The distaff side of mystery
Since the days of Agatha Christie, women writers have been in the vanguard of suspense fiction. Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh, to name but a few, paved the way for writers like Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, S.J. Rozan and countless others.
The nagging question has long been (at least among male mystery readers like me): Do female-penned novels offer up enough grittiness, or do they favor sweetness, light and romance? Let’s have a look at the latest efforts by three women of mystery.
REACHER'S TWIN SISTER
When somebody with the reputation of Lee Child refers to your protagonist as “Reacher’s long-lost twin,” you must be doing something right. Such is the case with Alex Kava, whose FBI profiler, Maggie O’Dell is back for her seventh encore in Damaged. This time she will team up with Colonel Benjamin Platt, an infectious disease physician (who also happens to be her boyfriend), and Coast Guard rescue veteran Liz Bailey in a two-pronged investigation: first, a grisly discovery amid the wreckage of a boat just moments ahead of the landfall of a destructive hurricane; second, trying to get a handle on an insidious bacteria that seems to target only soldiers.
Grittiness index: No shortage of grit.
Romance factor: No shortage of romance, either.
Sweetness and light: Not much of either.
The much-heralded debut of author Chevy Stevens, Still Missing, finds Annie O’Sullivan, a 30-something real estate agent, closing down an open house when a prospective client arrives. Genial enough at first, he turns out to be a kidnapper and rapist. Annie is imprisoned for almost a year before making her daring escape; now she is in therapy, recounting her tale to the sympathetic shrink, trying to ease her entry back into a world where she feels as if she is “still missing.” This is a vein that has been well-mined, but Stevens gives it a fresh spin, writing from the perspective of a ravaged but optimistic protagonist. The final twist is a bit improbable, but Stevens’ storytelling ability carries the day. Still Missing may be a first novel, but it sure doesn’t read like one.
Grittiness index: Is an axe in the head gritty enough for you?
Romance factor: Downplayed.
Sweetness and light: Nary an ounce.
DEEP, DARK SECRETS
Sophie Hannah made the unusual transition from poetry to genre fiction with her debut novel Little Face, a quirky tale about a woman who believes that her infant daughter has been replaced with another child. This time out, Hannah returns with The Dead Lie Down, in which a man, in the arms of his bride-to-be, confesses to a long-ago homicide. Problem is, the woman he supposedly killed is quite alive, and eager to make trouble for him—which she does in novel and inventive ways. Perhaps it is time to rectify his earlier error? Hannah’s books are always thoroughly original, convoluted in the “Olde English Gothic Parlour Mysterie” vein, yet nonetheless completely modern police procedurals.
Grittiness factor: Not so much.
Romance factor: There is definitely romance, but it’s kinda weird.
Sweetness and light: Just a dash, but in a good way.