January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
'Tis the season for traveling back to one's old hometown. For the lucky among us, this means nothing more significant than savoring Mom's cooking; combing the attic for forgotten treasures; calling up a high school friend and getting together for coffee or a beer; walking down to the local pond to watch a nephew play ice hockey; or, perhaps, enjoying a chance encounter with an old flame.
If we're less fortunate, visits home can be perverse rituals. I have one friend with an alcoholic aunt whose holiday dinners always burn on the stove, and another whose black sheep sibling turns every family reunion into bad psycho-drama. For some of us, there's the smug cousin, with a bouncing brood and a well-heeled spouse, who inquires snidely about our own marital or professional outlook. Or, as the years go by, an unnaturally quiet house with a sole parent (widowed or divorced) where there once had been two. There have been times in my life when I've been thrown into depression by a solitary walk or drive through once-familiar streets, accompanied by thoughts of roads not taken and dreams long gone.
Thoughts of returning to our roots, be they heartwarming, spine-chilling or nerve-wracking, bring out our emotions and vulnerabilities. That's why when a crime fiction writer allows us to see his or her sleuth on a hometown visit, we know we're in for a highly charged story.
For obvious reasons, this rarely happens in hard-boiled crime fiction. (Hard-boiled detectives don't have homes or families, do they?) But most mystery series writers will, at some point, allow readers to follow the sleuth back to his or her old stomping grounds. These tales reward us with new insights into a series character, and offer built-in psychological tension and intrigue.
Hometown crime solving is delightfully difficult. Old allegiances and old feuds hamper the detective. He or she is denied the usual sources and colleagues, but generally runs up against resentful local police. If the story is a cozy, there's sure to be much humorous interference by well-meaning relatives.
Without a doubt, the classic of this subgenre is Rex Stout's The Black Mountain (1954). Nero Wolfe, the archetypal armchair detective, typically solves crimes from the comfort of his Manhattan study and loathes even the briefest car trip. Yet this tale finds him traveling to his native country of Montenegro in pursuit of man who has murdered his longtime friend, New York restaurateur Marko Vukcic. The enormous gourmet detective braves planes (and plane food!), boats and horse carts -- to say nothing of police interrogation -- in order to reach the remote mountain hamlet where he was born and where the killer has apparently taken refuge.
Few fictional detectives endure a homecoming that physically arduous, but most find the welcome mat has been decorated with at least a blackmail threat or several drops of fresh and incriminating blood. Whether you are looking forward to going home this holiday season or are dreading it, here are a few crime novels likely to enhance -- or at least to distract from -- your visit:
1. The Quiet Game (1999), by Greg Iles, takes Penn Cage, a former prosecutor who has become a highly successful novelist, home to Natchez, Mississippi. Cage's wife has recently died from cancer, and his plan is to relocate with his young daughter to the quiet, historic river town where he grew up. But Cage arrives home to find that his father, a respected doctor, is being blackmailed -- and Cage is asked to re-open an investigation into a racially motivated murder from the 1960s. Against a Southern gothic setting, this story develops into a full-blown thriller in which Cage combats both white supremacists and the FBI.
2. In Wendy Corsi Staub's All the Way Home (1999), Rory Connelly is thrown into the role of amateur sleuth when she returns to the small town in upstate New York that she fled as a teen, shortly after her older sister and two friends mysteriously vanished. A decade has now passed, and Rory's brother Kevin has summoned her home to care for their invalid mother and younger sister Molly. But no sooner does Kevin leave on a trip to Europe than a strange man comes to town asking questions about those long-missing girls. And, exactly 10 years to the day after the girls' disappearance, one of Molly's friends vanishes. While author Staub lays the suspense on a bit thickly at times, All the Way Home is a genuine chiller.
3. Jesuit priest Father Mark Townsend is one of the most down-to-earth and believable amateur sleuths in current crime fiction. In A Ritual Death (1997), by Father Brad Reynolds, Father Townsend visits his grandparents in the scenic town of LaConner, Washington, for an annual Tulip Festival. Sound cozy? It's not. The festival has as many irksome traffic jams and tourists as it does tulips; grandparents Nan and GrandSam turn out to be a quarrelsome pair; and one of GrandSam's buddies, a tough old bird named Dutch Olsen, is found murdered. Olsen had a reputation for badmouthing the local Indian tribe and trespassing on their land. When GrandSam becomes a suspect in the murder investigation, Father Townsend (please don't call him Father Mark) is forced to prolong his visit to clear his grandfather's name.
4. In Dead Body Language (1997), by Penny Warner, Connor Westphal comes home to Flat Skunk, California, to claim her inheritance: the Eureka!, a tiny local newspaper run for years by her grandparents. Deaf since age 4, Connor has worked as a San Francisco newspaper reporter, and now develops and sells mystery puzzles. She finds herself face-to-face with a real mystery when a member of a prominent local family is found dead in the Flat Skunk cemetery -- on top of her husband's grave. Connor starts with only one clue: the victim had visited the Eureka! the day before to place an ad looking for a long-lost relative. In Warner's well-crafted book, Flat Skunk turns out to be a surprisingly complex community and Connor Westphal an unusual and resourceful detective.
5. The Trouble with Going Home (1996), by Camilla T. Crespi, follows Manhattan ad designer Simona Griffo back to her Italian roots. Shortly after arriving in Rome, she witnesses the murder of an American student involved in shady dealings in the art world. Police think the murderer may be someone close to Simona. Their suspect list includes a family friend, Simona's ex-husband and even her charmingly eccentric mother. Simona sets off on her own investigation, but not to the exclusion of enjoying the cuisine for which Roma -- and Crespi's series -- are famous.
If there's still room in your luggage, you might want to take along three more mysteries on the "going home" theme -- one a model of modern suspense literature, the second an over-the-top cozy and the third a classic of European crime fiction.
Hardscape (1994), by Justin Scott, is a sophisticated modern twist on the country house mystery. Ben Abbott, a former Wall Street player who did prison time for alleged insider trading, has come home to Connecticut, hoping to start over as an agent in his family's floundering real-estate firm. A wealthy homeowner who knows Abbott's criminal background hires him to videotape his wife's adulterous activities at their elegant country home. But as Abbott gets to know the wife and her lover, he begins to suspect that all three members of this love triangle are up to something unpleasant. The only question is, can he avoid getting involved?
It's Murder Going Home (1986), by Marlys Millhiser, gets points just for its clever title. Los Angeles literary agent/sleuth Charlie Greene journeys home to Boulder, Colorado, supposedly to help her mother Edwina Greene recover from breast-cancer surgery. But, as it turns out, Edwina's Boulder neighbors are dropping like flies, and Charlie's mother is a suspect in one of the killings. Charlie's investigation ultimately exonerates her mom, but leads her to a murderous cult. One reviewer described this hectic tale as almost as exhausting as a real-life visit home.
Maigret Goes Home (1931), by Georges Simenon, provides devotees of Inspector Jules Maigret with a poignant glimpse of the rural village life that shaped this great French detective's character. Maigret has spotted in the Police Judiciare offices a report from the village of Saint-Fiacre, where he grew up. An anonymous letter writer is threatening that someone will be murdered in the village church during Mass on All Soul's Day. Maigret returns to the town where his late father had been the steward for the chateau estates, and is at first unrecognized. But when the Comtesse de Saint-Fiacre collapses in church -- murdered before his very eyes -- Maigret reveals his identity and begins an investigation into the financial and moral disintegration that led to her death. | November 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON is a contributing editor of January Magazine. She is not planning to go home for the holidays.