Criminal Fiction: So many crimes, so little time

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

Reading around: new titles on the crime fiction scene

Melanie Barrick grew up partly in the foster care system, so when she arrives to pick up her son at childcare and is informed that he’s been removed by Social Services, she’s rightfully freaked out. Then, police find dealer-level drugs in her home. Barrick’s living nightmare in Brad Parks’ Closer Than You Know (Dutton) runs parallel to local law enforcement’s pursuit of a serial killer, so to mention that levels of tension run high in the novel feels almost like an understatement. A pretty-much perfectly-plotted page-turner, Parks’ latest gets part of its heart from a gentleman-lawyer as well as from Barrick’s focused determination to get her boy back.

I’ve been a fan of Lisa Jewell’s writing since her 1999 debut, Ralph’s Party, and have enjoyed watching her successful shift from commercial and entertaining chick-lit — usually tinged with a cannily compelling element of intrigue — into fully-blown psychological suspense. Then She Was Gone (Atria), in which a bereaved, divorced mother, spontaneously dipping her toe in the dating pool, comes smack up against a look-alike of her missing daughter, is a terrific example of what Jewell does best: engaging characters and artful storytelling that places readers smoothly and swiftly into the middle of the action.

Alice Feeney’s debut, Sometimes I Lie (Flatiron), opens with a narrator who is speaking to readers from the depths of a coma. As visitors come in and out of her hospital room, she can hear what they’re saying, but can only direct her responses to us. Mere days ago, she was working on a successful radio show, feeling some trepidation about her husband’s feelings towards her; now her world is topsy-turvy in a completely unexpected way, and her bed-bound narration weaves around that of a long-ago diary as Feeney spins her creepy tale, one that’s both twisty and pretty damn twisted.

John Scalzi’s Head On (Tor), the eagerly-awaited sequel to 2014’s Lock In, sees the return of the dynamic duo of FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann. Set in an eerily possible near-future, with a large chunk of the world’s population hit by a virus that has left them with the locked-in Haden’s syndrome, Head On kicks off with death in a most spectacular fashion — think athlete, mid-game, on the field — and morphs into a snappy, cannily-driven police procedural in which Scalzi highlights and skewers contemporary issues and hypocrisies around a timely range of arenas, from healthcare, disability rights, bigotry, and racism, to the cynical exploitation and crushing of people by those with more power. Scalzi’s singular voice shines whether through his fiction, his blog or his Twitter feed, but I’m finding his elegantly-drawn, Haden-impacted world particularly captivating at the moment.

The Quintessential Interview: Alex Segura

Segura’s Pete Fernandez mysteries — recently optioned for television — are driven as much by the Miami-formed PI’s own hefty emotional baggage as by what the baddies of focus are up to. Blackout, Fernandez’ fourth misadventure after Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends, is no different: the level of intensity is high, the level of sanity is low. Caught in a quagmire that includes a Scientology-like cult, a gunning-for-more politician, a long-dead high-school acquaintance of Fernandez and, yes, a soft-hearted but ambitious stripper, Segura’s latest offers a mind-spinning mix of dark and darker elements – not to mention multiple literal head-blowing moments, and, part-way through, a super-shocking surprise. But there’s more to Segura than meets the noir-ish eye: his other job encompasses writing and editing for Archie Comics, including the music-infused Archie Meets KISS and Archie Meets Ramones.

What or who are your top five writing inspirations?

  • My family.
  • Nonfiction books — history, true crime, biographies.
  • Music.
  • Miami.
  • The news.

Top five places to write?

  • At the dining room table.
  • Coffee shop.
  • In bed, scribbling in a notebook before the idea fizzles/I fall asleep.
  • In my office.
  • On the train, crafting an email to myself so I don't forget something. Frantic writing happens a lot.

Top five favorite authors?

  • Raymond Chandler
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Jim Thompson
  • Laura Lippman
  • George Pelecanos

Top five tunes to write to?

I don't write to music — I try my best to achieve absolute quiet, which, look, doesn't exist when you have a toddler. But I do often think about music while writing. Here are the first five that pop into my head, as it's a constantly-morphing list.

  • The Replacements, "Within Your Reach"
  • Elvis Costello, "I Hope You're Happy Now"
  • Miles Davis Quintet, "Four"
  • Liz Phair, "Divorce Song"
  • Johnny Cash, "Jackson"

Top five hometown spots?

  • Versailles: Hands down, the best Cuban restaurant in Miami.
  • Wynwood: Miami's evolving art district/neighborhood is a testament to how much the city's changed since I moved to NY. A reminder that I always have to stay focused on what the city is like now, as opposed to how I remember it. It's also just a cool stretch of restaurants and night spots...said the sleep-deprived dad of a toddler.
  • Miami Book Fair: One of my favorite events of the year, and a must-do for booklovers.
  • Marathon Key: The closest we can get to complete relaxation.
  • Books & Books in Coral Gables: I've been hanging out at this bookstore since I was in college. A literary landmark in Miami if there ever was one.