Terry Shames answers the question: What 3 mystery books are “must reads” for those who have never read mysteries before?
What a question! Before I would make such a recommendation, I need to know what kinds of books the reader likes to read: Fiction or non-fiction? Does he/she like to learn something when they read, or do they prefer to use reading as an escape? What interests them: history, science, social issues, women’s concerns, art, music? Do they like to read books set in other countries? The list is endless, because there are mystery novels that cover every single topic anyone likes to read about.
That’s why the mystery writers that I admire take very seriously the task of researching background for their books. They work to describe settings and characters so that the reader feels as if they know the place and the people. If they write history, they dig up the little details that make the story fresh. They are careful to use technology properly; they know how weapons really work; they know how people really behave. And in the case of the unknowable, they try to imagine how it might be (I’m thinking of those who successfully write from the viewpoint of an animal. No one actually knows how a dog thinks, but read Spencer Quinn, and he takes a fair shot at knowing the unknowable).
If I were to select three books for the novice mystery reader would I want to suggest a classic or a contemporary book? A “literary” mystery? Would I start them on something cozy and accessible? Would I go for the amazing story or the amazing character? Would I suggest they ease into small-town life, or big city life? Or life on a boat? Would I want them to try something funny, or something serious? Something with a hefty philosophical bent? Something psychological? Or would I go out on a limb and suggest a mystery with a little science fiction thrown in? Should I throw in a little romance? And in this time of fraught politics, would I want to soothe them, or catch them up in a whirlwind of political intrigue?
With all this in mind, I’m going to suggest three books (out of dozens that I would really like to suggest) that I think embody the best of the genre.
The Hot Countries, by Tim Hallinan. This book goes for broke in every possible way. I’ve never actually been to Bangkok, but in Hallinan’s books I go to Bangkok. I know the back streets, the seedy establishments. I know the way intrigue works there. I know the way people live their everyday lives, and how they respond to extraordinary circumstances. This book has a core of meaning that sent me back to read some passages again and again. It’s a book with heart.
Black Water Rising, Attica Locke. Locke won the Harper Lee Prize for best legal thriller this year with Pleasantville. It was a great book, but I have enormous affection for her first book, Black Water Rising. Another book with heart. Locke has the deepest respect and affection for her characters. It’s set in 1980s Houston, with an African-American anti-hero trying to come to terms with his radical past and to solve a crime he stumbled into. The language and descriptions are unsurpassed.
Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger. The year it came out this novel won every single award and deserved the wins. Beautifully written, an exploration of meaning. A coming of age story. And yet another story with heart.
I commend these books to you. Happy reading!