The Plot Thickens
Funny thing: You ask people to tell you their favorite crime-fiction authors — and they do. In droves! After asking readers, in my original column last month, to give me some recommendations, I now have a list of more than 240 authors — many of them new to me. The name that most frequently popped up was Louise Penny, whose Inspector Armand Gamache series I have indeed read (much of it, anyway) and enjoyed. Quite a few of you took me to task for not mentioning her in my inaugural column; to which I can only say: hey, the crime-fiction world is vast and I’m just scratching the surface with a dead man’s fingernail. (The preceding was my attempt to sound hard-boiled. I’ll work on it.)
Anyway, many thanks to all who sent recommendations, which should keep me reading for the rest of my life and then some. (Is there crime fiction in the beyond? Does one NEED crime fiction in the beyond?) For those wanting names, here are two dozen who received three or more votes from readers: Jussi Adler-Olsen, Benjamin Black, Cara Black, Alan Bradley, James Lee Burke, Ann Cleeves, Michael Connelly, Colin Cotterill, Karin Fossum, Elizabeth George, Elly Griffiths, P.D. James, Donna Leon, Peter Lovesey, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, Yrsa Siguroardottir, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Karin Slaughter, Fred Vargas and Jacqueline Winspear. Check them out! Perhaps I’ll make a The Plot Thickens bingo card.
Here’s a question, though: Do you like to binge read, when discovering a new detective series? That’s what I did, upon happily discovering Penny’s work a few years ago, and after devouring a handful of the books I found myself just a little tired of them. Same thing happened with Jacqueline Winspear’s series. I think that wasn’t Inspector Gamache or Maisie Dobbs’ fault, but mine. Maybe it’s better to spread things out a bit; for this reader, anyway.
In detective series, the authors have to balance a certain inevitable sameness — we read these books for the comfortable familiarity of hanging with someone we know — with a need to keep things fresh. Sue Grafton made a dramatic change midway through the alphabet with her Kinsey Millhone series; the books became significantly longer, and less private-eye caper than nuanced psychological thriller, employing a variety of narrative voices (not just Kinsey’s). I liked the change, for the most part, but I heard from readers who didn’t.
Pondering fictional detectives led me to think of a few other favorites (from adulthood, that is; you all know that Nancy Drew was my gateway). I think Walter Mosley’s 1990 “Devil in a Blue Dress,” featuring the debut of self-made detective Easy Rawlins (and the publication debut of Mosley himself), might just have been the book that drew me into grown-up crime fiction decades ago; I remember being dazzled by the moody jazz of the language and the vivid sense of time and place (Los Angeles in the late 1940s). The subsequent movie, with Denzel Washington, was pretty good too.
More recently, I’ve been enamored with Cormoran Strike, the detective at the center of Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s four-books-young series set in contemporary London. (And WHERE is #5, J.K.? We’re waiting!) “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the 2013 initial installment, was so good I think I instantly reread it, reluctant to let it go. Cormoran’s a wicked-smart disabled veteran (he lost part of one leg during his tour in Afghanistan) who’s perpetually broke, likes a pint, and has women troubles; his office partner Robin Ellacott is equally smart, efficient where Cormoran is sloppy, and has man troubles. Will they? Won’t they? Are they the Nick and Nora of contemporary crime fiction? “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the best of the four, but they’re all a treat. (Has anyone seen the “Strike” TV series, which is offered on a streaming service I don’t get? Is it good?)
And I recently made the acquaintance of a new detective whom I rather liked. Caz Frear is a British author whose “Sweet Little Lies” came out last year; I picked up the paperback (after initially confusing it with “Big Little Lies”) and found myself intrigued by her heroine, 26-year-old Metropolitan Police Force detective constable Cat Kinsella. Like many fictional detectives, Cat has a troubled past, but she also has an agreeably caustic tongue and a questionable approach to ethics, and I enjoyed following her through a Tana French-ish procedural plot involving the connection between a long-ago-missing girl and a recent murdered woman. Frear’s description of a showboating fellow detective of Cat’s — “boyband-handsome in a tedious, steam-cleaned kind of way” — is enough to have me looking out for her next book, “Stone Cold Heart,” which came out just a few months ago.
For next month, with the weather (mercifully) cooling, I think I’ll try out some Nordic noir. And, of course, James Lee Burke’s “The Neon Rain,” for my Seattle Times online book club. (Join us!) You?