Beach Reads, Murder & Mayhem.

NYT Summer Thrillers

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review feature “Murder, Betrayal, Sweet Revenge: A Summer’s Worth Of Thrillers” could prod any mystery/crime fiction fan to head straight to the bookstore. Laura Lippman’s Lady In The Lake was treated to a full page review by none other than Stephen King, a fellow who’s knocked out a book or two himself. King’s review opens with an anecdote about Edmund Wilson’s 1945 essay in which the critic dismissed most detective and mystery fiction as little more than crossword puzzles, wondering why anyone would even care who-killed-who (insert a novel’s victim here). Well, as King rightly pointed out, clearly millions care, evidenced by the many, many millions of mystery/crime fiction books sold in the nearly 75 years since Wilson first rankled readers with his snooty observations. And, as King further explained, he cared specifically who killed Eunetta Scherwood and Tessie Fine, whose mid-1960’s Baltimore murders are investigated by Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz in Laura Lippman’s Lady In The Lake.

Lady In The Lake

Terri Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child and several other thriller writers responded to the Times’ question, “What’s the most memorable murder you’ve ever dreamed up?”, with some pretty grisly (and funny) answers. Author Lisa Gardner explained where a thriller writer goes to research her latest murder in “A Visit To The Body Farm”, forensic anthropologist Bill Bass’ University Of Tennessee three-acre wooded Anthropology Research Facility which contains nearly a thousand decomposing corpses, ready for educational use by budding crime lab students. (Ugghhh.) Ross MacDonald and Tina Joran put together a two page “Murder Map” (the illustration sans callouts shown here) with an exemplary true crime book highlighted for each of the fifty states. It’s like a mystery/crime fiction enthusiast’s centerfold pinup, suitable for hanging over your writing desk or reading chair.

NYT Book Review

And after reading multiple mystery/crime fiction reviews, there was Kate Tuttle’s piece, certainly the most thought provoking in last week’s edition. Tuttle notes that over 70 percent of Amazon’s  true crime book reviews are by women, and her essay “Why Are Women Such Devoted Readers Of True Crime?” recalls grisly summer camp serial killer storytelling: “When the lights go out, we talk about what scares us: The near miss, the victim that could have been us.” Kate Tuttle wonders, “Why did we thrill so to these stories? What possible benefit could we derive from hearing about someone like us who had met the worst possible fate – not dying from a freak accident or a sudden illness but dying the way girls are killed: Intimately, sexually, compulsively, fueled by jealousy or entitlement or rage?” The question wasn’t fully answered, perhaps, leaving us all to ponder it on our own.

NYT Summer Thrillers 2

 

Mystery Scene

Mystery scene

Finding a new issue of Mystery Scene magazine in the mail is just like getting an unexpected present. I spent a pleasant Sunday evening with this new Winter 2019 issue, as well as the morning after to finish it up (once through the pre-dawn Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru en route to work, the car eater going full blast this Monday AM). I haven’t read anything by the cover story feature, Laura Benedict, but plan to now. Many writers have peculiar rituals as part of their work habits. Benedict’s compelled to clean and de-clutter her house from top to bottom before commencing a new novel. “Horace McCoy: Noir’s Forgotten Founding Father” by Michael Mallory made me think about an unsung hero of the genre, McCoy not the most prolific writer, but the author of the Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They which made him a darling among the European literary philosopher set. Of course the issue had the usual features and pages and pages of new release reviews…all in all, a pleasant end to a cold weekend (and a helpful start to a frigid work week).

The Age of Light

 

The Age Of Light

No question: Mystery and crime fiction novels make up most of my reading, whether contemporary work, vintage treasures or even a few retro stinkers. But, of course, they’re not all that I read. An occasional horror novel creeps into my bookstore bag, often as not something gothic, and if it happens to feature a vampire, so much the better. Hey, we all have guilty pleasures. The past two years I’ve spent my share on politics/current events books, which a lot of people have done, apparently, based on the bestseller lists. I mean, with what’s been going on, how can you not? And I’ll even bring home a history book once every month or so, those typically from the library. As it happens, right now both books I’m reading (one nearly done, the other to start tonight) have nothing to do with the mystery genre. So lets be clear: Not some kind of mystery/crime fiction obsessive.

Well, not much.

The Age Of Light 2

Whitney Scharer’s The Age Of Light found its way home with me this weekend. I see it’s getting a lot of high profile press, spotting both short and lengthy reviews just yesterday and today in the Chicago Tribune, BookPage and The New York Times Book Review, each applauding the author’s choice of subject, though the NYT review wasn’t entirely glowing. Well, we’ll see, since I won’t plunge in till this evening. The Age Of Light continues a recent trend: Authors creating their own fictionalized retelling of the lives of famous men’s wives and lovers, the assumption being that since these women’s stories were overshadowed by their partners, they demand to be told…and there’s a lot of creative space for writers to simply make stuff up. In this case, the woman is Lee Miller, member of the decadent Parisian art and literary café culture between the wars, a Vogue model turned photographer, then war correspondent and surrealist photographer Man Ray’s lover. Sure, the blurbs and reviews tease with the expected business about an unforgettable heroine discovering her independence, self-transformation, disrupting the male-centric 1930’s art scene, etc., etc., and if it’s all that, I bet it’ll be a good read. Fingers crossed!

Flatlands Noir: Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

This week’s announcement that Netflix cancelled Marvel’s Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter was bitter news for many loyal fans. But I’m certain we’ll see Ritter in other projects. That is, if she has the time for acting. I mean, it’s not enough to be a successful model turned actor turned cult icon? She has to be a writer too? (And clearly a damn good one.)

Krysten Ritter’s 2017 debut novel Bonfire was an impressive debut, and like many reviewers said, I ‘burned’ through it. Sorry, but that’s not an exaggeration. I really couldn’t put it down.

I’m going to label Bonfire ‘flatlands noir’ — not set among cornfields, pastures or picturesque farm houses, but the small town Midwest, multiple states filled with unknown burgs that have been bypassed by the interstates and left largely jobless when their local lifeblood factories shuttered in the early 2000’s. They’re too far from the city to be a suburb or even ‘exurban’, devolving into a bleak world of main streets lined with empty storefronts, Walmarts and Dollar Stores lurking on the outskirts of town where lonely two lane highways might seem like routes to something better, but only vanish into empty horizons. Author Ritter’s bio tells us she grew up on a farm before being discovered in a shopping mall and packed off to New York to start a successful modeling career. I sense that she adhered to that time-honored writer’s advice to ‘write what you know’ with her debut novel. The book feels authentic throughout with the author offering what may well be firsthand experience of small town life. Krysten Ritter’s Barrens, Indiana setting felt as real to me as countless off-the-highway towns that are sprinkled across the maps of Illinois, Wisconsin or Ohio and that I’ve driven through on business or en route to getaways and vacations.

Krysten Ritter

Flatlands Noir? Well, suffice to say that bad things can happen anywhere, and you don’t need to be in the dark back alleys of New York or the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles to find trouble. Trouble will find you. Even in Barrens, Indiana, which is where Bonfire’s heroine, Abby Williams, finds herself. But Abby’s no stranger to aptly named Barrens. It’s where she grew up, or more correctly, where she fled from, to a new life as an environmental attorney in Chicago, complete with a hipsterville office and a sleek apartment where she can indulge in an array of meaningless one night stands. Investigating an industrial pollution class action suit involving one-industry Barrens’ leading employer, Abby’s met with suspicion by some, hostility by others, and even old friends are hiding secrets about scandals from Abby’s youth. Ritter deftly interweaves multiple story threads dealing with Abby’s strained relationship with her father, dangerous corporate intrigue, a years-old tragedy and even murder. You can enjoy Ritter’s Bonfire as a conventional page-turning mystery or as a harsh look at contemporary small town USA. Either way, I suspect that, like me, you’ll be eager to see another book from Krysten Ritter, and I’m betting she has another in her. Watching the way she took seemingly unrelated plot lines and deftly wove them all together as the novel plowed through to its climax was truly impressive.

Acting? Hell, table that for a bit and get to work on another novel, Krysten, if you’re not already.

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