So I’m not yet certain if Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL is my favorite crime novel of 2012, but it will almost certainly be up there. And so far I’d say it’s a favorite of a great many people thus far, hitting #2 on the NYT bestseller list its first week out, tons and tons of raves/ongoing reads in my Twitter feed, etc. And Flynn’s book is a sign of what people crave and what they want in crime fiction: books that take risks, present characters whom you identify with (even as you may not necessarily identify with their actions), a plot with a ton of surprises, excellent writing, sharp humor, dark doings, and something “extra.” Frankly, while I’ve become bored with a lot of the standard mystery fare (years of writing columns will do that — again, a good time to repeat that Marilyn Stasio is a force of nature to be admired, she’s been at the NYT thing even longer than the great Anthony Boucher was) I am really jazzed about a growing group of female crime writers who are stretching the genre in wonderful ways, their voices and concerns setting an awfully high bar for debuts to come.
Anyway, you’ve heard of GONE GIRL, read it, loved it, now what? Here are some suggestions, largely women but also some men who fit the bill:
IN A LONELY PLACE, Dorothy B. Hughes (1947) — my all-time favorite crime novel, as close to perfect as these things come. Very different from the (excellent) 1950 film. Do you want to know how to write a narrator who so completely fools himself but the reader knows exactly what is going on? Then read this book. Other great Hughes novels: RIDE THE PINK HORSE, THE EXPENDABLE MAN (soon to be reissued by NYRB Classics!)
BEAST IN VIEW, Margaret Millar (1958) — Currently, foolishly, out of print. A woman gets mysterious phone calls that drive her to the brink. Except there’s a whole lot more going on. She was married to Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald) and actually published before he did but is rather neglected now. I also have a feeling THE FIEND (1964) would qualify, what with bringing us into the mindset of a child molester (!) with empathy (!!) but I haven’t read that yet. Soon, though. Same with STRANGER IN MY GRAVE (1960).
Basically anything by Patricia Highsmith, but the Ripley novels are too easy so I’ll suggest DEEP WATER or EDITH’S DIARY. And Joan Schenkar’s thorough, almost operatic biography, THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH, published by St. Martin’s a few years ago.
THE SPECIALTY OF THE HOUSE AND OTHER STORIES, Stanley Ellin (1978) — OOP, but probably not for long. The vast majority of Ellin’s short stories collected in one volume. Do you want all manner of moral dilemmas and psychological insights? Ellin was the goddamn man. Also his 1958 novel THE EIGHTH CIRCLE is the best private detective novel I have ever read because it’s about existential dilemmas and moral quandaries — and whether love can, indeed, save people - more than cases.
Two short series of masterpieces published in the 1980s — the Hoke Moseley novels by Charles Willeford (start with MIAMI BLUES, three more follow) and the Factory novels by Derek Raymond (start with HE DIED WITH HIS EYES OPEN, work your way through to the utter gobsmacking visceral horror that is I WAS DORA SUAREZ, and read DEAD MAN UPRIGHT because you have to finish the series.)
MIAMI PURITY, Vicki Hendricks (1995) — basically THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE from a woman’s perspective. And darker. Yes, you heard right. Also CRUEL POETRY.
NICE, by Jen Sacks (1998) — A nice girl has a bit of a problem: she can’t actually break up with anyone, so she kills them. Jen never published another book, though I know she worked on at least one other. It came out in the midst of chick-lit-mania and was a beautiful embrace/subversion of the whole Bridget Jones thing.
the TART NOIR Anthology (2002) — a long, long time ago in Internet years, a handful of female crime writers felt they weren’t getting their due, so they banded together for a website (TartCity.com, which published my first hilarious, ridiculous, probably embarrassing but whatever article on how to be a writer groupie) and then recruited others for this anthology. Lauren Henderson, Stella Duffy, Laura Lippman, Val McDermid, Chris Niles, Karin Slaughter, and pretty much everyone else included are worth tracking down and reading. God it is weird to look back on this with “nostalgia” since Tart Noir was what helped me as an early 20something. Wow, that felt bizarre to write. But it’s true. Could there be a Tart Noir 2.0 some day? And how would it look? Who would it include?
OUT, Natsuo Kirino (2002) — Not enough of Kirino’s work has been translated for me to judge, but this is the standout. A woman kills her husband and three of her co-workers help dismember the body and dump it, and someone else seems to know, but who? So very creepy. So very brilliantly executed. I still remember how horrified I felt as I read it a decade ago.
Speaking of Laura Lippman, her upcoming book AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD (August 14) is really freaking great, about a suburban madam who has to reckon with her past and the careful facade she’s built to raise and protect her son. I will say no more. Until then I would recommend most everything she’s written but in particular I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE (2010) EVERY SECRET THING (2003) and TO THE POWER OF THREE (2005), as it gets into the noirish tendencies and behavior of teenage girls.
Megan Abbott has cornered the “dark desires of teenage girls” territory too with the upcoming DARE ME and THE END OF EVERYTHING, but before then she was doing period noir, of which the best is clearly BURY ME DEEP, though it’s all really good.
I guess I can’t entirely leave out the Scandinavians, so my suggestions would be Karin Alvtegen (GUILT, SHAME, BETRAYAL, MISSING, etc.) and Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer novels.
Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg novels, which might look like standard procedurals but are much stranger.
Also be prepared to hear a ton about Attica Locke. I loved her debut BLACK WATER RISING and her next book, THE CUTTING SEASON, is even better. No wonder Dennis Lehane made it his first choice for his Harper imprint. So look for that on September 18, it’s an excellent mystery with great characters, a boatload of history about slavery and murder, and much more.
Somewhat obvious, more recently published choices: All the Jackson Brodie novels by Kate Atkinson; all of Tana French’s work (THE LIKENESS remains my favorite) Sophie Hannah’s Zailer/Waterhouse series (though to be fair, I think she could tell the same amount of story and cut at least 1/3 of a book down, but YMMV); all three novels by Emily St. John Mandel; Hilary Davidson’s THE DAMAGE DONE and THE NEXT ONE TO FALL; Erin Kelly’s THE POISON TREE and THE DARK ROSE; Elizabeth Hand’s GENERATION LOSS and AVAILABLE DARK; Christa Faust’s THE MONEY SHOT and CHOKE HOLD; Katie Kitamura’s THE LONGSHOT and GONE TO THE FOREST; Sara Henry’s LEARNING TO SWIM; and onwards.
I have made some tactical omissions and some accidental ones, but this was meant to be a starter list, not necessarily a comprehensive one.