Sunday, April 10, 2011

Female Mystery Writers

Kate Atkinson is among the finest mystery writers in the world today. She spins stories that grip readers with their intricate psychological plots. Her prose is brilliant. In a single sentence she can sum up a lifetime of anger or bliss that lesser writers may take chapters to convey.

I have been a fan ever since I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum some years ago. The imagination with which she conjures up the thoughts of her characters and weaves them into her tale of loneliness, bravery, mystery and happiness against impossible odds is breathtaking. Her characters are so believable I expect to run into them at work, in the park or at bus stops.

It's going to be downhill for her after Behind the Scenes, I told myself. I just didn't see how she could follow it up with more richly-imagined books.

Yet she did! In Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News?, Miss Atkinson kept me enthralled with mysteries filled with such suspense that I realized I was reading an authentic successor to Agatha Christie, the original "Queen of Mystery" and the best-selling author of all time. Atkinson's intelligence is palpable on every page. Nothing is forced or contrived. The point of view of each character flows naturally and mingles seamlessly with other points of views. The dialogues are natural and concise, just the way real people talk.

Her latest, Started Early, Took My Dog, is the best yet from this brilliant storyteller. Don't be fooled by the whimsical title. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize she chooses her titles as carefully as she imagines her stories.

Tracy Waterhouse makes an impulsive 'buy' from a deranged woman at a London Mall. It's a transaction that turns her life upside down. A horrifying murder of a woman brings a sinister cloud to the sunny sky of what she imagines will be her new life. Complications arise when the reluctant detective Jackson Brodie wonders about a doppelganger tracing his move as he tries to comfort a dog that he had saved from a cruel owner. Corrupt police officials try to cover their misdeeds but the truth haunts them, particularly one named Barry whose moral quandary is fast catching up with him.

All the elements of a can't-put-down thriller are there in Started Early but what really makes it a standout is the lyrical quality of the writing. Each sentence is a surprise, each turn of phrase delightfully inventive. And to think, it all begins when an adopted woman calls Brodie from New Zealand, requesting him to trace her biological parents.

Atkinson's closest competitor is the Irish writer Tana French. French's three books - In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place - are standouts as well. Her atmospheric invocation of place and memories and unfulfilled lives is unparalleled. Frank Mackey, once among Dublin's finest but now scraping out a living as a tough and cynical private eye, is a character impossible not to root for. He is after the truth and will go to any length to uncover it, no matter where the chips may fall.

If there is one thing French lacks, it is her inability to surprise when the 'whodunit' is revealed. The reader expects to be shocked but I found that I could predict the murderer fairly easily. This was particularly true in Faithful Place. But her writing is so persuasive that you are happy to overlook this flaw.

Among Scandinavian mystery writers, Karin Fossum of Norway is unique. She also writes psychological thrillers and her amiable police inspector Konrad Sejer is the lovable and persistent uncle we all know. Fossum reached her peak with the remarkable The Indian Bride but her other books are not as satisfying. She strives for subtlety but in the process has become somewhat predictable.

Another English writer who made a splash with her debut thriller, Raven Black, is Ann Cleeves. Ms. Cleeves has planned a quartet of thrillers based on the Shetland Island off the coats of Scotland. Raven Black, the first, is absolutely riveting. I couldn’t put it down until I read it to the end in one sitting.

Magnus Tait is a dimwit who can be surprisingly perceptive in the way he channels his thoughts. Two pretty girls unexpectedly drop in on him on New Year’s Eve as he nurses his loneliness. He has been lonely since his mother passed away, his only friend. The island is haunted by the disappearance of a little girl some years back. Fear and anger grip the Shetlanders as one of the girls who visited Magnus is found dead the next morning. Inspector Jimmy Perez has to sift through conflicting evidences to catch the killer. Perez? Isn’t that a Spanish name? What’s a man with a Spanish name doing in a sub-arctic Scottish island? Is Magnus as dumb as he appears to be? As the story proceeds, the island’s past comes into focus through the fog, and there is hardly anything idyllic about it.

No question about it, Raven Black is a winner, a worthy recipient of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award. Unfortunately the second book in Ms. Cleeves’s quartet, White Nights, is a letdown. It is plodding and repetitive. It lacks bite. Inspector Perez already seems like an old man. You want him to pick up the pace but he just, well, plods along.

No matter how talented, it is often difficult for a writer to follow up a bravura performance with another. Here’s hoping that Ms. Cleeves will regain her footing with at least one of the two remaining thrillers she plans to write.

Kate Atkinson is a master of the genre, as are Tara French, Karin Fossum, and perhaps Ann Cleeves. Of the four, Atkinson gives the most pleasure because of the way she uses language to reveal the dark thoughts of her characters. That she also can hold you in suspense until the very end make her a rare talent indeed.

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