We went to see the film based on Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs when it played in theaters in 1991. It featured wonderful performances by Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and the rest, and it's terrific film-making all around. At the time, everybody was taking about it.
I never read the book because the subject didn't interest me. I've never had a reason to think about serial killers with bizarre fetishes and I hope I never do. Everyday life serves up so many interesting examples of evil-doing that I don't see the point of seeking out the most bizarre examples instances of humanity's failures.
I'm reading the book now because I've recently read two books on writing that recommend it. The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird and Story Grid by Shawn Coyne both speak of it as a nearly perfect example of a hero-solves-a-big-problem type of story.
I'm enjoying it. It exemplifies Bird's point that readers pick up a book because it promises a good story, but they keep reading because it develops rich characters. Harris keeps us waiting for the next revelation of Clarice's personality as much as for the next break in the case.
Just for fun, we streamed the movie last weekend. It holds up very well, and it stays very close to the book.
Peter Lovesey has had a long-running success with his series about Superintendent Peter Diamond, set in the historic city of Bath. Throughout his career, he has had shorter series based around other characters, and he has written ten stand-alone novels.
One of those stand-alones, The Reaper, belongs to that peculiar genre in which the hero is the villain. Of course we're appalled at his crimes, yet we empathize because, as Matt Bird says in The Secrets of Story, he is making decisions and attempting difficult things.
The Soho Press paperback describes The Reaper as "A dark delicious tale of a handsome and popular village cleric who has no conscience." Publishers Weekly calls it "An extremely clever, exquisitely written story of a murderous rector who manages to earn a great deal of our sympathy while dramatically whittling down his flock."
Published in 2000, The Reaper, recalls mid-century classics such as Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. It might also be compared to James M. Cain's benchmarks of the 1930s, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. And we must not forget Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2012), which brought this kind of story into the present.
What sets The Reaper apart from the others is its tone. The others are infused with dread, but Lovesey's book is "a bit of a romp," as the Brits might say. It's as if he said, "If we're going to be inside the mind of a psychopath for an entire novel, we may as well have some fun."
The Reaper is an exception to Lovesey's usual novels in which the police do their job and justice prevails. The same might be said of Agatha Christie's Endless Night (1968). Long live the exceptions!
I became aware of Gillian Flynn when most people did: when Gone Girl, the movie, hit theaters in 2014. The book was published in 2012. Like everyone else, I thrilled to the reversal in the plot of Gone Girl, but there was something else about it that attracted me.
At a writers’ conference, I heard an author of cozy mysteries remark that there is not a single likable character in Gone Girl. It’s true. Flynn wrote a book almost everyone likes without including a character anyone can like.
I was reminded of that author’s remark a few years later In a meeting of a book club for crime fiction. We were discussing The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson, and one reader said, “It’s a book about awful people.”
True enough: Thompson introduces us to bad guys, usually in the first person. So does Patricia Highsmith, most famously in The Talented Mister Ripley. As a friend remarked of that movie, “It’s a little too dark for me.”
But not for me. I’m reading Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, and enjoying it. The main character, Libby Day, survived a horrific experience as a child. It did not make her a better person---far from it---and the people she meets are creepy.
I like books and movies full of “awful people.” In addition to stories by Flynn, Highsmith, and Thompson, I like stories by Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Other people must like them too. All these authors achieved popularity, fame and fortune in their lifetimes.
Of these authors, Flynn is the only one still alive. There must be others currently writing in this vein. Can you suggest any?
Private-eye novels, police procedurals, legal thrillers , , , all the stories about professional crime solvers, be they sheriffs or FBI agents or forensic scientists, are great.
But I have a special fondness for stories about crime solved by someone who has some other kind of job. I like amateur-sleuth mysteries, and that's what I write.
As the title suggests, Thomas Perry's latest is an example of the old saying, "It takes a thief to catch a thief." When Elle sneaks into a house looking for jewelry, she finds bodies.
From there on, Perry carefully gives Elle reasons to help the police solve the murders without of course identifying herself and revealing why she was in the house.
Along the way, the reader learns a lot about the craft of burglary. This is typical of amateur-sleuth mysteries. They take you into a world you probably don't live in.
One can't help wondering how Perry knows so much about burglary. I'm sure he did his research, though I'd like to know how. Did he go to a prison and interview burglars?
The Burglar is written with Perry's usual impeccable craft. I've enjoyed his books since the 1990s, when he was writing the series featuring Jane Whitefield, who helps people disappear. Since then he's been writing these stand-alones. He's always a good read.
By the way, Alfred Hitchcock had little interest in professional investigators. Police usually turn up on the fringes of his stories, if at all. Somehow it's more thrilling when an executive, a photographer, a doctor or some other civilian has to confront a crime. Or an art historian.
I just finished my third novel by Bill Crider, and I enjoyed it as much as the first two. This one features Sheriff Dan Rhodes.
Between 1986 and 2017, Crider wrote 25 novels about this character. Booked for a Hanging is the sixth, published in 1992. In his long career, Crider created four other series but wrote no more than five novels for any of them. Clearly Rhodes was the character he knew best.
Being a small-town sheriff, Rhodes has the same settled-in quality as Carl Burns, the English professor who solves the crime in Dead Soldiers. As he goes about his business, he's always conscious of being a member of the community.
Like Ted Stephens, the hero of Mississippi Vivian, Rhodes is a man of action. He'll fight if he has to. It's part of the job. But he's not "badass" the way Stephens is. After all, Stephens is a private investigator, and Rhodes is a law man.
In all three of these novels, Crider renders life in small Southern towns with imagination and authenticity. Crider himself was an English professor in a small town in Texas.
There are no stereotypes here. Every character is a wonderful blend of quirks. With each, I think, "I've never met anyone quite like that."
Crider's books weigh in at about 200 pages or a little more, just right so far as I'm concerned. I do not understand the current taste for crime novels upwards of 350 pages.
I think I'll be spending a lot of time with Sheriff Dan.
I tried another novel by Bill Crider and liked it even better than the first one I tried. This one is about Ted Stephens, a private investigator hired by an insurance company to look into fraudulent claims.
Mississippi Vivian has all the things I liked about Dead Soldiers---the transparent prose, the straight-ahead, logical plot---but the main character is quite different. Ted Stephens has a quality that is highly desirable, according to Matt Bird in his book, The Secrets of Story. Stephens is "badass."
By contrast, Carl Burns, the hero of Dead Soldiers, is humble and has a sense of humor about himself. This is appropriate for an English professor forced into service as an amateur sleuth on his campus.
Ultimately Carl Burns is just as heroic as Ted Stephens. He's willing match wits with reluctant witnesses and suspects, and he risks life and limb when the need arises. But he always seems surprised when he prevails, whereas Stephens sets his sights and gets it done.
By the way, Clyde Wilson, the other name on the book jacket, was a private investigator who apparently consulted on the writing of this novel. For Crider to name him as co-author was generous.
This was typical of Crider according to Susan C. Shea who had the pleasure of knowing him. When I spoke with her recently and mentioned I was reading Crider for the first time, she smiled, and said, "Oh, wonderful Bill."
A good writer and a good man. I'm sorry I didn't meet him before he passed in February.
I first heard of Bill Crider last April when I read his article on paperback originals. Since then I've seen his name mentioned several times, including, sadly, in his obituary. He died in February of this year.
Crider was one of those English teachers who also had a career writing popular fiction. Another, Jack M. Bickham, wrote some excellent how-to books for the aspiring novelist. And then there's Stephen King.
Upon learning he was a crime writer along with being a scholar of crime fiction, I decided to try Crider's novels. Though best known for his series about Sheriff Dan Rhodes, I chose one that features Carl Burns, an English professor at a small college in Texas.
Since I used to be a professor, and my forthcoming mystery series is about a professor, this seemed the best place to start.
After only a few pages, it was clear Crider's books have two qualities that make me stay with a book. First, the words don't get in the way of the story. The prose is transparent. I see through it and focus on what happens next without pausing to think about how the author uses language.
Second, the story goes in a straight line. There is no prologue. Chapter Two does not jump back weeks or months before Chapter One. Rather, each scene proceeds logically from the scene before it.
Also it helps that I share Crider's sense of humor about what odd ducks college professors are.
Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels. In 1975 Picador published a paperback collection of Hammett's work entitled, The Four Great Novels. The Thin Man was not one of them. Perhaps the editors did not consider it great because the tone is light. Comedy always gets less respect than tragedy. Otherwise, in The Thin Man, the crime is as weighty, the puzzle is as perplexing, and the solution is as brilliant as in the other four.
And The Thin Man has something else in common with perhaps the greatest of Hammett's novels. About one-third of the way through The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy about one of his past cases in which a Mrs. Flitcraft hired him to find her husband. The case has no apparent connection to the plot of the novel. Numerous critics have struggled to explain the presence of this story, which has come to be called the Flitcraft Parable. My favorite of these discussions is Jim Nelson's.
Similarly, In The Thin Man, also about one-third of the way through, Nick Charles gets out his copy of Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, and opens it to the entry on "Alfred G. Packer, the 'Maneater.'" He gives the book to Gilbert Wynant, a young man who wants to learn about investigating crimes, and who, for no apparent reason, has asked about cannibalism in the United States. Hammett inserts the full text of the article in the novel. It runs a bit longer than the Flitcraft Parable, about 1750 words.
So far I have not found any commentary about why Hammett included this seemingly irrelevant story in The Thin Man. If you are aware of any, please mention them in the comments below. At the very least, I think this article on Packer, should be considered alongside the Flitcraft Parable when trying to determine what Hammett was up to with these digressions.
This is a great idea for a book. The editors asked over one hundred currently active mystery writers to name their favorite mystery book and write a short essay on it. "Mystery" is taken broadly to include amateur sleuth mysteries, private eye novels, police procedurals, thrillers, suspense novels and so on.
So, for instance, we see that Michael Connelly chooses Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister as his all-time fave. In fact, he narrows it down to Chapter 13. He says he reads that chapter each time he starts to write a new book. I've read Connelly's books as they have been published over the years, all of them I think. I've enjoyed them and admired them. It's great to know where he gets his inspiration.
Lauren Anderson writes about Agatha Christie's Endless Night. What she says got me curious enough to find this book and read it. Wow! I've seen my share of film and TV adaptations of Christie's novels and I acted in a production of Ten Little Indians in high school (based on the novel And Then There Were None). But I am only now beginning to appreciate the range of her work. Endless Night is not a whodunnit solved by a nosy old lady or a fussy Belgian detective. It is a suspense novel that will appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson -- dare I say, dark.
By the way, I'm not familiar with the work of Lauren Anderson, but since I like her favorite book, I think I will look her up. That's the flip side of this collection of essays. Along with getting introduced to classics, one meets contemporary writers. So many books, so little time.
By the way, I found this book at the Mechanics Institute Library. After reading it, and finding out how much I like it, I went out and bought this paperback copy. This is how I control my bibliophilia: whenever possible borrow a copy and read it. If I really like it and know I'll read it again, I buy a copy.