Sunday, June 27, 2010

First Officer's Log No 6: What To Read Next... Non-European Mystery Edition

"Ali, what do I read next?" Such is the question that I am asked, weekly, by friends, family and friends of friends, and sometimes I imagine that sooner or later the owners of the Corgis who walk their dogs on the block where I live will ask me for a recommendation. The hardest part about recommending books is knowing just who and what will appeal to people's interests and tastes. It's one of the most challenging parts of working in a bookstore, but also one of the most rewarding.

Nialle has talked about recommending books for younger readers, but since my interests tend to veer towards science fiction / fantasy, mystery, literature and any kind of non fiction, that gives me a more adult-oriented audience to play with. Recently, my younger brother has been quite taken with Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, a mystery series set in Chicago, starring a snarky wizard and his assistant, a talking skull. When my brother asked me what to attack next, I guided him to Dean Koontz, a good segue into adult fiction for a 14 year old boy.

I suppose that's not the best example of a suggestion, but I think it shows how my brain works, at least with regard to those whom I know quite well. Recently, a woman approached me in the store and asked about a good mystery, though she did not care for European mystery writers, despite their being all the rage. I thought about it and directed her to Kevin O'Brien's first novel, "Make Them Cry", a murder mystery set in a seminary. Shortly thereafter, someone asked for a European mystery writer, and Denise Mina was handed out. It got me thinking, however, about mystery writers, and how country of origin can effect the style and the reception of the novel itself.

It occurred to me, when the first woman told me that she didn't like European mystery writers, that, despite the popularity of Steig Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", if someone comes in and asks for a good mystery, that isn't the first thing that I can, in good conscience, direct them to. Even with his headstrong central female character, Larsson's books are not cheerful, most of the characters are despicable, and the events in the novels are quite grotesque at points. It's enough to make me pine for the prose of Thomas Harris, whom I once considered quite vicious.

So. With that in mind, here are a few American mystery writers whose work is consistently excellent, and whom I highly recommend to anyone who needs a great story to get lost in.

- Dennis Lehane: author of the gritty Kenzie / Gennaro mysteries, which begin with "A Drink Before the War", and the critically acclaimed novels-turned-films "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island". Lehane's style of writing, which spares no emotion nor any easy decisions is borderline literature. My favorite novel of his is the second of the Kenzie / Gennaro stories, "Darkness, Take My Hand", a novel that had me up late into the evening, a novel that deals with bitter themes of childhood, lost innocence and brutality, while still offering a hopeful resolution.

- Michael Connelly: while Connelly is best known for his Harry Bosch series, one of his best works is the recent "The Lincoln Lawyer", a humor-laced look at a criminal defense attorney and the madness that he gets himself into.

- Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: I consider these gentlemen guilty pleasures, but their most recent novel in their ongoing Aloysius Pendergast series, "Fever Dream", is one of the eeriest, most fun mysteries I've read in a very long time. The Pendergast series technically begins with "Relic", an archaeological museum mystery, but as the series progresses, more and more madness ensues. Their stories are fun, pure and simple, with good scares, villains and compelling heroes.

- Tess Gerritsen: one of my favorite women writing currently, Gerritsen's first novels were stand-alone, but she eventually created a series with recurring characters, starting with "The Surgeon". Sparing no details, and often quite gruesome, Gerritsen's writing is very tight, with well drawn, memorable women as her lead characters. Jane Rizzoli is one of my all time favorite women in mysteries.

- Elizabeth George: while her Inspector Lynley novels are set in England, George is an American. Her novels may be dense, but they offer compelling stories, and continuous threads that enrich her characters, starting with "A Great Deliverance". George's writing is consistently excellent, and her characters shift and evolve, growing as they experience life and the events of their professions. An excellent series, still great after all these years.

Hopefully these can offer a few new ideas for good American series to start with. Next week I'll look at European and Asian authors whom I like.

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