The Crime Scene: Fun in the Sun

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My wife loves the summer (and desires a beach house with the focused single-mindedness of a cat watching a mouse hole) but believes that, once August arrives, it’s pretty much over, because next month everybody goes back to school or work.

Well, it not over — it’s at its peak — and there is no better time to catch up on terrific books that are so much toe-curling fun that it’s obvious why publishers released them to be read on long, cell phone-free flights, quiet afternoons on a porch, or days at the sweaty, hot, sand-scratching, kids-screaming, sunburn-inducing, polluted-water, jellyfish-covered beach.

It may not seem like light summer reading, but a good choice to fill a couple of warm afternoons is Joyce Carol Oates’s “My Sister, My Love” (Ecco, 576 pages, $25.95), loosely based on the heartbreaking death of JonBenet Ramsey.

Most of Ms. Oates’s work involves crime, suspense, and violence. This long novel is no exception, but there is less focus on the murder than on the obsessive behavior of the mother who callously disregards her son, Skyler, because she so desperately wants her little girl, Bliss, to be a figure skating star. A satire about social-climbing loonies, it whips along at Olympic 100-meter pace and will leave you exhausted with the family and in awe of the author.

Being returned to another era has the delicious advantage of removing you from the travails of the present day, which recommends any summer reading book. No one does this better than Alan Furst, and seldom as well as in “The Spies of Warsaw” (Random House, 266 pages, $25), which features a de Gaulle-like hero, beautiful femmes fatales, spineless turncoats, invaluable secrets, clandestine rendezvous, baroque hotels, dark bars with whispered conversations, treacherous alleys, and potentially world-changing negotiations in well-mannered tones between people who would gladly kill each other. This splendid novel feels as if it is based on a Humphrey Bogart and James Mason film scripted by Eric Ambler.

If you think it’s difficult to root for a professional killer, get over it, because Keller, the hired assassin in Lawrence Block’s “Hit and Run” (Morrow, 277 pages, $24.95) is too reasonable and charming to dislike. This rare combination of crime novel, genuine mystery, and suspense story is told with remarkably comic lightness of tone, not unlike some Alfred Hitchcock films (“North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief” come to mind) in which the suspense is leavened with humor. Don’t take this one on a long flight, however, as you will have raced through it before the drink cart reaches your row.

You could be headed to Fiji, however, if you packed David Wroblewski’s stunning debut novel in your carry-on. “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (Ecco, 576 pages, $25.95) is, implausibly, a retelling of “Hamlet” set largely in the backwoods of Wisconsin, as a mute boy attempts to solve the murder of his father.

This is an essential read if you love dogs, by the way, as the Sawtelle family raises a fictional breed noted for its intuitive sense and intelligence in making decisions, and they play a prominent role. When young Edgar flees into the forest with three yearlings, you will be reminded not only of “Hamlet,” but of “The Night of the Hunter” and a darker “Lassie, Come Home.”

A couple of unabashedly politically incorrect thrillers featuring Muslims have been making off-the-book-page news on conservative radio and television programs. Andrew Klavan’s “Empire of Lies” (Harcourt, 400 pages, $25) and Brad Thor’s best-selling “The Last Patriot” (Atria, 352 pages, $26) will both keep you at the edge of your deck chair.

There is no reason why a great summer reading experience must be restricted to a newly published book, so here are the only two mystery titles I’ve reread during the past 20 years; if you haven’t read either of them before, then they’re new to you.

“The Last Good Kiss” by James Crumley has the best opening line since “Rebecca,” and is possibly the greatest private eye novel of all time, for both its complex plot and its lyrical prose.

In “Breakheart Hill” by Thomas H. Cook, once again, the poetic style somehow manages to be an even greater pleasure than the twist that will force you to gasp in surprise and wonderment.

Whoever decided that August gets 31 days and February only 28 probably anticipated all the marvelous books published for summertime reading.

Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop and the series editor of the annual “Best American Mystery Stories.” He can be reached at

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