Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
As the nights grow longer and darker, there are many ways to sneak yourself into the seasonal mood: peruse mystery maven Janet Rudolph’s annual list of Halloween Crime Fiction; settle in with Tim Burton’s animated visual treat, The Nightmare Before Christmas; or snuggle under the duvet with Chris Ewan’s Halloween-related thriller Dark Tides.
The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking), the latest outing with the always-engaging Dublin Murder Squad, finds Detective Antoinette Conway trying to solve a grisly murder while keeping her fellow cops’ rudeness at bay: as the squad’s sole woman – and non-white to boot – she’s up against the worst of her colleagues’ petty pranks, and her self-imposed lone wolf status doesn’t help. But with partner Stephen Moran she’s got a true meeting of the minds: the way these two deftly bat theories and possibilities back and forth in their bid to figure out who committed murder and why is pure pleasure. Along with a riveting mystery, French perfectly captures the cerebral sparks and adrenaline rushes that drive these detectives to pursue their work, whether during interrogations, at their desks or in the field.
After misadventure and mayhem in Portland (see City of Rose), Rob Hart’s South Village (Polis) finds reluctant amateur PI Ash McKenna lying as low as he can in a semi-groovy, semi-grim commune deep in the woods of Georgia. He’s marking time, glugging cheap whisky and cooling his heels while waiting for his passport to turn up in the mail so that he can put the Atlantic between him and, well, pretty much everything. When a commune member charmingly known as Crusty Pete turns up dead, McKenna’s world turns on its head yet again, and only friendship from an unexpected – and faith-in-life restorative – source can save him. Excellent.
“I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr. Andrew Sinclair who since my incarceration here in Inverness has treated me with a degree of civility I in no way deserve.” A (mostly) fictional collection of witness statements, medical reports, and the account of 17-year-old Roderick Macrae incarcerated for murder, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Skyhorse) has rightfully landed on the Booker shortlist this year. There’s a crime, alright: a blood-splattered multiple murder in a tiny farming village in the Highlands of Scotland in 1869. But given the timeframe – set during the rigid realities of a feudal system, a no-way-out scenario for much of the population – there’s more than one crime to consider, and, in Roderick, Burnet has created an eloquent character who will stick with you long after the book is read.
In By Gaslight by Steven Price (FS&G), William Pinkerton, of Pinkerton Detective Agency fame and son of the famous Allen Pinkerton, is pursuing a lead. Adam Foole, gentleman with a much-checkered past, is pursuing a lady. Their paths cross in the dankest corners of Victorian London – including the skanky city sewers – in this sprawling mystery-adventure. It’s a mesmerizing and entertaining mélange: crafty Dickensian and Sherlockian touches abound, but so do perfectly-plotted art heists, Wild West-style ambushes and one hell of an open-air balloon ride over the killing fields of the American Civil War.
Shades of The Bourne Identity abound as Coffin Road by Peter May (Quercus) opens with a man washing up on the shore of Scotland’s Isle of Harris without a clue of who he is or how he got to this isolated spot. A dog, a utility bill and restorative dram of Caol Ila whisky help matters somewhat, as does a map marking the mysterious local Coffin Road. A horrific murder at a remote lighthouse and a young teen pursing the truth behind her father’s research add heft to a headily complex tale that’s part eco-thriller, part ode to familial love.
Since 1988’s A Great Deliverance, Seattle local Elizabeth George has delivered no less than 19 very British mysteries headed by dynamic detective duo aristocratic Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and working-class Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers (They also feature in the terrific TV adaptation, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries). In 2015, George published the third installment of her YA Whidbey Island suspense saga, The Edge of the Shadows. And this year, she is the editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2016 (Houghton Millflin Harcourt), a collection that includes stories by Elmore Leonard, Matt Bell, Megan Abbott, Stephen King, Evan Lewis, Robert Lorpresti and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
I'm inspired by England's culture, history, traditions, sense of ceremony, and determination to preserve what they have. I'm also inspired by true crime and the need for justice. I'm inspired by the trajectory of John le Carré's career with regard to his growth as a writer. I'm inspired by my great affection for my characters. I'm inspired by the sense of well-being that I have when I write.
Top five places to write?
I'm lucky to be able to write just about anywhere as long as it's quiet or I have earplugs with me. I write mostly at home in my office which is above the garage here on Whidbey Island, but I also write in our condo on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Other than that, it's pretty much wherever I am. Recently I wrote while in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Riga, Osla, and Vilnius.
Top five favorite writers?
John le Carré, Tana French, John Fowles, Jane Austen, Shakespeare
Top five tunes to write to?I write in silence unless my dog starts barking.
Top five hometown spots?
On Whidbey: Mukilteo Coffee Roasters, Moonraker Books. In Seattle: Green Eileen, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Pike Place Market, driving along Lake Washington to Seward Park and walking around the peninsula with my dog. I also like the Sun Liquor Cocktail lounge on Summit. It's a real cocktail lounge for grownups with grownup drinks.