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Criminal Fiction: December's Children

Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page

Shorter days are made brighter by clever short stories, both dark and sparkling. Nobody does a twist in the tale like O.Henry unless it’s Edith Wharton or Edgar Allan Poe. Or, try a more modern master via any of the stories in Roald Dahl’s un-fairy-tale collections for adults: Switch Bitch, Kiss Kiss, Someone Like You.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

In A.J. Banner’s The Twilight Wife (Touchstone), 34-year-old marine biologist Kyra Winthrop is recovering from a head injury sustained on a diving trip that has left her with patchy memories before, during and after the accident. Looked after by her devoted husband Jacob, his childhood friend Nancy, and her husband Van, Kyra roams the island by foot and bike, revelling in the Pacific Northwest sea-and-beach life and weather, but plagued by terrifying nightmares when she sleeps. It’s when her returning memories turn out to be just as nightmarish as her night-time dreams that Kyra starts to question what’s real in her life – and what’s not. Join A.J. Banner at her book launch, January 7, 2pm at Liberty Bay Books.

Kill the Next One by Federico Axat, translated from the Spanish by David Frye (Mulholland), is a serious rabbit hole of a book. It begins when charismatic Ted McKay – husband, father, successful businessman – is about to kill himself because he has a terminal case of cancer. A knock on his door reveals one Justin Lynch, operative of a shadowy organization that trucks in vigilante and self-requested murder. But there’s much more to this dizzying maze of a thriller than that head-bending opening – and you might want to avoid reading it at night.

In Catriona McPherson’s The Reek of Red Herrings (Minotaur), Dandy Gilver and her partner-in-detecting-crime Alec Osborne are hired by a wealthy herring merchant to investigate a most unsavory death: it seems that certain barrels of Birchfield’s pickled herring contain some unpleasantly surprising extra content: human limbs alongside the fish. Before you can say, “There’s something rotten in….” Gilver and Osborne find themselves spending part of a wet and wild 1930’s December in a tiny fishing village on the coast of northern Scotland. As they mingle with wacky taxidermists, bohemian artists and feisty fisherfolk, their gradual appreciation of the local dialect and participation in the local traditions add canny grist to their sleuthing mill.

With a freezing Oslo Christmas season in the background, a police procedural – the seventh in this popular series – unfolds over nine tense days with detective Hanne Wilhelmsen investigating a gory quadruple homicide, the crime scene made all the more grisly by the early interference of a wandering mutt. In Anne Holt’s Beyond the Truth, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce (Scribner), the Machiavellian machinations of a dysfunctional wealthy family – three of whom were among the murder victims – are one thing, but what becomes even more fascinating are the internecine squabblings over the investigation at police headquarters, not to mention Wilhelmsen’s own domestic challenges.
The Quintessential Interview: Jayne Ann Krentz

Bestselling Jayne Ann Krentz currently writes under three different names, including Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle. Her latest romantic thriller, When All the Girls Have Gone, is set in Seattle and kicks off with protagonist Charlotte Sawyer trying to track her missing stepsister. Throw in an initially rocky relationship with a PI and a women’s online investment group that is not all that it seems, and you’ve got a trademark Krentz cocktail.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

Love the archetype of the modern American private investigator, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, for example. Love the myth of the “amateur sleuth,” the character without acrime-fightingskill-set who gets caught up in a dangerous mystery – an adult Nancy Drew. Love the romantic-suspense theme of two people learning to trust each other in order to survive. Love stories that feature a hero and heroine who share certain core values: honor, determination, courage and the ability to love. Love stories of revenge. All of these things inspire me.

Top five places to write?

My office. Hawaii. My office. On board a really big ship. My office.

Top five favorite writers?

  1. Christina Dodd
  2. Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  3. Elizabeth Lowell
  4. AJohn Sandford
  5. Robert B. Parker

Top five tunes to write to?

Can’t write to music. Too distracting. It’s a can’t-walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time thing, I guess.

Top five hometown spots?

  1. Frank’s Quality Produce in the Pike Place Market
  2. DeLaurenti
  3. Specialty Food & Wine in the Market
  4. Seattle Mystery Bookshop
  5. Nordstrom
  6. Page 2 Books in Burien — yes, it’s in Burien but I think that’s close enough to be considered a hometown spot

Criminal Fiction: November thanks, and remember to add zombies or psychopaths

Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page

Over the past couple of weeks, it’s been a real pleasure to while away several hours in the podcast-presence of Two Crime Writers and a Microphone. UK crime fiction scribes Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste deliver silly laughs — how about those ducks? — as well as more practical pearls of wisdom, chatting about publishing news (and some non-publishing news, too), hosting book reviewers, and interviewing fellow crime fiction writers like Ian Rankin, Stuart Neville — who contributes the podcast’s twangy-groovy interstitial music — CL Taylor, Craig Robertson, Mark Billingham, and Ruth Ware. You get the feeling that this is how Cavanagh and Veste talk with each other anyway, in private: thanks for turning on the microphone, guys!

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

Retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch takes on a humdinger of a case in Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown): an elderly billionaire, scion of one of Southern California’s richest families and the last of his line, asks Bosch to track down a woman the billionaire loved decades ago who disappeared when she got pregnant. Is it possible he has an heir? These days, Bosch juggles his private case work while assisting the San Fernando PD with unsolved cases, but he still finds time for dinners with daughter and Death Cab for Cutie fan Maddie and, happily, doing occasional work with half-brother and Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller.

Reading The Twenty-Three by Linwood Barclay (Berkley) is akin to watching one of those spectacular 70s disaster movies – think Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno: across the town of Promise Falls one morning, people are getting violently ill and some are dying. While police, politicos and others struggle to assist the victims and try to figure out what’s going on, multiple individuals’ stories surface, encompassing an ongoing murder enquiry, familial fallouts and a terrifying fixation on the number 23. A propulsive and zippy page-turner, Linwood’s latest – part of a trilogy about the inhabitants of Promise Falls – boasts both grittiness and heart.

When an old school friend reaches out for help, gentleman-detective Charles Lenox finds himself tangling with deadly London gangsters as well as the hoi polloi of the science-focused Royal Society: the year is 1877, and Lenox’s old buddy, Gerald Leigh, a natural philosopher, or “scientist” — this new word is taking over — has most recently been working in France with “microbes,” another new term. Lenox’s colleagues Polly Buchanan and John Dallington hold down the fort at the trio’s detective agency while Lenox pursues Leigh’s tantalizing mystery, and Charles Finch imbues his writing with rich historical, cultural, societal, and political details — one of my particular favorites involves a Winston Churchill cameo — making The Inheritance (Minotaur) both elegant and engaging.

No Witness But the Moon by Suzanne Chazin (Kensington) opens with the shattering shooting of a suspect by detective Jimmy Vega. But this was no ordinary alleged perpetrator, and the idyllic scenery of picture-perfect-on-the-surface Wickford, N.Y., obscures a much more complex reality, throwing some of the most urgent hot-button issues of contemporary America – immigration, class, race, and heritage – into sharp relief. An intricately plotted mystery fuelled by compelling characters, Chazin’s novel wins on both atmospheric and realistic levels.

The year is 1996 and Jack Reacher is still a military operative in Night School (Delacorte). Worrying and very incomplete information coming from a double agent in Germany, sets Reacher off on an inter-agency assignment alongside the CIA and the FBI. Child’s sharp, succinct prose creates an all-enveloping sensation of nail-biting tension as Reacher uses all his wiles, instincts, brain cells and muscles – demonstrating early tendencies toward his going-rogue qualities, to boot – to fit together pieces of a global-threat puzzle.
The Quintessential Interview: Justine Larbalestier

Justine Larbalestier’s Young Adult thrillers and psychological suspense novels are written with verve, wit and pitch-perfect voices. Her books include 2009’s mind-bending Liar; 2015’s Razorhurst, set on the mean streets of 1932 Sydney; and the seriously chilling, Bad Seed — inspired My Sister Rosa, out this month from Soho Teen. Highly eloquent on Twitter, Larbalestier also maintains a terrific blog, and divides her time between Sydney, Australia, and New York City.

Top five writing tips?

  1. Always remember no writing advice works for every writer or even most writers. Some writing advice works for no one.
  2. Add zombies or a psychopath. This works even better than sending in a man with a gun. You can have as many or as few zombies as you like, but never have more than one psychopath: it strains credibility.
  3. Finish every story you start (unless it’s boring you).
  4. Read everything from the graffitti on toilet stalls through to the collected works of Zora Neale Hurston (but especially Hurston). Yes, bubble gum wrappers, too. (But please dispose of your bubble gum considerately.)
  5. Rewrite a lot.

Top five places to write?

Anywhere with an ergonomic set up. I’m broken.

Top five favorite writers?

This list changes not just daily, but probably by the minute. Here’s this minute’s top five in alphabetical order:

  1. Megan Abbott/Joanna Bourne (because Bourne is to romance what Abbott is to crime thus I count them as one writer)
  2. Isak Dinesen
  3. Leanne Hall
  4. Alaya Dawn Johnson
  5. Attica Locke

Top five tunes to write to?

I write in silence. Or as close to silence as I can get, which, let’s be honest, in New York City is not very silent. Very loud sirens, even louder construction noises, and the couple next door’s doomed relationship arguments are tragically in high rotation on my playlist. Noise cancelling headphones can only cancel out so much….

Top five hometown spots?

I have two hometowns. (Less glamorous than it sounds. You try paying tax in two different countries with different tax years.)

In Sydney:

  1. My flat’s balcony
  2. Centennial Park
  3. Ester restaurant
  4. Royal Botanic Garden
  5. Australian Museum

In NYC:

  1. Tompkins Square Park
  2. East River Parkway
  3. Sobakoh restaurant
  4. Every little community garden in the East Village
  5. Huertas restaurant

Criminal Fiction: some October surprises

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.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

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.
The Quintessential Interview: Elizabeth George

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.

Criminal Fiction: our inaugural mystery, suspense and thriller column

New column! Every month, Daneet Steffens is going to uncover the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. Welcome Daneet!

I’m delighted to be kicking off this column for the Seattle Review of Books during a month full of crime-fiction action. Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, toasted its fourth year, crowning Christopher Brookmyre with the top McIlvanney Prize, and featuring the traditional England crime writers vs. Scottish crime writers football match (England won, 7-1). Stateside, Bouchercon took over New Orleans, a city made for murder mysteries, police procedurals, and vampiric thrillers: Seattle native Glen Erik Hamilton picked up the Best First Novel, and Mark Billingham, Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville, and Bill Loehfelm rocked out at the New Orleans House of Blues. And, back in the UK, the third Noirwich weekend in Norwich welcomed a rich range of crime writers including Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Eva Dolan, Sarah Hilary, Peter James, and Dreda Say Mitchell.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

Allusions to Batman abound when sports agent Myron Bolitar and his longtime partner-in-solving-crimes Win – that’s Windsor Horne Lockwood III to you – return in Home by Harlan Coben (Dutton). Last seen in 2011’s Live Wire, a fictional year has passed since that book’s events, and Bolitar is happily engaged to be married. Win, on the other hand, is engaged in tracking down two teenage boys who disappeared as six-year-olds a decade ago. When one of the teens is found, and Win calls on Myron’s assistance, the friends pursue an emotionally-charged mystery, tangling with a Bond-level villain, as well as with two sets of still-grieving parents.

In So Say the Fallen (Soho Crime), Stuart Neville’s persistent policewoman, Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan, already has plenty domestic tensions to deal with when she’s called to investigate the apparent suicide of a wealthy car dealer. The case appears straightforward, but Flanagan has a nose for the extraordinary, especially when it comes to criminal minds. While executing a taut, heart-stopping police procedural, Neville is equally skilled at imbuing the darkest corners of our minds with a bleak beauty of their own, uncovering humanity in the most inhumane of baddies.

With her Simon Waterhouse-Charlie Zailer series of mysteries, Sophie Hannah has proved herself as fiendishly astute as Agatha Christie when it comes to the innermost (read: darkest) workings of human psychology. She also shares with Christie a dry, wry comedic touch that rises to the surface when least expected. Closed Casket (William Morrow), Hannah’s second sophisticated take on Christie’s Hercule Poirot, is both entertaining and clever, pitting the Belgian detective against a houseful of suspects – including an Enid Blyton-like writer. A canny ode to the great Christie, and a formidable showcasing of Hannah’s own crime-writing skills.

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart was one of the most enjoyable literary surprises of 2015, and the sequel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), pursues its clever premise. Based on the real-life Kopp sisters of Bergen County, New Jersey – and the career of Constance Kopp, one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs, in particular – this adventure finds Constance’s deputy sheriff status at stake when she tricked by a nefarious con man. The multiple crimes that Stewart weaves into her tale are one thing, but equally compelling are the lovingly rendered characters, including a shining cameo by William Carlos Williams.

Finally, set in segregated Atlanta in 1948, the year the city hired its first black policemen, Darktown by Thomas Mullen (37 Ink), tackles legal, systemic racism at its most horrific, alongside the new beat cops’ job of upholding the law when it comes to murder, moonshine and mayhem. Two of the black policemen, Boggs and Smith, tangle in particular with Dunlow, a nasty, corrupt cop, whose young partner, Rakes, is too new and tentative to do anything but observe Dunlow’s violence. Tenebrous and super-cinematic – film/television rights are already with Sony – and in no small sense reminiscent of 1997’s L.A. Confidential.
The Quintessential Interview: Chris Holm
In 2015, Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind — which just won the Anthony Award for Best Novel at Bouchercon — introduced Michael Hendricks, a hit man who targets other hit men. Its follow-up, Red Right Hand, finds Hendricks on a bit of a revenge trip when FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson taps him for assistance: a viral video of a terrorist attack in San Francisco reveals that an FBI witness whom everyone thought was dead is, in fact, very much alive. Red Right Hand is perfectly paced page-turner: Holm elegantly juggles multiple characters, perspectives and locations, without a single misstep.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

I have a deep and abiding love of classic pulp. I’m fascinated by what drives good people to do bad things. By how bad one can be without becoming irredeemable. By the slipperiness of identity and what we consider to be our essential selves. And I should give a nod to my adopted hometown of Portland, Maine, since I never seriously considered pursuing a writing career until I moved here—and I worry the words will dry up if I ever leave.

Top five places to write?

The left side of my couch. The University of New England’s Westbrook College Campus library. Coffee By Design on Diamond Street. The right side of my couch. On the backs of receipts at stop lights in my car.

Top five favorite writers?

I’m only allowed five?! I just broke out in a cold sweat. Today, let’s say Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler, Tim Powers, Donna Tartt, and Donald Westlake. Tomorrow, I might cough up a whole new list.

Top five tunes to write to?

My favorites include Benny Goodman Orchestra’s “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing),” Budos Band’s “The Sticks,” DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor,” Mono’s “Ashes in the Snow,” and Rodrigo y Gabriela’s “Diablo Rojo.” I have a tough time writing to anything that features words, so all my picks are instrumental. I use them sparingly, whenever I feel as if my writing needs a boost.

Top five hometown spots?

The secret garden behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house on Congress Street. The tasting room at Allagash. The gloomy labyrinth that is Portland Architectural Salvage. Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. And Halcyon Tattoo in Windham.