IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: A lot of impressive crime fiction comes from the pens of female authors—just think back to Agatha Christie
Here are two contemporary writers carving out their own names. Plus we have two male writers, one steeped in wry humor and one who gives the sub-genre of LA noir an update.
‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ by Gillian McAllister
“Groundhog Day” as your influence for a crime fiction premise may not sound all that promising, but in the hands of Gillian McAllister, it pays off really nicely. Jen is a lawyer/mother and while waiting for her 18-year-old son, Todd, to return home, she spies him walking down their street. He grapples with a figure who was hiding in the shadows and, before anything can be stopped, she watches Todd fatally stab the man. Along with Kelly, her husband, they try to make sense of what just happened as Todd is arrested by the police. It’s 1 a.m. on Oct. 30, 2022. The next morning, Jen wakes up to slowly discover that it’s the morning of Oct. 29. And we’re off on this brilliantly plotted crime novel.
As a lawyer, Jen seizes the time traveling as a means to discover the “why” of the crime she witnessed her son commit, and with maternal instinct kicking in, how to avoid it happening. While each morning brings her to the day before, it soon becomes apparent, as longer time periods get involved, that these are all happening with purpose. In order to solve the “why,” she’s now waking up to days of true significance that she has to discover and tease out. Her late father, the relationship and deep secret of her husband, the life of the man her son knifed—these all form part of the collage of facts that will help Jen give meaning to this jumping through time. To her credit, McAllister keeps all the juggled balls in the air, never dropping a single one. A great read.
‘The Russian Doll’ by Marina Palmer
At the center of this tense, intriguing novel are Ruth and Elena. Ruth is a young, twenty-something when we’re first introduced to her, entering a chic cafe to return an expensive Alexander McQueen scarf that a stylish woman had dropped outside. Elena, a Russian who lives in London, is the woman who dropped the scarf and is accompanied by her two daughters. Right before Ruth reaches Elena’s table, all hell breaks loose as there’s a terrorist attack. It’s up to Ruth to save the daughters. On instinct, she deflects a grenade that was lobbed at the table. Months later, when Elena visits the small apartment where Ruth lives, Elena offers Ruth a job that’s difficult to refuse.
What follows is the labyrinthine journey of Ruth as she understands just how rich Elena and her husband are as a power couple moving within the top tier of the political and business echelons of UK society. Both in possession of dark secrets, Ruth and Elena circle each other, and form bonds that go deeper than the employer-employee relationship that initially thrust them together. It’s when outside forces plot to use Ruth as a way to infiltrate the world of the Shelkovs that the stakes get higher, and these dark secrets begin to unravel, with new discoveries set in the chapters of this burning page-turner. Marina Palmer is the name Imogen Robertson uses when she writes mystery thrillers, and this is an entertaining glimpse into a world we just read about and think the worst of. It’s satisfying to have this one set in that rarefied arena of power.
‘Hot Water’ by Christopher Fowler
Think the South of France at the end of summer, when entitled and boorish Englishmen descend on the region, flaunting wealth, privilege, and displaying a lack of finesse and character. It’s from this set-up that Christopher Fowler offers his latest crime fiction/wry comedy novel. Hannah Carreras, 23 years old, is ready to buckle down to manual labor as she offers her services as a cleaning woman to an agency that books out villas in the French Riviera. She hauls from England and, from the outset, we’re made to suspect she’s running away from something. At the villa, she’s been assigned to clean, she meets 18-year old Summer Farrow, who readily admits she’s there awaiting the arrival of Steve, a moneyed older man, who’s been pursuing her.
When Steve finally arrives, with his wife and child, Summer has disappeared, and it’s up to Hannah to make decisions about finding out what befell her new friend. To add to the complications of the situation, there’s the presence of Giles and Melissa. Giles is the assistant of Steve, and he’s the ultimate golden spoon in mouth privileged child, but with nothing much in his head. He’s been hired for his contacts and network, but it’s soon obvious that these old friends no longer want to have anything to do with Giles. As things spiral downward, and Hannah tries to provoke something to happen so as to find out what befell Summer, we’re treated to the unraveling of niceties and civility, as the inhabitants of the villa show off their real sides… though not to their credit.
‘A Man Named Doll’ by Jonathan Ames
Called Hap by his friends, a constant source of irritation is when he’s asked to produce his ID, and people discover his full name is Happy Doll. It doesn’t help when you’re an ex-cop, now working as an LA private detective. When he’s not out walking George, his half chihuahua, half terrier companion, Hap can be found at the Thai Miracle Spa, where he works providing protection to the women who work there and offer sweet endings to the clientele. One such client is a crazed ex-football player and son of a cop, so when Hap brings him down, there’s crazy payback shadowing him. To complicate matters, old fellow ex-cop Lou, gets himself (and Hap) into more trouble they two aging senior citizens should be handling.
It’s a droll, black comedy, with illegally harvested body parts, and strong “begging-for-TV-adaptation” characters on display. And what keeps it chugging is how Hap turns a fatalistic, jaundiced eye to all the horrors of everyday LA street life. It’s Hollywood noir given an update and a fresh coat of used paint. Here’s world-weary, and a delightful canine companion, that provides texture and a shine to how LA stories can be recast and retold, and feel fresh once again. It’s attitude with a capital A, and I love how Jonathan Ames has turned Happy into a budding franchise, with a second novel on its way. There’s also a skewed romance to be found in these pages, both unusual and still genuinely touching. It’s a quick read, but one that will remind you why “old school” still has its charms.