Charles Perry is the publisher of Penzler Publishers, which specializes in reissues of classic American mystery fiction, as well as the marketing coordinator of The Mysterious Bookshop. He lives in Brooklyn.
As a publisher, editor, and bookseller of mystery fiction, it’s my job to stay on top of the best of the genre. Here are my thoughts on some of my favorites for this month:
Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake, William Morrow
In her follow-up to last year’s Sunburn, Laura Lippman returns to mid-century Maryland with a novel of astounding depth that is at once an elegy for local reporting, a portrait of a woman in turmoil, a love-letter to the city of Baltimore, and a gripping murder mystery.
Upon opening the book, one is immediately struck by its high-concept style, which counters each chapter focusing on Madeleine — a woman who leaves her unhappy marriage and Baltimore’s Jewish community for a new life as a reporter — with a chapter re-telling the previous from a second perspective. The story constantly shifts with a twist of the kaleidoscope, refracting, expanding, and uncovering deeper insights into Baltimore and its people.
But there is greater genius at work in this style, which allows Lippman to gracefully disrupt the typical “dead girl” narrative, a trope which uses the silenced female victim to propel its action; instead, the victim at the center of Madeleine’s fledgling investigation is far from silent—from beyond the grave, she frequently takes the stage, commenting on the protagonist’s actions and raising the stakes by so doing.
…there is greater genius at work in this style, which allows Lippman to gracefully disrupt the typical “dead girl” narrative.
Lady in the Lake is Lippman’s twenty-fourth book, a fact that is immediately recognizable in its controlled, deliberate prose. But it’s also refreshingly original, the work of an author who continues to experiment and explore new territory with her writing — and to discover new possibilities in the process. An excellent mystery.
Fred Vargas, This Poison Will Remain, Penguin
In the newest installment in Fred Vargas’s Commisaire Adamsberg series, the detective and his team hunt for the criminal mastermind behind weaponized spider venom — or, are they simply hunting for one particularly mean brown recluse?
Cleanly written and crisply translated, bristling with interesting entomological reasoning and humorous asides…(Fred Vargas’s book] is an engaging and enjoyable mystery.
Three elderly men have died from spider-bites, a murder method so far-fetched that it takes considerable effort to even be recognized as a planned attack instead of as a freak coincidence of bad luck. But when Adamsberg discovers that the victims knew one another as children in a rural orphanage, and that, alongside a group of other ruffians, they terrorized their peers with, among other things, poisonous spiders, it becomes clear that the killer hasn’t yet finished what they started, and the investigation becomes all the more urgent.
Cleanly written and crisply translated, bristling with interesting entomological reasoning and humorous asides, and crafted with an eye towards regional cultures and cuisines, this is an engaging and enjoyable mystery, perfect for whiling away a few summer afternoons. Though it does not require familiarity with earlier books in the series, it is likely to send the uninitiated off to hunt for more titles from this wonderful author.
Daniel Nieh, Beijing Payback, Ecco
After the death of his restauranteur father, college basketball player Victor Li is left grieving—until a visit from one of his dad’s Chinese associates brings information that the death may have been murder, tranforming his grief into a thirst for revenge. Coupled with this news is the revelation that Li’s father, who maintained a tame appearance in the presence of his family, was in fact an important figure in the Chinese black market, and an integral piece in a vast international crime syndicate. Soon, Victor embarks on an investigation into the true cause of his father’s death that takes him first into Los Angeles’s seedy corners, then into China’s bloody past, and, ultimately, into Beijing’s criminal underworld.
Though Beijing Payback is a page-turner from the first page to the last, the novel’s most striking feature, which occurs half-way through the text, is the chapters-long confessional letter, left for Victor in a box of his father’s possessions, that details the fallout after China’s Cultural Revolution and explains the elder Li’s criminal education in its aftermath. It marks a turning point in the narrative, placing it in a broader context that further illuminates its characters and their relationships.
…Beijing Payback is a page-turner from the first page to the last.
Debut author Daniel Nieh exploits a basic thriller plot to explore stories and experiences that might otherwise not appear in popular novels—in so doing, he highlights the adaptability that makes crime fiction such a fecund genre. He writes with remarkable confidence and control, strengths no doubt gained through his experience as a Chinese-English translator, and gracefully crafts scenes that move between two cultures. This is rich storytelling, but the pacing never flags—through and through, it remains a propulsive and enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to more!
Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home, Mullholland
History weighs heavy on Darren Mathews’ most recent case, which finds the Texas Ranger searching for the child of white supremecists while simultaneously working to infiltrate a chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood.
The investigation takes him out east to Jefferson, a small lakeside town near the Louisiana border whose tourist economy relies on the region’s antebellum past (or at least, the imagined trappings of that past, complete with civil war reenactments, plantation tours, and the like).
But as Mathews digs deeper, he discovers another side to this history: Native American and African American roots in the area that, though intimately intertwined with the white wealth that this tourism celebrates, are all but ignored in the narratives that it promotes.
…east Texas is a perfect setting for a mystery series, and Attica Locke is the perfect guide to explore its storied highways.
This racial discord comes to a head in the property of Leroy Page, a man whose extensive real estate holdings, passed down from his freed slave forebears, have by a cruel twist of fate become home to an insidious white supremacist sect. The landowner and his tenants have butted heads repeatedly already, so when their child goes missing, and Page becomes the main suspect, their latent bigotry threatens to explode into violence.
Mathews’s search for the truth cuts to the heart of this troubled town, and exposes generations-old promises, secrets, and lies in the process. All of which builds to a breathtaking finale proves what many had already suspected: east Texas is a perfect setting for a mystery series, and Attica Locke is the perfect guide to explore its storied highways. Highly recommended.
For more recommendations by Charles Perry, please see Charles Perry: My Picks For Mystery Fiction Fans With Eclectic Tastes.