Historical crime fiction is having a resurgence at the moment, and this week we have two novels that amply demonstrate all the strengths that combination of genres can bring to the reading experience.
First up is the wonderful and expansive Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. I’ve long been a fan of the American author, and her last few books have really stretched the boundaries of the crime genre. This novel, set in 1960s in her hometown of Baltimore, feels like a labour of love and a love letter to the city rolled into one.
The focus of the book is Maddie Schwartz, who walks away from her safe but mundane married life at the start of the book in order to find meaning. On a search party for a missing girl, Maddie finds the body, and manages to parlay that into a starting job at the local newspaper. Meanwhile, another dead body, this time a young black woman, is found in a park fountain, and Maddie makes it her goal to find out what happened in both cases.
While Maddie is the gravitational centre of the book, Lippman gives us a kaleidoscope of other voices, a range of opinions and viewpoints across the city that coalesce into a vivid portrait of Baltimore life at the time. Lippman brings her settings to life terrifically, and she uses her scenarios to examine the racism, sexism and homophobia of the time with an acute and unflinching eye.
The result is a deeply resonant piece of fiction that is truly moving. Lippman’s prose style is deceptively simple, she is supremely skilled at writing precisely what she means, which is no easy feat, and bringing her characters and settings to life in evocative and provocative fashion.
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This is Lippman’s 23rd novel, and it’s without doubt one of her best. She is in total control of her story here, making for a beautiful and moving piece of work.
Our next dip into historical crime is The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry. This is the second novel from husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman, and it follows on from last year’s highly acclaimed The Way of All Flesh. We are still in Edinburgh in the 1850s, following the exploits of young doctor Will Raven and medical assistant Sarah Fisher as they attempt to cure patients, solve mysteries and save reputations. This time round Raven’s former mentor James Simpson is under attack for a number of suspicious deaths, and Raven and Sarah take it upon themselves to find out the truth.
There is a gleeful, romping nature to The Art of Dying, like the authors are really getting into their stride with this series, and the fog and stench of Edinburgh’s Old Town definitely jump off the page. Brookmyre’s skilled plotting and Haetzman’s impeccable research into conditions and attitudes of the time combine well in a number of set-piece medical scenes that are often visceral and stomach churning.
But for all the fun and japes, the central relationship between loveable rogue Raven and proto-feminist Fisher is the beating heart of The Art of Dying. Both characters are drawn with real empathy and nuance, and their complicated feelings for each other drive the book as much as the smart storylines. A great piece of storytelling.
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman (Faber & Faber, £12.99)
The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry, out on August 29 (Canongate, £14.99)
Illustration: Sara Netherway