To swipe the immortal lines uttered by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, a great mystery should take "the lid off life and let [you] look at the works." Sure, entertainment is important; if these stories weren't fun, who would read them?
But the corpses, stolen gems and purloined letters that litter the pages of the classic detective tale are just excuses to set the plot in motion; they're not the point. A great crime story also tackles the big mysteries: love, death, the problem of God, the presence of evil in the world. This year's top five mysteries all provide suspenseful plots with satisfying solutions while also affirming that the eternal enigmas can't be cracked.
Small Crimes, by Dave Zeltserman, paperback, 272 pages
With the world in financial freefall, there's only one type of mystery that captures the anxiety of the times, and that's crime noir: the jittery genre born during the Great Depression about saps, grifters and sad sacks who ain't got a barrel of money. James M. Cain is king of this genre, but there's a new name to add to the pantheon of the sons and daughters of Cain: Dave Zeltserman. His new novel, Small Crimes, is ingeniously twisted and imbued with a glossy coating of black humor.
This tale is told by one of fortune's fools: Joe Denton is a crooked ex-cop in Vermont who's just been released from jail after serving seven years for stabbing the local district attorney in the face. Since what's past is never truly past in crime noir, no sooner does Joe step out of the slammer than cosmic IOU's begin to rain down on his head. First, the disfigured DA cheerfully greets Joe outside the prison and announces that a local crime kingpin (and Joe's secret boss) is dying of cancer and has found religion. The kingpin's expected confession should send Joe straight back behind bars. Then, the local sheriff (also crooked) orders Joe to murder the DA before the crime kingpin can confess. The plot of Small Crimes ricochets out from this claustrophobic opening, and it's a thing of sordid beauty.
'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland, hardcover, 463 pages
For the past decade or so, Sweden has been a popular pick for crime capital of the literary world, thanks to Henning Mankell and his fellow practitioners of noir on ice. The newest name in mystery to emerge out of the frozen north is that of the late journalist-turned-novelist Stieg Larsson. His debut novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was a blockbuster when it was debuted in Europe; this past fall, an English-language version was published in the United States. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a super-smart amalgam of the corporate corruption tale, the legal thriller, the Agatha Christie-type "locked room" puzzle, and the dysfunctional family suspense story. Reporter Mikael Blomkvist is hired by an elderly mogul to solve the "cold case" disappearance of his niece, 40 years ago, from the family compound.
Blomkvist is aided in his investigation by a 24-year-old computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander. Salander is a pierced and tattooed Goth with major attitude problems. She's also one of the most invigorating women to come along in detective fiction since Miss Marple.
The Chinaman, by Friedrich Glauser, translated from the German by Mike Mitchell, paperback, 186 pages
The Bitter Lemon Press has been doing serious mystery readers in America a service by translating and reprinting the work of Friedrich Glauser, who was born in Vienna in 1896 and died at the age of 42. Glauser spent much of his adult life in psychiatric wards and prisons, but he somehow managed to write a hypnotic series of crime novels featuring a Swiss policeman named Sergeant Studer. (In recognition of Glauser's achievement, Germany has dubbed its most prestigious crime fiction award the Glauser Prize.)
This year, Bitter Lemon brought out the fourth Studer adventure, The Chinaman, which was first published in 1939. The murky and absolutely compelling plot has something to do with a happenstance meeting between Studer and a stranger at a glum Swiss inn. Months later, the stranger's corpse is found lying on the fresh grave of a woman who also turns out to be a murder victim. Maybe it's the portentous original publication date — 1939 — that makes readers pay attention to the suspicion of the Swiss villagers, the coarseness of the apartment dwellers in a Bern tenement, the edginess everywhere. (In January, Bitter Lemon will bring out another Studer classic, The Spoke.)
Death Vows, by Richard Stevenson, paperback, 212 pages
In Glauser's books, enlightenment arises out of an atmosphere of fog and gloom. Richard Stevenson reminds his readers that there's plenty of streetwise wisdom to be found in wisecracks. Stevenson's long-running series featuring gay detective Donald Strachey confronts the mystery of homophobia in all its many guises. His ninth outing is called Death Vows, and its timely topic is gay marriage. As Strachey quips at the beginning of the novel, "The well-known enduring features of legal marriage [are] adultery, divorce, excess kitchenware [and] perpetuating the patriarchy." He neglects to add that, sometimes, those nearest and dearest to the betrothed couple may send ill tidings instead of crockpots.
Strachey is hired by the concerned pals of a man named Bill Moore, who lives in the Berkshires, to suss out his suspiciously slick, much-younger groom-to-be. But before anyone can cancel the canapes, one of the busybody friends turns into a plain old dead body, and Strachey feels compelled to clear the Lothario he first was hired to investigate. As always with the Strachey novels — which are being filmed by the gay cable network Here! — the murder and mayhem takes a back seat to the keen social criticism and defiant wit of our detective. Strachey's comic targets range from Mapquest to Edith Wharton; not much is sacred to him — except the hard-won right to utter marriage vows.
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, by Judith Freeman, paperback, 368 pages
Judith Freeman's atmospheric book, The Long Embrace, has just come out in paperback and, while it isn't technically a mystery novel, it delves deeply into the puzzling marriage of the man who is arguably America's greatest writer of detective fiction: Raymond Chandler. Chandler was married for almost 30 years to Cissy Pascal, who was 18 years his senior. Throughout their restless life together in and around Los Angeles, the Chandlers moved almost every year, and Freeman tries to visit all the apartments, hotels and dumps the couple once called home.
Looking out at the view of the one and only house they owned, Freeman recalls morose Chandler's famous pronouncement on the ocean: "Too much water. Too many drowned men." Throughout The Long Embrace, Freeman manages the near impossible feat of paying homage to Chandler without being swallowed up in his trademark wisecracks and gorgeous language. Like Cissy Pascal before her, Freeman is a dame who knows how to hold her own with a man who's trouble.