Current trends in crime fiction: the books, part one: domestic/psychological suspense, police procedurals by and about women, and classics and reissues
I kicked off the proceedings on Saturday by referring to Terrence Rafferty’s article in last summer’s Atlantic Magazine. It was entitled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” One could quibble with such a blanket generalization, but he does a lot to bolster his contention:
Once upon a time, in the smoky, violent neverland of crime fiction, there were seductive creatures we called femmes fatales, hard women who lured sad men to their doom. Now there are girls. It started, of course, with Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 suburban thriller, Gone Girl, told a cruel tale of marriage and murder and sold a zillion copies.
( I like the term “suburban thriller,” but I was, alas, a Gone Girl dissenter. I found both the characters and the writing so irritating that I was unable to finish the book.)
Rafferty is somewhat wistful concerning the prior hegemony of the tough guy private eye:
For those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from time to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit, this is actually a welcome development, because the men with guns don’t do their job nearly as well as they used to. They’re old, they’re getting tired of walking through those doors, and the heroes they used to threaten—lone-wolf private eyes like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—have practically disappeared from the genre.
He confesses, though, that “I do still go back every now and then to the eccentric sleuths inspecting corpses in locked rooms, or to the hard-boiled dicks walking down their mean streets, but only as an exercise in nostalgia.” (As one who is prone to similar attacks of nostalgia and who is currently reading The Moving Target, Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, I understand how he feels.)
At any rate, let us proceed with Trend Number One:
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross
II. Police procedurals by women (and featuring women as investigators):
The Red Road by Denise Mina
The Trespasser by Tana French
A Man of Some Repute and A Question of Inheritance by Elizabeth Edmondson. These are the first two books in a series called A Very English Mystery. I’ve recently read both and enjoyed them a great deal. Sadly, with only these two entries completed, Edmondson passed away in January of last year. Her son, writer Anselm Audley, has committed to finishing a third book in the series. I’m grateful to him for this. I became very attached to the characters created by Edmondson: the brave yet tenderhearted intelligence operative Hugo Hawksworth, his feisty and precocious little sister Georgia, the snobbish and secretive Lady Sonia, the wise Father Leo, and the beautiful and generous Freya, who has secrets of her own.
British Library Crime Classics
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon. Farjeon jump starts this gem with one of the best set-ups I’ve ever encountered in crime fiction.
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, ed. Martin Edwards
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne features a wonderfully evocative Highland setting, great characters, and a great puzzle plot. Probably my favorite of those that I’ve read so far in this series.
Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North
Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, edited by Sarah Weinman (Weinman puts out a highly informative newsletter called The Crime Lady. I subscribe to it and recommend it.)
(Felony & Mayhem Press currently has a whopping twenty Allingham titles in its catalog.)
The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth. If you’re a Miss Marple fan like me, you’ll enjoy Miss Silver novels like this one.
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham. A delight from beginning to end. No wonder Allingham is A.S. Byatt’s favorite Golden Age writer. Here’s an excerpt:
The room they entered was a typical Cambridge study, aesthetically impeccable, austere, and, save for the two deep arm-chairs before the fire, slightly uncomfortable. As they entered, a wire-haired fox terrier of irreproachable breeding, rose from the hearth-rug and came to meet them with leisurely dignity. Marcus effected an introduction hastily. ‘Foon,’ he said. ‘Written “Featherstonehaugh”.’
Somewhat to his host’s embarrassment Mr Campion shook hands with the dog, who seemed to appreciate the courtesy, for he followed them back to the hearth-rug, waiting for them to be seated before he took up his position on the rug again, where he sat during the rest of the proceedings with the same air of conscious breeding which characterized his master.
Margery Allingham struggled with her weight all her life; my reading informs me that she had thyroid problems. Whatever he cause, she has my complete and total sympathy on that score; moreover, I think she is very pretty, regardless.
The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of 30s. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper – than making long distance calls The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.
The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep
The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross MacDonald. This is the first Lew Archer I ever read – recommended to me by a close friend, a holder of a doctorate in comparative literature who taught Spanish at Columbia – and it is still my favorite. There’s a scene in this novel that has remained forever etched in my memory:
The striped hearse was standing empty among other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
The book cover above puts me in mind of the line from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun….
Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carre. The first two George Smiley novels were actually mysteries with a touch of espionage. (I particularly liked the latter, with its setting in a private boys’ school and the attendant claustrophobia and mutual knife thrusting among faculty members.) With the third, the justly famous The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, that emphasis shifted dramatically. The novel caused a sensation and le Carre found himself famous, his sudden renown being greatly aided by the terrific film starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.