Who The Spies Really Were

Who The Spies Really Were   Most of us hold a certain image in our minds of who a spy is: Ian Fleming’s James Bond— particularly as interpreted by the movies, John le Carré’s George Smiley, or Alan Furst’s Jean Casson.  By turns they are sexy and athletic, quiet and self-effacing, or glamorous and artistic, […]

Ten Great Crime Stories Set During the Holidays By Meg Gardiner As we head toward the cold, night-wrapped end of the year, let us reflect on crime classics that take place in December. The holidays have it all: thrillers, heists, espionage, true crime, and noir. As winter descends and Christmas carols slide into a minor key, toss back a belt of eggnog and appreciate these sharply rendered tales of death and double-dealing. Three Days of the Condor (1975). In this spy-on-the-run thriller, Christmas is purely a background moan in the wind. Front and center are betrayal and paranoia, as Robert Redford races to find out who executed his entire office—CIA analysts who “just read books.” His deadly contest with assassins and Langley bureaucrats unfolds on gray, doom-laden New York streets, surrounded by carolers and bell ringers. O tidings of comfort and joy! Ronin (1998). Nominally, this movie is about former Cold War operatives cut loose from their cause; warriors wandering lost in a remade world. But at heart, Ronin is a MacGuffin hunt. And thank God. Because Ronin gives us film’s best Parisian car chase. And best figure skating death. (Bonus: the skater who takes a sniper round is former Soviet Bloc Olympic champion Katarina Witt.) To steal a mysterious briefcase, the movie’s antihero crew essentially takes down France on Christmas Day—half of it accidentally, via ricochet. How far will they go? Will they choose money? Honor? Are you kidding? They’d ram a BMW into Santa’s workshop and ninja kick Mrs. Claus to get that silver case. The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy (1984). We remember this as the crackling debut that introduced Jack Ryan, launched the era of the military techno-thriller, and made propeller cavitation sexy. We forget that it takes place between December third and twentieth. The novel’s both cat-and-mouse submarine hunt and geopolitical game of Risk, and its final chapter is “The Eighteenth Day.” Thermonuclear missiles in a pear tree. It’s not Silent Night, but Silent Running. The Force, Don Winslow (2017). This sprawling novel about compromised cops and city corruption opens in New York on Christmas Eve. “Yeah, Christmas crazy. Always crazy in New York, Malone thinks.” This is a soaring, down-and-dirty epic about the downfall of a good cop—a hero who knows he has become what he set out to fight, and who seeks redemption in a city where no one will catch you when you fall. Certainly not Christmas angels. The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth (2016). A vivid, chilling account of the serial killings that gripped Austin, Texas between New Year’s Eve 1884 and Christmas 1885. Called the Servant Girl Annihilator, the Invisible Nemesis, and the Axe Man, the never-identified killer struck at night, killing African American domestic workers and wealthy white women. His attacks reached their ferocious peak on Christmas Eve 1885, when two women were axed in their homes, hours apart. I live in Austin. Hollandsworth’s book has revealed deeper shadows here than I ever imagined. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1965). The foundational American true crime book remains notable for its empathetic focus on the victims, and the investigators, as much as on the killers. The icy heart of the story takes place between November 15, 1959, when the Clutter family was shotgunned, and December 31, when their killers were arrested. There’s no joking about this one, just a reminder to read it, soberly, and remember the Clutter family. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891). This Sherlock Holmes mystery features a Christmas goose and a stolen gemstone. “Just see how it glints and sparkles,” Holmes says of the priceless jewel. “Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits.” Well. I know what I want in my Christmas stocking. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Frank Capra’s family classic is noir to the core. It’s an unflinching story of dreams dashed and sacrifice seemingly unrewarded. Of goodness mocked and turned against the best heart in Bedford Falls—which drives George Bailey to the brink of death on a snowy bridge. The Potterville timeline reveals gangster capitalism in all its corruption, where the townsfolk wallow in crime, brought to their knees on snow-covered mean streets. Listen to alternate-timeline Donna Reed scream when George tries to tell her there’s another world, a better world. Sure, a guardian angel rescues George. But can any of us truly escape? How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss (1957). The classic heist story. Whether from a bad case of grinchy heart or get-off-my-lawn variety sociopathy, the Grinch decides to hit Who-ville. He preps disguises and knuckles his dog, Max, into being his wheelman. He strips the ville bare. Then, in a turn fit for a cynical Seventies PI flick, he takes his plunder to the top of Mt. Crumpit—not to fence it, but dump it. Nihilistic, man. But he hasn’t counted on little Cindy-Lou Who, the story’s femme Who-tale, to see through him. She leads the siren song that lures the Grinch back to town, loot in tow. The rest is a dark feast. Die Hard (1988). The top dog of holiday thrillers. I’ll take no backtalk on this. I teach Die Hard in writing workshops. And we’re not arguing, “Is it a Christmas movie?” That was settled when my son went to an ugly sweater party wearing a sweatshirt that said, NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO. (To the mom who snarled, “You’re a disgusting mother” at me, I say: and proud of it!) At our house, it’s not Christmas until my daughter acts out Hans Gruber’s plunge from Nakatomi Tower. To repeat: no arguing. John McClane’s wife is named HOLLY. Meg Gardiner is the author of fourteen novels including UNSUB, which won the 2018 Barry Award for Best Thriller, and China Lake, which won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. A former lawyer and three-time Jeopardy! champion, she lives in Austin. The Dark Corners of the Night, the third novel in the UNSUB series, will be published in February 2020.

Ten Great Crime Stories Set During the Holidays

Ten Great Crime Stories Set During the Holidays   As we head toward the cold, night-wrapped end of the year, let us reflect on crime classics that take place in December. The holidays have it all: thrillers, heists, espionage, true crime, and noir. As winter descends and Christmas carols slide into a minor key, toss […]

A CRIME WRITER IS BORN

A CRIME WRITER IS BORN   In 1981 my parents purchased a JVC HR-3660, one of the first VHS-based VCRs commercially available in Ireland. It was top-loading, weighed more than thirty pounds and had a row of gleaming silver levers that reminded my mother of piano keys. The VCR cost 795 Irish pounds or almost […]

MY TOP TEN AUSTRALIAN MYSTERIES WITH A UNIQUE SENSE OF PLACE

MY TOP TEN AUSTRALIAN MYSTERIES WITH A UNIQUE SENSE OF PLACE The diverse Australian landscape offers a wealth of opportunities for the mystery and thriller writer. Beyond the cosmopolitan cities it’s a harsh, unforgiving country, and there’s peril at every turn for those who are unprepared, desperate or unaware. There’s a vast maze of tinder-dry […]

So what actually is Folk Horror?

So what actually is Folk Horror?   In times of national – and international – uncertainty we often turn to genre fiction for escapism and entertainment. This has been borne out throughout the Twentieth Century. Vicious new methods of killing devised during the First World War and, coupled with improvements in healthcare, meant that what […]

The True Grist of Oklahoma Thrillers

The True Grist of Oklahoma Thrillers Oklahoma!—a mostly bouncy show—also has a murder in it. My native state has only been a state for about a hundred years. Long before statehood, the land was traversed by nomadic hunting tribes like the Kiowas and Comanches. It was also tilled by agricultural tribes like the Caddos and […]

The Light Inside Noir

The Light Inside Noir

The Light Inside Noir In 2010, James Ellroy and Otto Penzler edited an anthology of noir fiction, The Best American Noir of the Century. A writer for the New Yorker asked Penzler what accounted for the popularity of such dark tales. He said, “Have you ever lifted up a rock and seen slugs and millipedes and other ugly […]

Top Ten Holiday Mysteries and Films…

Top Ten Holiday Mysteries Having to work on a holiday has been known to put me in a horrible mood, yet Poirot, Holmes, and Inspector Alleyn seem to delight in having their holidays marred by the odd murder or theft. Here’s a list of the top ten novels and stories set during the holiday season […]

Top 10 Audiobooks Guaranteed to Blow Your Mind

Top 10 Audiobooks Guaranteed to Blow Your Mind By Lisa Regan What makes an outstanding audiobook? It’s the combination of a great story and a narrator who can deliver every line of the book in the perfect tone, at the perfect pace, and sometimes even in the perfect accent. A narrator can make or break […]

10 Undervalued Golden Age Mysteries

10 Undervalued Golden Age Mysteries   Anyone who enjoys classic crime is well aware of the merits of books like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. But there are plenty of novels, by these authors and others, that in my opinion deserve to be much better known, […]

CONFESSIONS OF A STORY-TELLER

CONFESSIONS OF A STORY-TELLER I can’t say for certain when the urge to tell a story first came to me, but I suspect it was when I read Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It wasn’t a mystery, of course, like the books I was later to write, but I can remember to this day how the […]