The Plot Thickens

Sometimes, the book is better.

Like maybe a lot of you, I got pulled into “The Undoing” on HBO a couple of months back. A psychological thriller starring Nicole Kidman as a well-off New York City therapist and Hugh Grant as her debonair doctor husband who’s definitely not what he seems (and possibly may be a murderer), it was a series that promised a lot (think “Big Little Lies,” Manhattan version) and ultimately didn’t really deliver. (Except for Kidman’s character’s coats, which were sublime and which absolutely deserve to be spun off into their own series.)

But I was intrigued enough to seek out the novel the series was based on — particularly after reading that its author, Jean Hanff Korelitz, said in interviews that she had no idea how the series would end, as her book was quite different. Off I went to track down “You Should Have Known,” published in 2014 — and oh, it’s so much better. (Minor spoiler alert here.)

Like the series, “You Should Have Known” has therapist Grace at its center; unlike the series, it’s solely about Grace, because her husband Jonathan doesn’t appear at all — the story begins after his disappearance (Grace initially thinks he’s at a medical conference), and we only come to know him through Grace’s memories. And, since we’re not distracted wondering when Grant will show up and say something charming, we can focus on the book’s fascinating premise: how a woman who has based her career in telling others how to pick the right person can do exactly the opposite for herself, and how a picture-perfect life can excruciatingly unravel.

Having watched the series doesn’t spoil this book it all; it just makes you read it appreciating the book’s nuances (Grace and her family, for example, are nowhere near as wealthy as they are in the screen version), its perfectly spun tension, and its portrait of a smart woman slowly realizing her own blind spots. Check it out — and note that Korelitz has another literary thriller out in May, “The Plot.”

By intriguing coincidence (what is crime fiction if not intrigue?), I happened to read another suspense novel this month that had a very different translation to the screen — but in this case, both book and movie are terrific. Dorothy B. Hughes’ “In a Lonely Place,” originally published in 1947, was reissued a few years ago with a thoughtful afterword by Megan Abbott (another splendid spinner of psychological thrillers). It’s old-school noir, peppered with skies that look like “watered gray silk” and characters for whom “something was there behind the curtain of her eyes,” set in a bygone Los Angeles full of fog and cigarette smoke and secrets.

Dix Steele — yes, that’s his name, surely someone’s since borrowed it for a porn movie — is the heart of darkness at its center, a former World War II fighter pilot who’s in L.A. supposedly writing a novel, but his true pursuits are rage-fueled, under cover of those moody nights. Hughes puts us inside his head, inside that rage, letting us peek out at the world as he sees it. Though Dix’s consciousness isn’t a very nice place to visit, I loved Hughes’ hard-boiled prose, her moodily poetic descriptions of the city, and her unexpected heroine. In 1950, “In a Lonely Place” became a classic Nicholas Ray film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; its plot takes some significant turns from the book and it becomes an unexpected, heartbreaking love story, anchored by one of Bogie’s greatest performances.

And finally, in honor of Black History Month, a few recommendations:

  • I’ve mentioned Barbara Neely in this column before; she’s the author of the wonderful four-book Blanche White series, with an opinionated Black maid-turned-amateur-sleuth at its center. “Blanche on the Lam,” from 1992, is the opener. Neely, who died last year, was awarded Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America before her death.
  • Chester Himes (1909-1984) wrote in a variety of genres, but is best known for his Harlem Detective series: nine books, written mostly in the 1950s and ’60s, featuring NYPD detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Himes, who spent the second half of his life living in Europe, was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière prize in 1958. The 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem,” with Gregory Hines and Forest Whitaker, is based on his work.
  • Created by Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944-2010), police detective Marti MacAlister (a former Chicago cop who relocates to a small Illinois town after the death of her husband) was among the first Black female professional detectives of fiction. The 13-book series begins with 1992’s “Dead Time.”

As always, let me know what crime fiction you’re reading! Times are tough; reading helps. Stay well.