June 16, 2017

The Crime Lady #081: Summer Feelings

How are you all holding up? I am about a hit a critical travel/research/reporting/writing stretch in the book project, which means -- yup -- the newsletter frequency is going from "occasional" to "sporadic" between now and the fall. Which is why I wanted to distract from the news (it's hard, I know) with a few recommendations on what books to read, old, recent, forthcoming and all that.

Before I do, an exciting programming note: The Berkley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is hosting "Band of Outsiders: Women Crime Writers", a summerlong film festival inspired by Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. It runs from June 29 through August 17 and features some of the same films that showed at the Film Forum festival in late 2015, and many more, like Daisy Kenyon and Bedelia and Fool Killer and Night Nurse. Bay Area folks, if you get out to a showing or few, please let me know! I am so thrilled that Kathy Geritz & Judy Bloch have curated this event.

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Let's start with books that have been out for a while. The one I cannot get out of my head most is Fat City by Leonard Gardner, which I wish I had read years ago because it is the type of novel that seeps into one's writing, and I think it would have helped me out earlier. No matter, it's great and stark and true and deep and about boxing and the perils of masculinity and the limits of ambition and so much more.

For a variety of reasons I held off on The Girls by Emma Cline, mostly because I had convinced myself I would not like it. I was wrong! But it isn't quite right to lump this novel in with other ones of female friendship. It is, to my mind, trying to get at the ways in which women are subservient to men even when they believe they are reaching for independence, and how rebellion is often just another substitution of one mode for another.

Celia Fremlin's novels are finally beginning to be reissued in the US, which is excellent news. One of those reissues was her second novel, Uncle Paul, first published in 1959 (the year after her outstanding, Edgar-winning debut The Hours Before Dawn.) Fremlin's suspense style is so distinct and nervy, and is well on display in this story of two younger sisters in mortal fear of their elder sister's husband, who is set to be sprung from prison. There's an isolated house, madness, misunderstanding, and obviously, murder.

And the Library of America rounds out their Ross Macdonald reissues with four from his later period -- Black Money, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look, and The Underground Man. I binged the omnibus over the week as distraction from the news. Family secrets are comfort reads, who knew. (Well, we all did, I suppose.)

Onto books out now or soonish:

I've fallen a bit behind on Michael Connelly, so it was good to get back into his work with the start of his new series featuring overnight shift LAPD detective Renee Ballard. The Late Show features what I love most about his work: methodical process and strong late-game twists.

My favorite new crime fiction discovery is Radha Vatsal. A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines, which feature lady journalist Kitty Weeks working her society beat in 1910s New York City, are utterly delightful and rich in city history from that time frame without overburdening the reader with research.

On the crime nonfiction front, American Fire by Monica Hesse is a book I've been raving about to anyone who asks (and many who don't) for months and since it will be published in a manner of weeks it is time to do so here. The couple at the center of this story is marked by adversity and tragedy and it seems their getting together augurs good things -- except, of course, it proves to be the exact opposite.

I'll quickly shout out Between Holmes and Sherlock by Matthias Bostrom (out in August), The Man on the Train by Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James (out in August) and Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell (out in October) since I plan to say more about these books closer to their publication dates.

In non-crime fiction, Made for Love by Alissa Nutting is the beautiful bizarre book we will need as the news gets increasingly wackadoodle, and so far Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is my novel of the fall season. I love how incisive it is about the toxic conflicts papered over by the faux-utopia of planned communities, and features one of the most self-deluded characters I've seen in quite some time, in terms of how her decisions end up destroying other people. The short story collection I keep thinking about most is Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, basically a pocket full of brilliance you can look forward to reading later this year.

And in other nonfiction, it sure has been a standout year for women writing of their own experiences, between essay collections by Yiyun Li, which I mentioned in an earlier newsletter; Samantha Irby (We Are Never Meeting in Real Life) and Scaachi Koul (One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter) and memoirs by Ariel Levy (The Rules Do Not Apply) Roxane Gay (Hunger) and, later this year, Tova Mirvis (The Book of Separation).

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A few new podcasts have arrived, too. Based on a single episode, Ear Hustle, an ongoing account of San Quentin prison life by those on the inside, is already a must-listen. Sworn, a spinoff of Up and Vanished, is promising, though I admit I am more interested in the actual case itself - a baffling double-homicide of an elderly couple in Putnam County, Georgia -- than the way it is being told. And Untold Murder has returned for a second season. I'm listening but admit to being less into it, though if there are new case developments that may change. But the best thing I've listened to lately was the two-part Rialto Report episode on Andrea True, the adult film star-turned disco queen whose hit songs ("More, More, More", etc) I have been listening to nonstop of late.

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Finally, a few links:

It's been 40 years since the Girl Scout Murders happened just outside of Tulsa, and Tulsa World has a wonderful six-part series looking back on the horror, the aftermath, the trial, and how the case is still, frustratingly, unsolved.

A new Rachel Aviv story is one to celebrate, and this one, on the vivid, unreliable memories of exonerees still convinced they committed crimes, is a gem.

Jerry Hartfield was supposed to get a new trial in the early 1980s. Instead, he languished in prison for more than 3 decades in a catastrophic series of buck-passing.

Neil Genzlinger at the NYT puzzles over the seeming glut of true crime television shows. One line from this short piece -- "It also seems as if we are running out of crimes" -- stood out because I've mentioned my own frustration in an earlier newsletter. I've since had occasion (and enlightenment) as to why: source material availability. For TV and film and radio, so much depends on what visuals and audio are around to use. So well-publicized crimes get more attention in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. Still, I wish there was more imagination on the part of producers to search out the less-publicized, still compelling crime stories, even if there is only enough airtime to go around.

I did finish watching THE KEEPERS and I think it stands among the best true-crime documentaries to date (in a league, though of course it's a different medium, with "In the Dark".) At BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen touches on a key reason why this seven-parter is so good: the platform it gives to so many women to speak up and be true heroes.

This BuzzFeed investigation of the many deaths of Russian nationals on British soil is something else.

Michael Wilson's Crime Scene column may be over but he's still at the paper, solving decades-old puzzlers and all that.

"I actually texted my best friend and I said ‘I think I dated a serial killer.’”

Michael Lista looks at a most egregious Canadian con man and gets a hell of a piece out of it.

Finally, always make time to read no matter what.