The Plot Thickens

Long ago, the bookshelf in my bedroom featured an unbroken line of yellow bindings.

They were Nancy Drew books — stories about the adventures of a dauntless teen detective — and I devoured them like French fries. My sister and I, as preteens, avidly collected and swapped them; there were dozens of them, in a series in which Nancy never seemed to be a day older and was never the worse for wear despite frequently getting bopped on the head in the course of her detecting/snooping. “Suddenly Nancy blacked out!” was a sentence I seem to remember occurring at least once in every book — in the course of her detecting/snooping. The books unfolded along familiar lines: something (a person or a treasured thing) went mysteriously missing; the unflappable and “Titian-haired” Nancy went looking; trouble ensued; threats were issued; danger lurked; plentiful italics were employed; and ultimately Nancy and her friends saved the day.

I haven’t read a Nancy Drew mystery in decades, but I’ve been thinking about them this week, as I pondered this first installment of my new monthly column about crime fiction (and, occasionally, crime nonfiction). (Adam Woog will also continue to write about crime fiction, with a monthly column listing his five top picks for the month.)  Because I think those Nancy Drew books, silly and predictable as they were (anyone else remember Nancy’s blandly idiotic boyfriend Ned Nickerson?), were the gateway to a lifetime of fascination with reading about crime.

Detective novels are, for me, a sort of literary comfort food; a respite from real life — in which problems aren’t always neatly wrapped up — and a chance to walk in the sensibly shod footsteps of a crime-solver (ideally one a little more sophisticated than Nancy), analyzing clues and side-eyeing witnesses and, ultimately, making the world a tiny bit better. I also love stand-alone literary thrillers — Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” is the one that immediately pops into my mind, but every season brings terrific ones, most recently Laura Lippman’s “Lady in the Lake” — that provide an intense reading experience; wrapping things up less tidily, leaving a tingle of unease in their wake. And the best of true-crime books, not hastily written potboilers but thoughtful examinations of why and how a person steps into darkness, thrill me and haunt me, letting me slip into a mind and spend uneasy time there.

I hope we’ll talk a lot, in and around this column, about our favorites in the genre. To give you an idea of my tastes, here are three of my most recent crime-themed reads.

Heaven, My Home” by Attica Locke (on sale Sept. 17; read her previous, Edgar Award-winning book “Bluebird, Bluebird” while you wait). I’ll be writing more about this book in my fall books roundup (coming next month!), so I won’t reveal much here. Suffice to say that Locke’s beautifully written crime fiction (which also includes “Pleasantville,” “Black Water Rising” and “The Cutting Season”) have a remarkable immediacy — you breathe with the characters and walk in their paths. In this one, a black Texas Ranger (Darren Mathews, the troubled, irresistible hero of “Bluebird, Bluebird”) is assigned to the case of a missing child — whose parents are avowed white supremacists.

Conviction” by Denise Mina. I heard Scottish writer Mina speak at the Vancouver (B.C.) Writers Festival years ago, and haven’t missed a book of hers since; she’s wickedly funny in person, and her work, though on the darker side of the detective-novel spectrum, has a looseness to it, a sense of a writer absolutely comfortable in letting her story sprawl. Though she currently has two ongoing series — featuring police detective Alex Morrow and investigative journalist Paddy Meehan — “Conviction” is a stand-alone, and it feels as fresh as a fall breeze. An Edinburgh homemaker is fascinated by true-crime podcasts, until she listens to one with a startling connection to her own past. I sat up VERY late reading this one, dazzled by how effortlessly Mina spun a complex web.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” by Casey Cep. This one’s nonfiction, but it earns that ultimate compliment: It reads like a novel. The author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” had a book she never finished: “The Reverend,” an “In Cold Blood”-style true-crime book about a rural Alabama preacher whose wives and family members kept turning up dead, in mysterious circumstances. Cep takes us deep inside the case (the Rev. Willie Maxwell’s life would make a great movie), showing us why Lee devoted many years of her life trying to tell this story — and of how the mystery of “The Reverend” continues to this day.


Other crime-fiction authors whose books I never miss (and/or frequently reread): Tana French, Elizabeth George, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, Benjamin Black (John Banville’s crime-fiction pseudonym), Anthony Horowitz, Sue Grafton (I’m still mourning the too-soon end of the Kinsey Millhone series).

Crime books currently on my nightstand pile: Sujata Massey’s “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” Michael Connelly’s “Dark Sacred Night,” Laura Purcell’s “The Poison Thread,” Alafair Burke’s “The Better Sister,” Adrian McKinty’s “The Chain.”

Please share your crime-fiction (or true-crime) favorites with me! This grown-up Nancy Drew is excited to explore the dark side with you — on the page, at least.