Dear TCL Readers,
A year ago we had hardly an inkling of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, and this week the first Americans are being vaccinated. A year ago we could hardly foresee how much life would be upended: how we live, how we work, how we educate our children, how we shop, how we socialize (or, well, don’t), and how we mourn. A year ago there was one president, and now we have elected another. A year ago, more than 300,000 people were still alive who now aren’t.
The only constant is change, yes. And that’s how we have to get through the end of this year and the next, and the years after that. If you made changes in your own lives this year — tiny ones, large ones — my hat is off to you. I can’t in good conscience say that 2021 will be better. There will be moments of better. There will be slivers of good. There will be acts of kindness and grace. And if there’s more than that, embrace them with all the fervor you have in your soul.
The strange thing about this Pandemic Year, for me, is that in one central way, it ended more or less how I expected it to end when I thought about it a year ago. I’m hunkered down, working on book edits, eyeing a Winter 2022 publication, looking ahead to percolating projects in 2021. My health is good. I feel extraordinarily lucky even when blasts of loneliness and isolation hit, as they did as recently as this weekend. There is so much to process. But I’ve never felt more purpose in what I do and how I do it.
Here are my favorite books, podcasts, and TV & film of the year, in some particular order:
In Crime fiction:
Alyssa Cole, When No One Is Watching
S.A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland
Tana French, The Searcher
Rachel Howzell Hall, And Now She’s Gone
Rosalie Knecht, Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery
Elizabeth Little, Pretty As a Picture
Liz Moore, Long Bright River
Ivy Pochoda, These Women
Sara Sligar, Take Me Apart
Chelsea G. Summers, A Certain Hunger
In Crime Nonfiction:
Becky Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close (my review for AirMail)
Thomas Doherty, Little Lindy Is Kidnapped
Emma Copley Eisenberg, The Third Rainbow Girl (my review for AirMail)
Jessica Garrison, The Devil’s Harvest
Ravi Somaiya, The Golden Thread (My review for AirMail)
Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive
Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First
Seyward Darby, Sisters in Hate
Elisa Gabbert, The Unreality of Memory
Duchess Goldblatt, Becoming Duchess Goldblatt
Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings
Samantha Irby, Wow, No Thank You
Morgan Jerkins, Wandering in Strange Lands
Diane Johnson, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith, and Other Lesser Lives
Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road
Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff
Talia Lavin, Culture Warlords
Lyz Lenz, Belabored
Laura Lippman, My Life As a Villainess: Essays
Joanne McNeil, Lurking
Celia Paul, Self-Portrait
Claudia Rankine, Just Us
Isabel Wilkerson, Caste
Alisson Wood, Being Lolita
Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half
Raven Leilani, Luster
Yiyun Li, Must I Go
Megha Majumdar, A Burning
Jenny Offill, Weather
Dheesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Brandon Taylor, Real Life
Robin Wasserman, Mother Daughter Widow Wife
You Must Remember This, on Polly Platt
You’re Wrong About
Lolita Podcast (I’m interviewed in episode 4)
Once Upon a Time in the Valley
Tom Brown’s Body
Uncover: Season 6, the Satanic Panic
Wind of Change
In Film & Television:
I May Destroy You
The Queen’s Gambit
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
And here’s what I was most proud to publish in 2020:
First and foremost, Unspeakable Acts, the little anthology that could. It’s a Best or Favorite Book of 2020 from NPR, Marie Claire, Oxygen, The Lineup, and generally the critical and commercial reception was better than I dreamed. And the essay I wrote for BuzzFeed on how true crime needs to be different is, I hope, a jumping-off point for a follow-up anthology. Stay tuned…
I started 2020 thinking this story about the tragic death of Gloria D’Argenio, a young woman who ended up in the romantic orbit of Meir Kahane would be a subscriber-only newsletter. Then my friends, rightfully, persuaded me to think bigger. The Cut ran the final version over Easter weekend, a mix of tragedy and dangerous ideology that cannot be separated from one another.
Over the summer, when publicity for the anthology ebbed and I was waiting for book edits, it was time to think about the actress Sue Lyon, whom I’d wanted to write about since I worked on The Real Lolita. There’s so much more I hope to report about her difficult life, but the piece that ran in AirMail in October gets at one central relationship that contributed so much to her lifelong damage.
Years also passed between when I first thought about writing about Linda Millar, the daughter of Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar, and when CrimeReads published the story in late November. This is how it works sometimes. The three pieces form a loose trilogy of midcentury tragedy; I see them in conversation with one another.
All trilogies end up with a coda, and the essay I wrote about a 1955 unsolved murder that long obsessed me, and how revisiting it (and my notes) ended up kinda, sorta, solving it, is a treatise on how bad men were, and continue to be, glorified at the expense of the women they harmed.
And in less lengthy pieces: a tribute to the great Mary Higgins Clark; my ruminations on the inherent problems of biopics; more ruminations on a serial killer and the women he harmed; a feature on a 1970 Broadway play with an infamous investor; and a potted history of classic crime fiction via audiobook.
Finally, farewell to John Le Carré, who made the espionage genre his own, and changed the way we thought of the Cold War and geopolitics as a whole. I especially loved what Robert Littell, the other emeritus espionage fiction writer, had to say in Liberation:
Next newsletter in the new year. One of my 2021 goals is to write more of them on a regular basis, and for subscribers, and I’d love to hear from you about what stories and essays I should be pursuing. So if you want in on that:
Stay healthy, stay safe, and when it’s available, get vaccinated.
Until then, I remain,
The Crime Lady