Criminal Fiction: All in the family

Every month, Daneet Steffens uncovers the latest goings on in mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. See previous columns on the Criminal Fiction archive page

Including both James Lee Burke and Alafair Burke in this column got me thinking of other mystery-writing family ties. Whether it’s a collaborative, mother-offspring effort a la Mary Higgins Clark-Carol Higgins Clark , PJ Tracy (see also this), and Charles Todd or an all-in-the-family business, it’s dead good fun to imagine those in-the-writing-studio and dinner-table conversations.

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

A new Dave Robicheaux novel is always an immersive pleasure. From Robicheaux’s keeps-him-on-his-toes relationship with daughter Alafair and his deep friendship with buddy Clete Purcel to his quasi-homebody existence in Southern Louisiana, a new Robicheaux tale is akin to hanging with a beloved, familiar friend — well, with some violence and criminal activities thrown in for good measure. James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster), shivers with the dastardly deeds of nefarious no-goodniks as well as with the possibility that Robicheaux may have mishandled a deadly situation. The choice range of supporting characters come thick and fast, as do the unwavering stabs at the hideous levels of corruption in Louisiana politics. One of my favorites among a multitude of compassionate touches: a singular Clete-related reference to the Just Men of Jewish legend.

The Wife Between Us (St. Martin’s), a tidy and terrifically twisty psychological thriller, is also an impressive, double-handed effort: Greer Hendricks, a former book editor, and Sarah Pekkanen, a best-selling novelist and former investigative journalist, have put their literary heads together, creating an enjoyably electrifying, page-turning ride with cannily-chosen details. These days it takes a little something extra to offer up an intriguing novel of domestic suspense, and this book has it in spades. Oh yes.

Alafair Burke’s The Wife (Harper) features a critical cameo by Olivia Randall, the intriguing protagonist of Burke’s 2017 mystery The Ex, but this whiplash-inducing tale — in a good way — belongs wholeheartedly to Angela Powell, a woman with everything she ever wanted, including marriage, motherhood, and a fairly high-falutin’ Manhattan lifestyle. But not-so-behind-the-scenes, a perfect storm of sexual harassment accusations against her husband and past deeds long since swept under the proverbial rug may be coming home to roost. While utilising fun pop culture references – that unforgettable eyelid moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark, an arch Hunger Games comment — Burke maintains an even hand here, nicely sprinkled with the multiple deftly-doled surprises up her cavernous sleeve.

I’m a massive fan of Mick Herron’s excellent British spy/Slough House series. This Is What Happened (Soho), a standalone thriller, draws on his incisive spymaster knowledge as well as other imaginative forays, and uses the mean streets of contemporary London to their utmost advantage. Protagonist Maggie Barnes – independent, smart, and ever-so-slightly emotionally vulnerable – is the perfect recruitment target for certain MI5 missions and she accepts her destiny with alacrity. It’s what happens next that leads deep into a startling and engrossing rabbit hole.

The wonderful Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Soho) is the first in an enticing new series: Parsi Preveen Mistry has joined her father’s law firm in 1920s Bombay, a position fraught with challenges, including her attempt to attend law classes at the Government Law School. When someone turns up dead at the secretive home of one of Preveen’s father’s clients, she’s handed an unusual opportunity: the wives of the household live in strict purdah, but, as a woman, Preveen can speak with them directly. A rich blend of history and fiction, Widows brings historical Bombay to vibrant life in this engaging mystery.

The Quintessential Interview: Meg Gardiner

Austin-based Meg Gardiner had already published 12 terrific mysteries when she kicked off her chilling new series last year with the unnerving UNSUB, introducing Bay Area detective Caitlin Hendrix and a serial baddie known as the Prophet. In Hendrix’s second outing, she’s testing her mettle as a rookie FBI agent with the organization’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but the killer she’s chasing is no less creepy than her previous nemesis. On a more personal level, she’s now balancing a bi-coastal relationship with bomb-explosive-specialist boyfriend, Sean Rawlins.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

Families. The seven deadly sins. The shadowed depths of the human mind. The hero’s journey. Sue Grafton.

Most of my top five are source material. But Grafton’s books both thrilled me and showed me there was a place for women writing modern crime fiction. She inspired me to write my own novels.

Top five places to write?

  1. My office, when the red-shouldered hawk is perched in the trees outside, eyeing me.
  2. A coffee shop buzzing with white noise and caffeine.
  3. My kitchen table, sixty minutes before the school bus drops the kids off. When the clock is ticking, I can write like a maniac.
  4. An airplane, with a printout and a pencil. Never a pen. Not since my rollerball blew up on that Southwest flight. Folks: ink and altitude don’t mix.
  5. Behind the backs of my eyes as I wake up in the morning. When the world is still and dreams are fresh, answers to problems in the story reveal themselves.

Top five favorite authors?

Stephen King, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard.

Top five tunes to write to?

  1. “Mr. Brightside,” The Killers
  2. “Megalomaniac,” Incubus
  3. “Wheels,” Foo Fighters
  4. “Like the Way I Do,” Melissa Etheridge
  5. “Stormy Haze,” Ray Prim

Top five hometown spots?

Torchy’s Tacos. The Half Step on Rainey Street, when the band’s playing jazz. The LBJ Museum. The hiking trail around Lady Bird Lake. Book People.