Mystery writers have always, throughout time, held an unflinching mirror to their contemporary society. Alex Marwood, much like her brilliant contemporary Laura Lippman, is exceptionally good at this. I think one of the keys is not to hold the society or whatever parts of it you are writing about in actual contempt. There’s an element of familiarity, that, if done well, should make a reader uncomfortable. Of course mysteries also add in the element of an extreme event, obviously a murder, and the reactions of the characters to this event factor in to the plot. If done well you are putting yourself in the shoes of the characters and feeling maybe the fit is a little too close.
Laura Lippman’s thoughtful new standalone novel, Wilde Lake, assumes the structure of Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird but brings the story into the present day. The book is very much Lippman’s own, but the shadow of Mockingbird hovers. It enables the reader to consider both more deeply. In Lippman’s incarnation, which opens with an act of violence involving the narrator’s older brother (even ending in a broken arm, as Jem’s act does) all the moving pieces are there. Lippman centers her story on young Lu, who lives with her widowed father and her older brother in the newly created suburb of Columbia, Maryland, an attempt at a Utopian suburb, down to the outdoor structures designed by Frank Gehry.
A stolen passport will only get you so far.
That memorable first sentence reintroduces us to one of my favorite protagonists, Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary. Hard Light, the third installment in the misadventures of our anti-heroine, follows closely on the heels of the excellent previous volume, Available Dark, as we find Cass in full flight from that book’s violent denouement in Iceland, the aforementioned passport in hand. It belongs to the junkie ex-girlfriend of Quinn O’Boyle, Cass’s elusive long lost love, briefly re-found and then just as quickly lost again. Quinn plans on slipping into the country separately, having giving Cass a piece of paper with a man’s name and the name of a pub as her only guide to their hoped for reunion.
This is a true coming-of-age finding-yourself novel, a genre I sometimes find irritating, but I liked this one as it also illuminated a little examined culture. Dahl sets her first novel in Brooklyn, featuring fledging reporter Rebekah Roberts. Rebekah is a “stringer,” sent out wherever her paper thinks she can score a quote from someone involved in a breaking story. This finds her all over the city and as our story begins, it finds her in her own section of Brooklyn where a woman’s body had been found by a crane in a scrap metal yard.
As with Tana French, I have a love/hate relationship with Sophie Hannah, an extremely talented writer who nevertheless (like Tana French) tends to dilly-dally a bit in the middle of her books. Hannah’s books are a series but the series characters are merely a very loose binder for the truly spectacular set-ups Hannah comes up with. She’s one of the best in the biz when it comes to setting up a story, and I imagine that’s why she was chosen to continue writing Christie’s Poirot books.
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.