Paula Hawkins Recommends Five Novels With Criminal Acts At Their Heart ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

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The first time we meet Irene Barnes—eighty-year-old widow, retired dental receptionist, loyal friend, voracious reader, and possibly my favourite of all the characters in A Slow Fire Burning—she is sorting through a pile of books. The books in question used to belong to Irene’s neighbour, Angela, who has recently died. Now, as Irene flicks through the pages of Angela’s books, she has to decide which to keep and which to pass on to the charity shop.

This, as any book lover will tell you, is neither a rapid nor an uncomplicated process; there are many factors to consider. For Irene, the usual considerations (Has she read it? Did she love it? Does she own it? Is this copy a more beautiful edition than the one already on her own bookshelves?) are complicated by the fact that these are Angela’s books, and Angela is now gone. The books they enjoyed and swapped and argued about were a keystone of their friendship, a rambling, years-long conversation between two like minds. Angela’s death has ended the conversation, but books offer Irene a way to remember her friend, to hold on to a small part of their treasured relationship.

Below is an exclusive reveal of the new cover design for the paperback edition of A Slow Fire Burning, available June 21st from Riverhead Books. Continue scrolling to read the rest of the article.

Like me, Irene and Angela share ‘a predilection for the best sort of crime novels’, some of which I write about below. I was actually going to call this piece ‘Five crime novels from A Slow Fire Burning’, but of course you could argue (as I’m sure Ian McEwan would) that at least some of the novels below are not, strictly speaking, crime novels. The Haunting of Hill House is gothic horrorThe Cement Garden is literary fictionA Dark Adapted Eye is a psychological thriller, No Country for Old Men is a contemporary western; only In the Woods, which is a police procedural, could be accused of fitting neatly into the crime-novel box (although, as we shall see below, there is nothing neatly fitting about In the Woods).

Whether they bear the crime-novel tag or not, all of these novels are about crime in the sense that they have at their heart criminal acts, for which their characters must suffer the consequences. What is striking is how many different ways there are to examine and dissect and write about these criminal acts, which underlines, for me at least, the fact that there is no right way to write about crime, only endless questions to be grappled with. Is there too much violence against women in crime novels? Almost certainly. Given how much violence against women there is in the real world, wouldn’t it be odd if crime writers neglected to address it? I think so. Could we do with fewer beautiful naked female bodies on the opening pages of thrillers? Are beautiful naked male bodies an improvement? Should justice be done? Good triumph over evil? All questions be answered, with no loose ends left untied?

The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) 

‘Who else could terrify with the sight of a picnic on a lawn?’ The question, posed by British horror writer Ramsey Campbell, goes straight to the heart of Jackson’s genius. Only Shirley Jackson, with her eye for the uncanny, for the frightening underbelly of normal citizenry in ordinary towns, could take a blindingly sunny day, a green hill and brightly coloured flowers, a group of children raising their voices in laughter, playing with a puppy on the grass, and inspire horror.

Hailed by the Wall Street Journal as ‘the greatest haunted-house story ever written’, The Haunting of Hill House has been hugely influential, inspiring horror writers from Stephen King to Andrew Michael Hurley, and screenwriters, too: it has been the subject of two big-screen adaptations (as The Haunting, in 1963 and 1999) as well as a Netflix series.

I was in awe of The Haunting of Hill House from its—characteristically brilliant—first lines: ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within . . .’

I imagine that Irene and Angela would have admired it for its fine writing too, for the way in which Jackson masterfully conjures a claustrophobic nightmare from her tale of a group of people recruited to spend some time—following ‘the methods of intrepid nineteenth-century ghost-hunters’—in a haunted house.

Most of all, I think Angela and Irene would have appreciated the way Jackson demonstrates that the real terrors threatening these ghost-hunters are not specters at all—they are not the strange noises or the writing on the walls of this disquietingly ugly house, but rather the fears and the anxieties in the visitors’ own minds, the terrible loneliness that afflicts them.

Paula Hawkins Recommends Five Novels With Criminal Acts At Their Heart ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (1978)

Ian McEwan’s debut novel was the ‘thrillingly bleak’ story of four orphaned siblings who, in order to avoid being taken into care, hide the death of their mother, concealing her body, encased in cement, in the cellar of the family home. Left to their own devices, the children’s attempts to pursue normal life gradually unravel and they withdraw from the world, turning feral and retreating into fantasy, while domesticity turns to decay and love, too, is corrupted.

When The Cement Garden was published, Irene would have been forty years old; I can picture her reading it—possibly surreptitiously—behind the counter at the dental surgery on her lunch break; I imagine her marvelling at McEwan’s directness, at his lean, very British prose. Angela, who would have been just six when the book came out, probably read it as a teenager. I think then she might have been thrilled by the transgressive relationship at the book’s core, although the portrait of tainted familial love might later have cut too close to the bone.

Though criminal acts hold the key to the action, The Cement Garden is not a crime novel. It does read rather like horror— rather like a haunted-house story, in fact, with terrible deeds happening under cover of darkness and something rotten in the basement poisoning those who live above. For me, The Cement Garden is extraordinary as an evocation of place and time, of a squalid and unappealing Britain inhabited by unlovable and desperate people; and as a surprisingly affecting portrayal of love gone wrong.

Paula Hawkins Recommends Five Novels With Criminal Acts At Their Heart ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1986)

‘For a long time, I wanted Barbara to have a voice as well as Ruth. It would be a softer voice, speaking at a slower pace, more sensitive perhaps, and more intuitive.’

Ruth Rendell had been writing crime novels for more than twenty years when she published her first as Barbara Vine (Barbara was her middle name, her mother’s preferred name for her, whereas Ruth was favored by her father), a ‘leisurely, subdued’ tale of obsession, sibling rivalry and familial shame entitled A Dark Adapted Eye.

As the quote above indicates, A Dark Adapted Eye is markedly different in tone from the Ruth Rendell novels, the action unfolding slowly and in a non-linear fashion, both the gentler pace and the structural complexity perhaps asking more of the reader than Ruth Rendell had. There is also no whodunnit to keep the reader turning the pages: the killer is named on page one. In A Dark Adapted Eye, the reader is compelled not by the mystery surrounding the murder itself, but by the puzzle presented by the family, with its fraught and complicated relationships and all its secrets and lies.

For me, what makes Vine so irresistible is the shrewdness of her psychological insight applied not to serial killers or criminal masterminds but to us, to ordinary people. In a later novel, Vine wrote that ‘much of the interest and terror induced by great crimes is due not to their abnormal content, but to that in them which is normal’. What she investigates are the things that I also find fascinating: love and jealousy and the everyday hurts that make up family life.

No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005)

Is the brutality and ugliness described in Cormac McCarthy’s work all the more horrifying because of the beauty of his sentences – elegant and intricate but nevertheless pared to the bone? McCarthy leaves no place for ambiguity or ambivalence, no reason for doubt and nowhere to hide. Are his villains more terrifying for the same reason? I can think of no more frightening antagonist in modern fiction than Anton Chigurh, that ‘true and living prophet of destruction’, a relentless and pitiless assassin, subject to his own unquestionable code.

Would Irene really enjoy this western, with all its drugs and guns and blood-soaked horror? I’m fairly certain she would. Even leaving to one side McCarthy’s peerless sentences, there is much about the book I feel she would take to heart. The novel’s title is taken from Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, a poem which includes the line ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick’, a sentiment Irene might well recognize, as she would the feelings of nostalgia and bewilderment felt by the novel’s protagonist, the stoic, stalwart Sheriff Bell. I think that in Sheriff Bell, the good man who loves his wife so dearly, she might also catch a glimpse of her William.

Paula Hawkins Recommends Five Novels With Criminal Acts At Their Heart ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

In the Woods by Tana French (2007)

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read In the Woods—and you really ought to—don’t read this section.

In Tana French’s debut, two detectives, both troubled by historical trauma, are faced with two parallel cases, one in the present and one in the past. So far, so conventional. Oh, but In the Woods is so very far from conventional.

Between detectives Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan, French creates a relationship which lifts the heart, a partnership we are almost immediately invested in, one that we can see enduring for years and cases and novels to come. But life’s not like that, and so French breaks their hearts and ours, savagely and with calculated cruelty, and she’s not done yet. Not even close.

The principal mystery, centered on the murder of a teenage girl, unspools cleverly and carefully; the identity of the killer, when it is revealed, comes as a shock, and yet—as is the case in all the best crime novels—it is possible to figure it out if you are paying close attention.

But it is in French’s treatment of the second mystery, involving the disappearance of two of Rob’s childhood friends two decades before the contemporary storyline begins, that the novel is elevated, because French does not solve it. She refuses to give us an answer, because Rob—who was there when whatever happened to his friends happened – cannot remember. And will never remember. For reasons that we can only guess at, his memory of what happened is gone – or perhaps it never formed, or perhaps it was buried too deep, or perhaps he will not allow it to resurface . . .

I am aware that this is a matter of personal taste. Irene, who confesses later in the book that she enjoys a ‘traditional crime novel, with good prevailing, evil vanquished’, might, like a friend of mine, have thrown the book across the room when she realized what French had done. But I found the unresolvedness of In the Woods thrilling, I was in awe of its boldness and its realism. Because not everyone finds redemption, not everyone gets a happy ending. Some things are unknowable, some answers are never going to be found. And sometimes the bad guy gets away with it.

***

Paula Hawkins Recommends Five Novels With Criminal Acts At Their Heart ‹ Storyva – True Crime Story

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