TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. If you're looking for a good mystery novel to give as a holiday gift or a mystery novel to read as an escape for the holidays, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has two new titles to recommend.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: How could I resist a suspense novel in which a critic becomes an amateur detective in order to avoid becoming a murder suspect or even a victim? I inhaled Alexis Soloski's debut thriller "Here In The Dark," but even readers who don't feel a professional kinship with Soloski's main character should be drawn to this moody and erudite mystery. Soloski, who herself is a theater critic for The New York Times, nods to other stories like the classic noir "Laura" and even the screwball comedy "The Man Who Came To Dinner," where a critic takes center stage.
Our troubled, 30-something-year-old heroine, Vivian Parry, has been the junior theater critic at a New York magazine for years. After a serious breakdown in college, Vivian feels OK about the small life she's created for herself, consisting of a walk-up apartment in the East Village and lots of casual sex, drinking and theater. Here's how Vivian explains herself. (Reading) Warmth is not my forte. As far as the rich palette of human experience goes, I live on a gray scale. Aristotle said that drama was an imitation of an action. I am, of necessity, an imitation of myself - a sharp smile, an acid joke, an abyss where a woman should be - except when I'm seeing theater, good theater. When I'm in the dark, at that safe remove from daily life, I feel it all - rage, joy, surprise. Until the house lights come on and break it all apart again, I am alive.
Vivian's notorious prickliness, however, may be her undoing. The position of chief critic at the magazine has become vacant, and Vivian is competing for it against a likable colleague whom she describes as having a retina-scarring smile and the aesthetic discernment of a wedge salad. When a graduate student requests an interview with Vivian and her participation on a panel on criticism, Vivian thinks this outside validation may just tip the odds for promotion in her favor. Instead, she becomes a person of interest to the police after that grad student vanishes, and she discovers the corpse of a stranger in a nearby park. Is this just a series of unfortunate events, or is something more sinister going on?
Vivian starts investigating on her own, which puts her in the sights of Russian mobsters and a sexually vicious police detective who could have been cast in "Marat/Sade." Maybe Vivian should have played it safe and contented herself with writing snarky reviews of the Rockettes' holiday shows. Soloski, too, might have played it safe, but fortunately for us readers, she didn't. Instead of writing a coy sendup of a theatrical thriller, she's written a genuinely disturbing suspense tale that explores the theater of cruelty life can sometimes be.
Critics should be aware of their biases. For instance, I know that given a choice, I'll pass up a cozy mystery and reach for the hard stuff. That's why I missed Nita Prose's mega-bestselling cozy debut called "The Maid" when it came out nearly two years ago. A mystery featuring a hotel maid named Molly seemed to promise a lot of heart-warming fluff. Heartwarming, yes, but the only fluff in "The Maid" and in its new sequel, "The Mystery Guest," is the kind stuffed into the pillows of the Regency Grand Hotel. At the center of both novels is our narrator, Molly Gray, a sensitive young woman who processes the world differently. She's hyper-attentive to details - a tiny smudge on a TV remote, say - but not so sharp when it comes to reading people. That's why the meaner employees at the Regency Grand mockingly call her names like Roomba the robot.
In "The Mystery Guest," Molly, who's now head maid, has to clean up a real mess. A famous mystery writer who's signing books at the Regency keels over dead, the victim of foul play. It turns out Molly knew this writer because her beloved late grandmother was his housemaid. Of course, he failed to recognize Molly because he's one of those people who just looks through the help and their kin. "The Mystery Guest" takes readers into Molly's childhood and fills in the backstory, some of it painful, of her grandmother's life. Like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who's rendered invisible because she's an old woman, Molly and her grandmother are not seen because of the kind of work they do. In this affecting and socially pointed mystery series, however, invisibility becomes the superpower of the pink-collar proletariat.
MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Here In The Dark" and "The Mystery Guest." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews, like with author Garrett Graff about the search for alien life or with Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse. Find FRESH AIR wherever you listen to podcasts. And to keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "ALMOST CRIED")
MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Ann Marie Baldonado, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "ALMOST CRIED")
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