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(End of) Summer Reading: Mystery Edition

Four new novels set in the Bay Area make this place seem way more noirish than it actually is.

After Her, by Joyce Maynard
(1 of 4)

Killer Weed, by Michael Castleman
(2 of 4)

Japantown, by Barry Lancet
(3 of 4)

The Last Word, by Lisa Lutz
(4 of 4)

After Her, by Joyce Maynard
One-sentence blurb: In this novel inspired by a true story, two sisters living at the base of Mount Tam in 1979 deal with the repercussions of a killing spree in their own backyard.
Pluses: The most literary novel of the group (Maynard is a master storyteller), it’s both a guilty pleasure and reading-group ready.
Minuses: The ending will remind you of a Lifetime movie, which is what this book could become.
Bay Area cliché spotter: Handsome Italian cop with a weakness for women and cigarettes, depressed divorced mom who ignores her kids, hiking trails, homeless encampments, serial killer.

Killer Weed, by Michael Castleman
One-sentence blurb:
A financially struggling newspaper columnist investigates the murder of his wife’s boss, a ’60s-era pot activist.
Pluses: Decent writing, a plot that might actually keep you guessing, characters who remind you of people not unlike yourself (if you went to Berkeley in 1968).
Minuses: Depends on how you feel about aging hippies.
Bay Area cliché spotter: Haight Ashbury in the Summer of Love, pot farms around every corner, the sad decline of the journalism industry, a philandering politician, a tech zillionaire adopted at birth who wants to know where he came from.

Japantown, by Barry Lancet
One-sentence blurb: A widowed San Francisco antiques dealer is caught up in a string of murders around the world committed by a secret society of ninja-like assassins.
Pluses: Ninjas! And, given it’s the first book in what will likely be a long and successful series, there’s no backstory to miss out on.
Minuses: The hero has Tom Cruise written all over him. Pretty much every reference to San Francisco police or city government rings false.
Bay Area cliché spotter: Surprisingly few, other than the ninjas.

The Last Word, by Lisa Lutz
One-sentence blurb: A wacky family of San Francisco private investigators continue their antic adventures in this sixth volume of the bestselling Spellman Files series (think The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora, grown up, dried out, and plunked into the middle of NBC’s Parenthood).
Pluses: A 35-year-old mess of a heroine, a lovable Alzheimer’s-ridden client, a plot that takes you to surprising emotional depths.
Minuses: Too much snappy dialogue, too many cutesy footnotes, not enough actual mystery.
Bay Area cliché spotter: Single gal with a messy love life, stay-at-home dad, hot wrongfully convicted ex-con obsessed with cooking, a fixation on apartments (some crappy, some corporate).

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, by Sara Gran
One-sentence blurb: A self-destructive female detective addicted to the mysteriousness of mysteries and other, more dangerous substances investigates the murder of a former lover.
Pluses: Good writing, with a distinctive voice that makes you keep reading against your better judgment.
Minuses: Imagine if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had been narrated by a depressive Lisbeth Salander and was about, well, not much. By the third chapter, you’ll know whodunit. The real mystery is all the extraneous characters from the earlier DeWitt book who keep popping up for no apparent reason.
Bay Area cliché spotter: Hipsters, tattoos, hooking up, indie bands, lost girls, Chinatown and the Mission, scary Oakland, drugs.

 

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of San Francisco

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