Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Carol Goodman: Modern Mystery Mavens
If you're like me, you enjoy a well-written, carefully crafted mystery story every now and then. Many people are happy with the bestselling authors who pump out a few books every year or two, whose names splashed in bold letters on the cover promise grisly, frightening tales. And there's nothing wrong with these books. They're light, quick to read, and entertaining.
But if you want a mystery or suspense tale of a more literary quality, with well-developed characters and lyrical prose, stories that address serious, timeless issues and probe the intricacies of human nature, then consider some of these titles. Many of these novels share similar themes and issues: often the protagonist has some troubled past, some deep-held secret, either repressed or tightly guarded; whatever case or crime he or she faces threatens to bring the past back to the surface.
I know that a taut, suspenseful mystery is a good one when I feel a tightness in my chest because I'm so anxious to find out what happens to the characters. Perhaps you'll have the same feeling with some of these thrillers, if you like that creeping sense of dread building up from page one.
Case Histories (2004) Jackson Brodie is a private investigator in Cambridge, England, who reluctantly takes on three seemingly unrelated, unsolved cases from long ago. Two middle-aged sisters want to know what happened to their younger sister who disappeared from their backyard at age three. A lawyer still wrestles with grief ten years after the murder of his daughter, a temp at his office; the killer was never caught and there was no determined motive for the murder. And the sister of a woman who killed her husband with an ax wants to know what happened to the couple's child. As Jackson investigates these cases, he has to reflect on the nature of random acts of violence and his own personal tragedy from long ago. Atkinson masterfully weaves these stories together in such a way that the coincidences and improbabilities don't really matter. Jackson Brodie is a refreshing, imperfect hero: ex-cop, divorced dad, possessor of a weary, sardonic wit.
One Good Turn (2007) Jackson accompanies his girlfriend Julia to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, where he witnesses a bizarre instance of road rage: one man attacks another on a busy street. Also at the scene are Martin Canning, a timid adventure writer, and Gloria Hatter, wife of a corrupt property developer. Investigating the case is Louise Monroe, a police detective with a shoplifting 14-year-old son. Jackson would prefer to stay out of the whole mess but can't avoid being pulled into a swirling mix of Russians, con men, conspiracies, and a growing number of dead bodies. Like Case Histories, this novel jumps from one character's perspective to another, but all of the characters are well-developed, with delightful oddities and foibles. Jackson once again shines as a reluctant hero who would rather be tending the livestock on a peaceful farm than dealing with a series of misadventures.
When Will There Be Good News? (2008) Joanna Mason was six when her mother and two siblings were murdered by a knife-wielding stranger on a country road. Thirty years later, Joanna, now a doctor and the mother of an infant, goes missing, and only her teenage nanny, Regina "Reggie" Chase, seems to be concerned. At the same time, the convicted killer of the Mason family, Andrew Decker, has been released, and Jackson Brodie somehow ends up with Decker's wallet and identity following a devastating train crash. The private investigator is also reunited with Louise Monroe, the police detective from One Good Turn and Jackson's former lover. She's unhappy in her current marriage, but would she and Jackson be able to put up with each other? And will they figure out what's happened to Joanna in time to save her?
Atkinson is skilled at juggling multiple storylines simultaneously, tying together loose threads in satisfying, if coincidental, conclusions. Her sharp, detailed writing, thick with irony and wit, left me laughing as much as wondering about what will happen next. Her Jackson Brodie novels cross genres, defying the standards of most crime stories and mysteries. She mixes the gruesome and disturbing with the comic and develops a cast of unconventional, fascinating characters.
Sharp Objects (2006) Camille Preaker is a crime reporter for Chicago's third-best newspaper sent back to her hometown, Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the disappearances and murders of two young girls. The police seem to have no leads: are the crimes the work of some transient or of someone closer to home, a Wind Gap resident? The assignment is especially hard for Camille, who feels a special affinity with the two girls, who both had troubled home and school lives. Even more troubling is Camille's strained relationship with her family: cold, controlling mother Adora, distant stepfather Alan, and sexually precocious, emotionally disturbed half-sister Amma. If Camille is to make any headway with the case, she will have to confront the demons of her past and uncover her scars, both physical and psychological.
Flynn's debut novel is not your average thriller. It grabbed me from the beginning with its first-person narration and the gradual realization that not all is what it seems. Something sinister is always just below the surface of things. Between her dysfunctional family and the gossip-hungry small community, Wind Gap is a toxic environment for Camille--more than one character warns her to get out while she can. Staying there threatens her safety and her sanity, but it brings her closer to solving the town's mystery. Even if you think you have the ending figured out, think again: Flynn packs in some surprises in this taut, creepy psychological thriller that will get under your skin.
Dark Places (2009) "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ...I was not a lovable child, and I'd grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it'd be a scribble with fangs." So opens Flynn's second novel, another psychological thriller as creepy if not scarier than its predecessor. Libby Day was seven when her mom and two sisters were brutally murdered in the infamous "Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas." Only Libby survived by hiding in the cornfield, and she testified that her older brother Ben was the murderer. Twenty-four years later, Libby is running out of money; she's become accustomed to eking out a lonely existence with the donations of well-wishers, but that well is running dry.
When the Kill Club, a group of fanatic crime followers, asks her to revisit her family's murders, report any new findings, and share "memorabilia" from the crime, Libby reluctantly agrees--for a fee. Libby's efforts are half-hearted at first--the Kill Club believes that Ben is innocent; Libby disagrees--but the harder she digs into the case, the more she starts to question her childhood memories. Could the true killer still be out there? The story switches from Libby's, her mother's, and Ben's perspectives, in both the present day and flashbacks, leading up to the actual events of the murders for a chilling conclusion.
If Flynn's two novels are any indication, the author specializes in flawed, damaged characters fighting for truth and some hope of redemption. She plumbs the depths of human nature at its most frightening.
In the Woods (2007) Irish detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are called to investigate the murder of Katy Devlin in a small Dublin suburb. The case hits Rob hard because it brings back memories of the unsolved disappearance of his childhood friends from the same town twenty years ago. Only Cassie knows Rob's secret, and he hides his connection to the case from his boss even as the two cases share some uncanny similarities. French's debut novel is a cross between a police procedural (unique because of its Irish setting) and a psychological thriller. Cassie and Rob have the close camaraderie of detectives in a Law and Order series, but as the case wears down their spirits, it also threatens their jobs, their safety, and their relationship to each other. Read In the Woods for its flawed, fleshed-out characters, its portrait of modern Ireland, and its troubling cases of lost children.
The Likeness (2009) French's follow-up to In the Woods takes on Cassie Maddox's perspective in a new puzzling case. A young woman, a graduate student at Trinity College, is found murdered in a small town outside Dublin, and the woman is a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Cassie. Even more troubling, the girl's presumed alias, Lexie Madison, is the name Cassie took on for her last undercover case. Her bosses come up with a crazy plan: they will say that this mystery woman was injured but survived, and Cassie will take her place back at the mansion Lexie shares with four other students. Even as Cassie befriends these four unique characters, people who have formed their own family of sorts, she knows in the back of her mind that they have their secrets, and that one of them may have been Lexie's killer.
In the Woods and The Likeness are both haunting stories told with lyrical, finely crafted language. While they are both mysteries, they also delve into the human psyche, the problems of society, and the questions of identity and memory. They are as much character-driven as plot-driven, and the pacing of the novels made them hard for me to put down. Look for French's third novel, Faithful Place, featuring another character from the Dublin murder squad, available July 13, 2010.
The Lake of Dead Languages (2002) Recovering from a divorce and having nowhere else to go, Jane Hudson returns to her alma mater, the Heart Lake School for Girls, to teach Latin. Located in the frigid Adirondacks, Heart Lake has lost some of its prestige since Jane attended: it is now a boarding school for troubled teens. But the students are fascinated with Heart Lake's suicide legend--twenty years ago, two girls and a boy drowned in the school's icy lake. Jane knows the story better than anyone: those two girls were her roommates, and she has been haunted by the events for years. What's even more disturbing is that someone at the school is trying to recreate the events that led to Deirdre's and siblings Lucy and Matt's deaths. Jane fears that her students aren't safe, and truthfully, neither is she.
Reading this novel made me wish I had learned Latin in high school. The works of Ovid and Virgil are woven into this darkly atmospheric story that's best read in the wintertime. You'll feel like you're a part of this boarding school, with its icy, snow-swept environs. Goodman reveals Jane's adolescent years in a series of flashbacks, as Jane questions her possible guilt in the deaths of her friends. Their relationships were made up of illicit love, rivalries, and secret pagan rituals. While Jane fears what will happen if her secrets are revealed at last, it may be the only thing that will prevent some sinister person from bringing more tragedy to Heart Lake.
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