September 3, 2011KR BlogKR

“Somebody being dead and how it moves along”

Weston Cutter’s recent interview with George Pelacanos has got me thinking about detective fiction. I recently moved to a new city, and last week went to my new local independent bookstore looking for some detective fiction to keep on hand for when I’m in need. I read a ton of detective fiction, more so than I’ll own up to and at least three or four times as much as I ever even tell Goodreads. But for the past 30 years or so, my detective fiction habits have been fed by a couple huge bookcases of my mother’s, where I cut my teeth on Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Dickinson, then as an adolescent John Le Carre (OK, not the same shelf but nearby), and in more recent years have raided the P.D. James, Henning Mankell, and others… But now I’ve moved a couple hundred miles away, and at this new bookstore I had an experience I haven’t had in a while: I stood staring at the shelves, no idea what to get.

This never happens to me in the literature section–I might spend forever there figuring out how to, on behalf of my budget, narrow things down, but after all these years of reading, writing, working in publishing, graduate school, etc. I no longer have that feeling I had as a 20-year-old, where I looked at a huge shelf and thought: But how would I know where to start? So as I stood in the mystery section last week, awash in back cover text and blurby adjectives, I was thinking about how I wished there was more of a critical apparatus for so-called genre fiction (with a nod to Marilyn Stasio’s classic and great NYT column). I’m sure there are excellent online venues I don’t know about. But I wish that in all this reading about books I already do, I got to read more about these kind of books, too.

So today I’m going to do my part and point at some detective novels I’ve known and loved. Then please feel free to tell me what to read next. In this way, we can avoid the difficulty faced by detective-fiction-lover Gertrude Stein (from whom the title quote is taken), who bemoaned, “if you want to read one a day well not one a day but one every other day, say three a week and if you are willing to read over and over a lot of them even then there are not enough to go around…”

Tana French: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place. All set in Dublin, featuring an overlapping cast of characters, different protagonists in each. Tana French is a treasure. I wish she would write a book every year, although I know they’re too good to rush. I wish she would write a book every month, actually, and give it just to me. The first novel is perhaps my personal favorite, but they’re all stunners, with gorgeous characterization and a profound, disquieting sense of human motives. Edan Lepucki at the Millions recently wrote an essay on French’s plots.

P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I read this long ago, but it stays in my mind as my favorite James and an all-time favorite. Its heroine Cordelia Gray came back once (in The Skull Beneath the Skin) but this is her best appearance.


Kate Atkinson, the Jackson Brodie mysteries: Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News? It took me a while to warm up to these–Case Histories was beloved as it came out, but for whatever reason I like the third best. Atkinson’s style is witty and expansive, and beneath the dark humor there’s a complex compassion. Double bonus points for having both strong female characters and great dogs. Wait, on that note: I see there’s a new Brodie just out, Started Early, Took My Dog. Added to the list!

I just read Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, sequentially the first in English of three novels featuring Harry Hole (the name doesn’t fare well in translation, it’s true). (In Norwegian there are two other novels featuring Hole preceding this one.) Gripping, cleanly written (and translated), and both genuinely moving and genuinely suspenseful.

Friedrich D??rrenmatt: I read one of his novellas, the classic Der Richter und sein Henker [The judge and his hangman], in German as a teen, and only just discovered that this novella is one of several of D??rrenmatt’s mysteries to recently have been translated and released by the University of Chicago Press.

Benjamin Black (John Banville’s crime-writing pseudonym). Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, Elegy for April, and A Death in Summer. I’ve only read the first two. Set in Ireland in the 1950s, and featuring as sleuth the medical examiner Quirke. (Black also wrote The Lemur, which was serialized in the New York Times Magazine, but I prefer the Quirke’s.) Occasionally the writing is stronger than the plot, but how much of a complaint is that, really. And for those interested in the pseudonymous, see this recent essay in the New Yorker on Banville & Black.

And as I write this I realize that really my next stop should be a crime-fiction treat I’ve yet to take advantage of, Melville House’s international crime subscription: 12 books for $100, “a year of hardboiled reading”–maybe not quite a year at Stein’s pace, but a fantastic start nonetheless.