great deal to do with the then-popularity of sensational crime novels. The book is crammed full of historical detail (the nuances of Russell’s family and personal life, alone, are fascinating), and grounded by the voices of Dickens and Thackeray, both fascinated and troubled by the case. “It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight,” wrote Dickens, upon witnessing the killer’s execution, “that the law appeared to be as bad as he.”
As we all seem to have a never-ending need for reading material these days, I thought I’d share a few places where I get ideas for good crime fiction. The website for the Edgar Awards, given by the Mystery Writers of America since the 1940s, is a treasure trove of recommendations. (I’ve already raved in this column about Elly Griffiths’ “The Stranger Diaries,” which won Best Novel from the Edgars last year; also terrific is Angie Kim’s “Miracle Creek,” winner of last year’s Best First Novel category.) Or check out the excellent crimereads.com, a rabbit hole of essays, interviews, reviews and recommendations. I spent way too much time on “The Most Anticipated Crime Books of 2021,” a list of 89 books, maybe 85 of which I want to read immediately.
And finally, a few more suggestions for readers, to get us through these winter evenings:
- Those who enjoyed Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry series, set in 1920s Bombay (now Mumbai), might enjoy two other series set in India: Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series, which begins with 2009’s “The Case of the Missing Servant” and continues with five more volumes, and Vaseem Khan’s five novels of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency, which feature a retired detective and his adopted baby elephant.
- For Nordic noir fans, a reader recommends Arnaldur Indridason’s internationally bestselling Detective Erlendur series. The first two volumes have not been published in English, so American readers should begin the series with “Jar City”; nine additional translated books follow it.
- Another reader recommended two very different series: the Maggie MacGowen books by Wendy Hornsby, which center on a contemporary Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker, and the series set in Edwardian England written by Robin Paige (a pseudonym for Susan and Bill Albert), featuring a penny dreadful writer and an amateur detective. The first book in the latter series is “Death at Bishop’s Keep.”
Keep well, keep reading, and if a mystery kept you up at night — tell me about it! Until next month.