Three (More) Picks for February

  • Post by Molly Odintz

MysteryPeople (in the corporeal form of Scott Montgomery, Crime Fiction Coordinator, and me, Molly, bookseller) will be joining Hopeton Hay for his radio show, KAZI Book Review, 88.7 FM, on the last Sunday of each month between 12:30-12:45 to talk about our favorite releases for the month. I had so much fun discussing my most anticipated picks for February, I’ve decided to put them up on our blog as well! Below, you’ll find three very different books, each and every one a gem of a crime novel.


Perfect Days by Raphael Montes

9781594206405There’s not much I can say about this one without giving one of Montes’ myriad twists away. I can say that, early in the novel, Montes references the director Michael Haneke and the film Misery, and both of those references become increasingly relevant through this twisted novel. In other words, Perfect Days is the most disturbing novel that I also enjoyed reading since I was first terrified by Kathryn Dunn’s Geek Love. 

Perfect Days follows a medical student as he develops an obsession with a young wannabe screenwriter named Clarice he briefly meets at a party. When his wheelchair-bound mother and “Gertrude,” the corpse he’s slowly been dissecting for school, fail to satisfy his need for female companionship, the student kidnaps Clarice, stashes her in a suitcase, and takes her across Brazil while attempting to brainwash her into falling in love with him.

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Molly’s Top 7 Debuts of 2015

When perusing my year’s end list of favorite novels, I noticed more than a few debuts within the mystery genre on the list (some of the writers mentioned below have previously been published within other genres).  Those that made the greatest impression, I’ve collected for you below. Seven may be a bit of a weird number – think of this list as my top five, plus two!

  • Molly Odintz. 
luckiest girl alive1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
This may be the most startling novel of 2015. There isn’t much I can say about this book without giving something away. Luckiest Girl Alive functions as a primer in the vicious nature of social competition in all stages of life, while simultaneously remaining sympathetic to the experience of trauma.

 


2. The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison writes ‘Mormon Noir,’ which I had bishops wife full sizenever heard of nor conceptualized till picking up this book on the strong recommendation of Scott Montgomery. The Bishop’s WifeHarrison’s debut in the mystery genre, follows Linda Wallheim as she helps her husband Kurt, just appointed bishop, in aiding their community. Linda grows attached to a neighborhood child, and through her investigation of the child’s mother’s disappearance, draws attention to both the vulnerability of Mormon women and the attraction of Mormonism to women.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: ZAGREB COWBOY by Alen Mattich

zagreb cowboy

Post by Molly

When Alen Mattich first left Croatia as a child, he (probably) had no idea that he would spend the next few years in exile, eventually settling in London with a career as a financial journalist. He also (probably) never suspected that, twenty years after becoming a citizen of the world, he would merge his experiences, those of his countrymen, and crime novel conventions in Zagreb Cowboy, a rollicking good ride through the black market wilds of collapsing Yugoslavia, just before its constituent parts embarked on years of nationalist and ethnic conflict.

There is no official moment when current events become history, losing their immediate emotional impact in favor of the perspective of distance. Is it five, ten, twenty, or fifty years, before we can bear to touch the wounds of the past, to process their long-term impact, and to preserve the experiences of the past in the fiction of the present? What form do these narratives take? Are they tragedy, bitter satire, or small, humanistic stories? In 2015, as we experience the twentieth anniversary of the official cessation of hostilities post Yugoslavian break-up, several novels, including at least three detective novels, set in former Yugoslavia have been released.

Phillip Kerr continued his Bernie Gunther series with WWII-era Croatia as part of his setting, in The Lady From Zagreb. Kerr dives into the conflict between the nationalist and anti-communist Četniks, the anti-fascist and communist partisans, led by Tito, and the Croatian fascist puppet government of Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, the Ustaše. Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian professional multi-tasker (novelist, media maven, human rights expert, etc.) released her debut mystery novel in January, The Unquiet DeadThe novel addresses the Srbrenica Massacre, asylum for war criminals, and the long-term impact of the conflict on its perpetrators and victims. Over in the general fiction section, Sarah Novic, in Girl At War, uses her own experience of exile to tell the fictionalized tale of a young woman’s return to Croatia and her experiences as a child soldier.

Zagreb Cowboy, while sharing a setting with the books listed above, chooses to focus not on emotional processing or revenge for deeds done. Rather, Mattich has a tear-it-all-down mentality to the Yugoslavian system. He fills the novel with fascinating and often humorous insights into how a corrupt and criminal system functions, then ceases to function, all in a very short time. The title is particularly apt, indicating the lawless, wild west atmosphere of a territory in between rulers.

His protagonist, Marko della Torre, begins the novel working for the Yugoslavian secret police’s internal investigations department. He sells the information he gathers to an outside source, who then uses the files stolen by Marko to blackmail government officials. When Marko’s business partner goes rogue and steals some dangerous information for himself, Marko must go on the run from several corrupt and powerful forces, including organized crime and the secret police.

Marko della Torre is Istrian, and has a rather blase attitude towards national affiliation. Della Torre remarks at one point in the novel that his grandmother managed to live in several countries without ever setting foot outside her home province, shuffled back and forth between empires throughout the 20th century. Della Torre’s wife is one of the last Jews left in Yugoslavia, and she doesn’t have a particular dog in the fight over Yugoslavia’s inevitable split either. Della Torre and his wife represent groups preserved by one empire, destroyed by another; casualties of nationalism, yet supporters of national autonomy.

A review from the Bowed Bookshelf blog called the novel “more than a little farcical,” and in all these novels that have been released so far this year, none other than Mattich’s have taken a satirical approach. The Lady From Zagreb‘s few scenes set in Croatia read a bit like a horror novel, and it’s focus on WWII-era Ustase war crimes provides a very different look at Yugoslavian dynamics than novels set during the post-Communist disintegration. Girl At War focuses on the tragedy of wartime experiences and the difficulty of returning home, while The Unquiet Dead takes a step back for a police procedural deeply concerned the long-term effects of genocide.

There’s a long tradition of farce and satire used by authors as the only way to make sense of the dogma of the totalitarian state or the chaos of civil war (see Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, or Orwell’s Animal Farm, just for starters). Mattich’s novel, through its cartoonish violence and absurd officials/criminals, fits right into this tradition. Zagreb Cowboy is also a classic gangster flick, with a complex plot, a series of unexpected reversals and setbacks, breakneck pace, and oh-so-satisfying conclusion.

By the end of Zagreb Cowboy you’ll be rooting so hard for the collapse of Yugoslavia, you won’t care what’s about to happen, and perhaps this is part of Mattich’s point – of course a large, multi-ethnic country dissolved into conflict after the end to a long, enforced period of cooperation and rule by a corrupt and repressive government.

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

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 Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

the unquiet dead

Post by Molly

Ausma Zehanat Khan is a remarkable woman. She has a PhD in International Human Rights Law. She has traveled the world, taught at several universities, and worked as Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine. And now, she has written a detective novel. Not just any detective novel – Khan’s debut, The Unquiet Dead, synthesizes all her previous subjects of research and life experience into a moody and damning exploration of the legacy of war crimes and the experience of Muslims in Canada. The novel also explores child welfare, the history of Spain before the Reconquista, workplace romance, the enmity of old friends, and much, much more. The Unquiet Dead, like its author, is difficult to define in a single sentence.

The Unquiet Dead begins with an interrupted prayer. Detective Esa Khattack is head of Canada’s Community Policing Section, or CPS, a unit designed to handle cases sensitive to minority populations. He gets a call mid-devotion and goes to meet up with his partner, Rachel Getty, to investigate a suspicious death in a wealthy enclave.

Christopher Drayton, a wealthy retired businessman, has fallen to his death on the treacherous bluffs behind his garden. As Khattack and Getty begin their investigation into Drayton’s carefully constructed life, they find evidence that Drayton was concealing his true identity as a war criminal responsible for heinous and genocidal actions in Bosnia. But Drayton was none too popular in his assumed identity either, and Khattack and Getty must contend with an ever-growing number of suspects on their list, along with the nagging suspicion that Drayton’s death may have been an accident, as their investigation becomes increasingly complex.

Khattack and Getty have their own personal demons as well, and Ausma Zehanat Khan does an excellent job weaving her detectives’ personal stories in and out of the main narrative of investigation. Getty and Khattack work well together – Getty’s bluntness, pragmatism, and distaste for fashion mixes well with Khattack’s urbane and elegant demeanor; echoes of Holmes and Watson sound throughout the novel in the detectives’ interactions. They also serve as a cautious support network for each other; reluctant to share details of personal struggles for fear of damaging their working relationship, they nevertheless act with loyalty and support towards the other whenever possible.

Despite her well-realized main characters, Khan jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view, showcasing both her extraordinary empathy and her gift for psychological insights. Much of the novel draws on her research into wartime atrocities in Bosnia, and her novel contains several heart-breaking excursions into the Bosnian experience. Khan has done what many writers have done before her – she has learned the history of a people targeted for their identity, dehumanized, and massacred, and she has put the medium of fiction to work on their behalf, restoring individualism, humanity, and unique experiences, and creating an opportunity for readers to empathize with, not otherize, the experience of Bosnian Muslims.

Ausma Zahanat Khan taps into something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time – the power of literature to bear witness to human suffering, to condemn those who perpetuate it and those who do nothing, and to help readers come to terms with a past whose effects will not cease to linger, and should not. Fiction may be an escape for many. It certainly is not the same thing as reporting a physical truth. But fiction, unlike history, unlike statistics, unlike any fact, can bring to life voices that have been silenced – in other words, fiction can tell us an emotional truth. Fiction can turn a number back into a human being. Fiction can transform a buried and forgotten past into a haunting present. Ausma Zahanat Khan understands this, and that is why The Unquiet Dead is a stunning novel, a damning critique, and hopefully, the start to a long writing career.


Copies of The Unquiet Dead are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.