Radical empathy, excellent plotting, intergenerational warfare: crime novel aficionado Emma Marr gives her top five crime novels that ask some bigger questions.
“Why are half the books in this house about murder?” my 17-year-old texted me one afternoon.
“Surely not half?” I replied, “maybe … 30%?” I pondered some more and added, “it’s a good read, that’s why.”
A survey of a few shelves confirmed that yes, half the books in this house are crime novels or thrillers, if you cast your net wide enough to include any book with some dastardly criminal deeds, a mystery the reader is desperate to solve, and a propulsive plot. I’m not alone – crime and psychological thrillers are incredibly and enduringly popular. People just can’t get enough of reading about evildoers getting (or not getting) their comeuppance.
For a crime novel to be truly great the characters are key – you need to care about their fate, to understand their motivations, to find a way below the surface, and see them in your friends, your family, your co-workers, or the mirror. But all that is useless without a cracking good plot. Characters are the dress you covet in the shop window, plot is the mannequin holding it up: without it, you’ve just got a puddle of cloth on the floor.
Even better is a crime novel or thriller that lifts its gaze above the action and asks some bigger questions: Why does someone kill? What happens to the people left behind? What has society done to its most vulnerable people to create perpetrators or victims? What the hell is wrong with the world we live in? That kind of thing.
Characters, plot, and something bigger to say. If I want all that, you ask, what shall I read? Let me make some suggestions.
Better The Blood by Michael Bennett
We follow Detective Hana Westerman as she tracks down New Zealand’s first serial killer, excavates her complex relationship with her heritage and her past, and tries to reconcile her Māoritanga with her job as a cop. It’s a thrilling and compelling plot, but also an intelligent and easy to read social commentary of colonisation and the reality of being Māori in 2023. In one single exchange between a student and a lecturer about the “fairness” of scholarships and entry quotas for Māori, Bennett provides the most elegant and concise explanation of the inherent privilege afforded to the descendants of the colonisers I’ve ever seen. It’s been deservedly longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Bennett, whose background includes filmmaker, scriptwriter, showrunner and writer, was part of a team instrumental in the quashing of the wrongful conviction of Teina Pora. His deep knowledge of the collateral damage that can be wrought by the juggernaut of the justice system is evident in the pages of Better The Blood. His book also throws light on an idea that nibbles away at the edges, and sometimes the heart, of many crime novels: not all “bad people” are all bad. There are shades of grey. It’s possible to empathise with a very bad person. Which segues nicely to number 2 on my list.
Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka
When I put this down on 20 January I declared it my book of the year. Brave words, and it might be jostling with another recent read (see number 3 below), but it’s spectacular. The book opens twelve hours before Ansel Packer is due to die by execution, and continues the countdown while spooling back in time to the birth, the childhood, the adulthood of Packer, and the lives of the women who came in and out of his orbit along the way.
In the same way as Before You Knew My Name, by Jacqueline Bublitz (who reviewed Notes on an Execution for The Spinoff), which gave voice to the women affected by a male killer, Notes on an Execution prioritises the women who survived Ansel Packer. The ripples are deep and far reaching, reflecting fear, shame, guilt, hope, and love. It is perfectly plotted to create fearsome tension as the characters Kukafka has so skilfully drawn inch ever closer to a conclusion we are hiding behind our hands to avoid seeing.
Kukafka also managed to create a serial killer for whom we can find some sympathy. Some of the most devastating scenes in the book are about the killer’s childhood. Even he eventually recognises that he had choices, but a reader cannot fail to reflect that society can’t function properly when children are raised in a swamp of deprivation and violence. No-one is okay until we’re all okay. (Side note: If you want to further investigate the idea that not all “bad people” are all bad, and to understand the concept of radical empathy, I highly recommend The Devil You Know, by Dr Gwen Adshead, a British forensic psychotherapist who has treated patients at Broadmoor, one of the world’s most famous psychiatric hospital, and home to some of the UK’s most violent criminals. It’s very mind-opening stuff.)
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
There has been plenty of ink spilled (including Claire Mabey’s review) on this fantastic novel by one of New Zealand’s best known and most revered writers, so I’ll stick to my crime novel-focused opinion. I am personally thrilled that Catton’s first book since winning the Booker Prize was influenced, according to the writer herself, by reading a lot of Lee Child. Who better to inspire such a gripping read?
Birnam Wood is the name assumed by a group of millennials frustrated with the mess their boomer parents have made of the world, desperate to make it better by collective gardening anywhere they can find, even if illegal. They are gardeners on the move. They come face to face with, and catastrophically underestimate, the banal evil of that most overlooked generation, Gen X, in the form of a filthy rich American who appears to be using New Zealand as an antipodean handmaiden.
Catton is the queen of plot. She takes her time, lays the groundwork, setting it up so that when she pulls the levers, it all slots into place in the most thrilling, crackling, fizzing way possible. There are some moments early on when Catton, luxuriating in the space she has allowed herself to develop character, takes more time than some readers may have the patience for to explore the moral dilemmas faced by a human population who don’t have the imagination or appetite to deal with the catastrophic errors they have made and inherited. You’d be missing out if you skip those parts. It is all part of Catton’s virtuoso magic of lulling the reader into a false sense of security (so much peaceful gardening!) before tipping them into a dizzying voyage to a shocking conclusion. Shakespearean in scope and impact, it is an enormously satisfying read.
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
When Birnam Wood was announced I immediately thought of Three Hours, which uses Macbeth’s Birnam Wood as a plot device in a way I cannot describe further without risking spoilers. It’s an absolute cracker of a read, centring on a shocking school shooting that unfolds in a remote English school over three hours one snowy morning. Lupton weaves separate narrative threads together: a terrified mother who cannot contact her child; a detective tasked with working out the motivation and likely plans of the shooter; the injured principal; and Rafi, an immigrant teenager desperate to find the younger brother he smuggled out of Syria.
Three Hours spotlights that while the world is divided by utterly calcified views on immigration, at the centre of every immigration story are human beings. In the face of terror and pain, the only humane response is love. It is fantastically thought provoking. I devoured it in a day nearly three years ago, and have thought about it regularly ever since.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
This was my book of 2022. O’Farrell starts with the premise that our heroine Lucrezia, a sixteen year old Italian noblewoman, is about to be murdered by her brutishly terrifying husband. It is historical fact that in 1558, Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, was married to Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. A year later she was dead. Little else is known about her, and O’Farrell, whose last work Hamnet imagined the life and death of Shakespeare’s son by the same name, has taken the same approach with the story of Lucrezia. The promise of a certain death is certainly a captivating way to start a book, and the sense of looming peril never lets up.
O’Farrell’s writing is sublime, and so is her plotting. There is a certain scene towards the end of the book involving a staircase during which I could barely breathe with the suspenseful horror of the moment. It reminded me of the first time I read Misery by Stephen King, after which I could hardly sleep for a week. The sheer power of streaks of black on a white page never ceases to astonish me, and nothing is so immersive as a powerfully plotted thriller.