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.
I prepared this list of online resources to accompany my presentation of Current Trends in Crime Fiction.
Articles and blog posts
A teen was kidnapped as a newborn. She knew for more than a year, authorities say. (Relates to the novel What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross)
Sites of interest
The most useful site on the internet for information on crime fiction. It not only gives the order of books in a series but also provides information about location, ethnicity of protagonists, and loads more. (See the column on the site’s left hand side.) Not to be missed by mystery fans!
I’m currently having a great deal of fun putting together a presentation on mysteries for my AAUW colleagues. The first title I chose was “Hot trends in Crime Fiction!” I then decided to tone it down a bit; it is now “Current Trends in Crime Fiction.”
Having achieved that much, I then sat back, contemplated the general state of things, and asked myself in all seriousness what those trends might be. This list is what I’ve come up with so far:
Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
Classics reissues and rediscoveries
International authors and settings
Use of actual historical personages as detectives
Regional mysteries (U.S.)
Increasing presence of women protagonists
Diminishing number of police procedurals
“Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
This is by no means definitive, but at present, it seems reasonably workable. (I’ve already penned three posts on the subject.)
It then occurred to me to see if this subject had been tackled elsewhere. As expected, the internet came through with “A History of Detective Stories: Current Trends.” This essay begins with a general assessment of the genre and then moves to a discussion of the challenges posed to mystery fiction by rapidly emerging technologies.
The subgenre that most appeals at the moment is listed above as “Classic reissues and rediscoveries.” I recently wrote a review of The D.A. Calls In Murder, the first entry in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s Doug Selby series. I’ve now read the second and the third – The D.A. Holds a Candle and The D.A. Draws a Circle – and my enjoyment has increased with each perusal.
As I mentioned in the review cited above, these books are hard to find. I’ve been getting them via interlibrary loan from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a wonderful facility which since 1971 has been designated as the (Maryland) State Library Resource Center. Alas, as the series progresses, the volumes themselves are proving to be increasingly fragile. As I was reading in bed the other night, I noticed small pieces of dark brown paper appearing on the blanket. These proved to be escaping from the book’s binding. I prodded the larger piece back into place, but it showed no great inclination to remain there. Now Pratt seems blessedly reluctant to discard books like this, but I can’t help feeling that I might be the last person to borrow this poor decrepit entity.
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying about this series is its artless evocation of a bygone era. In the era between the two World Wars, Southern California was already undergoing some dramatic changes, yet the orange groves, apple orchards, small towns, (like the fictional Madison City where Doug Selby plies his trade) and country roads were still a vivid presence.
The sheriff drove rapidly over the grade, out of the orange lands into the app;e country, and then down a gradual slope between snow-capped mountains to where the country abruptly changed from fertile soil to arid desert.
The dialog is snappy, but Gardner does not overdo the noir lingo. Doug Selby is a very appealing protagonist. Alongside him works Sylvia Martin, intrepid reporter. (Think Lois Lane of Superman fame.) In many noir novels and stories, the only woman on the scene is the perennial femme fatale, so Sylvia’s presence is refreshing, to say the least.
In the climactic scene of The D.A. Draws a Circle, she and Doug, along with the sheriff, become embroiled in a shoot out. Doug is trying to protect her, while she’s quite literally fighting him off. Later she apologizes – after a fashion:
“Gosh, Doug, I’m sorry I kicked at you. But you’re not the only one with a job to do. If I want to take risks, I’ll take them. I had to be in at the finish.”
Selby said, “You’ll stop a slug one of these days, and then what would I do?”
She said indignantly, “I’m just as much entitled to stop slugs as you are.”
“You’re a woman,” Selby said.
Sylvia Martin said, “Well, well. You’re finding that out, are you?”
Oh, yes, he certainly is….
The Selby novels are by and large composed of such dialog exchanges. They move along at a rapid clip; I’m finding them to be excellent escapist reading.
There are moments, though, when Gardner waxes unexpectedly poetical:
Passages like this are welcome, as they’re so rarely encountered in this context.
This particular trend may not be as hot as it was in the heyday of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (published posthumously in 2005), but it’s still with us. For one thing, we continue to be fairly inundated by the Scandinavians. My long running favorites among them are Karin Fossum of Norway and Kjell Eriksson of Sweden. Jo Nesbo, also of Norway, is a perennial favorite of many crime fiction readers.
Icelandic authors have been receiving favorable notices: Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason. And I’ve just learned of yet another from the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: Ragnar Jonasson. Author of the Dark Iceland series – consisting so far of Snowblind and Nightblind – Mr. Jonasson is the recipient of the 2016 Mörda Dead Good Reader Award.
Currently I’m intrigued by a new (or newly translated) series written by Harri Nykänen. It’s set in Finland and features Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crime Unit; he’s identified by StopYoureKillingMe.com as “one of only two Jewish cops in the country.” Thus far, the first two series entries, Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back, have been translated into English. I’ve just started Nights of Awe and it looks promising. Right off the bat it provides a vivid illustration of the challenges to English-speaking readers that can be posed by novels such as this:
Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.
Well, I’m glad he caught that tram; the spell checker was about to have a breakdown!
Last year, the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group focused mainly on international titles. As a result, we had some exceptionally good reading. My favorites were The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden), and A Possibility of Violence by D. A. Mishani. I’m especially eager to read Mishani’s next entry in the Avraham Avraham series. The title in the States is The Man Who Wanted To Know Everything; it was released in this countryr on November 8 of this year.
The international crime fiction scene can be roughly divided into two categories: novels in translation and novels written in English and set in a foreign land. With regard to this latter category, the author is often one who over the years has acquired a deep knowledge of the locale in which his or her stories unfold. My favorite example of this scenario is Martin Walker’s series, Bruno, Chief of Police. As each of these novels unfolds, the reader is transported to the beautiful Perigord region in the south of of France. Indeed, while immersed in these delicious entertainments, I often give myself over to transports of delight: the scenery, the history – starting with the prehistory, the intriguing characters – oh, and the food!
The latest in the series is entitled Fatal Pursuit. As always, the communal life of the village is vividly depicted; it make one envious of what these people possess.
“Crepuscule, one of the loveliest words in our language, for one of the loveliest times of the day just as it gives way to night,” the baron said softly, gazing at the shifting planes of red and crimson light on the river. “Sitting here with wine and food and surrounded by friends as generations must have done before us in this very place, makes all the world’s troubles seem very far away.”
Immersed in the rich history of the region, the baron adds:
“Sometimes I imagine the prehistoric people sitting here on the riverbank, sharing their roast mammoth or whatever it was and watching the sun go down just like us.”
Concluding his reverie, the baron raises his glass in a toast: “‘I drink to them, whoever they were’.”
The baron has been conversing with Bruno, who knows hinself to be lucky to work and live in this caring and vibrant community. Among his many tasks, he’s in the process of training up his basset puppy, the wonderfully named Balzac, to hunt for black truffles, the diamonds of the Perigord.
Young as he was, Balzac seemed fearless, ready to chase away even a big fox. Feeling a sudden burst of affection, Bruno knelt down to stroke him and tell him what a fine hunting dog he would be.
A scene that encapsulated in a nutshell why I love both Bruno and Balzac.
With regard to French crime fiction: on the other hand…
Pascal Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge opens with a sympathetic portrait of a recently widowed woman in her sixties. Eliette Velard finds herself unexpectedly alone in the country house in which she and her husband had planned to live for the duration of his retirement years. She is melancholy but determined to make something meaningful of the years remaining to her. The pace of novel’s plot is at first quite leisurely, with Eliette meticulously preparing a jardiniere, a dish of thickly cut fresh vegetables. Cooking is followed by eating, which in turn is followed by a nap. Meanwhile, the nature of the countryside exerts its beneficent influence:
By the time she woke up, the rain had stopped. A baby-blue sky extended as far as the eye could see. There was a smell of washing powder in the air, of sheets drying on the breeze. In the garden the bay leaves were fringed with water, each droplet holding a ray of sunshine within it. All around, the mountains were steaming, streaked ochre and purple and foaming minty green to freshen the wind’s breath.
Oh, good, I thought: a slow-paced, reflective character study with, as Dorothy L. Sayers would say, ‘detective interruptions.’
Boy, was I wrong! First, there’s the apparition of sudden passion, followed by a neighbor gone inexplicably rogue, and…well, I invite you to read it and find out for yourself (available as a Kindle download for $8.99).
Of course, we cannot leave the subject of crime fiction in La Belle France without a nod and a salute to Georges Simenon. I’ve read and liked several of the so-called romans durs – Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion – but the go-to books for me are the Maigret titles. I find it oddly consoling to spend time with L’Inspecteur and his team, all steady workers not prone to hysterics or high drama. And then there’s Madame Maigret, so low key she is almost no key, cooking and cleaning in their apartment on Boulevard Richard le Noir, cosseting her husband as if he were the child they never had.
Penguin’s reissues of these treasures, with newly commissioned translations, continue to appear with gratifying regularity. The latest one I’ve read is Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret Se Fâche), translated by Roz Schwartz. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in Meung-sur-Loire, at the Maigret’s country house, where they’ve begun spending summers since his recent retirement.
It was cool inside the house, where there was a pleasant smell of wax polish, cut hay, ripening fruit and food simmering on the stove. It had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover that smell, the smell of his childhood, of his parents’ house.
Inevitably, as with so many fictional detectives, retirement proves temporary. Maigret is soon summoned back into the thick of things, this time with a troubled family where death has paid a highly suspicious call.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this subject in this post. The most comprehensive list of international crime fiction that I know of can be found on the StopYoureKillingMe site. Similar information can be found on Eurocrime. For several years now I’ve enjoyed G.J. Demko’s Landscapes in Crime. Demko, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, passed away in 2014; nevertheless, his site is still accessible online and is well worth visiting.
In 1984, a book about the early music revival came out. It was entitled Reprise and was co-authored by Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata and Herbert Snitzer. It iwas a delightful work whose its first chapter is “The Avant Garde of the Distant Past.” I love the way that phrase rolls off the tongue! This elegant locution has been recurring in my mind as I think about the resurgent interest in classic mysteries.
This is a trend that was kick started by the British Library’s series Crime Fiction Classics. The reissue in 2014 of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story – originally published in 1937 – proved to be a runaway success, an unexpected and happy development in the British publishing world. I read it, loved it, and immediately wanted more of the same – or at least, something similar. My wish was soon granted: new entries in the series were rolling off the presses at a brisk tempo.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstones, put it nicely:
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.”
I’ve written about this gratifying phenomenon in previous posts. At the risk of repeating myself – and because, after all, we have entered the season of gift giving – I’d like to note first of all the titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in the British Crime Classics series:
A couple of comments in passing: Capital Crimes and Resorting To Murder are short story collections. And if I had to pick my absolute favorites from among the above six, they would be Mystery in White and Murder of a Lady.
Reading in the British Library series has led to the reading of other classics. An appreciation by A.S. Byatt of the novels or Margery Allingham led me to Police at the Funeral, a witty and thoroughly enjoyable take on the English country house mystery featuring the unflappable Albert Campion and his “man,” the resourceful if cantankerous Magersfontein Lugg, called simply – and often – ‘Lugg’ by his boss.
Another favorite, highly recommended is The Emperor’s Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr. (I also read this author’s The Judas Window, which exemplifies Carr’s renowned cunning in the crafting of locked room mysteries. I did not, however, like it nearly as much as Snuff-Box.)
Finally, two terrific novels of psychological suspense: Before the Fact is the book on which Hitchcock’s film Suspicion is based. As for Mist on the Saltings, it deserves to be much better known than it is. I was alerted to the excellence of Henry Wade’s works by a post on Martin Edwards’s blog. Edwards calls Mist on the Saltings “a study in character that was ahead of its time.” I agree.
The most recent pleasant surprise for me in this category is a book called The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner. Yes, that’s the Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame. I’ve never read any of the novels featuring this most famous fictional defense attorney, but just about everyone from my generation remembers the TV show starring Raymond Burr.
More on The D.A. Calls It Murder in the next post.
This is the title I’ve selected for a program I’ll be presenting in the not too distant future. I was pleased – probably too much so – with myself for coming up with it.
Once the first few moments of self-satisfaction passed, I began casting about for content. I came up with this list:
- Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
- Classics reissues and rediscoveries
- International authors and settings
- Use of actual historical personages as detectives
- Historical mysteries
- Regional mysteries (U.S.)
- “Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
I was immediately filled with unease. Are these trends necessarily hot? Are they especially new? Are they even trends, properly called? And what about that pert little exclamation point? Perhaps I should at least modify the punctuation, e.g. ‘Hot new trends in crime fiction?’ But what a woeful lack of confidence is betrayed thereby!
More often than not, domestic suspense involves a family menaced by a threat from outside (and sometimes, from inside) the family unit. Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me is a good example of the subgenre. Gone Girl, a book I couldn’t get through, is, from what I know of it, yet another, and can possibly be credited with jump starting the present trend.
Another book that could possibly fit into this category is What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross. I’d never heard of this novel until it was chosen by one of my book groups. The plot hinges on a kidnapping rather than a murder. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story grabbed me. Both the kidnapper and the circumstances are unusual, but the motive behind the crime is all too understandable. The abduction occurs near the beginning of the narrative; the description of the fallout from it is very compelling. My emotional response was unexpectedly strong.
It should be mentioned that domestic suspense is more often written by women, with a woman as the featured protagonist. The Library of America’s two volume edition of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s contains some excellent examples. This collection was curated by Sarah Weinman, whose knowledge of this field is deep, as is her enthusiasm for it. (Last year the Usual Suspects discussed one of the novels included in this collection, Margaret Millar’s Edgar winner Beast in View.)
These mid-twentieth century works provide a neat segue into the subject of crime fiction classics. Stay tuned…