Posts tagged crime fiction
Posts tagged crime fiction
Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham: the first time I have truly felt guilty about a guilty pleasure.
You may already know this: Anne Perry, a bestselling mystery novelist, was once a girl named Juliet, and a murderess herself. If you have seen Heavenly Creatures, you know the crazy story of Juliet and Pauline already: two teenage girls in 1950s New Zealand who were obsessed with each other worked themselves into a frenzy when they suspected their parents would separate them, and beat one’s mum to death with half a brick in a sock. They were caught almost immediately and the subsequent trial and news coverage were titillating for all the same reasons we watch SVU today: teenagers! lesbianism! bad poetry! diaries! secret marriages! And this book, like good true crime, holds many of those same SVU pleasures by recounting it all.
The book’s outlining of their friendship and obsession is steady and frightening. I don’t think I’ve ever been obsessed with a friend in the way that Pauline and Juliet were obsessed with each other, and much of the trial focused on just exactly what type of mental illness they had, so I guess most people can’t understand that element and need it to be diagnosible. But I do remember what it feels like to feel completely disconnected from the adult world while longing desperately to join it, so I found it hard to write Juliet and Pauline off as complete nutjobs. Their conviction and imprisonment seemed just, but as I read through the trial I hoped they might be able to restart their lives quietly, even though I knew that Anne Perry would eventually become famous.
Unfortunately, the story becomes even more chilling after their release as it follows them from prison to the present-day, and this is where my love for Anne Perry became uncomfortable. Even accounting for the natural propensity of the true crime writer for dramatics (Graham resists better than most, but still), I have to say: she does not seem like a good person. Pauline, whose mother is the one who was killed, seems like a sad, desperate person. Juliet/Anne just creeps me out. And despite having had a female life partner for decades now, she still denies she is a lesbian, possibly because she converted to Mormonism. Which I guess could be true, but just seems really sad. I dunno.
These last few chapters are much scarier than the ones in which the girls plan and execute a brutal matricide. One’s penchant for redemption is denied. And my habit of reading each of Anne Perry’s books and supporting her wildly successful career for years now makes me a little queasy, in part because of her very own prose.
One of the only flaws of this book is Graham’s short deconstruction of the text of Perry’s first book, The Cater Street Hangman. I hate to spoil it for you, but it was published in the late 70s, so you’ve had your chance—the serial killer turns out to be a vicar’s wife who is a repressed lesbian, obsessed with sin. Any true crime writer would be unable to resist the temptation of comparison.
I re-read it myself yesterday out of curiosity and it did not hold up as well as I’d hoped. A truly absurd amount of clothing descriptions! But the real trouble was that after having read many excerpts of Perry’s adolescent writing in Graham’s book, I could not deny the links between this book and those inventions. In her newer books, she has a very different voice. She has become a very strong writer over the years. But the echoes of Juliet Hulme are distinct in Cater Street. I have known about Anne Perry’s past for a few years (as this book outlines, she was discovered in 1994, and hadn’t taken many pains to stay hidden) but have always compartmentalized those actions as Juliet’s, and the books as Anne’s. I’m not sure I can do that anymore.
Speaking of temptation, though—ask me again how I feel when her next book comes out.
Dustin is usually hideously wrong about books (don’t believe him when he says it’s me) but he was less wrong than usual when he gave me Wolf Haas’s book Brenner and God. The voice of these books is incredible, like nothing else in crime fiction. I’m not even sure how to describe it. So blasé and conversational and a little mean, especially about the protagonist, private detective Simon Brenner. For example, here is how the book above, The Bone Man, begins:
Well, something’s happened again.
Spring’s a glorious time of year, though—poems and all that. And everybody knows, it’s in springtime that life awakens. That’s why nobody wanted to believe it at first when suddenly it was the other way around.
Yeah, I’ll say. A person has been using the bone grinder at a famous fried chicken restaurant to grind human bones and hide the homicide evidence. Something has indeed happened.
But where most books would use atmospheric language and cliffhangers to draw out such a story, Haas strips it all away, which has a chilling effect, like a picture on the Internet without an Instagram filter. Grade-A crime fiction, nice short paperbacks, nice covers, German coolness, the prestige of reading literature in translation—you have no excuse for not reading these if you are a mystery fan. NO EXCUSE.
Midnight at Marble Arch is solid Anne Perry, but I wasn’t crazy about it.
This is probably because the plot circles around unmasking the identity of a serial rapist, giving the book the slightly soiled feeling of a SVU marathon. This was heightened by the fact that all of the characters who weren’t villains had decidedly modern opinions about rape—women don’t ask for it, women shouldn’t be shamed for it, oh what a horrific society we live in that stomaches such a crime—which, I am sorry to say, felt very unrealistic. Charlotte and Thomas Pitt can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m happy to believe in their proto-feminism. But it’s hard to believe that every person they know felt the same way. It felt like a missed opportunity, frankly. It doesn’t help anyone to put forth that a person is either enlightened or a rapist, now or in the Victorian era. Ah, well.
My mom, a fellow crime fiction addict, passed Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr along for my train ride. Between how fantastic this book was and my completed Denise Mina binge, I am getting quite spoiled. The life of the ordinary German during WWII was a horrifying and bland one (as an example, that inherent tension makes Every Man Dies Alone an incredible book). To pair that perspective with the cranky Sherlockian character Bernie Gunther makes for an incredible book.
This mystery is set in 1941, as men returning from the Eastern front, including Gunther, are bringing with them news of the atrocities they had witnessed and with which they had aided (ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps, executions). Gunther is called out to the estate of Reinhard Heydrich, known as “the man with the iron heart” and feared even by even fellow Nazis, to be his personal detective, and it is under the guise of the murder that happens soon after that the book unfolds. But there is more going on here.
One of the minor themes of the book is that the actions of the Nazis were so abominable that they could not be believed even by those who saw them, and I think contemporarily, that has translated to them being unable to be comprehended in full. It is so horrific that the brain seems to water it down. To meet Heydrich in a history book is to be horrified by a cold-eyed portrait and a list of statistics. But to meet him in a crime fiction novel is to be horrified by a flesh-and-chuckles human, and that is true horror. I finished this book and sat in silence for quite sometime, upset by the Holocaust in a way that I haven’t been since probably the first time I learned about it as a kid. To sneak that punch in under a crime novel’s cover is quite something.
Sentences like clever knives,
stories like stone paths:
Denise Mina is a god.
Seriously, I started Garnethill this morning and I have never been so mad at the train for moving through space and thus bringing me closer to the end of reading time.
The problem I’ve developed by reading a lot of British crime fiction is that I’ve become absurdly picky about it without being able to understand or articulate why I like what I like. I read at random and put down a lot of books fifty pages in. It’s sad.
Enter Denise Mina, who I’ve finally discovered. I don’t know why it took me so long, especially given that she briefly wrote for Hellblazer, which should have sold me years ago. Gods and Beasts is her latest novel and it is fantastic. Tana French mixed with John le Carre; a beautifully understated and thoughtful crime novel with characters so real that I kept forgetting it was fiction.
(And now I get to go back and read all her books! Discovering new authors you love who have a deep backlist is a glee that deserves its own word.)
To follow Me Before You immediately, in the same train ride, with Gun Machine by Warren Ellis was an odd choice on my part, as the only things these books have in common is a common color scheme and authors with accents.
It was successful nonetheless. Fantastic super-speed police procedural, like Law & Order shook up with many of my favorite Ellis tricks. (I could never quite shake the feeling that John Tallow was Spider Jerusalem in disguise, because Ellis got his tentacles into my mind in its formative stages, but that’s not a bad thing.)
Killing Them Softly by George V. Higgins: Perhaps the most impressive use of dialogue I have ever read.
So I’m not yet certain if Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL is my favorite crime novel of 2012, but it will almost certainly be up there. And so far I’d say it’s a favorite of a great many people thus far, hitting #2 on the NYT bestseller list its first week out, tons and tons of raves/ongoing reads in my…
Well, this is just fucking FANTASTIC.
Normally when people say that, they’re being sarcastic, but I assure you, I am not being sarcastic! I am about to put half of this on hold at the library.