It was a hot day in Central Library. The air conditioner was busted, the doors were propped wide open, and, thanks to the latest forest fire out on the eastside, the air was about as smoky as the Virginia Cafe circa 1975. I thought about lighting up myself since it couldn’t make things much worse in here, but then I remembered that I quit smoking 20 years ago. Something bad was going to happen, I could feel it.
Mercifully, this is not the actual condition in the library at the moment! Everything is just fine. But if this scene appeals to you for some reason, maybe you should be reading more Portland crime fiction.
Did I leave something important off this list? Let me know!
I'm a sucker for stories that feature librarians. When I was a little kid, I turned my bookshelves into a library and made my sister and my stuffed animals check out books.
Right now, I'm in the middle of Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. The narrator, Simon Watson, is a librarian living alone in his deteriorating family house on a cliff on the Long Island Sound. One day, a mysterious book is delivered to his doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller. The ancient tome is a log written by the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700’s. Oddly enough, Simon’s grandmother’s name is written in it but more disturbingly, Simon learns that the women in his family tend to drown young on the same date in July. As he has a younger sister who might be in danger of succumbing to the same drowning fate, Simon needs to use his librarianly research skills to figure out what the story is before that July date rolls around again.
The narrative switches between the present and the past. In the present, Simon deals with the messiness and drama of his life and works towards solving the mysteries of his family's past. In the past, the mysterious book reveals its secrets.
Oh, and there are circus mermaids too.
His readers know suspense writer Andrew J. Rush as a successful mild-mannered author of high profile suspense mysteries and thrillers. His publisher is happy because Andrew’s books sell thousands of copies and he is in high demand as a speaker in bookstores across the U.S. He has a beautiful house, a lovely submissive wife and is able to send his children to the best and most exclusive schools. Enthusiastic reviewers hint that he may be compared to Stephen King, although Andrew himself can’t see it.
But Andrew holds his cards close to his chest because on the side where it is dark and unkempt and cold, is the Jack of Spades. The books written by the Jack of Spades are cruel and twisted and violent. They are so secret that even Andrew’s publisher doesn’t know his real name; he has a locked room in the basement where he writes his Jack of Spades books.
The manuscripts are unsigned and all the profits go to a private bank account. His family live in complete ignorance of these secrets.
Then two things happen:
First a woman accuses him of breaking into her house and stealing her ‘words’- ideas, sentences and whole paragraphs that appear in his published titles.
Second- his daughter accidently picks up and reads one of the books written by the Jack of Spades. She is disgusted and horrified to find some events described there are taken from her own family.
As Andrew desperately tries to hang on to his ‘normal’ life he begins to hear a black, ugly voice buzzing in the back of his mind. ‘Do it, Do it Do it’. Wondering who ends up holding all the aces? Read Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
The 2015 books are starting to arrive and I zipped through my first psychological thriller of the new year. Harriet Lane’s Her sucked me right in with a deceptively ordinary story of two mothers (though if you prefer to read about parents who dote on their children, you'd best skip this book). What a fabulously entertaining, suspenseful, well-written book. The story centers on the build-up of revenge plotted by one of the characters towards the completely oblivious other.
Told in alternating chapters by the two main characters, the interplay of reality and perception is pretty chilling. It’s sort of The Bad Seed with middle aged women. Her is a story that builds from the misunderstandings and disappointments in our lives and the twist lies in the overlooking of those matters.
I’m ready to be pulled into more psychological suspense novels in the coming year; here are a few that I'm eagerly anticipating. I hope they turn out to be as unpredictable and surprising as Her.