Hello, fellow crime-fiction fans — shall we gather together to discuss The Mystery of the Missing Column? The Plot Thickens, as you may or may not have noticed, has vanished for a couple of months, and while I’d like to say it took on a false identity and fled to the Riviera (ah, for the days when that was an option), the truth is rather less exciting, i.e., I just got kind of busy and didn’t get around to it. But, as we enter Day God-Only-Knows of stay-at-homeness, it seemed appropriate to let this column’s eyelashes flutter open after its brief coma. (Yes, I’m still working on sounding hard-boiled. Bear with me.)
So, what crime fiction have you been reading? I’ve been allowing myself some false starts these days; life in pandemic times is stressful enough without trying to make yourself like a book that just isn’t working for you. After trying and failing to engage with Margery Allingham (generally I like old-school British mysteries, but “The Crime at Black Dudley” just sort of dribbled away from me; maybe I wasn’t in the right mood), I got lucky: three new-to-me detectives, all of whom I liked a bunch. The list:
- Ruth Galloway, heroine of Elly Griffith’s “The Crossing Places.” This is, unbeknownst to me when I started, a quite well-established series. “The Crossing Places” is the first Galloway novel, published in 2009; since then, the very productive Griffiths, a British writer, has published 10 more, with book No. 12 (“The Lantern Men”) coming this summer. Not technically a detective but a forensic archaeologist whom the detectives in her region of Norfolk, England, consult on cases, Galloway is a brisk, engaging loner with a whip-smart brain, a complicated love life (I suspect we’ll later see much more of DCI Harry Nelson), and a belief in the right outfit for the right moment (her “toughest, most uncompromising” clothing includes black suit, white shirt and “scary earrings,” of which I would like to get a pair). This story involves two missing children, a remote stretch of beach and a possible psycho killer, and the pages practically turned themselves; Ruth reminded me of Kinsey Millhone, and there are few greater crime-fiction compliments.
- Matthew Venn, hero of Ann Cleeves’ “The Long Call.” Cleeves is well known for her “Shetland” and “Vera” series; this relatively new book (out last fall) is the first entry in a new one, set in North Devon, England. As all detectives should, Matthew has a brooding backstory: His parents, members of a tight-knit evangelical community, rejected him after he came out as gay. Now settled with a sweet, handsome husband (who is inexplicably always wearing shorts despite the maritime chill) and a job with the Devon and Cornwall Police, he’s still haunted by his past. And of course that past bubbles up while investigating his current crime: a murdered man with his own mysterious backstory. I loved Cleeves’ language (one beguiling character’s mouth, red with lipstick, seemed to Matthew to remain in the room after she left “like the Cheshire Cat’s smile”), the vivid sense of place, and the sense of table-setting as a new series begins. Looking forward to the next installment, and definitely want to hear more from Matthew’s colleague Jen Rafferty, who jumps off these pages with such life that I wonder if she’s got her own series coming.
- Claire DeWitt, heroine of Sara Gran’s “The Infinite Blacktop.” This 2018 book is a ride, people, and I’m only sorry I didn’t start at the beginning of Gran’s DeWitt novels (there are two earlier ones). It’s contemporary noir, and three noirs at that, each of them told at breakneck pace. In a trio of interweaving stories, we’re immersed in Claire’s present, in which someone in Oakland, California, has just tried to kill her, and her past (her teen years in Brooklyn, New York, as a would-be girl detective, and her first Los Angeles case in the late 1990s, as she tried to earn her PI license by figuring out a famous artist’s death). Claire, let me tell you, does NOT mess around; we kick off with her stealing a Taser and a radio from a cop and wondering: “Who wanted me dead today?” (The answer: a lot of people.) Gran, an author and screenwriter, clearly has a great love for classic Los Angeles detective fiction (“There was an energy to Los Angeles that was sharp and would cut you if you didn’t recognize it”) and a delicate way with words (a friend disappeared in Claire’s past, “taking with her all of our best tomorrows”). Full of rapid twists and turns, like squealing tires on pavement, this unique book left me exhausted, in a very good way.
For the rest of this month, I’m thinking of some comfort rereading; perhaps a return to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (which is both crime fiction and literary gem), or Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” (ditto, and watching the Hulu adaptation of Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” is reminding me of how good her books are), or Graham Moore’s “The Sherlockian” (which is great Holmesian fun). And what crime fiction are you reading? Let me know; I’ll feature some reader picks next month. Keep well.