I was doing an interview the other day to promote my new book, my first mystery, when the host asked me what I like to read. I should have expected the question—it’s a standard for authors—but I froze. There is such a huge variety in what I read that I didn’t know where to start.
I knew the correct “marketing” answer was to name several mysteries similar to my own, but I tend to split my time between literary fiction and mysteries, so I compromised and listed a few of each.
I began reading mysteries decades ago when I was in the National Guard, finding myself with long stretches of waiting-around time. I got hooked on Ross MacDonald, who took the handoff in hard-boiled detective fiction from Raymond Chandler and ran with it. MacDonald was the first real influence on my writing, though he’s long been overshadowed by hundreds of other influences, more from the literary fiction column than from the mystery side.
In the past couple of years, however, while I was working on my new book, The Question Is Murder, I read a lot of mysteries, and I want to share some of favorites you might not have heard of. I don’t have to tell you about Michael Connolly, John Sandford, Gillian Flynn, or Donna Leon, all of whom dominate the best seller lists, but here are a few you may have missed—and shouldn’t. Confession up front: All lean toward literary mystery fiction rather than thrillers.
These Women by Ivy Pochoda, a finalist for the Edgar Award for best novel of 2020, is an innovative, important, thought-provoking book, especially in its treatment of relationships between daughters and parents and neighbors.
The plot deals with a serial killer preying on prostitutes in Los Angeles. The crimes stretch over decades, with the victims’ families convinced that the police haven’t made enough of an effort because of who the victims are. The key characters in this book aren’t the victims—they’re the families and other women who make up the ignored, mistreated, and misunderstood underbelly of cities around the county and world.
Pochoda understands these people and presents them in a way that improves a reader’s understanding. It’s not a fun book to read, but it’s an important one. And it wouldn’t matter whether the title characters were sex workers, the homeless, the addicted—anyone who is down and out will do. And with so many Americans falling into that category because of the pandemic, we need to think long and hard about our attitudes toward them. Pochoda will help you do that.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is far funnier and lighter than Pochoda’s book, and it’s a must read for any fan of the cozy mystery. Horowitz is incredibly imaginative, whether creating such TV hits as Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders or writing novels that defy literary conventions. Magpie Murders manages to be both a tribute and a parody of Agatha Christie, who Horowitz clearly admires. The novel uses the book within a book format, which makes it a bit too long. The interior book is a Christie-like cozy that emulates her style, while the surrounding novel is filled with insight into what makes a mystery work, why people read them, and why it doesn’t matter that they have no relationship to reality. Horowitz also wrote a sequel—Moonflower Murders—but it’s too much like the first and not nearly as much fun. If you thirst for another Horowitz novel, try The Word Is Murder, another innovative and fun book.
Scott Turow’s The Last Trial is his best since Presumed Innocent. Sandy Stern, who first appeared in Presumed Innocent is back for one last trial, defending his longtime friend against murder, fraud, and insider trading charges. Stern, after five decades in the courtroom, is in failing health and set to retire after the verdict. The plot has all the twists and turns you’d expect from Turow, but what I most loved about the book is the insights into Stern and what it’s like to feel yourself growing older.
An older (if you consider 2017 old) but intriguing literary mystery is Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The book begins when Jacob Rigolet looks up from his seat at an art auction to see his mother march in and fling blank ink at a famous photograph called “Death on a Leipzig Balcony.” Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin says the novel finds Norman as his “provocative…haunting and uncannily moving best.”
Finally, I’ll mention Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, in part because of its wonderful depiction of Baltimore in the 1960s. The protagonist is a middle-aged housewife and aspiring reporter who is intent on finding the murder of a forgotten young woman. “Maddie” Schwartz, recently divorced after twenty years of marriage, wants to make her name while attaching one to a young Black woman who was murdered decades earlier and quickly forgotten, in the way young Black murder victims often are. It’s Lippman at her best.