Women’s History Month: Recommendations of Women (and Men) in Crime Fiction, From Women in Crime Fiction

-Post by Molly

March is Women’s History Month, so at the beginning of the month, I reached out to many of my favorite female authors writing in crime fiction today for some thoughts and recommendations. Jamie Mason, Meg Gardiner, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Megan Abbott, and Lori Rader-Day all sent replies along, posted earlier this month (Mason’s response posted separately), and now we bring you some of their amazing recommendations. Not all the authors listed below are currently in print (although some soon return to print), and this is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the best crime writers today (a virtually impossible task). I’ve added quite a few of the following to my “to read” list. Enjoy!

monday's lieJamie Mason Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Josephine Tey
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Daphne du Maurier
  • Patricia Highsmith
  • Agatha Christie

Second Wave Authors:

  • Ruth Rendell
  • PD James
  • Patricia Cornwell
  • Mary Higgins Clark
  • Sue Grafton
  • Kathy Reichs

Contemporary Authors:

  • Gillian Flynn
  • Tana French
  • Laura Lippman
  • Megan Abbott
  • Tess Gerritsen
  • Kate Atkinson
  • Lisa Lutz
  • Mo Hayder
  • Sara Paretsky

phantom instinct

Meg Gardiner Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Agatha Christie
  • Mary Shelley (as innovator of suspense fiction)
  • Patricia Highsmith

the unquiet deadAusma Zehanat Khan Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Dorothy L. Sayers (and the Jill Paton Walsh continuation of the Wimsey/Vane series)

Contemporary Authors:

  • Deborah Crombie
  • Imogen Robertson
  • Charles Finch
  • Charles Todd
  • Alan Bradley
  • Louise Penny
  • Susan Hill
  • Ariana Franklin
  • Anna Dean
  • Martha Grimes
  • Morag Joss
  • C. S. Harris
  • Stephanie Barron
  • Laurie R. King
  • Laura Joh Rowland
  • Elizabeth George
  • Peter May (in particular, The Blackhouse)
  • the late, great Reginald Hill

feverMegan Abbott Recommends…

The following books are soon to appear in the Library of America’s collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, edited by Sarah Weinman

  • Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place
  • Vera Caspary’s Laura
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall
  • Margaret Millar’s Beast In View

the black hourLori Rader-Day Recommends…

Classic Authors:

  • Lois Duncan
  • Agatha Christie
  • Mary Higgins Clark

Contemporary Authors:

  • Tana French
  • Catriona McPherson
  • Denise Mina
  • Clare O’Donohue
  • Sara Gran
  • Gillian Flynn
  • Alan Bradley
  • James Ziskin

7% Solution Book Club To Discuss: COCAINE BLUES by Kerry Greenwood

cocaine blues

On Monday, April 6, at 7 pm, on BookPeople’s third floor, the 7% Solution Book Club discusses Kerry Greenwood’s first Phryne Fisher novel, Cocaine Blues. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club picks are 10% off at the registers the month of discussion.

Post by Molly

Cocaine Blues, Kerry Greenwood’s first Phryne Fisher mystery, begins with a blackout. Phryne Fisher (thanks to the Australian TV adaptation Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, we now know how to pronounce Phryne’s name) is attending a dinner party when the lights go off and a diamond necklace goes missing. She pulls out her lighter, finds the necklace cunningly stashed in a chandelier, and by foiling the robbery, secures an offer of employment. A middle-aged couple, worried about their mysteriously-ill daughter in Australia, are willing to pay Phryne handsomely to investigate. Phryne, bored in England and curious to return to her childhood home, agrees to take on the case, on condition that she pay her own way and look into the matter at her own pace.

Upon Phryne’s arrival in Australia, she immediately acquires staunch allies. Two communist taxi drivers, a pansexual pair of Russian dancers, a Scottish female doctor, and an adventurous maid join Phryne as she embroils herself in several cases, including the hunt for a butcher-abortionist who takes advantage of his clients before performing his incompetent surgeries, and the pursuit of a cocaine ring, possibly run out of a bathhouse that also functions as a place for lesbians to meet up. She also works to find a cause for the continued and chronic illnesses of her clients’ daughter.

Phryne certainly does not spend all her time solving cases – Miss Fisher is a ne’er-do-well flapper with a voracious appetite for fashion, parties, and attractive young men (not necessarily in that order) and a loathing of pretense. I don’t believe I have ever read a detective novel where the main character indulged more and regretted less than Phryne Fisher. Greenwood’s characters seem right out of a much less miserable and much more bloody Great Gatsby. The TV adaptation of the series renders Greenwood’s vision well, yet there are enough details that differ between the book and the series that the two complement each other nicely. The book even takes about the same amount of time to read as the first episode of the show takes to watch, so read the book, watch the show, and come on down to BookPeople Monday, April 6, at 7 pm, to discuss ’em both!

Copies of Cocaine Blues are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month. As always, books for book clubs are 10% off when purchased the month of discussion.

Crime Fiction Friday: NIGHTFIENDS by Rob Hill


Once again, Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder spot gives us a great short story. Rob Hill uses the creepy atmosphere or New York’s Thompson Square at night to deliver a suspense story that borders on horror.

“Nightfiends” by Rob Hill

“The riffraff of Tompkins Square wear wool jackets in the humid night, perhaps in defiance of the elements. The squirrels aren’t panhandling as usual. They’re preoccupied with something in the weeds behind a bench, what looks to your eye like a mangled piece of bread or a crumpled paper bag. A closer look reveals a human hand…”

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Women In Detective Fiction: A Wider Look

– Post by Molly

At the beginning of March, I contacted many of my favorite women in crime fiction. In honor of Women’s History Month, I asked for a few thoughts on the history of women in crime fiction, the future of crime fiction for female authors, or women’s representation in detective fiction. I also asked for some recommendations to pass on – look out for a thorough list of all the recommendations I got in the next week. I received wonderful responses from Lori Rader-Day, Megan Abbott, Meg Gardiner, Ausma Zehanat Khan, and Jamie Mason (read her response here), each highlighting the long history of women in crime fiction, the prominent place in the genre of many female authors today, and passing along some great recommendations.

Lori Rader-Day’s debut novel, The Black Hour, came out last year, and she’ll be releasing her next one, Little Pretty Things, in July. Megan Abbott’s most recent work is The Fever, and her books run the gamut from historical plots set in the golden age of noir to, more recently, plots focusing on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Meg Gardiner writes breakneck cyber-thrillers starring extremely capable women. Her latest is Phantom Instinct. Ausma Zehanat Khan recently published her first novel, The Unquiet Dead, to much acclaim.

There is a vast and diverse body of work written by women and shelved in the mystery section – almost an overwhelming amount, when attempting an analysis, especially one written for a blog. Lori Rader-Day, in her response, brought up how “one of the greatest things about crime fiction is how many brilliant women write it. There’s such a long tradition of fantastic women crime writers that I could read for the rest of my life (and that’s my plan) and never catch up.” Meg Gardiner responded, “Women have been the backbone and animating force in crime fiction since the beginning. From Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn, women have defined, deepened, and blown up the genre.” Ausma Zehanat Khan, in her reply, mentioned that “most of the mysteries I read are written by women, and I also think women are very well represented as equals in detective fiction, although possibly not as much in higher ranks, which is likely more a reflection of the real world.” I think that we can all agree – women in crime fiction are here to stay.

Do women write crime fiction differently than men? Ausma Zehanat Khan responded, “Generally speaking, I think women write better detective novels with deeper characterizations and greater empathy, although I’m never really sure that you can generalize.” Women are certainly more likely than their male counterparts to have strong female protagonists, yet many male authors do write powerful and intriguing female protagonists. Lori Rader-Day, after writing “I look forward to anything new by Tana French, Catriona McPherson, Denise Mina, Clare O’Donohue, Sara Gran, and Gillian Flynn,” made sure to mention that “I read male authors, too, of course, and I can be enchanted by a male author who captures a female protagonist well, like Alan Bradley and James Ziskin.”Perhaps, in analyzing fiction, we’ve moved beyond wide generalizations based on gender, and this is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

While women may be well-represented in the ranks of detective novelists today,  not many classic female detective novelists (with certain exceptions, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker and the great Patricia Highsmith) have stayed in circulation. The history of women in crime fiction is long, yet consistently undervalued. Many of those women who helped to originate, develop, and explode the genre of detective fiction are no longer in print. Those who have remained in print are generally from the British tradition of detective fiction, rather than American noir. Others who helped to originate the detective genre have found a home in classics, their history as genre fiction subordinated to their position as literature.

Meg Gardiner, when asked about the history of women in crime fiction, responded: “Hell, go back to the earliest days of great fiction—who wrote the original novel of tension, terror, and adventure? Mary Shelley. She gets credit for sparking science fiction and the horror genre. She’s also a founding force for suspense fiction!” I had contemplated Mary Shelley as an originator of horror, but had never thought of her before as paving the way for thrillers. I’m adding a belated New Year’s resolution to my already long list: I resolve to remember that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is a fine and porous line, and like any definition, fraught with ambiguity.

However, the prognosis for our ability to appreciate classic female detective novelists is good. Megan Abbott, in her discussion of the history of women detective novelists, brought to the fore “the Library of America’s upcoming volumes devoted to female crime writers from the golden age of noir. These volumes will be edited by Sarah Weinman and will finally push back into print some of the true masterpieces of the genre.” (The Library of America’s collection of Women Crime Writers comes out this September. Preorder now.)  Abbott points out in particular the inclusion of “Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Vera Caspary’s Laura, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall and Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. These were books that were wildly successful in their day, and had a huge impact on crime fiction to come, but have been unjustly forgotten. It’s a thrilling development.” That the Library of America has chosen to bring back into print these volumes is a statement of confidence in the canonical status of each writer included in the collection. People have always read the novels of women crime novelists writing at the time, but now is our chance to explore the lesser known classics that paved the way for women writing in crime fiction today.

While many of us fans of crime fiction by women did not grow up reading the classics of female noir, we did benefit from the splintering and diversification of the detective genre in the 1970s and 80s. Not only did the feminist movement spur a vast array of more widely politicized detective fiction by women – this time period also saw a diversification of voices in regards to ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Many of these authors have stayed in print and are still read widely. There is a strong continuum of forward momentum from this point onwards, and women are now near-equally represented in the genre.

The forward momentum of increasing diversity, however, has slowed in the intervening decades, and the representation of authors of color, of any gender, has fallen woefully behind. Ausma Zehanet Khan responded, “What I’d like to see more of in detective fiction is more diversity – more women and men of color in leading roles, and also as writers of detective fiction. I love learning about different perspectives on the world, on crime, and culture. For example, I loved Attica Locke’s ‘The Cutting Season.’ And although I’m starting to see secondary characters who are from diverse backgrounds, there is still a long way to go.”

As a female reader of detective fiction by both male and female writers, I believe the biggest gendered problem in detective fiction right now is not a lack of female authors, but an intensification of violence against women by some male and some female writers.  The detective genre is certainly a violent one, to its core, and gendered violence is a world-wide issue that cannot be simply subsumed to a socialist realism narrative – when I read a detective novel, I want a nutshell version of a realistic society, and that includes violent, gendered crimes. However, I have lost track of the number of detective novels I have read that not only hideously torture and murder women in uncommon-in-real-life ways, but deny those women any kind of voice, spending more time describing a dead body than a vibrant soul, lost to the world and yet deserving of remembrance. Women are not just corpses – they are characters.

The more women writing crime fiction, the less we will see female characters treated as disposable playthings and the more we will see women enacting their own stories and determining their own agency. There are also plenty of male authors out there bucking the trend – writing strong female characters and taking a responsible attitude towards the representation of violence against women. I’d say the future of women in crime fiction – as authors and as characters – is looking pretty darn good.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Duane Swierczynski

One of my favorite books released this spring has been Duane Swierczynki’s Canary, the story of a seventeen-year-old college freshman forced to act as a Confidential Informant. Duane fires on all cylinders in this one: Canary is funny, intense, gritty, and surprisingly moving. We caught up with Duane to talk about the book, its main character, and and her recruitment into the war on drugs.

MysteryPeople: Many of your books have a heightened quality, but Canary feels a little more grounded. Was that your intention going in or was that simply where the story took you?

Duane Swierczynski: Considering my previous novel featured a guy being shot into space, I thought it might be time to bring the action back down to Earth. But yeah, this was by design: I wanted to tell a street-level story that felt as real as possible, to the point where I was blending in true crime stories as background and writing the book in “real time.” (The story is set in late November/early December 2013 — I’m proud to say that even the weather matches!)

MP: Confidential Informants are a staple of crime fiction, but rarely as a protagonist. What made a lead in that position unique to write?

DS: Nobody loves a snitch, so I was determined to create one that readers might root for. One of the inspirations was a New Yorker article about the plight of young C.I.s who are often left to their own devices. Fellow comic book writer (and gentleman) Fred Van Lente pointed it out to me one day, saying that it would make an excellent subject for a crime novel. He was right. C.I.s straddle the line between the cops and the underworld, which is an incredibly precarious place to be.

MP: With a lot of the cop and criminal parts of the book, I couldn’t help but think of some of those gritty crime movies from the Seventies. Did you have any influences for the book?

DS: There’s one huge one—the 1972 L.A. drug noir Cisco Pike, which pits Kris Kristofferson’s pot dealer against a manic narcotics officer (played by the legendary Gene Hackman). I love this movie to death, and tipped my cap to it with character names. Sarie Holland’s surname is lifted from the Hackman character, and her sort-of boyfriend’s last name is “Pike.”

MP: Much of the story deals with Sarie keeping what she’s doing from her father and brother. What drew you to the family element of the story?

DS: I think being a father, and having children of a certain age — and worried about the choices they might make down the line. In my previous novels, I was usually throwing some avatar of myself into crazy situations. But I realized that it would be much more terrifying to have my children in jeopardy.

MP: This is your first female lead and also someone much younger than you are. Did you feel you had to approach Sarie differently or ask more questions about her during the writing?

DS: Dude, are you saying I don’t look 17? Thanks a lot, man.

I was very nervous about writing from the POV of a 17-year-old girl. But I tapped into my own memories of being an awkward, 17-year-old college freshman (like Sarie, I was pushed up a year) trying to figure out the near-adult landscape. Her journal entries, though, didn’t really take shape until I realized that she should be writing TO someone, instead of just recording her thoughts. That helped a great deal.

MP: You delve into the war on drugs with little judgement. What was the biggest takeaway from the subject after writing about it?

DS: It’s funny; I think I am fairly judgmental about it. Recently, Don Winslow (the authority in this area) tweeted a link to a piece about how the Mexican cartels are adapting to pot legalization in the U.S. — namely, by seeking other markets. That right there says it all: drug dealing is a business, and the drug war is no more effective than Prohibition was.

You can find copies of Canary on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Stranger Danger: Scott Butki Reviews Harlan Coben’s THE STRANGER

the stranger harlan coben

Post by Scott Butki

You know that famous saying that there are a limited number of plots? Well, with his latest book, Harlan Coben, has just added one more to the list. We’ve all read books, especially thrillers, where a friend or family loved one turns into an enemy and you fight for your life. See Gone Girl, etc, for that plot-line.

Or those books where protagonists are fighting their enemy, adversary, nemesis; be it Sherlock versus Moriarty, Americans fighting Russian leaders in the 80s, or, more recently, those same Americans fighting Middle Eastern terrorists. In both cases plot-lines often involve plot twists which regularly involve secrets.

Coben, in his new book, The Stranger, explores another concept: What if strangers approached you and, without any obvious motivation, told you something about your daughter and/or wife that just destroys you and,potentially, your family? As the book kicks off, the protagonist, Adam Price, is approached by a stranger who tells him that his wife used a website to fake a pregnancy. When he asks her about it she essentially disappears. Meanwhile, a mother is told a completely different secret about her daughter that is similarly shocking and destructive to their family.

Who are these strangers and why are they sharing these secrets? Not since viewing Alfred Hitchcock’s classic noir Strangers On A Train, based on the Patricia Highsmith book of the same name, have I been so wary of strangers. Stranger Danger indeed! I don’t want to say more for fear of giving up spoilers.

I am embarrassed to admit, given that I read about 50 books a year and do at least 15 interviews of authors a year (indexed here), that The Stranger is the first Harlan Coben book I have read. Given how strong and engaging I found the plot-line to be, I will soon be reading more by him.

Harlan Coben comes to BookPeople Thursday, March 26, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. Mr. Coben will be speaking and signing his latest oh-so-chilling thriller,The Stranger. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public. You must purchase a copy of the book in order to join the signing line. Copies of The Stranger are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

No Boys Here: Women and Crime Fiction, Guest Post by Jamie Mason

I reached out to several of my favorite female crime novelists at the beginning of March, hoping to get a few thoughts on the work of female authors in the detective genre and the representation of female characters. I was extremely gratified to get immediate responses from several wonderful authors. Check back on Thursday for some additional thoughts, and to (belatedly) kick off MysteryPeople’s March ode to women in crime fiction, I bring you a guest post from a recent visitor to the store.

Jamie Mason is the author of Three Graves Full and Monday’s Lie, and writes intense and atmospheric detective novels brimming with psychological insights. She stopped by the store in February for a signing – you can find signed copies of her latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com – and I was privileged to review her latest novel for the blog. MysteryPeople also got a chance to interview her about her debut novel.

– Molly

– Post by Jamie Mason

I came into my reading life, or more specifically into my interest in crime fiction, when the idea of crime fiction as the province of male authors was nearing its end. Of course, there were plenty of female authors in the foundations: Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers and Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, just to list a few. There has always been Agatha Christie.

There have always been women crime writers, but by the time my own my reading turned to crime as one of its staple foods in the early nineteen-nineties, finding female crime novelists wasn’t much of a thought for me. The wave of Ruth Rendell and PD James, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, and Kathy Reichs was the one I rode out, never wondering if the Captains wore skirts. And isn’t that nice?

I read both men and women crime writers (in fact, I read both male and female writers across any number of genres) but if I take a longer view, you can see the rise of women crime writers over these last three decades. If you regard To Kill A Mockingbird as crime fiction, you can say that the very best in crime writing is floated on the kite strings of double x chromosomes. There are plenty of examples.

“The very best in crime writing is floated on the kite strings of double x chromosomes…”

But I think one of the best things about crime fiction, especially now, is the egalitarian feel of the results. Good crime fiction is good crime fiction. And there’s so much good crime fiction out there just now. Men buy Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman (as well they should.) Tana French’s readers come in all plumbing. Megan Abbott is brilliant. So are Tess Gerritsen, Kate Atkinson, Lisa Lutz, Mo Hayder, and Sara Paretsky. And these are only the names that come quickly to me. We are Legion.

It’s still important now, for the time being, that we make a point of women in crime fiction, a point of women in very many  slots and chutes of achievement, really. But I have hopes that the horizon where gender is no longer an important distinction is a little closer in the crime writing world than it is elsewhere.  The future of crime fiction might very well be a small-but-illustrative map of a place where we won’t need initials or neutral pseudonyms to play coy with our genders – a place where good work speaks for itself.

Shotgun Blast From The Past: Paul Cain’s FAST ONE

fast one

Written in the Thirties, Paul Cain’s Fast One (now published by Gutter Books)  is a litmus test for hard boiled fans to see how hard boiled they are. It was the only novel by its author to use the pseudonym Paul Cain, one of several aliases he went by in life. He took the sub-genre and stripped it down to its essence.

Our protagonist, who goes only by Kells, is a retired East Coast enforcer, taking it easy in LA. With several mobs moving out west, he’s given an offer to go back to his bad ways. When he refuses, Kells is framed for murder. With only the help of his questionable girlfriend and his reporter buddy, Kells is on the run from every cop and hood, all of them gunning for him as he plans to get square.

Fast One is a blueprint for a tough guy crime novel. Under two hundred pages, its tight and fast story is mainly told through action and the tersest of dialogue. It is even stripped of many ideals of heroism. Kells didn’t quit the mob out of any discovered morality, he simply found it a hassle. If Fast One values anything, it is self reliance.

Fast One is essential for the hard boiled reader, if just to test how hard boiled you are. It is a two-fisted book that moves like a roadster with the pedal to the metal, and there is no catching up. It definitely deserves its reputation as a crime fiction classic.

You can find copies of Fast One on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Book Review: 1960s Austin Gangsters

1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital by Jesse Sublett     (Event 3/23/15)

Austin prides itself on individuality. We are both counter-culture and cowboy, known for our own takes on music and food. As Jesse Sublett shows in 1960s Austin Gangsters, even our criminals keep it weird. Sublett chronicles the Overton Gang. They were formed around high school football star Tim Overton, who held a grudge against UT coach Darrell Royal for stopping his chances at being a Longhorn. With fellow football player “Fat Jerry” Ray James, he lead a gang of travelling criminals who burglarized banks and muscled in on vice operations all around Texas, using the new highway system to their advantage, with the Capitol as their base of operations. They were bad men in Elvis haircuts and shark fin Caddies, committing felonies at a rock n’ roll pace.

When it came to Austin history, they were like gangster Forrest Gumps. They hung out at the same club the 13th Floor Elevators played and brushed up against the burgeoning counter-culture. There is even a tense, armed stand-off between Overton and future U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman.

Sublett uses tons of interviews with the survivors and offspring on both sides of the law. He doesn’t romanticize the gang and doesn’t shy away from describing their brutality, particularly toward their women. However, he does include how some of their victims recall their charming side. He also shows how the methods of overzealous law enforcement almost brought the town back to its wild west roots. Much of the story is told in colorful anecdotes, such as the one about the interaction between a local madam and Overton a few weeks after he robbed and beat her.

1960s Austin Gangsters is a rough, fun ride through Austin’s underbelly during a period of change. Sublett gives us a real world of east side toughs, crooked car dealers, dice men, dogged lawmen, chicken shack patrons, part-time hookers, and elderly brothel matrons.

Yep, even when it came to crime, Austin isn’t what it was.


Copies of 1960s Austin Gangsters are available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com

Jesse Sublett speaks about and signs his new book here at BookPeople Monday, March 23 at 7pm.

MysteryPeople Review: LEAVING BERLIN by Joseph Kanon

leaving berlin

Post by Molly

I’ve always been a fan of spy fiction, since I discovered John le Carré, Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, and of course, the great Graham Greene. At its silliest, spy fiction is a collection of gadgets, gizmos, guns and girls (in that order). At its greatest, such as in The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, spy fiction becomes a moral minefield; treacherous, duplicitous, paranoid, and thrilling. Agents lurk behind every corner, no one is who they seem, and each stab at connection, empathy and affection is brutally punished by manipulative handlers and their far-away, jingoistic bosses. Berlin, as the secret agent center of the Cold War for nearly a half century, stands out as a setting for spy fiction, and Joseph Kanon, with his latest novel, Leaving Berlin, uses the city just as well as Le Carré. No wonder – Kanon has already made Cold War Berlin his own in such novels as The Good German, and Leaving Berlin is no exception.

Leaving Berlin starts with a perfect set-up. In 1949, Alex Meier a German-Jewish writer with a Dutch passport and a communist past, refuses to testify at the House of Un-American Activities Committee and is promptly deported from the United States. He receives an invitation to move back to Berlin, a city he has not seen since 1933, and join the community of returning Communist exiles, including Bertolt Brecht, determined to help build a new Germany.

Meier, however, does not plan to stay in Germany long – he’s received a promise that, should he provide enough information on his new friends to the CIA, he will be allowed to return to the United States, where his ex-wife and son still reside. The CIA recruits Meier as an agent partially because Meier’s family is dead, and thus they think he has no connections in his former home. Meier proves his handlers wrong, and immediately goes on a quest to find the Junker family who provided him with the funds and opportunity to escape the Nazis after a brief turn in a concentration camp. He finds some of them, including his old flame, still alive, and he decides to help those he can to escape to the west as well.

With such a great setup, its hard to believe that the book could possibly have an equally amazing conclusion. And yet Leaving Berlin ends with one of the best resolutions I have ever read in a spy novel – everyone receives their comeuppances, but not before several double agents, even more murders, a hint of romance, and a thrilling chase sequence during a production of Brecht’s prescient anti-war drama Mother Courage.

Kanon chocks his novel full of historical details. The characters are a veritable who’s-who of East German intellectuals, and the city is described so well as to be almost the protagonist of the novel – in fact, the city, with its ever-shifting sectors and alliances and ever-present construction crews, changes throughout the novel more than any other character. Leaving Berlin, had it been written in 1949, would not have been published, for the censorship at the time on both the Soviet and American sides was far to strict for discussion of certain topics. Kanon’s characters explicitly discuss the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers at the end of WWII (encompassing over two million victims and two distinct stages, the first in East Prussia and the second in Berlin). Similarly, characters discuss purges, one-way trips to Siberia, and Stalinist oppression more openly than was possible at the time. Leaving Berlin does, however, read like a novel written in 1949 and hidden in a desk drawer for a day when it could be published, and this is the highest praise I can give to any American writing about the Soviet era.

You can find copies of Leaving Berlin on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. For those spy fiction aficionados who may be reading this post, we are relaunching our MysteryPeople Double Feature film series at the end of April. Join us May 10 at 6:30 PM on BookPeople’s third floor for a screening of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, followed by a discussion of the book and film. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public.