Beat the Heat with a Whodunit
Low Crimes for Times of High Heat
TAKE YOUR PICK: So whatya do when the hot hand of humid heat grips Santa Barbara, and you don’t feel like doing anything?
Not even moving.
My solution: Find the coolest spot in the house or someplace shady and breezy outside and open a whodunit.
With luck, my mind is so engrossed with the dead-o and who killed him or her that I tend to forget the dead air. If that doesn’t work, I toss the book aside and rummage around for another with hotter action and more of a mind-twister.
So who to pick?
First, let’s go local. I recall running into Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald) and his author-wife, Margaret Millar, prowling the courthouse’s echoing corridors, sniffing out plots or maybe just atmosphere.
Once, after Ken’s keen mind was captured by Alzheimer’s and he died in 1983, I asked Margaret what was the biggest murder case she’d ever seen. Her answer came quickly: “the murder of the English language.”
More local names pop up: Sue Grafton, of course, of alphabet crime books (X currently new in the bookstores). The late Dennis Lynds wrote under eight names, most famously as Michael Collins, whose protagonist was one-armed Dan Fortune.
Dennis won a Purple Heart as a World War II infantryman. His wife, Gayle Lynds, writes best-seller spy thrillers (The Assassins).
I met Julie Smith when she worked briefly on the News-Press copy desk amid turning out a series of mysteries set in New Orleans (where she now lives), including New Orleans Mourning and Crescent City Kill.
When I’m hooked on an author, I re-read — after a decent lapse of time. That’s the case with Alan Furst, for me the best of the current crop of novels set in pre-World War II Europe (Dark Star, Red Gold). His books are gritty (no James Bond nonsense) and stylishly written — always a love affair and usually doomed. Pre-war is hell, eh?
Louise Penny is one of the hottest current mystery writers, probing the murderous goings-on in a small Canadian village, testing the smarts of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The Nature of the Beast is her latest.
Donna Leon is an American who lives in Venice and has a long list of crime novels to her credit (Suffer the Little Children). She usually digs into a corrupt Italian society, and perhaps that’s why, although her books are published in many languages, she allows no Italian translations. Fewer street confrontations, perhaps? This is not the romantic, tourist-based fiction that fills the bookstores. Her tough exposés are mixed with life in the household of Commissario Guido Brunetti; his sharp-tongued, loving teacher-wife, Paola; and their children.
Scandinavian crime novels are the rage, and I’ve become fixed on the dark, introspective world of Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander (The Pyramid). Henning Mankell’s creation was also the troubled star of the TV series Wallander. You might wish for him to have a happier love life, but in Scandinavian literature, it doesn’t always seem to work out that way.
In Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley follows the troubled path of a decent man, Easy Rawlins, a black World War II vet fired from his defense plant job. He’s broke and wondering how he’ll pay the bills. It’s L.A., 1948, and he’s drinking in a friend’s bar when a white man in a linen suit walks in, offering good money. All Easy has to do is find a blonde beauty who hangs out in black jazz clubs. Trouble awaits?
Since that 1990 debut, Mosley has turned out a series of some of the best hard-knock crime novels I know of.
A rabbi, a monk, a nun, and an Episcopal priest are invited to a mystery writers’ conference. They hate the featured speaker, a sleazy evangelist, and when he’s found dead, all four become prime suspects. The late William X. Kienzle, himself a former Catholic priest, tells the story in Masquerade, featuring, as usual, Father Koesler.
Last but not least, as the cliché goes, we can’t forget Agatha Christie, “the most popular writer of detective fiction who ever lived,” according to The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.
Read her masterpiece And Then There Were None, and forget the heat.