Criminal Fiction: Year ending

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

December heralds best-of-year lists; when it comes to crime fiction, here are a few of my favorites from Irish critic Declan Burke, The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio, and The Guardian’s Mark Lawson.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

I love the concept of the Lawrence Block-edited anthologies In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper and Alive in Shape and Color: 16 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired, and I like the implementation even better. For the latter, Lawrence Block organized the participation of a stellar lineup of writers — including Sarah Weinman, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Nicholas Christopher, Jeffery Deaver and Joyce Carol Oates — and the outcome is a bevy of cool and canny tales that embrace – to name just a few of the topics – art heists, familial relationships, historical intrigue and the seemingly straightforward interactions on a good old-fashioned crime scene. Dip in, dip out, and then dip in yet again. Multiple treasures here.

It’s a turn for the history books when a skeleton is discovered wearing 16th Century garb in Peter Lovesey’s Beau Death (Soho): Bath-based Chief Inspector Peter Diamond considers that he may have an age-old mystery on his hands, one involving the city’s most controversial iconic figure, Beau Nash. Diamond’s wry sense of humor stands him in good stead — especially when dealing with the eccentric, arrogant members of a historical society — and the intra-police interactions during the investigation are as enjoyable as the slightly madcap mystery at hand.

In Signal Loss (Soho), a gloriously gritty Australian-based police procedural, Garry Disher juggles multiple ongoing crime-story strands, leading his detectives on several not-so-merry chases across a dusty, rural backwater. There’s a deeply disturbing meth problem, cold-blooded murder and black-hearted deception — not to mention a slimy serial rapist on the loose. Sergeant Ellen Destry and Inspector Hal Challis and their teams have their hands full, and a striking opening scenario offers up a ghoulish Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd — that entertainingly deadly duo of Diamonds Are Forever fame — partnership for the 21st century.

By far the best thing about Jack Reacher novels is that way in which they begin with utter simplicity – Reacher coming across a West Point class ring in a pawnshop, for example – which then evolves into tales of wonderful complexities. The Midnight Line (Delacorte Press) is the perfect example, as Reacher, that class ring in pocket, wends his way across South Dakota and Wyoming, taking in the majestic landscape, collecting friends and enemies along the way, while demonstrating a most impressive use of a tumble dryer. ’Nuff said.

The Quintessential Interview: Joanna Schaffhausen

Joanna Schaffhausen’s creepy debut features Ellery Hathaway, a small-town cop who, in years ago, was the sole survivor of a serial killer. Even with her tormentor behind bars, Ellery’s living nightmare returns: for three years running now, someone has vanished from her new hometown, right around Ellery’s birthday. A cunning police procedural as well as a grisly murder mystery by the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel winner, The Vanishing Season is one seriously chilling chiller.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

  1. True crime stories
  2. Reading great writers across all genres
  3. Travel
  4. Family — the ties that bind in good and bad ways
  5. Neuroscience/psychology — all studies of the weird human brain

Top five places to write?

  1. With my laptop on the bed
  2. On the train (my commute is 3 hours a day)
  3. In my head
  4. At the library where it’s quiet
  5. In front of a roaring fire

Top five favorite authors?

  1. Shakespeare
  2. Fredrik Backman
  3. Jhumpa Lahiri
  4. Liane Moriarty
  5. Ed McBain

Top five tunes to write to?

This would be silence, silence, silence, silence, and silence. I love music but I’m an active listener. If I’m busy paying attention to the songs, I can’t hear the voices in my head. That said, here are five songs I find inspiring as a writer:

  1. The Hamilton soundtrack
  2. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
  3. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan
  4. “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers
  5. “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper

Top five hometown spots?

  1. Boston’s Museum of Science
  2. The Harbor Islands
  3. Fenway Park
  4. Top of the Hub
  5. Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square