Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page
In Melbourne, Australia, The Wheeler Centre has been celebrating all things bookish and literary since 2008, when Melbourne got its UNESCO City of Literature stamp of approval. Among their many events and discussions, the Centre has hosted a bevy of terrific crime-fiction writers and regularly shares videos and podcasts of those talks. Whether you’re a Reacher Creature, or a Kate Atkinson fan, there’s plenty of viewing/listening fun for you here. Other gems include conversations with Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Paula Hawkins and Peter James.
The zippy read that is The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is not for the faint-of-heart. Hard-bitten Portland journalist — and Luddite, a personality quirk that comes in mighty handy in this particular context — Lela stumbles on the story of her life — so far — when she trips over an odd-looking skull in a construction site smack dab in the middle of the trendy Pearl District. And things go literally haywire from there. A rich mash-up of suspense, techno-thriller, horror, and the supernatural, Percy pulls it all together with a terrific cast of characters, finely-tuned plot twists and killer prose, sprinkled generously with spot-on snark and fun puns, as well as lovely turns of phrase: “…she hears the call to prayer as it purls and echoes through the city.”
Louise Penny’s detective Armand Gamache of the deceptively cozy and quiet Three Pines Quebecois village, has been a steadfast presence on the mystery scene for more than a decade. Now that he’s tackled and rousted out corruption at the highest levels of the Sûréte du Quebec, what’s left for a Chief Superintendent to do? Plenty, as it turns out. Penny’s Glass Houses (Minotaur), a perfectly-structured novel, opens in a tension-filled Montreal courtroom. Then, the narrative shifts between Montreal and a chilly few days months earlier in Three Pines, when a mysterious figure stood on the village common and freaked everyone out. Penny’s produced a beautifully wrought and pleasurably clever novel about conscience, revenge, and one of the most potent criminal challenges of our time.
Murder hits uncomfortably close to home in Kwei Quartey’s Death by His Grace (Soho), when Chief Inspector Darko Dawson’s wife’s cousin is killed. The detective deals with heightened familial tensions — not to mention the deterioration of his aging father, the wayward ways of his adopted son, and a bout of malaria — all while working to ferret out a dangerous killer. There’s plenty of delicious Ghanaian food mentions to salivate over and a friendly overview of Accra’s plentiful neighborhoods, but Quartey covers the bad as well as the good: an inherent part of the plot here includes the workings — and cons — of a charismatic church and its self-enriching leader.
In Yesterday (Mulholland), Felicia Yap’s intricate and mind-bending debut, there’s murder with malice aforethought afoot and an ambitious, chess-obsessed detective on the case. But in Yap’s imagined world, unusual challenges abound: human memory is severely curtailed by either one or two days tops, and everyone tries to keep track of changes around them by updating (read: and possibly manipulating) their iDairy entries as best they can. A writer-turned-hopeful-politician and his long-suffering wife appear to be at the heart of the investigation; a vengeful woman appears to hold all the cards. In a novel with not one but four unreliable narrators at its core, you pretty much just have to strap in and go along for the bumplicious ride.
Ruth Ware’s third psychological thriller — and make no mistake, each of her novels melds psychological suspense with proper, page-turning thrills pretty damn flawlessly — is one of those books that breathes vibrant life into the term “atmospheric.” The Lying Game (Scout Press), features a remote and boggy estuary, a decrepit old mill-house, and a local village for local people: this is the setting for the reunion of four grown-up friends who, as girls, teased the people around them with often funny and sometimes cruel mind-games, and who may be about to get their comeuppance.
What or who are your top five writing inspirations?
I never know where inspiration will come from - for In a Dark, Dark Wood it was a chance conversation with a friend about hen nights. The Woman in Cabin 10 was me reading too many Agatha Christie novels, combined with some seriously scary news stories about deaths at sea (Is it me, or has there been a spate of them recently? Maybe it's a case of noticing what you're attuned to). The Lying Game was inspired by a place I visited in northern France (although being a writer, I swiftly snipped it out of its real-life setting and transposed it to the south of England). Online adverts. Books I've read. People I've met. Oh dear, this is more than five, isn't it?
Top five places to write?
I'm having the opposite problem here: I only write at my desk due to having screwed up my back by writing in bed and on the sofa. Bed is probably my very favorite place to write, but I can't really get away with it any more, even with the most artfully arranged pillows. If I can count plotting, then I love thinking while I'm driving or doing mindless, familiar walks — the sort you do every day and could complete almost with your eyes closed. When I lived in London, I did my best plotting on the Tube. I think the key is going into a sort of stasis trance — putting your brain on standby, almost.
Top five favorite authors?
Only five!! This is so hard. Um… Agatha Christie — for a masterclass in plot. Daphne du Maurier for that effortless combination of mystery and emotion. Donna Tartt for creating huge expansive worlds that I love to live in. Shirley Jackson for being simply creeptastic. Patricia Highsmith for creating fully three-dimensional characters who leap off the page and into your head. Wow, that was hard. It's also not complete. There are a whole load of writers I love just as much.
Top five tunes to write to?
Ok, I'm back to having too few answers for this one. I can't write to music; in fact, I really prefer complete silence.
Top five hometown spots?
I'm spending a lot of time on Brighton's Palace Pier, partly because it's a beautiful, crazy throwback to Victorian seaside life, partly as tangential research for my new book. My perfect Brighton day might involve a walk on the pier, throwing some stones into the sea, lunch at La Choza, a truly delicious Mexican restaurant in Brighton's North Lanes, then a drive out into the beautiful Sussex Downs for a drink in one of the country pubs. I love a pub with a proper beer garden – soft green grass underfoot and a wasp trapped under an up-turned beer glass. The Cricketers Arms in Berwick or the Ram Inn at Firle are both excellent. While I am out that way, I might drop into Charleston Farmhouse, once the Sussex refuge of the Bloomsbury circle and now a fascinating period piece, frozen in amber as tribute to them. If I had the energy, I'd finish up by climbing Firle Beacon, but more likely I'd just stretch out in the sunshine, watch the lengthening shadows, and order another glass of wine.