Julia Keller is using the slow, steady approach toward becoming one of the best crime writers in the business. Some people rocket to the top, some build their way up more gradually – it’s a real pleasure watching Keller’s ascent. In her fourth novel (to my mind, her strongest yet) she focuses on the murder of a developer in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. The dead man had been campaigning to buy up land for a shiny new resort in Acker’s Gap, where, like much of Appalachia, the scenery is gorgeous and free, but the life is hard and brutal with a tanking economy, thanks to the demise of mining.
It’s no secret that I have a bias against slumming “serious” authors who try to write mystery books. They seem to believe that any idiot can produce crime fiction, so maybe it’s time they dashed one off themselves and finally achieve the money and success they deserve. Most of them, however, have not been prepared by their MFA programs to deal with such necessary matters as plot, pacing and suspense,and their well honed abilities to evoke suburban anomie, critique consumer culture and describe changing foliage are of scant use. Clearly, I’m disposed not to like such efforts and I usually don’t, even the ones that many people rave over, like John Banville’s Benjamin Black series.
I generally read one book at home and a different one at work. Recently the home book was an old one, Wylder’s Hand, the 1864 “sensation novel” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and the store book was brand new, David Bell’s The Forgotten Girl. Strangely enough, I didn’t get very far in either of them before I realized that despite a span of 150 years, they had the same basic plot. I call it “the mysterious disappearance,” and even though it’s an ancient story, going back at least as far as Persephone, perhaps the original Gone Girl, it’s very much in the air these days, especially since we’re all about to ask where the heck the warm weather went to.
Adolescence is, if nothing else, a time of high drama. Part of it is, of course, those crazy hormones coursing through young bodies, but there’s also a definite lack of perspective – without a substantive field of experience, small things can loom very large while important ones appear insignificant. The resulting hullabaloo can be comic, but there is also the occasional tragic result such as teen suicide, school shooting or other lapses in judgment that can shadow an entire lifetime. And when things go bad, no one captures the angsty existence of today’s teens with more vivid power than the immensely talented Megan Abbott, as evidenced by her latest excellent effort The Fever.
Julia Keller’s first novel was a knockout, and this second book in the series may even be better. She brings an amazingly assured voice to her storytelling, reminiscent very much of Sharyn McCrumb’s classic ballad novels. The thing is, McCrumb wrote those after she’d cut her teeth on her (admittedly great fun) Elizabeth McPherson books. While Keller has been a journalist and has written a non-fiction book, she plunged into novel writing full speed ahead with the first in this series, A Killing in the Hills.
On a recent train trip to Chicago, with the expected Amtrak delays, I had plenty of time to read, and in fact finished this whole novel on the ride. It was an absolute inhale – I couldn’t put it down, and half way through my trip started rationing the pages so I wouldn’t finish too quickly. To me a great book recommendation is: when you are reading this book, you are looking at the dwindling number of pages left and saying “oh, no.”
This novel fits in nicely with some recent, creepy thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner, and the great S.J. Bolton’s Dead Scared. So, you are forewarned.
You know how back in the 30’s and 40’s there was a famous “Detection Club”, with members like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh? That was the so-called “golden age” of detective fiction. I think the U.K. now needs a new club for writers – “The Creepy British Women Mystery Writers Club.” Either it’s something in the water over there or a national predilection, but it can’t be a coincidence that writers like S.J. Bolton, Sophie Hannah, Jane Casey, Denise Mina, Mo Hayder, Tana French, Val McDermid (and I’m sure there are others) are producing such genuinely disturbing books that they almost make you flinch to open them. All of these women are the direct descendants of the great Ruth Rendell, who could teach just about any of them the meaning of the words “concise, yet creepy.”
Krueger has long been one of my favorite writers – and he’s a favorite of many of our customers as well, who are often annoyed when another Cork O’Connor book doesn’t appear quickly enough. From the very beginning I’ve been captivated by this writer’s prose and the depth of character he’s is able to convey. And of course, he’s a wonderful mystery writer, good with suspense, action, and plot twists. That’s a rare enough combination that Krueger is one of the best in the contemporary mystery field.
Jenny Milchman’s atmospheric debut novel would probably make you feel a chill even in August. Set in a tiny Adirondack town, main character Nora Hamilton wakes up one morning to find her whole world blown apart. She’d been happily married to a police officer – one terrible morning she finds he’s hanged himself in the attic.
From there, it’s almost as you are with Nora on her confusing journey of grief and revelation as she tries to figure out why her apparently happy and loving husband would have done something like this. Of no help are her cold, stand-offish mother-in-law; any cop in town, most of whom tell her to stay home and get better; or her own parents, who are whisked off canvas almost immediately.
Laura Lippman keeps growing as a writer. For a reader, this is a true delight, and each novel is something of a surprise. She’s hewing more, lately, to the standalone model than to the Tess Monaghan novels that started her career, and she has plenty to say. This novel is both a good story and a nuanced look at ethical behavior and choices.
Her central character is Heloise Lewis, who, it quickly becomes apparent, is a high class madam in the Heidi Fleiss mode. Making the novel a look at the politics of prostitution from the opening scene, Heloise overhears a conversation in line at the Starbucks about the recent suicide of a “suburban madam”. As she challenges the easy assumptions of the couple behind her in line, she’s really challenging her own assumptions. The articulation of her thoughts to a strange couple merely starts her own thought process.