Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
The 2017 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year longlist offers a cornucopia of marvelous mysteries and terrific thrillers, all published in paperback in the UK and Ireland between May 1, 2016 and April 30, 2017. This list includes multiple crime-fiction gems, including Alex Marwood’s seriously dark Darkest Secret, Mick Herron’s canny spyfest Real Tigers, Christopher Brookmyre’s fiendishly clever Black Widow, and Stuart Neville’s suspenseful and heartbreaking Those We Left Behind. Plus, it’s always a pleasure to find industry giants (Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham) rubbing writerly shoulders with relative newbies such as Sabine Durrant, Sarah Hilary, Susie Steiner, and Eva Dolan. Get reading! The shortlist is out on May 20.
Pete Fernandez is off the sauce and making an okay living as a low-profile PI in Miami, but trouble finds him once again in Dangerous Ends by Alex Segura (Polis). His irregular work-partner-in-crime, Kathy Bentley approaches him with a book project about the legendary Gaspar Varela, incarcerated for killing his own wife while insisting on his innocence, and her plan yields a rich seam of noir-dark mystery that intertwines intriguingly with Fernandez’s own family story. Segura keeps the sultry atmosphere of Hernandez’s love-life strifes turned way up, matched perfectly by southern Florida’s palpable heat and humidity.
Ann Cleeves does not plot her tightly-knit mysteries ahead of time, so it’s good fun to imagine how she negotiated her way from the humdinger of an opening of Cold Earth (Minotaur): within the first few pages, a landslide brought on by relentless rains in Shetland rides roughshod over an ancient cemetery — during a funeral, no less — leaving a single fatality in its path. The remote island community and Shetland’s brooding Inspector Jimmy Perez are the perfect complement to a landscape both rugged and windswept. But even here, life comes at you fast, whether it’s murder, malice aforethought, petty politics, or budding romance.
There’s something terribly amiss in London in Ragdoll by Daniel Cole (Ecco). For one thing, detective William Fawkes, aka Wolf, is back on active duty after violently attacking a suspect in a courtroom four years earlier. For another, someone has just murdered six victims and sewn them together to make a single, gruesome corpse, one of whose fingers appears to be pointing directly into Fawkes’s nearby flat. The multiple plot lines have a manic erratic-ness to them, that sometimes adds, sometimes detracts from Cole’s careening debut.
The disappearance of a young filmmaker following the ransacking of the gym where he held a day-job, kicks off the action in Fallout by Sara Paretsky (William Morrow). Luckily, for the filmmaker, he is a cousin of Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski, who is soon hot on the case. In a terrific, decades-spanning mystery that takes Victoria Iphigenia deep into the heart of a rural Kansas community, master-at-work Paretsky has multiple twisty aces up her sleeve, nicely enhanced with a rich cast of characters, a lovely shout-out to the super-speedy stock-car racer Danica Patrick, and multiple spirited reminders that here in these United States of America, the government is supposed to for We the People.
Lori Rader-Day sets her psychological thrillers in restricted, restrictive spaces — a tattered motel, an academic campus, a small town — which instantly projects their claustrophobic-tension levels into the stratosphere. The Day I Died, out this month from William Morrow, started life ten years ago as a short story; this extended version packs a powerful, sinister punch, with handwriting analyst Anna Winger trying to help the local police force locate a missing child and finding her own life spiraling rapidly out of control.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
Gossip: What people whisper about is what they care about. Weird news stories I find on Facebook: I save them, never knowing if they'll come into use. Other writers: I love hanging out with them and listening to them talk shop and process. Throwaway facts in nonfiction books that really need their own books. Deadlines.
Top five places to write?
A little desk in my guest room known as my "office." It's tiny. Starbucks: They have really good hot tea. Any cafe, actually: I like cafe noise – but not coffee. My backporch, in good weather and in rain. Airplanes, if I have enough elbow room: On the way to Left Coast Crime in Phoenix, I had my own row. Life highlight.
Top five favorite authors?
I'm going to go historical, to avoid making enemies: Agatha Christie. Shirley Jackson. Josephine Tey. Daphne du Maurier. Dashiell Hammett, but when I say this, I mean The Thin Man.
Top five tunes to write to?
Depends on what I'm writing. I make a playlist for every novel. These five songs helped me write The Day I Died:
Top five hometown spots?
My real hometown is pretty small, so I'll tell you about Chicago, my adopted hometown: On Lake Michigan, out in water looking back on the city. The Book Cellar, one of Chicago's amazing independent bookstores. The Forest Preserve, in the woods, on a bike, with my husband. I need to do this more. Caro Mio, Italian restaurant with my girlfriends. Just add wine. Winter Garden, Harold Washington Library, which is a glass-ceilinged room with a view of the surrounding skyscrapers. It's just a very Chicago place.