Lately I’ve been thinking about the rap sheet of my youth. Item One is bad and I know it. I was eleven and in thrall to a Mean Girl (she’s earned her caps, trust me). M.G. broke into and thoroughly trashed our neighbors’ house while they were on vacation because their twelve-year-old son didn’t like her back. I watched, still as a bunny under the eye of a hawk. Never touched a thing, but also never said anything. But maybe this incident put me off crime permanently—except on the page of course—because Item Two is ridiculous: peach wine cooler filched from parents’ fridge, age sixteen. And there isn’t an Item Three, unless we want to start counting parking tickets. So why am I obsessing about this? Three upturned, pearly little faces, that’s why. Mothers worry about everything. I should probably switch to the H1N1 flu or Kindergarten readiness, especially since my oldest are still in preschool, but crime has always been the more appealing subject. Plus I’m serious when I say I worry about good kids gone mysteriously bad. I’ve seen it happen, but that’s a story for another day.
Thinking about these little and not so little nursery crimes naturally brings to my mind a few novels that have done well by the subject. I’m not talking about Lifetime movie-of-the-week type thrillers with a kidnapping or worse thrown in for good measure. Those creep me out, and not in a good way. I mean novels that have dealt as honestly as possible with the parallel-yet-all-too-permeable world that is childhood and what happens when crime infects it. Close to tops on my list is Denise Mina’s Paddy Mehan series, which begins with Field of Blood. Finally! You should know that I’ve had to stop myself from writing about Denise Mina in every Crime Candy installment. Vintage doesn’t publish her and she hasn’t got a new book out (damn and double-damn). I’ve made it two entire columns without metaphorically throwing myself at Mina’s feet in abject worship. That’s achievement enough I think. Set in Glasgow in 1981, Field of Blood introduces Paddy Mehan, a working-class young woman just shot of her teens who has by dint of thankless toil as a copyboy secured a coveted promotion to cub reporter at the Scottish Daily News. Everyone, including her close-knit family, hates her for it. 1980’s Glasgow is a sooty, crumbling city with little sympathy for a heavyset lass who ditches her perfectly acceptable Catholic fiancé for a career. Within days of Paddy’s promotion, the city coughs up a horrific crime: a ten year old boy named Callum is accused of murdering another child. As Paddy learns the particulars of the case, she realizes that she alone at the newspaper has a valuable personal connection to the accused boy. He is the cousin of her shelved fiancé. What follows is a brilliantly written stay-up-til-the-wee-hours exploration of crime, childhood, class, morals, and ambition. Mina doesn’t shy away from gritty truths like the fact that poverty chips relentlessly away at childhood but neither does she turn a blind eye to anything good that might happen in a strapped neighborhood like some crime writers do in a forced effort to be “extra-noir.” That’s what makes these novels feel real. And as accomplished as this series is, her Garnethill Trilogy is even better. If you haven’t read Denise Mina, I urge you to. Her next crime novel pubs March 22, 2010. I’ve already let my husband know that upon return from the bookstore that day I’ll need 24 hours alone and a large supply of chocolate bars and coffee. Can’t wait.
Next up is a poisonous, gorgeous gem of a novel—The Sister, by Poppy Adams. I have recommended this satisfying novel to every crime-loving friend I have (except that one who inexplicably insists on reading only tea cozies. Why?!? I’ll pay someone to run over Aunt Dimity’s stuffed pink rabbit.). And all have loved it. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the crumbling Victorian mansion stuffed to the gills with moth and butterfly carcasses and the tale of its lone inhabitant, the elderly, eccentric Ginny Kendal, last of a long line of distinguished natural scientists? Ginny is waiting with impatience for her younger sister, Vivi, to arrive for a visit. It’s been fifty years since Vivi has last been home. And why might that be? Adams deftly takes the reader back through the sisters’ decidedly unhinged childhood to find out. And what a deliciously chilling journey it is. Ginny’s sharp-yet-unreliable memory contrasts with Vivi’s modern-day implacable “see-no-evil-hear-no-evil” attitude to excellent effect. The last chapter of this novel is superb—creepy, amusing, and perfectly final all at once. Don’t miss it.
On a semi-related topic, do you treat yourself to some Halloween reading every year? I do. One book I’ve been dipping into is Poe’s Children: The New Horror, edited by Peter Straub. This collection of short stories is packed with A-list authors like Dan Chaon, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Kelly Link. But most importantly, these stories are actually scary. Really scary. Maybe too scary. I could not get to sleep last night after reading a few of them. Time for another viewing of the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as a palate cleanser. Since I clearly need to parcel out stories from Poe’s Children if I have any hope of sleeping well, I’ll gladly take suggestions for further holiday reading. Halloween really is the best holiday, isn’t it? My ideal Halloween reading combines crime with a bit of a traditional scare. Light on the gross-out factor, please. I’ll also admit to a pathetic partiality to vampires. The first five people to post a recommendation or comment will get a copy of The Sister or Poe’s Children. Your choice.