No murder, not even a crime; yet the 1941 novel Mildred Pierce is filled with suspense and tension throughout. I had no problem getting Joan Crawford (from the 1945 film Mildred Pierce) out of my head as I read because the real Mildred Pierce (well, the fictional Mildred, but the one in the novel) is younger and more complex than Crawford’s onscreen character — and the story is rawer. Not even Kate Winslet’s portrayal in the 2011 HBO mini series detracted from the vividness my readerly imagination brought to James Cain’s book.
“Mildred Pierce is the unicorn of crime fiction, a noir novel with no murder and very little crime,” mystery novelist Laura Lippman wrote in a Slate piece titled “Pulp Valentine: My Love Affair with Mildred Pierce.” For mystery purists, Mildred Pierce might not qualify as a traditional mystery story. But it has suspense in spades, there’s an eerie edge in the most mundane, and, perhaps most importantly to how I classify things, I came across it in the mystery stacks at my library.
I love all sorts of mysteries, and most of the ones I read have a murder case central to the plot. I also love a good heist, a smart con, and, sometimes, I crave intrigue in a library or on a college campus. If you’re ready for a mystery sans corpse, take a look at these five crime novels:
Stealing Mona Lisa by Carson Morton: A con artist, an art forger, and a pickpocket plot to steal one of the most famous paintings in the world in this breezy, fast-paced historical caper — and I thoroughly enjoyed going along for the ride. Based on a real-life case, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.
Mildred Pierce by James Cain: Mildred starts a chicken-and-waffle (!) restaurant that grows into a successful chain, but throughout the many stages of her business and life she remains at the mercy of her manipulative, demanding daughter Veda. I could go on about this, but I already did (above). The edition I grabbed off the shelf at Seattle Public Library was a nice bundle of noir, with The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity included.
The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom: The title may sound like you’d have loved it in fourth grade, but trust me on this one: Grown-up you is still going to have fun reading it. Israel Armstrong is living my dream, hired as a book mobile librarian in Ireland. One problem: All the books are missing. First in the charming Mobile Library Mysteries series.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: A classic in the mystery world, first published in 1935, this is #12 in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. But this book is all about Harriet Vane, a mystery writer of some acclaim who returns to her college for a celebration that turns to danger.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro: An artist goes down a different route in order to pay her bills, creating reproductions of famous paintings. But then she’s asked to do a reproduction of a reproduction of a painting that was stolen from Boston’s Gardner Museum in 1990. Is she copying a copy, or copying the real thing? Art, forgery, theft, and intrigue!
I’d like to start a shelf on GoodReads for “Mysteries, sans corpses.” Any suggestions for what I should read next that I can add to that shelf?
A librarian end note: Book links in this post take you to WorldCat, which shows holdings in more than 70,000 libraries. Put in your ZIP code and find a book in a library near you.