I love mystery novels, to the extent that for quite awhile I read nothing else. I was a little embarrassed by it, too. People would talk about the serious books they had on the nightstand and then ask what I’d been reading. They’d mention something like Anna Karenina and I’d cough into my fist and mutter something like Kiss Me, Deadly.
But then I realized that all the best books are mysteries, whether they’re classified as crime fiction or not. Every good book turns on conflict, and all good writers make a mystery of how that conflict will be resolved. Even Atlas Shrugged is a mystery novel when you squint at it: Who is John Galt, baby? And why does the damned book have to be so damned long? Very mysterious. Riddles wrapped in enigmas.
While I still love mysteries, I admit I’ve grown a little weary of American crime fiction, particularly all the series characters and their never-ending sequels. Sue Grafton is dangerously close to the end of the alphabet and John Sandford is scraping the bottom of the barrel for “Prey” adjectives. To get good, surprising crime fiction these days, you have to look abroad.
Or, you look to authors who have never bothered to focus their efforts at a particular genre. Charles Frazier, the author of the fine and literary Cold Mountain in 1998, is such a writer. His latest book, Nightwoods, is literary too — and just happens to be the best crime novel I’ve read since No Country for Old Men. Set in the early '60s, it’s the story of a young woman who finds herself the unwilling guardian of her murdered sister’s two children.
Read the first few lines and see if they don’t make you want to read more:
Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent. She learned early that it wasn’t smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens. Later she’d find feathers, a scaled yellow foot with its toes clenched. Neither child displayed language at all, but the girl glared murderous expressions at her if she dared ask where the rest of the rooster went.
The children loved fire above all elements of creation. …
What follows is a story with all the elements of a good crime novel: a memorable villain or two, some dark secrets, and yes, some missing money. But Frazier’s flawless language, his flawed characters, his sense of time and place and season — they all add up to a novel that can’t be confined to a genre.
I haven’t sworn off crime fiction, far from it. But a book like this could make a fan of the genre a bit more picky about what he considers good.