Best Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Fiction – May 2017

books

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Because reading a bad novel seems, well, criminal, we can thank Bill Ott at The Booklist Reader for wading through the enormous output of crime, thriller, and mystery fiction to come up with his list of top books of the year, 5/1/16-4/15/17. He admits to ignoring some long-running series, in favor of bringing to light less familiar authors and work. So, from his list, in alphabetical order:

  • The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, by J. M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim – part of a growing shelf of fiction set in North Korea—home base for alternative facts—where the mechanisms of the state purposefully distort the lives, minds, and hearts of the people. Gil-mo has escaped, following an adventurous trail through several countries. Now he sits wounded in a New York City jail cell, while the authorities try to answer the question, is he a murderer and a terrorist or a mathematical genius?
  • Celine, by Peter Heller – Celine is nearly 70, a private investigator with an oxygen tank, who specializes in missing persons. A “captivating, brainy, and funny tale” full of suspense, it’s set in the beautifully described Yosemite National Park. As in so many investigations, her quest is for more secrets than the fate of a nature photographer presumed killed by a grizzly.
  • Dark Side of the Moon, by Les Wood – Ott compares the zingy dialog of this novel about the theft of a diamond to that of Donald E. Westlake (author of the classic jewel-theft caper, The Hot Rock). It’s told from the  point of view of one of Glasgow’s notorious crime lords. Wood honed his crime-writing skills concocting detection challenges as a teaching tool for his physiology students at Glasgow Caledonia University.
  • Darktown, by Thomas Mullen – Set in post-World War II Atlanta, the story follows an unauthorized murder investigation by two newly hired black cops, at a time when “one-quarter of Atlanta policemen were, in fact, members of the Ku Klux Klan,” said Mullen in an NPR interview. They were supposed to patrol only the black neighborhoods, many of whose residents “saw them as toothless sellouts.” This story of men under pressure is already in line to become a television series.
  • Let the Devil Out, by Bill Loehfelm – “The most compelling, complex patrol cop in the genre” is Loehfelm’s New Orleans rookie Maureen Coughlin, on the trail of a white supremacist militia. This is Loehfelm’s fourth book featuring his smart and strong protagonist, with the gritty, corrupt, fascinating city of New Orleans her frowzled co-star.
  • Razor Girl, by Carl Hiassen – another laugh-out-loud story displaying “Hiaasen’s skewed view of a Florida slouching toward Armageddon.” The super-cool Merry Mansfield may be a scammer, whose trade is phony auto accidents, but when she rear-ends the rental car of the agent to a TV reality star, a high-profile mess ensues, richly peopled with Florida characters, including disgraced detective Andrew Yancy, eager to redeem himself.
  • Revolver, by Duane Swierczynski – Set in 1965, 1995, and 2015, this three-generation crime story is a “bleak, powerful tale of corruption,” Ott says, and shows how long a family will persist in trying to resolve a tragic murder. Crimespree Magazine likens the book’s style and its portrayal of the city of Philadelphia (“a character unto itself”) to the master, Dashiell Hammett.
  • What We Become, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte – In 1928, Max works ocean liners as a tango dancer with an eye for the ladies and their jewelry. Pérez-Reverte “drinks freely from many genres: historical epic, Hitchcockian thriller, and deliciously sexy love story,” Ott says. His affair with the beautiful but married Mecha Inzunza flares, then fades. Eleven years later their paths across again in France, when Max becomes involved in a risky espionage and her husband away, fighting in Spain.

Edgar Winners 2017

The Mystery Writers of America recently announced its 2017 Edgar winners. As last year, none of the nominees for “best novel” were in Ott’s list, which to me is evidence of the quantity of good writing out there. Awarded an Edgar for “best novel” was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley and for “best first novel” was Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry. Two other truly excellent novels in the latter category, reviewed here, were Dodgers by Bill Beverly and The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie.

Be sure to check out the “Book Reviews . . .” tab above to find more in the crime/mystery/thriller genre.

Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.