Having just published my new literary mystery/legal thriller, Weighing the Truth, author G. Elizabeth Kretchmer asked me to write a guest blog on her literary blog, and I chose the subject of literary or character-driven mysteries. All crime fiction, and most fiction in fact, contains a mystery or two. So here are my favorite literary mysteries, with an introduction by G. Elizabeth Kretchmer.
I would never have predicted I’d build a friendship with someone based on criticism, but that’s exactly how Christine Z. Mason and I became friends.
Several years ago, I joined an online writing critique group to which I’d submit my work for constructive feedback. Other members did the same thing. Christine was one of those members, and although at times she must have found my feedback annoying (although she denies this), we grew to respect one another not only as authors but also as human beings. I now consider Christine one of my closest friends.
A former attorney, Christine has just published a legal thriller, Weighing the Truth, so I was delighted that she offered this guest blog with eight of her favorite literary mysteries. Interestingly, these authors come from all around the world: Australia, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Scotland, and the United States.
THE COLD SONG – Linn Ullmann
On a rainy night in July, the lives of family members spending their summer on the Norwegian coast are disrupted by the murder of the hired nanny. The ensuing investigation threatens to reveal painful secrets and to tear apart the fragile marriage of writer Jon and his wife Siri, a restaurateur.
What Tom Perotta, author of The Leftovers says: “The Cold Song is a fluid, shape-shifting novel, a family saga that turns into an erotically charged drama and then takes a darker turn into the terrain of a murder mystery. Linn Ullmann is an unusually talented and sympathetic writer, able to inhabit a wide range of characters and bring them all vividly to life.”
What Christine says: Whether it’s cast as a mystery or a domestic drama, this is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. The writing is beautiful (translated from Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland), and the story mesmerizes. This novel can be read more than once, first to find out what happens and then to immerse oneself more deeply into the world of these characters.
A quote from the book: “After all the dreary summer cottages and houses lining the long road up from the little town, Mailund appeared like an oasis from another age, the age of white lace dresses, the age of straw hats, of handlebar mustaches, Rhenish wine, and croquet. Never mind that on moonlit autumn nights the place seemed to shine with an almost uncanny glow and in misty weather could look somehow forbidding, as if it were hovering a few feet above the ground.”
CHRISTINE FALLS – Benjamin Black
This character-driven detective novel is told mainly from the perspective of pathologist Quirke, who wants to know why a doctor has tampered with records involving a young woman’s murder. Set in 1950s Dublin, the plot implicates the Catholic Church and possibly members of Quirke’s own family. This is the first in a series of detective novels written by literary master John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black.
What The New York Times says: “Swirling, elegant noir . . . Crossover fiction of a very high order . . . Rolls forward with haunting, sultry exoticism.”
What Christine says: Although classified as a mystery, Christine Falls is as well written as John Banville’s literary (non-crime) novels, including one of my favorites, The Sea. His prose is poetic, and he engages his readers by going intimately into the characters’ minds and lives. The Quirke series is brilliant. Wish there were more to read!
A quote from the book: “. . . [T]he big car screeched and spun on the snow and the shiny steel rails and stopped, and the engine stopped, and everything stopped, except the train that was rushing toward them, its single eye glaring, and which at the last moment seemed to raise itself up as if it would take to the black air, shrieking and flaming, and fly, and fly.”
CASE HISTORIES – Kate Atkinson
Scottish private detective Jackson Brodie becomes embroiled in three murder cases and must try to unravel their complex connections.
What The Guardian says: “Atkinson is very good indeed . . . . Case Histories is essentially a balancing act, with evil and ignorance stacked opposite truth and healing. In this aspect the book is more satisfying than many detective novels—not just because it is so well written, but in its defiant refusal to let the dark side win . . . . Everyone who picks it up will feel compelled to follow it through to the last page.”
What Christine says: Kate Atkinson juggles several plots, resulting in a novel that is not only psychologically complex and fascinating, but also replete with the author’s dry humor and gorgeous prose—a superbly satisfying read. It’s also available in a great series on DVD.
A quote from the book: “She was still blond and sported the deep leathery tan of someone who thought skin cancer happened to other people, although, judging by her smoker’s cough, it was going to be a race with lung cancer. As befitted a Mafia mistress, she was wearing enough gold to furnish an Indian wedding. . . . Jackson warmed to her immediately.”
BROKEN HARBOR – Tana French
Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and his partner investigate the murders of family members in a half-abandoned housing development in Ireland. As the detectives delve into the circumstances of the killings, bizarre facts are uncovered that, after much investigation, lead to the shocking resolution.
What Maureen Corrigan says (from NPR’s Fresh Air): “French’s psychologically rich novels are so much more satisfying than your standard issue police procedural . . . . and, like all superior detective fiction, French’s novels are as much social criticism as they are whodunit.”
What Christine says: Read this if you like to know your characters inside and out—their background, relationships, motivations, foibles and strengths—while being completely immersed in the story. There’s also an excellent audio book, which I listened to a year after I read the print version, and which I enjoyed even more, due to French’s superb writing and the excellent reading.
A quote from the book: “The stars vanished and the dark street leaped into ghostly half life, creepers hanging pale on tall blocks of gray wall, wild plants crisscrossing white and lacy where the pavements should have been. In a couple of the gardens, small glowing shapes crouched in corners or scurried through the weeds, and three phantom wood doves slept high in a tree, heads tucked under their wings; no warm things better than that, anywhere in sight.”
WHILE I WAS GONE – Sue Miller
Veterinarian Jo Becker revisits her past when a former housemate appears, needing her services for his dog. One of their other housemates in the Sixties’ commune in Cambridge, Massachusetts had been murdered, the crime never solved. Becker jeopardizes both her own safety and her marriage as she is drawn back into that world.
What Publisher’s Weekly says: “The shadowy and inexorable nemesis of past secrets to a reclaimed life, and the inability even of those who are intimates to really know one another, are poignant themes in Miller’s resonant fifth novel. . . . [H]er narrative is a beautifully textured picture of the psychological tug of war between finding integrity as an individual and satisfying the demands of spouse, children and community.”
What Christine says: This is one of Miller’s best novels. The psychological tension becomes almost unbearable as the story proceeds toward its devastating conclusion.
A quote from the book: “I think, too, that by then, by the time I was getting ready to leave, I understood how shallow, how inconsequential, Ted’s and my attachment to each other was. We had married through innocent stupidity, through a pure lack of imagination. We had gone to college together and had furtive sex for a year.”
THE RIDERS – Tim Winton
A man waits at the airport gate for his wife and daughter Billie, due to arrive from Australia, the three of them about to start a new life together in Ireland. When his wife does not appear, without explanation, his life begins to fall apart.
What New Leader says: “. . . one of those clean, elegant metaphysical thrillers we most often associate with Brian Moore, Graham Greene or Robert Stone . . . an immensely entertaining book.”
What Christine says: One of the most compelling character-driven mysteries I’ve read. Could enjoy it again and again.
A quote from the book: “Right there with the sheet between her teeth and the blanket like a fuggy tent above her head, Billie prayed for an angel, for a whirlwind, a fire, a giant crack in the world that might save them from tomorrow, from the other side of the world.”
THE PILOT’S WIFE – Anita Shreve
After learning of her pilot husband’s death in a plane crash, Kathryn Lyon searches for the reason he is being blamed for the tragedy. As she gets closer to learning the circumstances of the plane crash, she also must confront the parameters of her 16-year marriage to a man she finds she didn’t really know, and the mystery leads her further into inconceivable truths.
What Joanne Wilkinson of Booklist Review says: Shreve “knows just what she’s doing–weaving a compelling plot through which she explores deeper issues, such as intimacy and grief.
What Christine says: A gripping, well-written novel—you may find you have to read it all in one go.
A quote from the book: “She felt herself to be inside of a private weather system, one in which she was continuously tossed and buffeted by bits of news and information. . . . It was a weather system with no logic, she had decided, no pattern, no progression, no form.”
SPUTNIK SWEETHEART – Haruki Murakami
A college student falls in love with a classmate, who then disappears from a Greek island. Part love story and part detective story.
What Publisher’s Weekly says: “Though the story is almost stark in its simplicity, more like Murakami’s romantic Norwegian Wood than his surreal Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, the careful intimacy of the protagonists’ conversation and their tightly controlled passion for each other make this slim book worthwhile.”
What Christine says: I love the way each of Murakami’s novels is different and original, and the way each contains an unusual take on a mystery that may or not be solved. Sputnik Sweetheart is a fascinating study of the characters and their passions and also a meditation on alienation.
A quote from the book: “An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains—flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado’s intensity doesn’t abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and all, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand.”
SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW – Peter Hoeg
Smilla Jaspersen, who is part Inuit and living in Copenhagen, befriends her six-year-old Inuit neighbor, Isaiah. When Isaiah is killed in a fall from a roof, Smilla discovers clues indicating to her that this was a criminal act, but the police immediately pronounce it an accident and don’t want her to become involved. Nevertheless, she pursues the unsettling mystery of Isaiah’s death from the streets of Copenhagen to the Arctic until she uncovers the truth.
What mystery writer Aaron Elkins says: “This is an extraordinarily good novel, elliptical yet direct, violent yet dreamy; hard to put down and impossible to get out of one’s mind. And Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is surely the toughest, smartest, strangest, most intriguing protagonist to come along in years.”
What Christine says: I agree completely with this critic. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a brilliant literary crime novel by highly acclaimed novelist Peter Hoeg. And, by the way, the movie is also a work of art, with Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, and Richard Harris.
A quote from the book: “The Inuit Aisivak told Knud Rasmussen that in the beginning the world was inhabited only by two men, who were both great sorcerers. Since they wanted to multiply, one of them transformed his body in such a way that he could give birth; and then the two of them created many children.”
* * *
Christine Z. Mason majored in English at UCLA and studied creative writing and literature at UCLA English Graduate School, then attended UC Davis School of Law. As a lawyer, she handled felony and death penalty cases on appeal, jury trials, and child abandonment and neglect cases. She is currently a full-time fiction writer.
She has published a middle-grade children’s book, The Mystery of Nan Madol, an adventure story set on an island in Micronesia. She has also published a mainstream novel, Boundaries: A Love Story, set in the 1980’s, introducing Kaia Matheson, a young woman aspiring to be a children’s rights lawyer who falls in love with her cousin. Kaia reappears, now in middle age, as a minor character in Christine’s just-published novel, Weighing the Truth, a legal thriller, alongside 32-year-old protagonist Natalya Drummond, a death penalty lawyer. Christine is now working on a new novel in which both of these characters surface once again. Visit Christine at http://www.ChristineZMason.com.
***If you’re a writer and would like to contribute to my “8 Favorite Reads” guest blog series, please send me a note. Happy reading!***
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