My best-of-2015 includes fiction and non-fiction, domestic and imported, and one novel published in 2014, but the writer was new to me, so he still makes the cut:
Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940a and ’50s, edited by Sarah Weinman, was probably the year’s big event in crime fiction reissues, and Vera Caspary’s Laura is a highlight of the collection. Here’s what I wrote about Laura for the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“The title character of Otto Preminger’s 1944 movie version is a gauzy, unattainable mystery woman who drives men to fascination, even obsession.
“[Caspary’s] Laura Hunt, unlike Gene Tierney, who played her in the movie, is not especially beautiful. Rather, she is a successful advertising copywriter to whom three men — a detective, an essayist and newspaper columnist, and Laura’s unworthy fiancé — are attracted without her having to do much about it. Far from a temptress or a scheming femme fatale, she’s a kind of maypole around whom the men dance, and she behaves, all told, with remarkable self-possession.”
Dirtbags, by Eryk Pruitt (2014) This is a tall tale, a couple-on-the-run story, a moving noir story as Jim Thompson or, especially, David Goodis might have written it, a rural roman noir, a dark comedy with a touch of Southern Gothic, and satire without hitting the reader over the head to make its point. It’s also a serial-killer story for readers who hate serial-killer stories, thanks to its blessed absence of interest in abnormal psychology.
One review calls the novel “sort of like a book about a serial murderer written by Carl Hiaasen, only a lot darker,” but don’t let the Hiaasen comparison stop you; this book is funny without, however, degenerating into a cheap yuk-fest. I’m as urban and suburban as readers get, so for me, tone is all important in rural noir. The story has to take me to an unfamiliar place, full of unfamiliar, colorful characters without, however, patronizing those characters or turning them into caricatures in the name of country or Southern color. Dirtbags manages this balancing act, and that’s why it’s a Detectives Beyond Borders best book I read in 2015.
The Great Swindle, by Pierre Lemaitre is a social novel about post-World War I France, about class fissures and political and business corruption, that happens to involve an epic-scale scam. The build-up to the scam is leisurely and beautifully done, and it thoroughly explores the lives of its two central characters and a host of minor ones. The novel’s ending is also atypical of crime fiction.
Lemaitre, a two-time winner of the International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction from the Crime Writers Association in the UK, won France’s Prix Goncourt for The Great Swindle (Au revoir là-haut in its original French.) The novel may remind crime readers of Dominique Manotti in its examination of corruption among the powerful France or of Daniel Pennac or Fred Vargas in its portrayal of eccentric households, and it generally avoids the twin dangers of sentimentality and whimsy when it does the latter. The translation’s English prose is elegant and unobtrusive, a credit to translator Frank Wynne.
The toughest parts of Ted Lewis’ 1980 novel GBH, reprinted this year by Syndicate Books, make Jim Thompson look like a bit of a wuss, yet the book is filled with the same sort of mordant, observational humor that marks Lewis’ other crime classic, Get Carter (Jack’s Return Home). That Lewis maintains the humor through the novel’s horrific events, building tension, and explosive conclusion is the book’s most distinctive feature; call it the Ted Lewis touch. That Lewis is able to induce a certain pity or sympathy for what has to be to be the most morally bankrupt gang of characters ever assembled between covers is not the least of his magic.
Nathan Ward’s The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett proposes that Hammett’s experience as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency was a formative influence on his writing.
Commentary on Hammett’s work as a detective generally suggests that the experience lent his stories verisimilitude, that he could write more convincingly about fictional detectives because he had been a real one. Ward is the first Hammett scholar I can remember who suggests that the most valuable lesson Hammett learned was concision. He and other Pinkertons had to be brief and no-nonsense in their reports for the agency, a contention supported by Ward’s research in Pinkerton archives, and this, Ward says, helped form Hammett as a writer.
Imagine that: a book about a writer that concentrates on writing. That’s why The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett is a Detectives Beyond Borders best book of 2015