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Three Books with Blood ... and Brains

by Diana Abu-Jaber
May 28, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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"Three Books..." is a new series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

I never used to read mysteries or thrillers. I thought they were empty calories — silly summertime reading, all about suspense and action. But then I moved to Florida, and everything changed.

Florida is mystery central: It must have something to do with the combination of moody swamps, corrupt politicians and a year-round demand for no-pressure beach reading. There are entire bookstores here that consist of little more than well-thumbed paperbacks with the word blood in the title.

Suddenly, all my friends were writing grisly murder yarns — and having a ball in the process. I had to take a crack! It was while I was looking for books to help me learn this new genre that I stumbled across a type of mystery that had it all — character and action, subtlety and suspense.

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'The Secret History'

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, paperback, 524 pages
Shelved in General Literature, Donna Tartt's The Secret History overturns all sorts of tired murder-mystery clichés. Its narrative voice is masterfully contrived, cranked to a near-Victorian pitch. This sprawling literary mystery follows a band of friends attending a private, manicured college in Vermont. The group, formed around their study of Greek classics — and their subsequent involvement in murder — exudes a sort of sinister ennui.
Tartt's prose is finely wrought, like something etched in glass. The coolly bloodless quality of the story telling heightens its sense of horror, as if we were tied up and forced to witness the wickedness of these characters.
These three books are not only captivating, guilty pleasures; I found them inspiring and instructive, replete with complex characters, rich settings and sophisticated style. I discovered that you don't have to sacrifice literary technique in the service of a great story. These were the kinds of book that I wanted to read and the kind I wanted to write: blood, guts, and brains — summer reading for all seasons.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

'Smilla's Sense of Snow'

Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg, paperback, 480 pages
Delving deeper into the bookshelves, I uncovered a favorite old novel that I'd forgotten was actually a mystery. Smilla's Sense of Snow is a perfect read for sweltering afternoons. A wonderfully complicated character, Smilla is an unmarried woman in her late 30s, part Danish and part Inuit, who takes an interest in the death of her young neighbor Isaiah.

Smilla happens to be an expert on snow and ice, and she treks across a frosty landscape in her hunt for the truth. The Nordic winter, described here so intricately and exquisitely, elevates the setting — it becomes both character and evidence, mood-setter and clue-holder: a pleasing combination of beautiful and deadly.

'Case Histories'

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, paperback, 336 pages
First I found Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, a thoughtful whodunit that tails private detective Jackson Brodie across Cambridge, England. Brodie is life-battered: His marriage is over; his weariness rises off the page. But he's a tough guy with a wry, wrung-out sense of humor.

The book is almost Freudian in its approach: childhood scars as relevant as fresh clues. Brodie's three recent cases — involving an unexplained disappearance; a shocking murder; and a hidden identity — all begin to intersect as Brodie grapples with his own impressively awful secret.

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