Every summer, I seem to turn to two genres without fail: door-stopping classics and quick-reading thrillers. In today’s newsletter let’s chat about that latter category.
A quality thriller or mystery can be hard to come by. I don’t want it to be too predictable or too easy-reading, but I still want to get through it quickly and without a ton of effort. Plot is obviously important, but even more than that, I want characters with some depth — which is often the first thing amiss in a mass market thriller. I also really enjoy mysteries with a good sense of place, where I feel totally immersed into the setting while reading.
The books featured today are a good mix of these things — including one that landed into my Favs of ‘22 So Far list. I’m also introducing a new monthly feature about new books on my radar.
What about you: What do you look for in a mystery novel? Do you have any favorite authors or series in the genre? I’d love to hear!
Still Life by Louise Penny
“Life is choice. All day, everyday. Who we talk to, where we sit, what we say, how we say it. And our lives become defined by our choices. It's as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. so when I'm observing that's what I'm watching for. The choices people make”
There are only a handful of detectives I’ve come across in literature who’ve made as deep of an impression as Inspector Armand Gamache.
Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Cork O’Connor. Those sleuths stuck with me from the first page, and now Gamache has joined that select club.
There are a few things that set this story apart from other mystery series:
Penny finds a great tonal balance between light-hearted and dark/brooding scenes — it’s always a little annoying when mystery novels are too playful or entirely grim.
Penny paints an incredible, sensory-driven sense of place and atmosphere. I could feel the autumn chill of Three Pines, Ontario (which was especially nice during a string of 90-degree days here in Colorado).
Penny goes beyond the simple how-to of the crime and into a deep exploration of human nature. In her own words: “Writing about murder doesn’t interest me. Murder is a terrible act, but that’s all it is. What it allows me to do is explore emotions and themes, ideas and philosophies. I’m interested in what characters do and how they struggle.”
Marvelous. An easy 5-star read for me.
I have my wife to thank for this recommendation. After struggling to get into a couple books over the holiday weekend, Jane told me to start Louise’s famous series from the beginning. She’s read a few Gamache novels and has quite enjoyed them — she also seemed to know that I would. Thanks, dear. 😊
New Books on My Radar
I haven’t read these brand new titles, but they’re all on my radar. That’s a pretty common phrase you’ll hear from book people — “on my radar” — but what does it really mean?
Maybe the premise is intriguing, maybe I’ve enjoyed the author’s previous books, maybe I’ve seen some good reviews and added it to my “Want to Read” list on Goodreads.
No matter how I encountered the title, I’ll then keep an eye on reviews, see if and where these books pop up on any number of lists (especially around the end of the year), and let it stew around in the back of my head for a while before deciding to give it a shot or not — a decision that hinges more on Whim than just about anything else.
Without more babbling than is necessary, here’s a few new books on my radar:
The It Girl by Ruth Ware. I enjoyed Ware’s One by One a couple years ago — definite Agatha Christie vibes.
Do Hard Things by Steve Magness. Anything Steve writes is worth reading.
Upgrade by Blake Crouch. Blake is a must-read for me, period. I was first in line for it at the library, so I actually have this one on my nightstand right now.
Winter Work by Dan Fesperman. Neal Thompson’s recommendation of this spy novel is good enough for me.
Fire Season by Leyna Crow. The premise of this debut novel really intrigued me — a wildfire, a frontier town, a con man. Sounds about right.
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier
This award-winning and bestselling French novel made its way to American shores in late 2019 and has started getting more and more attention, including from the Colorado Cocktail and Literary Society — the IRL book club I’m part of, aka the most exclusive book club in the Denver metropolitan area.
To start the novel, we’re given chapter-length introductions to a bunch of different characters and it’s not immediately obvious what their connection is — outside of being passengers on ill-fated flight Air France 006 from Paris to New York.
It’s sort of a mix of genres, though it most naturally fits into the realm of science fiction. That said, it’s far less about the science itself and far more about the human dynamics. What would you do if you met your . . . self?
It’s an interesting thought experiment that inspired a lively group discussion for the CCLS. Though our reviews were a little mixed, most of us quite enjoyed The Anomaly and quickly got through its ~300 pages.
The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager
The premise of this new thriller is a familiar one: a person with a troubled history spies on a stranger (from, you guessed it, across a lake) and sees something fishy happen, which is likely a serious crime but initially ends up being explained away by a well-meaning cop. Person takes matters into their own hands . . . and things get crazy.
Rear Window, The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train, etc.
It’s been done before, which means Sager needed to do something interesting for this book to even make it to the printing press.
The pages flew by, even through the cliched tropes that littered the first two-thirds of the story, and I was expecting some sort of familiar ending.
But then Sager takes the plot off the rails and goes somewhere completely unexpected — almost Stephen King-like, but with slightly less elegance and believability.
That critique aside, The House Across the Lake was fun while it lasted. It’s one of those 3-star reads that’s worth the small time investment when you need some cheap action for an afternoon at the beach or a couple hours on an airplane.
That’s all for this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I really appreciate it!
Love the "on my radar" feature as a way to shine a light on even more books! And thanks for the Blood & Whiskey shoutout -- glad you're interested in Fesperman's Winter Work.
I'm a few books into the Louise Penny series and I'm enjoying them so far. I've just started reading The House Across the Lake, it's my first book from this author. I've heard so many good things about it, I was glad my hold finally came in from the library. Great recommendations!