About a year ago, in this column, I asked readers to recommend unreliable-narrator thrillers as good as Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” Since then, I’ve read many of those titles, some of them very good — but still, sometimes you just need to go back to that icy well. So I read it again, early this month — and yes, I’m still shivering.
You never again get your first time with “Gone Girl” — I remember audibly gasping, somewhere around Page 215, back in 2012. But diving back into this tale of a toxic marriage was nonetheless invigorating, and revisiting it was a surge of what I imagine skilled mechanics must feel when they lift the hood of a beautifully designed car: i.e., let’s get in here and see how this thing works.
Flynn’s tale of Amy and Nick Dunne begins with Amy’s mysterious disappearance, unfolding over its first half with Nick’s increasingly panicked narration interspersed with Amy’s diary entries. This is a marriage, we learn, built on quicksand; neither Nick nor Diary Amy are reliable narrators, and about the best that can be said for them is that they deserve each other. Rereading Flynn’s carefully crafted tale, which has something devastating wrapped in its frozen core (can you imagine, Amy asks the reader, “finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?”), you’re not surprised but you’re still dazzled — by the meticulous details of the setup and elaborate scattering of breadcrumbs; by the way Flynn makes you care, in spite of yourself, about what happens to these awful people; by the way that the world falls away when you’re reading it, even when you know exactly what happens.
But you can’t spend all your time rereading favorite books, so I plucked something new off a bookstore shelf. (Yes, I have too many books at home already. But you have to support local bookstores, right?) “When No One Is Watching,” by Alyssa Cole (published earlier this year from William Morrow) had an irresistible description on its back cover: “‘Rear Window’ meets ‘Get Out.’” It’s a little weird to compare a book to two movies, but I can confirm that if “Rear Window” and “Get Out” got married and had a baby that was a book, it would indeed be “When No One Is Watching,” which takes place in contemporary Brooklyn and combines a page-turning thriller with shrewd social commentary on race, gentrification and greed.
Sydney, the central character (Lupita Nyong’o? Tessa Thompson? Letitia Wright? This book badly needs to be a movie.), is a woman with secrets; she lives in her mother’s brownstone, in a neighborhood once full of multigenerational Black families but now rapidly changing. Why are longtime residents suddenly disappearing? Why are the mattresses on the curb “quickly being followed by moving trucks”? What is it that makes Sydney perpetually on guard; waking up in a bed that seems like it’s been shaken? And is new neighbor Theo, who says he shares her interest in neighborhood history, friend or foe?
Cole, whose work I was reading for the first time, is a bestselling author whose books span several genres, including historical romance (“An Extraordinary Union”), contemporary romance (“A Princess in Theory”), science fiction and thriller. Reading “When No One Is Watching,” I felt like I was on those Brooklyn streets, peering out windows while hoping no one was peering back at me — which is exactly the sort of feeling we want from crime fiction.
Also among new books read this month, a true-crime saga: “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper (just out this month, from Grand Central Publishing). While a Harvard student years ago, Cooper became obsessed with the story of Jane Britton, an anthropology graduate student murdered in 1969. Rumor had it that Britton was killed by the professor with whom she was having an affair — who still taught at Harvard. The book is the result of more than a decade of digging, and of one young woman’s obsession with another.
And, though a bit overlong, it’s fascinating, in its careful examination of both the crime (Britton was, mysteriously, found covered in red ocher, a substance often used in ancient burial rites) and of the way that crime reverberated — in the Harvard anthropology department and in the world at large, which tends to have a fascination with the deaths of pretty young white women while simultaneously silencing their stories. Cooper makes herself part of the story, looking closely at why she was so drawn to Britton. “Here I was thinking that I was bearing witness to her story, while the truth is, she was watching over mine,” she wrote. “Shaping it. Guiding me, like we were dancing.”
And finally, last month I asked if any of you were making your way through a series start to finish, inspired by a friend of mine who’s nearly through Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series. Alongside the usual shoutouts for Cleeves’ various series, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Ian Rankin’s Rebus books and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series — all of which are terrific, but they get recommended a lot — here were some of your lesser-known suggestions:
- The Bakeshop Mysteries, by Ellie Alexander. Set in Ashland, Oregon, this 11-book series (the 12th is out in December) features a crime-solving pastry chef with the excellent name of Juliet Montague Capshaw. (Special points for some nicely punny titles, particularly “Nothing Bundt Trouble.”)
- The Lane Winslow series, by Iona Whishaw. Whishaw’s seven-book series is set in the post-World War II years, and its plucky heroine is a former spy who starts a new life in a small British Columbia town.
- The Sean Duffy series, by Adrian McKinty. Set in 1980s Northern Ireland during The Troubles, McKinty’s acclaimed police procedurals featuring a Catholic detective are one of several series from this author.
- The Slough House series, by Mick Herron. This spy series — eight novels, three novellas — take place in a department of MI5 agents rejected from the main office for various offenses. Which is to say that they screw up a lot. Word is that these are great fun.
- The Cliff Janeway series, by John Dunning. I quite like the premise of this five-book series, published 1992-2006: Janeway is a former homicide detective turned rare book dealer, and each installment in the series involves rare books as well as crime.
Stay safe; stay well read. And keep sending me your crime-fiction favorites!