This year, I read a lot of crime fiction by women and/or featuring exciting female characters. It happened somewhat by design and somewhat by stumbling upon interesting recommendations.
Earlier, I have been so obsessed with Scandanavians and Japanese, that while I had read these English language writers, in fact had even liked some, but never went back to. Now I like to think I have achieved a nice balance between the Norse and the English speaking world.
These are not recommendations as such. Some of them, I have liked, some I loved, some I bought only because I was in a mood of a read-alike, some were cheap buys.
I am not sure if it is fair to group these together just because they are women, but I am doing it because together, they certainly point to the brilliant surge of popular writing and reading of crime fiction in women, that has demolished the traditional male bastion of suspense thrillers. Another post is required on this grand trend of women claiming crime fiction as their own after being limited to stereotypical drama or Romance Fiction .
1. Tana French:
Author of the lyrical, fairy-tale like and intense Dublin Murder Squad novels, her detectives belong in an English lit. department rather than a murder squad. Her language wants me to lick the words off the pages. She writes eloquently about close friendships and people’s unrequited emotions. I connected with her characters’ obsessive desire to free themselves in escapist world. Reading her books will put you in a dense mood where words will prick you in eyes like a dust that wouldn’t wash away.
2. Gillian Flynn:
Ah, I Love-Hate her with equal gusto. I read all her books biting my cuticles and cursing and admiring her at the same time. Her writing is sharp, biting, clever with complex female characters. She has a cynical sense of humour that strums your own wry heart. But she does fall prey to stereo-typing and under all that clever style and twisted plotting, the books are as conventional as a Quintin Tarantino character. She is the latest best-seller what with her Gone Girl being made into a movie and has been a great booster for clever suspense fiction with interesting women characters.
3. Megan Abbott:
Along with Flynn, she is the it-girl of modern noir, what with movie remakes featuring Natalie Portman and all. Cynical, drenched in dark emotions, and poetic, she shares the problematic stereotyping with Flynn. She specialises in teen girl friendships gone wrong, to put in crudely, and her books, under all that awesome philosophy about growing up , are nothing but extremely well written versions of Single White Female, rather than Heavenly Creatures.
4. Kate Atkinson:
Her characterisation is so vivid that you feel like you are breathing the same air with them. But the plot and motive of the three books I read, was mediocre at best. I am not sure I would have bought the third Jackson Brodie book if it wasn’t cheap.
5. Chelsea Cain:
Thomas Harris meets James Patterson, Cain writes about serial killer Gretchen Cowell, who is described ‘beautiful’ so many times in the book that I wanted to twist her nose and deform her just to get that out of the way. Gretchen could have been interesting if Ms. Cain was not obsessed with her beauty and had not confused Hannibal Lecter for Sharon Stone midway. But, they are fast reads, with interesting reporter Sarah Ward thrown in along with detective Archie, the classic anguished detective.
6. Nicci French:
Psychiatrist Frieda Klein loves to walk London streets in the night. That won me over and I did forgive the slightly clichéd tense atmosphere of the series, or the totally unbelievable antagonists. Again, worth trying it out, although the contrived naming of the novels with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is a bit silly.
7. Louise Penny:
Love her quaint Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries set in Canada, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s closed-door ones. Only five people were in the room and one of them was murdered. Which one amongst the four did it? Obviously the most improbable one. The plot and the conclusions are quite thin, frankly, but like Agatha Christie, it really doesn’t matter in the end.
8. Lionel Shriver:
We need to talk about Kevin and the phenomenal Lionel Shriver who makes her words and sentences and pages and chapters creep upon you to silently and so subtly that you are ready to believe your puppy as a chief conspirator in 26/11 bombings. I read her other not so celebrated books, Big Brother and Female of the Species. While not as good as We Need to Talk About Kevin, they delight with the same sharp prose, acute observations and mundane details that held together can destroy things.
9. Sophie Hannah:
I am not sure what I make of her. She is definitely the queen of the minutiae, and maybe I am impatient, but when someone revels so much in minor details, I do expect a creepier outcome, which she fails to do. She is still a very engaging and fast writer.
10. Denise Mina:
Her Garnethill series is quite engaging but I am not sure if I weaned off it by the end of the third novel and am not sure if I want to invest time in the fourth book. What truly stands out is her protagonist, Maureen, who is mentally ill, and thus provides a totally unique perspective to PI.
I also read some one-off novels. The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison was touted as the next Gone Girl, but it is thankfully different and quite good. It tells the story of a marriage gone wrong in painful, everyday detail that sometimes make you feel wonder about your marital bliss!! The Poison Tree by Erin Kellywas a mediocre read- alike for Donna Tartt’s magnificent Secret History. Sister by Rosamund Lupton tells a story about a straight-jacketed woman investigating suspicious death of her bohemian sister. The premise is nothing short of phenomenal possibilities. But it turns out that the bohemian sister is so obnoxiously pretentious that I was actually glad someone bonked her off, so I guess that is a major thumbs down. The Husband’s Secret started out supremely well, and I thought would rip off the suburban- mom- bliss stereotype, but it rather reconfirmed it. I gagged at the moral of the story that if you have kids, you are excused to do anything, even murder. It features the pro to-typical smug moms and parents who believe having kids is your passport to heaven. Laura Lippman is a very good writer, but somehow she doesn’t stay with me. Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson plays with the amnesia the oldest trick in suspense fiction. The twist is mindblowingly good. Into the Darkest Corner is a well-told story of a psychotic stalker boyfriend from hell. What distinguishes it is the female protagonist, who is thankfully not the Sati Savitri that most stalker books/ movies a la Sleeping with The Enemy feature. She is quite difficult to like/ relate to in fact, which makes her victimhood all the more challenging for readers. Fred Vargas’s The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, that won this year’s CWA dagger with the pukeworthy Alex was quirky, but that was about it for me.
I am reading Barbara Vine-pen name for Ruth Randell. I had read Randell long time back but hadn’t thought of looking out for her Vine books, which are more psychological and dark. Now I am happy to have found them again.
And while it is not crime fiction, I am also reading the latest Youth sensation The Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Beatrice, a 16 year old misfit in Dystopian Chicago can not fit in with any of the pre-ordained fractions, which is bad news for her. Because if you don’t fit in, then you are basically homeless. I am halfway through and I am mildly loving it. The premise of ‘fitting-in’ is very relatable to everyone. The writing is simple in a good way. I am beginning to feel the story getting off track with too much action, but maybe that is because it is aimed at teens. It is a worthy successor to Hunger Games series.
The author Veronica Roth is 24 years old. Which wants me to jump off my balcony, frankly. But then Barbara Vine is 82, which makes me feel better.