The Books Briefing: A Better Way to Write About Crime

Works that critique police brutality, racism, and our obsession with true crime: Your weekly guide to the best in books

illustration of an eye and a top hat
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In traditional crime stories, sharp detectives (usually police officers and almost always white men) piece together trails of evidence to avenge grisly killings (typically of young white women) and achieve justice. They offer neat visions of how crimes are carried out and solved, casting people as either heroes, villains, or victims. They’re also deeply misleading.

In recent years, many writers have begun to take aim at these flawed tropes. They critique the genre, and in doing so help create a new—and better—way of writing about crime. For authors of the “cozy mysteries” subgenre, this reckoning has meant acknowledging reality in books predicated on willful ignorance. Conventional cozies lean into clue-finding and downplay gore, but new writers such as Mia P. Manansala are disrupting that fantasy with story lines about police misconduct and racism. Less cozy novels, such as Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, destabilize our most fundamental assumptions about what constitutes a crime. Although Harlem Shuffle seems to have a straightforward heist plot, it is also firmly grounded in history, reminding readers that free Black existence was once illegal, and highlighting the corruption of capitalism. After establishing this systemic context, Whitehead separates the notions of criminality and villainy, and deconstructs the simplistic moral framework of traditional police tales. Pola Oloixarac, the author of Mona, similarly complicates the roles that crime-novel characters are allowed to fill, writing about a woman who was herself raped, and who is also pursuing an amateur investigation of a different crime. In blending two genres—each with its own flaws (crime fiction tends to sensationalize and literary fiction is filled with passive women)—Oloixarac was able to write sensitively and without denying her character agency.

Ottessa Moshfegh takes a different approach in Death in Her Hands, which follows a woman’s obsessive quest to solve a murder that likely never even happened. The protagonist attempts to use this investigation as a way to find agency—and instead loses her sanity. Thus Moshfegh turns a mirror back on the readers, exposing the limits of any crime story.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of two police officers on a pixelated television screen

The Atlantic

The unreality of Cops

“Cops wasn’t really portraying reality. It was propaganda, crystallized and edited into addictive portions, served up without any of the local context or personal information or historical detail that might slow down the rush of seeing so-called criminals taken off the streets.”

🎥 Cops, created by John Langley and Malcolm Barbour

illustration of crime scene tape covering a slice of pie

Getty; The Atlantic

The dark reality behind ‘cozy mysteries’

“The escapism of the cozy has never really been escapism. Despite the gentle repackaging of the crime, despite the humor and the novelty, what draws readers to the genre is still the crime at the heart of each story.”

📚 Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder, by Joanne Fluke
📚 Arsenic and Adobo, by Mia P. Manansala

illustration of a man in a hat lighting a cigar

Matt Williams

What is crime in a country built on it?

“Set against a backdrop of the 1964 Harlem race riots, looting, gentrification, and corrupt Black capitalists, Harlem Shuffle is a story about property and the vexed relationship that African Americans have with it. Indeed, what is theft for a people who were themselves once property … and for whom their very freedom was the ultimate heist?”

📚 Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead

illustration of an open book with two photographs on it

Vanessa Saba / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty

On rape narratives and the surprising value of plot

“Especially where complex stories about sexual assault are concerned, mixing genres can open up our storytelling capacities, giving writers—and readers—access to ever more empathy and nuance.”

📚 Mona, by Pola Oloixarac
📚 Leda and the Swan, by Anna Caritj

Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s riveting meta-mysteries

“How much control can women have over their narratives?”

📚 Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is is Redemption Ground by Lorna Goodison.

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