If you read thrillers and you’ve been reading a large number of them in lockdown, the odds are high that you may be a tad depressed. This is because modern thrillers and police procedurals are filled with self-absorbed losers. And that’s just the heroes.
Doesn’t matter if the location is Dublin or Glasgow or Boston, you’re guaranteed that the central figure investigating the crime is in a bad place in their own life. Either they’re fresh out of a 28-day treatment for drugs or alcohol or they’re newly divorced and living in an apartment that manages to be simultaneously sparse and squalid.
In career terms, they may be retired against their will, be coping with a publicity-loving new boss who wants fast results to puff up their public persona, or they may be working in the police equivalent of Outer Mongolia because they’re the wrong age or gender or orientation or colour or, if they’re having a particularly tough time, all of the above. As if that’s not enough, they have a father who was a secret Nazi or paedophile, a mother who either was a madam or was never the same after a piece of scaffolding randomly fell on her and in addition, they’re likely to have an adolescent daughter of such concentrated obnoxiousness that nobody in their right mind could stick her. The detective father sees something in her that is cleverly concealed from the reader, but with so many other strikes against him, you have to figure he can’t see straight on the daughter front.
The grimness grid is geographical. Philadelphia, as portrayed by Lisa Scottoline, is damn nearly cheerful at a basic score of one. Boston’s a two. London’s a three. Edinburgh and Glasgow raise the grey awfulness to four. Any of the Scandinavian capitals hit a six and Reykjavik ups the ante with a freezing eight. Embarking on reading any of them is committing yourself to being with the kind of people you’ve spent your life avoiding. In some Scottish thrillers, the hero is given to habits like wearing yesterday’s t-shirt back to front because of puking down the front when intoxicated. The ones from Boston and Edinburgh quote Keats and Hemingway, thereby demonstrating the literary defensiveness of the authors who feel they’re really above writing thrillers. The ones from Oslo play tracks of obscure saxophonists playing even more obscure jazz composers to prove we’re not dealing with aesthetic inadequates.
All of the characteristics that would make you run a country mile to self-isolation in order to get the hell away from these humourless smelly obsessives add up, apparently, to their authenticity and relatability. I have to confess that I bought into this theory for quite a while, but it’s over, it’s SO over. I will never again buy a book with wind, snow or ice in the title, and will eschew those with blurbs using words like “noir.” This does not mean I’m in the market for a beach book. Beach books have girls in 1940s bikinis on the front or sand dunes and turquoise pools. Inside, you get to meet the heroine after she’s been fired/bankrupted or divorced by a bloke who wanted roses curling around his eaves and a passel of babies, which she failed to deliver, for various reasons, not least, possibly, that like me, she wasn’t that clear what constitutes a passel. Or she’s done something so awful on social media that she has to close down every app and platform and retreat to the real world.
If you’re off to somewhere other than the three lockdown counties, or if you’re stuck within one of those lockdown counties, and fancy reading something outside of crime noir or redemption by inflicted humility, consider one of this five.
Pat Marry’s The Making of a Detective (Penguin) is an account of a real-life detective within An Garda Síochána solving (and sometimes failing to solve) murders and rapes. The nearest we get to the detective’s personal life is a mention of him being late for family dinners a lot. Other than that, Marry is a “just the facts, Ma’am” storyteller with interesting stories to tell.
If you want to have a newly caring relationship with your induction hob and immersion heater, your summer reading should include The Way Home by Mark Boyle, published by OneWorld. Boyle lives without induction hobs, freezers, phones, computers, and the power grid. Not to mention cars and a TV. He’s not an eco-evangelist and he doesn’t try to make his laborious life attractive. But it is a chosen life and his somber honesty has to make the reader question the unquestionable: The technologies rendering us more efficiently sad.
If you have never read a western, you cringe at the very notion of beans and shootouts and swinging saloon doors. But a former professor of English named Robert B Parker reinvented this genre ten years back with two offerings, Appaloosa and Resolution. The books are told by a character named Everett Hitch, who serves as a second in command to a wandering lawman named Virgil Cole. They’re told with dialogue so true, you find yourself mouthing the words as you go. On the face of it, the two novels are fast simple thrill-a-minute jobs. Until it becomes clear that Hitch and Cole, the pivotal characters, have deep complex feelings they don’t articulate. Neither of them has ever met a one word sentence he didn’t like. Yet, despite this, the reader still gets enmeshed in their loves, loyalties, their evolving moral codes around killing people, and their shared understanding that life’s central relationships are based on collusive silences as much as on passionate declarations.
If you want your heart broken and your understanding of race deepened, grab the Virago reissue of The Street, published in New York in the 1940s by a black author named Ann Petry. It’s about a bright young woman incandescent with ambition for herself and her eight year old son and the discrimination that burns that incandescence right down to nothing.
Finally, if, in the midst of this medical maelstrom, you want a laugh lightly wrapped in insights, buy anything by Adam McKay, former doctor turned comedian. He is a wonder and a joy.