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4 crime and suspense novels make for hot summer reading

 Maureen Corrigan picks four crime and suspense novels for the summer.
Maureen Corrigan picks four crime and suspense novels for the summer.

There’s something about the shadowy moral recesses of crime and suspense fiction that makes those genres especially appealing as temperatures soar.

<em> Ash Dark As Night</em>
Penguin Random House /
Ash Dark As Night

Ash Dark as Night, by Gary Phillips

I’m beginning my recommendations with two distinctive novels that appeared this spring. Gary Phillips introduced the character of LA crime photographer and occasional private eye Harry Ingram in the 2022 novel, One-Shot Harry. The second novel of this evocative historical series is called Ash Dark as Night and it opens in August 1965 during the Watts riots. Harry, who’s one of two African American freelancers covering the riots, has looped his trademark Speed Graphic camera around his neck and headed into the streets.

We’re told that Harry’s situation is, of course, riskier than that of his white counterparts: “[M]aybe one of these fellas might well get a brick upside their head from a participant, but were less likely to be jacked-up by the law. Ingram realized either side might turn on him.” Indeed, when Harry captures the death of an unarmed Black activist at the hands of the LAPD, the photo makes him famous, as well as a target.

This novel is steeped in period details like snap-brim hats and ragtop Chevy Bel Air convertibles, along with walk-ons by real life figures like pioneering African American TV journalist Louis E. Lomax. But it’s Harry’s clear-eyed take on the fallen world around him that makes this series so powerful.

<em> Blessed Water</em>
/ Zando
Blessed Water

Blessed Water, by Margot Douaihy

You might think a mystery about an inked-up lesbian Punk musician-turned-nun is a little far-fetched; but New Orleans, the setting of the Sister Holiday series, is the city of far-fetched phenomenon, both sacred and profane. Margot Douaihy’s second book in this queer cozy series is called Blessed Water and it finds the 34-year-old Sister Holiday up to her neck in murky flood waters and priests with secrets. Douaihy’s writing style — pure hard-boiled Patti Smith -- contains all the contradictions that torment Sister Holiday in her bumpy journey of faith. Here she is in the Prologue recalling how she survived swallowing a glass rosary bead:

Amen to that, Sister Holiday.

<em> The Expat</em>
Pegasus Crime /
The Expat

The Expat, by Hansen Shi

The main character in Hansen Shi's excellent debut spy novel is an alienated young man named Michael Wang. He’s a first generation Chinese American a few years out of Princeton who’s hit the bamboo ceiling at General Motors in San Francisco, where he’s been working on technology for self-driving cars. Enter a femme fatale named Vivian who flatters Michael into believing that his brilliance will be recognized by her enigmatic boss in China. Once Michael settles into life in Beijing, however, he realizes he’s been tapped, not as a prodigy, but a patsy. The Expat wraps up too abruptly, but it’s also true that I wanted this moody espionage tale to go on longer.

<em> The God of the Woods</em>
/ Riverhead Books
Riverhead Books
The God of the Woods

The God of the Woods, by Liz Moore

Liz Moore’s extraordinary new literary suspense novel reminds me of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut, The Secret History. There are superficial similarities: Both are thick intricate novels featuring young people isolated in enclosed worlds — in Tartt’s story, a Vermont college campus; in Moore’s, a summer camp in New York’s Adirondack mountains. But, the vital connection for me was a reading experience where I was so thoroughly submerged in a rich fictional world, that for hours I barely came up for air.

There’s a touch of Gothic excess about The God of the Woods, beginning with the premise that not one, but two children from the wealthy Van Laar family disappear from Camp Emerson in the Adirondacks 14 years apart. Moore’s story jumps around in time, chiefly from the 1950s into the '70s and features a host of characters from different social classes — campers, counselors, townspeople and local police — and the Van Laars themselves.

The precision of Moore’s writing never flags. Consider this reflection by Tracy, a 12-year-old camper who recalls that: “Her father once told her casually that she was built like a plum on toothpicks, and the phrase was at once so cruel and so poetic that it clicked into place around her like a harness.”

Moore’s previous book, Long Bright River, was a superb social novel about the opioid crisis in Philadelphia; The God of the Woods is something weirder and stranger and unforgettable.

Happy summer reading wherever your tastes take you.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.