Summer has hit New York with seriousness. After week-after-week of cold weather and rain, temperatures suddenly soared to the mid-90s. I’ve never quite understood the concept of beach reading because the pleasure of reading pool-side or stretched out on a beach blanket is no greater than the delight of a fireside or nestled into the cushions of a favorite chair, but here are a few recommendations for wherever you happen to have some quiet time. From time to time, I will recommend five works of mystery/crime/suspense fiction, new or old, with no agenda other than to share a distillation of more than a half-century of avid reading in this most distinguished literary category.
Lee Child, No Middle Name
No character in contemporary crime fiction is more recognizable than Jack Reacher. A giant ex-military police officer with no fixed address, Reacher roams the country, helping out where needed, often finding himself in the middle of dangerous situations. Reacher’s nomadic life continually provides new escapades in various terrains as he rises to every challenge. It also lends itself to the short story form, as proven by Child’s first collection. The stories (eleven previously available as eBooks, and a brand-new novella) offer a varied and fresh selection of adventures that test Reacher’s skills and illustrate his indomitable heroism.
William Hjortsberg, Falling Angel
The author’s recent death reminded me of how much I love this highly original novel. It is accepted wisdom that serious mystery stories cannot have supernatural solutions but this hard-boiled detective novel, published in 1978, broke that rule to great effect. It recounts the efforts of Harry Angel, a New York private eye, to locate Johnny Favorite, a famous singer who disappeared during World War II. Angel soon finds himself in New Orleans, embroiled in a situation that has satanic overtones. It was adapted in 1987 as the movie Angel Heart and starred Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke, and Lisa Bonet.
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
At first glance, it seems unlikely that this utterly corrupt, amoral novel could be regarded as one of the great crime novels of all time but it is. Tom Ripley, a handsome young con artist, is seduced by the trappings of wealth and kills an American schoolmate he has been tasked to bring back home. Ripley assumes the identity of his former friend without compunction. It is the author’s unpleasant genius that enabled her to draw readers into complicity, identifying with him and rooting for him to succeed. Along with the version starring Matt Damon, it was also filmed in France as Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon.
David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
It’s really inappropriate to write about true crime here because it’s so separate from the mystery genre. Still, this account, with so many elements of crime fiction, is impossible to resist. In the 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma, due to their shrewd management of oil stores discovered beneath their reservation, were the richest people per capita in the world. Grann has uncovered a series of brutal murders that tore through the Osage reservation at the time, claiming at least 24 lives over several years without being solved until the newly formed FBI under J. Edgar Hoover began its investigation.
Joyce Carol Oates, Dis Mem Ber
The monumentally talented author releases at least one short story collection a year, generally in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe (“The Crawl Space” won the Horror Writers award, though it is not even slightly supernatural; it also was nominated for an Edgar) or John Collier, with his creepily wise humor (I found “Welcome to Friendly Skies” screamingly hilarious and Oates argued that it was terrifying; we are both right). All but that story are told from the point of view of women or girls but do not think for an instant that they are any less dark than her many disquieting stories narrated by male sociopaths (or victims).