Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

Posts tagged crime fiction

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Favorite Crime Fiction of 2013

Since some folks asked, here’s my list. It was an excellent year for crime novels by women, and based on my reading of 2014 galleys so far, next year will be as well.

The Best, in Alphabetical Order

Save Yourself, Kelly Braffet: I’m not certain why this novel didn’t merit more attention throughout the year, because it’s a tough yet deeply empathetic look at all sorts of broken families, a broken Rust Belt town, the pernicious effects of bullying, and the desperate need to belong to somebody, even if that somebody is the worst person you could possibly choose. Months later, I still think of the inevitability and the heartbreak of the ending. It had to be that way. It shouldn’t have been that way.

If You Were Here, Alafair Burke: Her novels, especially the standalones, are among the best descriptions of what it is to live in New York City right now. Burke also excels at showing the intersection between technology and human behavior, especially here, in this story of a disgraced lawyer-turned-journalist’s plunging into the decade-old disappearance of her best friend and finding out how little she really knows her husband.

There Was an Old Woman, Hallie Ephron. A terrific example of contemporary domestic suspense that features a fantastic nonagenarian heroine (and a cool thirtysomething co-protagonist, too) determined to keep her Bronx apartment from the grabby hands of developers and the sinister actions of unknown forces.

The Silent Wife, A.S.A Harrison: I’ve read this book twice and eagerly await doing so again and again, which is a testament to the power of this psychological suspense novel, my favorite work of crime fiction (ETA: of this year! Dorothy B. Hughes still owns “favorite crime novel ever.). Harrison, who did not live to see the book published, clearly invested much of her emotional and intellectual self in crafting this beautifully tense tale of Jodi and Todd, a long-term couple so bent on keeping up appearance they notice the rot from within when it’s too late to salvage what once worked.

The Devil in Her Way, Bill Loehfelm. I’ve been so bored by most police procedurals of late that it is so, so good to read a cop novel about a woman who struggles with the reality of beat policing, with the socioeconomic realities of her neighborhood (in post-Katrina New Orleans, to boot) and with her own demons, but not in a cliched manner. The second in the Maureen Coughlin series, and I want more books now.

The Wicked Girls, by Alex Marwood: Did you love Laura Lippman’s EVERY SECRET THING? Then you will also love this book, which riffs on the same criminal source material but does so in its own distinct and empathetic manner. Stephen King loves this book too.

Reconstructing Amelia, Kimberly McCreight: a mother’s worst nightmare when her teen daughter falls off the school roof. Is it suicide, murder, or accident? A text message suggests foul play, and she comes to realize she never knew her daughter at all. What I particularly loved was its utter contemporary, technology-infused approach to suspense storytelling.

Norwegian by Night, Derek Miller: I read this book very late in the year and am so glad I sneaked it in. Another excellent elderly protagonist, this time struggling in a new country (Norway) with declining mental faculties and still grieving his beloved wife, who summons up his Korean war veteran past for one last stand in order to protect the boy who lives next door from gangsters, abusive parents, and others. This novel won the Creasey Dagger for best first novel in the UK, and totally deserved that honor.

How the Light Gets In, Louise Penny: my boredom with police procedurals melts away when I read Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, which do something a little different each time out. This installment, she presents some of the most heart-in-throat suspense drawing from hacking computer systems. And a spin on the Dionne quints. Read this, and then the whole series.

Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda: a lovely and gritty ode to Red Hook, that waterfront Brooklyn community changed by gentrification and both brought together and driven apart by the nighttime hijinks of two teenage girls, one who returns home, the other who does not.

Those That Nearly Made the Cut

Graveland, Alan Glynn — the latter-day Parallax View
Claire deWitt and the Bohemian Highway, Sara Gran - reinvigorating the private detective novel, a much-needed move
Ghostman, Roger Hobbs — great voice, pure adrenaline
The Next Time You See Me, Holly Goddard Jones — keen psychology and domestic suspense in a small town
Ratlines, Stuart Neville — semi-historical Irish crime fiction, with Nazis

Obligatory disclosures:

The Silent Wife was acquired and edited by Tara Singh, my main editor on Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. The Wicked Girls was acquired by Tara and largely edited by Emily Murdock Baker, who steered TDTW to publication after Tara briefly left Penguin. Alafair, Kelly, and Hallie are friends of mine, and I happen to like their books a great deal. Pretty sure everybody else except Derek Miller I’ve interacted with in some form or another in real life or on social media, because the crime fiction world is a small one.

Filed under lit crime fiction best of 2013

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Next month marks the 13th anniversary of the “Darkness in Paradise” conference hosted by Club Med, aka the greatest American crime fiction gathering I never went to, and possibly ever. Among those who attended: Harlan Coben (tasked with organizing) Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, James Crumley (left, gesticulating), George Pelecanos, Peter Robinson, Ed McBain (his arm around his wife Dragica, hidden behind Marilyn Stasio, grinning in the blue shirt), Nevada Barr, and Steve Hamilton. This would make for the most perfect oral history, even if Crumley’s take will, regrettably, have to be cobbled from earlier interviews. In the meantime, here’s what Lippman had to say about it back in 2007. 

(photo via the defunct website of specialist publisher Dennis Macmillan, wearing the red Hawaiian shirt.)

Next month marks the 13th anniversary of the “Darkness in Paradise” conference hosted by Club Med, aka the greatest American crime fiction gathering I never went to, and possibly ever. Among those who attended: Harlan Coben (tasked with organizing) Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, James Crumley (left, gesticulating), George Pelecanos, Peter Robinson, Ed McBain (his arm around his wife Dragica, hidden behind Marilyn Stasio, grinning in the blue shirt), Nevada Barr, and Steve Hamilton. This would make for the most perfect oral history, even if Crumley’s take will, regrettably, have to be cobbled from earlier interviews. In the meantime, here’s what Lippman had to say about it back in 2007.

(photo via the defunct website of specialist publisher Dennis Macmillan, wearing the red Hawaiian shirt.)

Filed under Club Med Darkness in Paradise Lit crime fiction laura lippman james crumley Marilyn Stasio

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Davis pointed out that mystery readers divide pretty evenly by sex. Women almost universally prefer the polite society murders they find in hard covers in lending libraries: men favor the hard-boiled paperbacks that they find on the newsstands.

“Men,” she said, “seem to find excitement in a sequence of violent action. Whereas women like the read about gentlemen, which they don’t find in paperback fiction and possibly not in real life either.”

Mrs. Davis pointed out that in the paperback field, except for Agatha Christie, men have it all over women. But women hold their own in the hard cover field, in which three of the major editors are also women. “Most literate mysteries,” said Mrs. Davis, “are written by Englishmen or women.

Dorothy Salisbury Davis discoursing on the state of the mystery-reading world in an interview from 1959. Or, she grokked what domestic suspense was better than I could.

Filed under dorothy salisbury davis lit Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives domestic suspense crime fiction

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By the necromancy of modern journalism, a gracious young woman had been transformed into a dangerous siren who practiced her wiles in that fascinating neighborhood where Park Avenue meets Bohemia. Her generous way of life had become an uninterrupted orgy of drunkenness, lust, and deceit, as titillating to the masses as it was profitable to the publishers. At this very hour, I reflected as I lumbered to the telephone men were bandying her name in pool parlors and women shouting her secrets from tenement windows.
From Vera Caspary’s 1942 novel LAURA, the basis for the famous movie and still utterly, sadly, spot-on about so many things, especially on women’s struggle for acceptance in a man’s world.

Filed under Vera Caspary Laura lit crime fiction media

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Another Reason I Will Have a Busy Fall Season

Abiding by my unofficial adage that “if it’s listed on Amazon, the book exists”, I can finally announce this: On October 8, Touchstone will publish INHERIT THE DEAD, a suspense novel written serially by a number of excellent crime writers. People like Mark Billingham, Lawrence Block, Ken Bruen, Alafair Burke, Marcia Clark, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen L. Carter, Lee Child, Max Allan Collins, Linda Fairstein, James Grady, Heather Graham, Charlaine Harris, Bryan Gruley, Sara Paretsky, SJ Rozan, Dana Stabenow and Lisa Unger. And also, me.

When I got the email invite last summer from Jonathan Santlofer, who conceived of and edited the project, I had to stare at it a few times. You want me for this? To keep company with this great roster of writers? The apprehension probably lasted about six seconds before I said yes. And as it turns out, the chapter was a total, absolute blast to write. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book and see what everyone else involved did to start, move along, and end the story, which is a private detective tale very much in the hardboiled tradition. All royalties from INHERIT THE DEAD will be donated to Safe Horizons. And there will be much more information, including a launch party date, closer to publication time.

Needless to say, between the serial novel and the anthology, there’s a lot going on this fall…

Filed under lit crime fiction serial novel Inherit The Dead announcements

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The Crime Reading List For Those Who Read and Loved GONE GIRL

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 (, 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.

Filed under Gone Girl Gillian Flynn crime fiction lit lists domestic suspense

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Women Who Hate Men Who Hate Women

That was the title I wanted to use for my newest “Dark Passages” column for the Los Angeles Times, but in hindsight it would have worked as well as Stieg Larsson’s original title for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - which is to say, a little too on the nose. But at the same time, we do need to keep having this on-point discussion about why the current crop of misogynistic behavior (or, as I term it in the column and countless times in private, “post-misogyny”) is so prevalent, tolerated, and even embraced in some quarters. Anna Holmes’ NYT editorial on Charlie Sheen gets at this. The excerpt of Kay Hymowitz’s book that was published in the WSJ gets at this to a lesser specific degree, with a broader overall context.  And the very existence and popularity of the Millenium Trilogy is rooted in misogyny 2.0, as I explain in the column:

the key to why the books have sold close to 50 million copies worldwide is that the hyperkinetic, Asperger-esque, quasi-sociopathic amalgam of archetypes that is Lisbeth [Salander] leads the reader through teachable moment after teachable moment of violence against women until the culminating, and cathartic, trial sequence in “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” — and we, the readers, are redeemed by and are complicit with Lisbeth’s resultant triumph./p>

As such the two excellent crime novels I discuss - Cara Hoffman’s SO MUCH PRETTY and Taylor Stevens’ THE INFORMATIONIST - delve into the issue in very different ways, since Hoffman’s writing more of a social novel and Stevens an out-and-out thriller. But so long as men keep hating women, and society not only tolerates, but applauds this, we’re going to keep seeing, and needing, novels that obliterate this sentiment because we can’t get rid of it in our own lives, and in our own selves. 

Filed under lit misogyny post-misogyny Lisbeth Salander Stieg Larsson Cara Hoffman Taylor Stevens crime fiction