Let me add my voice to the chorus praising Megan Abbott’s Dare Me and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as the best thrillers in recent memory.
All great crime writing shows us how fragile our society really is. Gone Girl is about a moneyed marriage, Dare Me is about high school. Walk through the doors and the elevator isn’t there. You are hurtling down the empty shaft instead.
I’ve read some of Abbott and Flynn’s previous books with pleasure. But I’m tremendously heartened that their current masterpieces are not “bigger and better,” they are in fact dialed down and closer to home. The Flynn I know (Sharp Objects) was about a horrific serial killer, the Abbotts I’ve read (Bury Me Deep and Queenpin) were lurid retellings of romanticized history. The new books are comparatively domestic and contemporary. There aren’t even that many dead bodies, proving that page-turning suspense doesn’t need blood everywhere.
Dare Me is more conventional, so I'm all the more impressed at the way Abbott didn’t jump the shark by adding extra knots. Gone Girl is a funhouse maze, but Flynn could have easily taken it too far as well. Perhaps the stories were thankfully reined in by the integrity of the prose, which is “modern literary” at its best.
They aren’t too literary, though. I looked at China Miéville’s The City & The City recently, which is enjoyable except that it is a little touristy: this major science fiction writer is trying on the police procedural as a kind of party trick.
Abbott and Flynn are working class professionals, with many solid thrillers under their belt already. They are blessedly unconcerned with trying to leave the frame. Not to say that Dare or Gone aren’t innovative. But neither author needs to “one-up” these books. The temperature is just right.
Possibly Abbott and Flynn are tired of being yoked together at the moment, the subject of think pieces about women crime writers etc. Fortunately, they seem like chums; there is a terribly fun dialogue between them at Goodreads, the best bits anthologized here.
I was irritated by a recent essay by Cathi Unsworth about women and noir. I admit that I haven’t read Unsworth or several modern British writers she cites, so maybe I’m missing something; certainly, I don’t doubt that the industry is still sexist in many ways. But I can’t see how that claiming that Agatha Christie and other early greats weren’t tough enough helps makes the case for modern female crime writers. Whether the genre is hard-boiled, cozy, techno-thriller, noir, whatever, it’s crucial tell a compelling story. By that standard, Christie will always be one of the best ever. (Hammett, who Unworth admires, bragged that one of the clues in The Maltese Falcon was “worthy of Christie.”)
Astonishingly, Unsworth doesn’t mention Abbott or Flynn in her essay. Perhaps genre or American vs. British is the reason? I’m not qualified to make a ruling whether either Dare Me or Gone Girl is technically noir or not, but they certainly are plenty bleak, with lots of the “gulf of empathy between a man and a woman” required by Unsworth.
Anyway, apologies to Abbott and Flynn for putting the two of you together again in yet another internet rave. But it really does feel like a new era for crime writing; not just for women, but for anyone paying attention to the best and brightest in the field.
Sarah Weinman offers a related reading list.
That’s me in the middle; Allan Guthrie is on the left, Ray Banks is on the right. An angel between two devils?
I’ve been a fan of Allan’s for a while, and interviewed him for DTM a few years ago. Ray Banks is a newer acquaintance; his DTM interview took place in Edinburgh the night before this July photo. I talked to Ray about Charles Willeford, as this fall I’m planning to survey Willeford in the tradition of my essays about Donald E. Westlake and Ross Thomas.
I’ve gotten up to speed with some of Allan’s most recent books, the slim but excellent Killing Mum and the major novel Slammer. Allan’s first book, Kiss Her Goodbye, is perhaps the one best-known in America. But if that is all you have read of Guthrie, that’s a bit of a miscue, as Kiss Her Goodbye is relatively conventional, a revenge thumper straight out of the old Gold Medal school.
Since Two-Way Split, Allan his found his calling as a morbid and vicious teller of violent criminal madness. This is true modern noir, almost too tough for me. I remember having to skip certain torture scenes in Two-Way Split, and now in Slammer I had to squeeze my eyes shut after reading selected sentences. It’s a brilliant stroke to have a Prison Officer Nick Glass as the lead -- I can’t remember a guard’s point of view being used before. The Scottish prison is nicknamed “The Hilton.” Indeed. The book is dedicated to Ray Banks. Is that a blessing or a curse?
In the pub Guthrie and Banks seemed to agree that Slammer is Allan’s best book. It’s certainly up there, but it also made me want to re-read my previous favorite, the tight-as-sinews Savage Night, which I truthfully thought was better than Jim Thomson’s classic of the same name. Killing Mum is kind of related to Savage Night, but you don’t need to know the novel to be knocked on the head by the novella. Great cover, too, this modern pulp is going to be a collectable someday.
While I’ve got (almost) all of Guthrie under my belt, I’m still acquiring the oeuvre of Banks. So far, I’ve only read the four novels featuring Cal Innes: Saturday’s Child, Donkey Punch, No More Heroes, and Beast of Burden.
Innes periodically calls himself a private investigator. But the only thing Innes shares with Philip Marlowe is that they are both eminently quotable, especially when they are being funny:
He looks at the card and the smile turns upside down. “You’re a private detective.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A private detective solves the case. A private investigator just looks into it. I’m not the type to gather suspects in the drawing room. I’m the poor bastard who follows cheating husbands, wives, runaways. I’m the one sitting in the car with fuck all else to do. And I’m the one who’ll slip you a wad if you can point the finger, George.”
He blinks. “You practice that speech in the mirror?”
“Twice a day. But the deal stands.”
(From Saturday’s Child)
The Innes quartet are best read in order, since the tensions between certain characters resolve with a tough finality in Beast of Burden. The Starbucks scene in Beast is pretty astonishing, that was one of my favorite things in the quartet. In Donkey Punch the interpretation of Los Angeles by a tough Manchester boy is amusing. But my top pick overall is No More Heroes, which somehow actually ends up being a succesfully done murder mystery despite the best efforts of the author to keep conventionality at bay.
In an interview with Vince Keenan, Ray says,
The P.I. is the happy medium between the amateur sleuth (which is incredibly difficult to do with any kind of realism) and the police procedural (which requires far too much research, is too crowded a market, and didn't hold much interest for me). Besides, while I loved the American P.I. novels, I thought there was something decidedly lacking in their British counterparts, notably a sense of how strange and untenable the American P.I. archetype was in a British setting. So I decided to do something about it, and along the way mess with some of the more egregious clichés. It's a pretty negative starting point for a series, I know, but I hope it led to some positive results.
Most authors try to make their P.I.’s heroic, powerful, or somehow sympathetic. Likable, at very least. Ray tosses that tradition completely out of the window: Rarely does Cal Innes come across as more than a miserable and self-involved bundle of trouble. His lacerating adventures gives one pause about the worth of the human race.
Ray and Allan: you are such nice guys! But your stuff ranks among the blackest I’ve ever read.
Don’t worry, though, keep the dark and funny books coming. I won’t be able to stop reading.