Moira Macdonald recommends 2 new crime novels

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The Plot Thickens

John Banville, the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Sea” and numerous other acclaimed novels, has a pretty great side hustle: He writes crime fiction, presumably in his spare time, set in 1950s Dublin and featuring a troubled, hard-drinking yet brilliant pathologist known as Quirke, or sometimes Dr. Quirke. (If Quirke has a first name, I don’t know it.) Until recently, Banville wrote his Quirke novels under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black, but by 2021’s “April in Spain” he began using his real name. In true crime-writer fashion, he killed Black off with appropriate atmosphere: “I shut him in a room with a pistol, a phial of sleeping pills and a bottle of Scotch, and that was the end of him,” Banville told The New York Times.

His latest, “The Lock-Up” (out May 23 from Hanover Square Press), has Quirke reeling from the personal tragedy described in “April in Spain,” and yet drawn to work: A young woman has been found dead in her car, and Quirke and Detective Inspector St. John Strafford quickly find that the death appears to be a homicide, and that the young woman had connections to a powerful German family who mysteriously arrived in Ireland after the war.

But you don’t read Banville’s Quirke books for the plot, but for the beautiful writing that had me savoring every page. Strafford, at one point, watches at a window as Quirke walks away, “the dark, behatted figure, walking in a sort of huddle, seeming to bear himself along, clasped in his own pained embrace.” And what other crime author tosses in a brief Yeats poem? If you haven’t read the Quirke series, it’s a treat; start at the beginning with “Christine Falls” and enjoy the dark wander. By the way, there’s a “Quirke” miniseries available on BritBox, with Gabriel Byrne as Quirke. Sounds promising; anyone watched it?

Also new this month: Megan Abbott’s latest skillful noir “Beware the Woman” (out May 30, Putnam). As always, Abbott is terrific at finding dread around every corner, at making you see the grotesque and frightening in something previously mundane. “Beware the Woman” is the story of Jacy, happily pregnant and newly married to Jed, who goes with her husband to visit his father, Doctor Ash, at his home in the remote Michigan backwoods.

All seems bucolic, but quickly things turn ominous: the mysterious housekeeper Mrs. Brandt, “her mouth like a zipper, straight with teeth glittering”; the mountain lions who scream at night; the strange images in Jacy’s dreams; the way the men and Mrs. Brandt seem to slowly form a circle around Jacy, taking control of her body and her movements. But how much of Jacy’s mounting fear is real, and how much of it is paranoia? While I don’t recommend anyone read this book while pregnant (the complications Jacy endures are potentially triggering), “Beware the Woman” is a master class in suspense, with Abbott’s sentences and paragraphs seeming to get more breathless as the novel progresses, mirroring the rhythm of an increasingly frantic Jacy’s pounding heart.

And here’s a public service announcement, for those who love crime fiction: Check out Crime Reads (, a terrific online fountain of smart writing and book recommendations in the mystery and true crime genres. Its author adviser list alone is a murderer’s row: Abbott, Carl Hiaasen, Laura Lippman, Attica Locke, Walter Mosley and Ruth Ware, among others. Recent articles that I found of great interest: “True Crime Books for Readers Who Are Uncomfortable With True Crime As a Popular Obsession,” “Painting the Town Red: What Art Can Add to a Mystery,” “What Journalism Can Teach You About Writing Fiction” (aha!), and “What Teaching Shakespeare Taught Me About Writing Horror.”

Finally, a note on this column itself. Formerly monthly, The Plot Thickens is moving to every other month, because other stories and deadlines are crowding out my ability to spend every waking hour reading mysteries and pretending to be solving crimes. But I would love to ask readers of this column for their thoughts. More reviews, but shorter ones? Announcements of interesting-looking books coming up, or local author events? Crowdsourcing recommendations, as we’ve done to some extent in the past? Favorite sentences from crime fiction? This column grew out of my longtime fascination with fictional detectives; now I’d love to solve the mystery of what readers would like best. Drop me a line — — and tell me your favorite recent mystery while you’re at it.