Criminal Fiction: the nerve-jangling opposite of the proverbial funny bone

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

Mark your calendars: Seattle’s free, seasonal Noir at the Bar returns for its Spring edition on April 13. Come for the crime fiction readings, stay for the food, cocktails, and classic ambience!

Reading Around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

It’s all hands on deck for Ali Reynolds and her High Noon Enterprises cyber-security crew when one Roger McGreary, a childhood friend of Reynold’s colleague Stuart Ramsey, plunges to his death during a cruise. The cyber force is strong in J.A. Jance’s Man Overboard (Touchstone): less of a whodunit or whydunnit — those are relatively early revelations – the entertaining mystery speeds along, helter-skelter, as multiple forensic online investigations proceed. The killer app in this particular tale? A non-human entity rapidly developing its sentient side. Join JA Jance at multiple area events.

In Say Nothing by Brad Parks (Dutton), Federal Judge Scott Sampson and his wife Alison have been put on serious warning: the novel opens to the dire news that their twins, Sam and Emma, have been kidnapped. To surmise that the judge will do whatever he’s directed by the kidnappers is an understatement — but first he has to figure out which of his cases has caught someone’s criminal eye. In what is a palpably tension-wracked situation, nearly everyone around Scott and Alison falls under their frenzied suspicious — they even eyeball each other. Parks ratchets up and maintains the suspense at a relentless level, so don’t start this one at bedtime.

There are some downright bizarre shenanigans afoot in A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds (Penguin). From a demon being ruling the roost of a tiny and remote Icelandic island, to the Paris-based Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre — whose members dedicate themselves to re-enacting assemblies from the heady days of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror — Commissaire Adamsberg has his hands more than full in this police procedural. Part of the pleasure, as always, is reveling in the Adamsberg’s relationship with his crime-fighting colleagues, their eclectic foibles and respect for each other, but the superb cast of colorful non-regulars in Fear, give this latest mystery from the award-winning Vargas distinctly added heft.

Tannie Maria, blissed out by a new romantic relationship, is also suffering from terrifying flashbacks from an abusive one in The Satanic Mechanic by Sally Andrew (Ecco). The death of a land activist kicks off the other plotline in this South African-based cozy crime novel that, at times, feels like it’s been tucked into a recipe book (p.s., the recipes all sound delicious). Even though the mystery bit gets a tad lost in the descriptions of the surrounding trees, birds and wildlife, this friendly novel is something to savor nevertheless, especially in its assertion that there’s not much in life that the love of a little lamb, stalwart friendships, intimate relationships and several slices of the tantalizingly-titled Venus Cake can’t cure. And, for those who like to live a bit more on the edge, Andrew offers up the most beset-upon therapy group since Rachel Samstat’s in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.

The Quintessential Interview: Chevy Stevens

Chevy Stevens has been writing seriously chilling thrillers since 2010’s harrowing Still Missing, and Never Let You Go, her sixth novel, is no exception, delving deep into the sometimes deadly obsessions that lurk in the most intimate of relationships. If there is a nerve-jangling counterpart of the oft-touted proverbial funny-bone, Stevens's aim, in that regard, is unswaveringly true.

Stevens who grew up in Shawnigan Lake, still lives on Vancouver Island, in the city of Nanaimo. Watch her locally: Friday March 24 with Ingrid Thoft at Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum; Saturday March 25, at the Kitsap Regional Library; or Sunday March 26, at Bellingham’s Village Books.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

Usually it’s my own fears or personal experiences that drive the themes of my writing.

In terms of an overall career, Stephen King has always been a strong inspiration; I connected with his work when I was very young.

My author friends and family keep me going on the tough days.

My editor is brilliant, very encouraging, and also a wife and a mother. I have learned an incredible amount from her.

When I watch something well-written on TV, or read a wonderful book, it sets off a surge of creative excitement in me.

Top five places to write?

This has changed depending on my daughter’s age and current needs. Right now, my main spot is my local coffee shop in my town, where I have become enough of a fixture that I now earn head nods from the group of older men who meet there every day for their coffee and chats.

When not at the coffee shop, I write at home in my office, which was decorated this year, or downstairs at the kitchen table, looking out at the walnut trees in our backyard.

In a pinch, I have taken my laptop out to our travel trailer, and hidden there from the dogs and family.

I’ve written in a lot of hotels over the years and my most favorite is the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale. If you’re going to be writing while on tour, you might as well be looking out at sun and palm trees.

Top five favorite authors?

So hard! I admire and respect many authors, but the ones that first spring to mind are Stephen King, for the reasons I mention above. Also Ed McBain: his characters were always gritty and real. I adored the 87th Precinct novels and read them all. Bryce Courtenay’s book Power of One had an enormous impact on me. Right now I am really enjoying Sarah Turner, who wrote the Unmumsy Mum. She’s very brave in her writing, and relatable. For fantasy, I’m a big Holly Black fan. In particular, her Darkest Part of the Forest was a stand out for me.

Top five tunes to write to?

For some reason, I can only listen to music when I am writing at the coffee shop, but sometimes I will listen to a certain song before I start writing a scene, to get me in the right headspace. Ed Sheeran is lovely, and I also enjoy Passenger – the melodies are relaxing and don’t break my focus. When I want something a little grittier, I play Chris Stapleton or Eric Church. I’ve recently become interested in Lana Del Rey. Her soulful voice and themes of love fit with my current project.

Top five hometown spots?

There is a famous train trestle near the ranch where I grew up. I used to swim in the river far below, or sit on the trestle and think about life.

One of my other favorite swimming spots is farther down the river, where there used to be a provincial campground. I used it as my imaginary commune location for one of my books.

On my mom’s property there is a trail to a lookout and I used to walk there often when I was sad. There is something about heights that puts problems in perspective.

The two local corner stores still bring back lots of memories of being a kid growing up in Shawnigan Lake, going for ice-cream on a hot summer day, then hanging out at the beach with my friends. Bits and pieces of these areas have made their way into all of my books.