Readers of this blog know that Shailaja and I have become obsessed with crime novels--the reading of which is not so much a pleasure as a compulsion, a bit like eating peanuts and being unable to stop. But, strangely, although I can hardly force myself to slog through literary novels these days--and for many years I scoffed at "commercial" fiction--I find that I am often finding my comforting detective stories somehow wanting.
Witness my reaction to James Lee Burke. Every time I read one of the novels of his Billy Bob Holland (set in Montana) or Dave Robicheaux (set in Louisiana) series, I find myself wondering why he limits himself to the conventions of the detective genre, like a master chef who for some reason only turns his talents to macaroni and cheese. Inevitably, the best part of these novels are the interludes--always written in third-person--that tell an incidental, character-driven/character-shaping story along the lines of a literary novel; meanwhile, the main narrative--always in first-person--is somewhat obvious, pedestrian, and often repetitive of Burke's other books. (I hesitate to calculate exactly how many of the Dave Robicheaux novels pit Dave against a wealthy former lover, usually married to a senator or some such, who has gotten herself mixed up with the "Dixie mafia" i.e. the mob of the South). Why do I keep reading these books? As I said, there's something compulsive about it, like filling up crossword puzzles or playing solitaire--or eating macaroni and cheese.
That brings me to Kate Atkinson, who won the Whitbread Award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her most recent book to appear in paperback--Case Histories--is one of those rare crime novels that take the genre up a notch without disposing of the best of its conventions. The NY Times said it fairly aptly, calling the book "part complex family drama, part mystery," with "more depth and vividness than ordinary thrillers and more thrills than ordinary fiction.... A wonderfully tricky book."
This one goes on my best reads of 2005 list, along with Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy, and a handful of literary novels (like Bel Canto) that delivered the goods.