The Plot Thickens

The days are getting longer but there’s still plenty of time for darkness. Last month, I asked readers to recommend a detective series featuring an American female detective (I was missing Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone). Well, I may soon have to start a small business in which I solely crowdsource detective fiction, as the results were pretty great: More than 50 series were recommended, many of them new to me. Of those that got multiple votes, here are the three leaders:

  • Sara Paretsky’s series featuring Chicago private investigator V.I. Warshawski, beginning in 1982 with “Indemnity Only” and still going strong with nearly two dozen books. “It is clear that Sara deeply researches her topics,” wrote reader Dianne Latteman, “and the suspense in the books is amazing.” 
  • Nevada Barr’s series featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon — 19 books, beginning with 1993’s “Track of the Cat.” Each book is set in a different national park and it is almost an X-ray view of the park as well as a mystery,” wrote reader Rob Brewer. (By the way, how great an author name is Nevada Barr? It’s her real name; she was born in the state.)
  • Dana Stabenow’s Alaska-set series featuring investigator Kate Shugak — 22 books, beginning with 1992’s “A Cold Day for Murder.” Kate, an Alaska Native, is “one of the strongest and best-told female characters I’ve encountered in fiction,” wrote reader Alice Lockhart.

Also getting multiple kudos from readers of this column: Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli series (five novels and a novella), set in contemporary San Francisco; Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series (more than 30 books), also set in contemporary San Francisco; Iona Whishaw’s Lane Winslow series (nine books), set in the interior of British Columbia in midcentury; and Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series (20+ books), set in contemporary Quebec. (The latter is the inspiration for the TV series “Bones.”) And about 43 more that I don’t have space to list. It’s a remarkable achievement for an author to write a lengthy series, stretched out over decades, and keep the character and the writing fresh and interesting; so nice to know that so many of them are out there, still spinning stories.

Not part of a series (yet) but nonetheless impressive are two new books I read this month. “The Maid” by Nita Prose (a longtime editor based in Toronto) already had a movie deal — starring Florence Pugh, of “Little Women” and “Black Widow” — lined up before it even came out in January. Reading it, you can see why; it’s that rare mystery that’s both tautly suspenseful and unexpectedly charming. Molly, the main character, is a hardworking hotel maid who’s neurodivergent; she doesn’t always correctly read the social cues and subtleties of others. And so when she turns detective, to try to understand what happened after finding a dead body in one of the suites she cleans, things don’t go as smoothly as in the Agatha Christie novels Molly likes to read. This character touched my heart and I found myself reading the book with just a bit of anxiety, hoping that Molly would be OK. (Spoiler alert: she is, but you knew that.) Bring on the movie — and, perhaps, a sequel? — immediately.

Not many crime novels are set in the world of classical music, and even fewer of them from the perspective of a Black classical musician — two reasons to pick up Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel “The Violin Conspiracy.” The third reason is that once you pick it up, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. The book begins with Ray, a brilliant young violinist in training for the International Tchaikovsky Competition (I had to Google it; it’s a thing), learning to his devastation that his priceless violin, a family heirloom, has been stolen. To find out who took it, and why, we make our way back through Ray’s tough childhood and his music training; turns out quite a few people had a motive. Slocumb, himself a classical musician and music teacher, writes eloquently of the racism Ray has faced in a world where not many look like him, and equally beautifully of the music Ray loves: Vivaldi’s “Winter,” Ravel’s “Tzigane,” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. It’s a heartfelt whodunit with a glorious soundtrack; music seems to leap up from its pages.

For next month’s crowdsourcing, how about this: Recommend a detective novel that made you laugh out loud. Happy reading!