While slowly making my way through the extremely long list of crime-fiction authors recommended to me by readers last month (feedback on that list, by the way, is now in the How Dare You Not Include My Favorite Author stage; please, everyone, let’s make The Plot Thickens a place of love), I thought I’d go old-school.
Along with reading James Lee Burke’s “The Neon Rain” this month for my Seattle Times book club — it’s the 1987 debut of detective Dave Robicheaux, and very noir-y — I picked up a handful of novels by classic early-to-mid-20th century crime writers. All made for good reading on these crisp autumn afternoons and evenings — though such a diet made me wary, reading with a careful eye out for shadows, corpses and Mysterious Strangers.
Before this month, I hadn’t encountered much Agatha Christie in my reading life; just “Murder on the Orient Express” when the movie came out a couple of years ago, and maybe one or two others in my teens. “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary (published in 1920, it’s the debut of famously mustached Belgian detective Hercule Poirot), seemed a good jumping-off point to get reacquainted.
Written when Christie was still in her 20s, “The Mysterious Affair” revolves around the suspicious death of a British dowager who appears to have been poisoned. And it’s very “Downton Abbey,” in its time period and in its setting of a grand English country home filled with siblings and servants and various hangers-on — all of whom, in true Christie fashion, have MOTIVES. I read it pleasantly imagining the hats and enjoying the introduction to Poirot, who’s given to extravagant gestures, meticulous grooming and the occasional frolic on the lawn when he’s particularly pleased about a case’s progress. “And, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Poirot here, arrested you would have been, as sure as eggs is eggs!” says someone, employing an expression I thoroughly intend to steal. All very good fun, and I look forward to more Poirot soon. (By the way, if you love Christie, I recently read an excellent biography of her: “Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life” by Laura Thompson. It just came out in paperback this past summer.)
Moving forward a few decades: Several readers recommended Josephine Tey’s books, so I remedied my complete lack of Tey fluency with the 1950 novel “Brat Farrar” (not her best-known work — that’s “The Daughter of Time” — but the one that happened to be waiting, in a secondhand copy, at my neighborhood bookstore). This one’s less a mystery than a thriller, in which a young orphan impersonates the presumed-dead heir to a British country estate. I found myself quite pulled in from the opening pages, in which sympathetic Aunt Bee is described as having “a face like a very expensive cat,” all the way to the not-unexpected but still engrossing revelations of the last chapter. It’s like Christie — the British country setting, the array of characters — but a bit darker and richer; these characters feel less like they’re performing and more like they’re just existing. I was touched by Tey’s description of her central character, alone in a rented room, hanging up a new suit with “orphanage neatness.”
Leaving the English countryside behind, I ventured into Europe, where the American writer Patricia Highsmith set a seemingly unlimited number of taut, chilling novels of murderous Americans abroad. (You probably know “The Talented Mr. Ripley” from the excellent 1999 movie; she also wrote the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” More recently, the film “Carol,” with Cate Blanchett, was inspired by Highsmith’s early novel “The Price of Salt.”) Highsmith’s 1967 novel “Those Who Walk Away” — one I hadn’t read — was on the remainder table at Elliott Bay Book Co. the other day, and I wasn’t about to walk away without it.
Nobody does cat-and-mouse quite like Highsmith; here, the feline and rodent are Ray, a young widower whose wife has by all indications killed herself, and Coleman, the dead woman’s grieving father. The former just wants to get on with his life, but the latter suspects Ray had a hand in his daughter’s death — and off they go, tracking each other across the streets and canals of Venice. It always seems to be nighttime in this book, with dark water malevolently sloshing nearby, and flickering street lamps casting shadows where a predator might lurk. This wasn’t my absolute favorite Highsmith novel — the back-and-forth goes on a tad too long — but oh, that atmosphere.
And finally, a number of readers recommended the Martin Beck series of mysteries by Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö — a married duo who wrote 10 books in the series, and who are credited by many with originating “Nordic Noir.” “Roseanna,” published in 1968, was the first in the series and I read it with great interest, if not necessarily enjoyment. This police procedural involving a murdered young woman felt oddly dated, and overall a bit too coldly graphic for my taste. (I felt the same about the Stieg Larsson series. Maybe Nordic Noir isn’t for me.)
But Beck, the central investigator, is a fascinating character. He’s that rare literary detective who seems deeply troubled by the cases he investigates; he’s often feeling tired or ill, as if he carries the horrors he witnesses in his body. His marriage is failing — “Years had passed since they had really talked” — and he lives for the slow, meticulous rooting out of evil, one perp at a time. Remember, he tells himself, “Words like repulsive, horrible and bestial belong in the newspapers, not in your thinking. A murderer is a regular human being, only more unfortunate and maladjusted.”
My secondhand copy of “Roseanna,” by the way, had “return to Joseph” written on the front page; a tiny mystery, likely unsolvable. Joseph, if you’re out there, I hope you’re reading something good.