A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Concrete AngelThis recommendation comes from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. 

As a way of remembering the late and much-missed Maxine Clarke, and of building a resource of fine crime fiction novels, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan had a terrific idea. Each month, different crime fiction bloggers could contribute a post about a book they would recommend to Maxine.  This is my contribution.

I believe Maxine would have been very pleased about several recent releases, as there’s been some fine crime fiction out lately. One of them is Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel.

Concrete Angel is the story of Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has always been driven to acquire, whether it’s things, or money, or men. She stops at absolutely nothing to get what she wants. Her daughter Christine has grown up in this dysfunctional atmosphere. Dependent on her mother, as children are, she’s been caught in Eve’s web since early childhood. At some level, she’s always known that her mother was toxic. Eve can be very persuasive, though. What’s more, Christine has not been raised with anything like a normal perspective on life, and that’s had a powerful impact on her. Their relationship is both complicated and dysfunctional, and gets more so as time goes by.

Everything changes when Christine sees a disturbing pattern begin to repeat itself. Eve starts to draw Christine’s three-year-old brother Ryan into her web, too.  Now that she’s older, Christine begins to see her life and that of her mother for what they are, and she wants to spare Ryan what she’s been through herself. Once she sees that Ryan may soon be trapped in the same unhealthy, dangerous patterns, Christine knows that she’ll have to find a way to free herself and Ryan from Eve. But that choice may cost her more than she knows.

Maxine was always interested in books that take larger issues down to the human level. And in this case, Abbott does that with the mother/child dynamic. As we follow the Morans, we see how the larger psychological questions of dependence, the parent/child bond and sibling relationships play out in this one family.

Another element in this novel that Maxine would have appreciated is the psychological suspense. Abbott builds the tension through the interactions among the characters, and through the psychology of those interactions. Maxine was never one for gory violence or gratuity, and Abbott resorts to neither as she tells the Morans’ story.

Abbott explores the complex nature of the parent/child relationship and poses the question of what happens when it becomes twisted. Maxine would, I am sure, have liked her take on it very much.

Another book I truly wish Maxine could read is Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. DI Francis In Bitter ChillSadler and his team are called in when the body of Yvonne Jenkins is discovered at the Wilton Hotel in Bampton, Derbyshire. It looks to be a clear case of suicide, but there is one unusual thing: a link between this death and a case that has haunted the Derbyshire police since 1978. In January 1978, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones were walking to school together as they usually did. But that day, only Rachel came back. No trace of Sophie, not even a body, has ever been found. Now that old case is re-opened.  With help from Superintendent Llewellyn, who remembers it well, Sadler and his team piece together what happened that day, and how it led to Yvonne Jenkins’ death. And in the process, several secrets, some of them very uncomfortable, come to the fore.

This novel takes place in the Peak District, and Ward places the reader there very clearly. Maxine would have appreciated the sense of setting and local culture in this story. The scenery, the weather and the local customs are all woven through the novel.

She would also have very much liked the way the 1978 story and the present day story are tied together. Maxine enjoyed novels where we see the impact of the past on the present; she would especially have appreciated the personal, almost intimate way in which that impact is depicted in this one. She would also have liked the focus on characters.

Maxine would also have liked the police procedural element of In Bitter Chill. The detectives involved in this case are not stereotypical demon-haunted mavericks (character types with which she had little patience). Rather, they are humans trying to do the best job they can. I’m sure Maxine would have liked that.

Both Concrete Angel and In Bitter Chill also reflect the kind of focus Maxine preferred in her stories. Neither author opted for gratuitous violence or improbable events. Both authors focus on character development. And that would have suited Maxine perfectly.

Along with that, there’s another reason Maxine would have been happy about these books. Both are written by authors Maxine knew and respected. She was always extremely supportive of authors, and I think she would have been so happy and proud to see Patti Abbott and Sarah Ward enjoy success with their novels. She’d have been there at their launches if she could.