I need to read more contemporary crime fiction. I especially need to read more by Americans. It’s a hugely popular genre and a lot of people I respect read a lot of it. But for some reason it has never reached me.
I have, in recent years, been edging closer. Through my extended historical fiction kick I’ve started reading quite a few historical mysteries — particularly those set in Tudor and medieval England but with a foray or two into the ancient Roman world. There are a couple contemporary crime writers I adore, snapping up their new releases as soon as they come out. But they’re both Brits: Kate Atkinson and P.D. James. I’ve tentatively explored the white-hot area of Scandinavian crime fiction: Stieg Larsson, Asa Larsson, Kjell Erickson. I like it but not enough so I obsess about when the next installment is arriving (good thing in the case of Stieg Larsson, right?).
But I want to know what’s happening around here so recently I’ve assigned myself some reading in current crime fiction. Unfortunately my assignment was a disappointment. I was intrigued enough by Will Lavender’s Obedience to suggest we order it when I worked at the FKCC Library (we did). Then I recently saw Lavender’s piece on Salon about coming to terms with writing genre, rather than literary, fiction — I like the contrarian, anti-elitist position as a rule and I agree that a lot of fiction that gets relegated to the genre ghetto is better crafted than a lot of the productions coming out of the MFA factories. Atkinson and James are prime examples, and I enjoy and admire the historical series written by C.J. Sansom (Matthew Shardlake), P.F. Chisholm (who is actually Patricia Finney, writing about Sir Robert Carey), Ruth Downie (Medicus) and Sharon Kay Penman (who when she’s not writing massive tomes about the Plantagenets has a mystery series set in the same period featuring a character named Justin de Quincy who serves Eleanor of Acquitaine).
I wanted to like Obedience. A young guy, an American, carrying the crime fiction banner into literay territory — it all sounded good. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. The premise was just too contrived, even for the kind of book where one is prepared to suspend some measure of disbelief. Even the college campus set-up didn’t seem to make sense, though my direct experience of elite midwestern colleges is, admittedly, nil. I know the Stanley Milgram experiments were famous and all, but would mere association with them give an academic such immense prestige that they would name a library after him? The characters certainly didn’t make a whole lot of sense, internally. The twist at the end was admittedly pretty good and I didn’t see it coming though I certainly should have. A shame.
So the question is: Who should I read if I want to read the best of contemporary American crime fiction? Michael Connelly’s already on my list; I’m intrigued by the guys tapped by The Wire — George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price. I either read or listened to James Lee Burke years back and I don’t remember it wowing me but I keep reading stellar reviews. Lee Child? Harlan Coben? I’m wary of the macho hardboiled thing. And I’d really like some women in there. Laura Lippman? Tana French? Lisa Scottoline? Sara Paretsky? I read Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series back in the day but gave up somewhere around J. I’d particularly like to hear suggestions for people who aren’t the usual suspects. Tom Franklin? Daniel Woodrell? Is there an American equivalent to Kate Atkinson out there? If not why not?????
My only condition: Please please PLEASE do not suggest Dan Brown or James Patterson. When The Da Vinci Code was breaking big I decided to try the guy out and read Angels & Demons. Still waiting for the International Court of Literary Justice to award me those four hours of my life back. And I’ll admit I haven’t actually read Patterson but my husband and I once got an audiotape for a trip to the Everglades — with Chris Noth narrating, no less! — but had to turn it off in hilarity and disgust when the narrator started intoning “Tick … cock … tick … cock …” I wish I were making that up.