Recommended Reading: Underground Airlines

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I highly enjoyed and appreciated Ben H. Winters’s gripping new novel, Underground Airlines, on three levels.

First, it presents a fascinating what-if scenario. In this alternate America, instead of having a civil war, the states came to a compromise that essentially made slavery constitutional into perpetuity. In the present day, slavery continues to be legal in four states–the “hard four,” as they are called–making the United States a political and trade pariah in the world. This hard-to-fathom reality of present-day legal slavery shades every plot point, character motivation, and line of dialogue, presenting a mind-warping vision of America.

Layered on top of this is a highly suspenseful, well-plotted crime story. The combination of tropes from two such disparate genres infuses both with a new energy. Winters has done this before, in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, but he’s upped his game here. The nameless narrator, once a slave, is now an undercover detective for the US Marshals who tracks fugitive slaves himself, with a hard-boiled sensibility but a nuanced character that gradually reveals itself.

All of this would be enough to make Underground Airlines a terrific read, but Winters has deftly woven piercing social commentary into his alternate history. This vision of America, in which people passionately condone the enslavement of black human beings, is so different from and yet so much like our own society that it forces the reader to re-examine all the assumptions that lie at the bottom of race relations in the United States today. Without preaching or lecturing, Winters makes us question how we view race as it affects poverty, education, incarceration, pretty much everything.

This book enthralled me on all levels. I so hope there will be a sequel, because I would definitely read it.

Recommended Reading: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

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In the introduction to the short story collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives that she edited, Sarah Weinman laments that “an entire generation of female crime writers…have faded from view.” Many of these writers, popular and lauded in their day, have been forgotten over time. Weinman has selected stories by fourteen of them, ranging in publication date from the early 1940s through the mid-1970s, to represent these forgotten grand dames of noir, who no doubt inspired today’s popular writers like Gillian Flynn and Tana French.

The collection, neither too short nor too long, is something of an awakening. Some of the authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, will already be familiar to many readers, but here are many more terrific authors of dark suspense fiction just waiting to be discovered. Each story is excellent, well-crafted, and compelling, with an appropriately noirish mood, and each story stands apart, examining and exposing the underside of mid-century domestic coziness. I savored these stories like a box of fine chocolates.

Fortunately for us, this is the digital age, and a perusal of Amazon reveals that many of the contributors’ longer works have been revived in electronic form for the Kindle–at reasonable prices, too. I foresee many hours of happy reading time ahead, inspired by the authors included in this terrific collection.