For this month’s edition of The Plot Thickens, I decided to take a little meander into crime fiction set in the past. (Because the present, i.e. the endless late summer, was just too hot. Reading cools one down, I think.) First up: Amy Chua’s fiction debut “The Golden Gate” (Minotaur Books, $28), set in the Bay Area in the 1940s, where homicide detective Al Sullivan is trying to solve the murder of a presidential candidate – which took place in the same posh Berkeley hotel where a child mysteriously died 10 years earlier. The ghost of that girl haunts this story, which mingles socialites, hotel workers, politicians (Madame Chiang Kai-shek plays an arch cameo role), cops, monks, immigrants and one very smart 11-year-old in a rich and satisfying stew.
Chua, a Yale law professor best known for her 2011 nonfiction work “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” has clearly done her research: “The Golden Gate” brims over with fascinating California history, as well as thoughtful reflections on race (Sullivan, we learn, was born Gutierrez) and class. It’s an entertaining read with some touches of wit (Sullivan’s colleague “was so thick he couldn’t tell which way an elevator was going if you gave him two guesses”) and a genuinely touching relationship at the center, between Sullivan and his young niece. Here’s hoping they’re back for a sequel, soon.
Over on the opposite coast, Louise Hare’s “Harlem After Midnight” (Berkley, $28) is the second in a series featuring Lena Aldridge, a biracial singer who grew up in London but arrives in 1936 New York at this book’s start, hoping to find some answers about her past. Hare interweaves Lena’s story with that of her father several decades earlier, as secrets are slowly uncovered. While the plot ultimately seemed to have a few too many threads, Hare beautifully conveys a time and place, taking us to the famed Apollo Theater (for Amateur Night) and the Savoy Ballroom, to “rent parties” in Harlem, to department stores where elegant young woman who passed for white would be welcomed, but their darker-skinned boyfriends (the enigmatic musician Will Goodman) would not. And I loved Hare’s way of conveying what it feels like for Lena to sing, feeling “the supportive silence from the audience, as compelling as gravity, pulling the lyrics out of me.”
Agatha Christie died many years ago, but her beloved detective Hercule Poirot is alive and well and still solving mysteries in brand-new books. Sophie Hannah, British author of a number of fine psychological thrillers, has been authorized by Christie’s estate to carry on Poirot’s legacy, and she has good fun with “Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night” (William Morrow, $30). (It’s not out until Oct. 24, but you can pre-order now, or place a hold at the library.) Set over the Christmas holidays in 1931, it features Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool anticipating a pleasant, low-key holiday in London — plans interrupted by Catchpool’s larger-than-life mother, who insists on hauling both of them to a coastal town to solve a murder.
The whole story feels appropriately Christie-esque – the locked room, the atmospherically crumbling mansion, the lengthy conversations, the gathered array of suspects – and pleasantly nostalgic; it’s as if you’ve read this book before, but in the best of ways. And, as the best mysteries do, it offers life lessons: Namely, if you wish to find out more about someone (i.e. a suspect in a murder case), “the traditional method of asking them questions about all the usual things – their relationship to the victim, for instance, or their whereabouts when the crime was committed – is significantly less effective than this lesser-known method: begin to decorate a Christmas tree in their vicinity.”
And finally, here’s one that’s actually from the era it depicts. Poisoned Pen Press is reissuing a number of classic British mysteries this fall, including Sebastian Farr’s 1941 novel “Death on the Downbeat: An Orchestral Fantasy of Detection” (Poisoned Pen Press, $14.99 paperback). An epistolary novel, told by Detective Inspector Alan Hope in affectionate letters home to his wife, it explores the mysterious murder of conductor Sir Noel Grampian, shot dead during a performance of Strauss’ “A Hero’s Life.” While the book gets perhaps too granular in its classical-music analysis (Farr was the pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, a music lexicographer and writer), it’s amusing to come to know the entire symphony orchestra as an assortment of grudges and grumps, and to encounter sentences like, as Hope examines a letter from a possible suspect, “No man who uses so many superfluous commas can be innocent.”
There are of course countless excellent mystery novels set in the past – a survey our readers last year found that a lot of you love Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series and Charles Finch’s Charles Lenox series, among others. Got a new favorite? Let me know, and enjoy some good reading during these early fall days.
Moira Macdonald is The Seattle Times arts critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.