Like a lot of us, I’m finding these strange days difficult. So what better way to deal with stress than to pull from my shelves a great crime novel that makes me incredibly nervous? Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut “The Secret History” isn’t exactly a whodunit — we’re told of the murder and who did it, right there on its haunting first page — but a whydunit, in which a group of classics students at a small Vermont college commit an unspeakable crime.
Indeed, they barely speak of it; much of this book’s uncanny power is in the eerily matter-of-fact way its young characters justify, carry out, and cope (or not) with what they’ve done. (The narrator, Richard, at one point casually refers to how the group usually gathered for a Sunday night dinner “except on the evening of the murder itself, when no one felt much like eating and it was postponed until Monday.”) And Tartt, an undergraduate herself when she began writing the book, masterfully takes her time with the telling (it’s 500+ pages), creating on those idyllic campus grounds and in those musty dorm rooms a sense of overwhelming, quiet dread. You don’t particularly like any of her characters, including the passively yearning Richard, but you’re fascinated by them; spending time with the book, you become part of their strange clique, hearing their voices in your head.
“The Secret History” is one of those books that I’ve lived with for a long time; I read it when it first came out, and remember it sparking a rich discussion with my book club. (I should note here that my friend Sarah, at that meeting, revealed a rather brilliant interpretation of a key plot point that holds up beautifully on subsequent readings. I won’t reveal it here — too spoiler-y — but email me if you’re a “Secret History” fan and want to know.) Rereading it, as if running my hands over Tartt’s velvet prose, was a too-short and deliciously tense pleasure; when it was done, all I wanted to do was start over again.
Back in the land of newly published books (oh yes, I miss bookstores), I found a new/old one this month. The Library of Congress is launching a Crime Classics series this spring, with the first volume being Anna Katharine Green’s “That Affair Next Door.” Green, whose books were published between 1878 and 1923, was acclaimed as the first American female writer of detective stories; this book, which debuted in 1897, introduced amateur sleuth Amelia Butterworth.
Though “That Affair Next Door” is marred by some narrative padding (I felt done with the book before Green did) and datedness, I quite enjoyed making the acquaintance of Miss Butterworth, a well-off single woman who could have been the nosy middle-aged neighbor of Edith Wharton in moneyed Old New York. Green skillfully crafts a character who isn’t at all self-aware, but thinks she is: Miss Butterworth, a first-person narrator, is perpetually more impressed with herself than those around her tend to be. And the writing often has an enjoyable playfulness. A flustered witness is described as looking “as if her few remaining wits had followed the rest on an endless vacation.”
Finally, many readers have been sending in recommendations for crime-fiction series, and this month brought several that were new to me — and maybe to some of you. Sheri Winkelman suggested “Finding Nouf,” the 2008 debut novel by Zoe Ferraris. Set in contemporary Saudi Arabia, it has at its center a young woman who disappeared into the desert and was found dead; her murder is investigated by two people with differing perspectives. A Publishers Weekly review at the time called it “a finely detailed literary mystery … (with) characters and setting that sparkle.” Sold!
Fred Kreitzberg recommended Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, set in ancient Rome and featuring a detective named Gordianus the Finder. There’s more than a dozen books in the series, so it’ll keep you busy for a while. “The actual history of the fall of the Republic plays a bigger role as the series progresses,” wrote Kreitzberg, calling it “useful reading for our divisive times.”
Another reader suggested the novels of Barbara Neely, whose amateur detective was savvy maid Blanche White (despite her name, a Black character), who worked for a wealthy family and solved mysteries in her spare time. Neely, who died earlier this year, was named the 2020 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America for her four Blanche White novels, which begin with “Blanche on the Lam,” published in 1992 and winner of the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards for best first novel that year. The series ended with “Blanche Passes Go” in 2000, but all remain in print.
And two readers suggested the same series: British-Australian author Arthur Upfield’s numerous books, published from 1928 to 1966 (the final book posthumously after Upfield’s death in 1964), featuring Aboriginal detective Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. The series begins with “The Lure of the Bush.” These books are, one fan warned, a little tricky to find — not all are still in print and the library has only a few, mostly in e-books — but worth the hunt.
Anyone else come across crime-fiction treasure on their shelves while sheltering-in-place-with-books? Let me know!