MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We're bringing you a new series on this program. It's called Three Books. And here is how it woks. We invite writers to recommend three great reads, all of the same theme: today murder mysteries. Diana Abu-Jaber has her recommendations for three smart ones.
Prof. DIANA ABU-JABER (Portland State University): I never used to read mysteries or thrillers. I thought they were empty calories, silly summertime reading, all about suspense and action. But then I moved to Florida and everything changed. There are entire bookstores here that consist of little more than well-thumbed paperbacks with the word blood in the title. Suddenly all my friends were writing grisly murder yarns and having a ball in the process. I had to take a crack.
It was while I was looking for books to help me learn this new genre that I stumbled across a type of mystery that had it all - character and action, subtlety and suspense.
It was Kate Atkinson's "Case Histories," a thoughtful whodunit that tails private detective Jackson Brodie across Cambridge, England. Brodie is life-battered. His marriage is over. His weariness rises off the page. But he's a tough guy, with a wry, wrung-out sense of humor. The book is almost Freudian in its approach - childhood scars as relevant as fresh clues. Brodie's three recent cases, involving an unexplained disappearance, a shocking and a hidden identity all begin to intersect as Brodie grapples with his own impressively awful secret.
Delving deeper into the bookshelves, I uncovered a favorite old novel that I'd forgotten was actually a mystery. "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is a perfect read for sweltering afternoons. A wonderfully complicated character, Smilla is an unmarried woman in her late 30s, part Danish, part Inuit, who takes an interest in the death of her young neighbor, Isaiah. Smilla happens to be an expert on snow and ice, and she treks across a frosty landscape in her hunt for the truth. The Nordic winter, described here so intricately, elevates the setting. It becomes both character and evidence - a pleasing combination of beautiful and deadly.
Shelved in general literature, Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" overturns all sorts of tired murder-mystery cliches. Its narrative voice is masterfully contrived, cranked to a near-Victorian pitch. This sprawling literary mystery follows a band of friends attending a private, manicured college in Vermont. The group, formed around their study of Greek classics - and their subsequent involvement in murder - exudes a sort of sinister ennui.
The coolly bloodless quality of the storytelling heightens its sense of horror, as if we were tied up and forced to witness the wickedness of these characters.
These three books are not only captivating, guilty pleasures. I discovered that you don't have to sacrifice literary technique in the service of a great story. These were the kinds of books that I wanted to read and the kind I wanted to write: blood, guts and brains.
NORRIS: Diana Abu-Jaber is the author the mystery "Origin," as well as "The Language of Baklava." She lives in Miami. You can hear her recommendations and more summer reads at our Web site: that's at npr.org/summerbooks.