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About Marilyn

Another year has passed, even more quickly than those before, and I’ve just celebrated my eighth anniversary writing Marilyn’s Mystery ReadsThis past year has been an especially exciting one for me, as I taught one mystery course in the fall and will begin leading another next month.

Last March I was asked to teach a course on crime novels to begin in September at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA.  I loved teaching WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND last semester.  There were 20 students in the class, each with her/his point of view, and the discussions were always vibrant and interesting.  When I was asked to create another course for the spring term, I happily accepted the invitation.  My new course, which begins on March 5th, is called WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES.

This semester will take us farther afield, as we cross the United States and view crime in various locations.  If you’d like to be an armchair traveler and join the members of the class as we discuss these novels, here they are:  The Ritual Bath (Orthodox Judaism) by Faye Kellerman–California; Invisible City (Orthodox Judaism) by Julia Dahl–New York City; The Bishop’s Wife (Mormon) by Mette Ivie Harrison–Utah; No Witness but the Moon (Hispanic) by Susan Chazin–upstate New York; A Killing Gift (Chinese-American) by Leslie Glass–New York City; Among the Wicked (Amish) by Linda Castillo–Ohio; Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (African-American) by Barbara Neely–Maine; and Dance Hall of the Dead (Native American) by Tony Hillerman–New Mexico.

Our March 5th class will be an overview of the genre, so our first discussion of a specific novel, The Ritual Bath, will be on March 12th.  The books listed above will be read in order during the following weeks, with the exception of two Mondays when there are no classes–April 2nd and April 16th–and we’ll conclude the class on May 21st with our thoughts about what we’ve read.  You’re welcome to read along with us as we tour the United States in search of murder, mystery, and mayhem!

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



I started out planning on suggesting this year’s ten best books, but when I started re-reading my book review posts I came up with more than that number for my list.  Best is such a subjective word, anyway, something I learned this fall when I taught WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND at BOLLI (Brandeis University Lifelong Learning Institute).  In a class of twenty adults, no one mystery novel was the overwhelming choice as “best.”  In fact, one of the books that one class member picked as the best written, another picked as the most poorly written.  As I have said in the past, that’s why Howard Johnson made twenty-eight flavors.

So I prefer to say that the books I’m listing in this column are books that I am happy to recommend to any fan of the genre.  That doesn’t mean that everyone would enjoy every book assuming she/he would read them all.  It’s more that I feel that each book is extremely well written, has a plot that makes you want to read to the end, has believable characters throughout, and leaves you thinking about the novel after you’ve finished it.  Some are part of a series, others are stand-alones.  They range in location from Boston to Japan, from Stockholm to Maine.  Some feature an amateur detective, others an official member of a police force.  But what they all have in common are the attributes I mentioned above, and those make each one worth your time.

LET THE DEAD SPEAK by Jane Casey – A SINGLE SPY by William Christie – KNIFE CREEK by Paul Doiron – LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint – PULSE by Felix Francis – DARK SATURDAY by Nicci French – THE ICE BENEATH HER by Camilla Grebe – AUGUST SNOW by Stephen Mack Jones – FAST FALLS THE NIGHT by Julia Keller – SINCE WE FELL by Dennis Lehane – A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee – BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA by Nicolas Obregón – HER EVERY FEAR by Peter Swanson

The nights are long now, and in many places the temperature is cold and getting colder.  It’s the perfect time to curl up with your favorite beverage and a mystery novel that will grab hold of you and not let you go until the last page.  I suggest you try one or more of these–you won’t be disappointed.

Happy Reading and Happy Holidays!


October 6, 2017

Back in February I wrote that I was invited to teach a course on mysteries at BOLLI, the Brandeis (University) Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  I agreed, partly flattered and partly nervous about what I had gotten myself into.

Well, here’s the update.  The ten-week course began on September 25th, and we’ve just had our second class.  The first week was devoted to a general overview of mysteries:  Do we read mainly for the plot, the characters, or the setting?  Do we prefer hard-boiled mysteries or cozies?   What makes an author stop writing a particular series or stop writing completely?  Why do characters age in some series while those in other series remain the same age as when the first book was written?

Given that there are so many choices for topics in this genre (e.g., novels that feature private eyes, police detectives, and clergy involved in mysteries, to name just three) and I had to choose just one, I decided to focus on mysteries that take place in New England.  The eight books I picked for the course feature a variety of investigators–a licensed private eye, a police detective, an amateur detective, and a member of the FBI, among others)–with two from Massachusetts, two from Vermont, and one each from Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.

We’re reading a novel a week, with a wrap-up in the last class.  There are 21 students in the class, and there’s been a lot of excellent discussion in the first two weeks.  Before the first session, I had assumed that everyone who signed up for the course had read a lot of mysteries, but that proved not to be the case.  In fact, several of the members said they had read very few mysteries but were eager to find out more about the genre and share thoughts about the books I’d chosen for the course, which actually has made our discussions very stimulating.

For those who are interested, here is the list of the books we’ll be reading:  God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker, Find Her by Lisa Gardner, A Scourge of Vipers by Bruce DeSilva, Fruits of the Poisonous Tree by Archer Mayor, Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman, Primary Storm by Brendan DuBois, Trespasser by Paul Doiron, and Hearts of Sand by Jane Haddam.

The second class, in which we discussed God Save the Child, was terrific, with comments that made me examine the Spenser series in a new light.  That’s the great part about any learning experience but particularly at BOLLI, where people are invited to share their opinions and give and get feedback.

Our next book, Find Her, is a dark novel told in two voices, that of a female police detective in Boston and that of a young woman abducted and held prisoner for a horrendous 472 days.  If you like, read the novels I’ve chosen, as BOLLI members explore what the mystery genre has to offer.


May 20, 2017

Is it nature or nurture?  A combination of both?  Simply the luck of the draw?

I’ve just bought a copy of Anne Hillerman’s latest mystery, Song of the Lion, from Mainely Murders in Kennebunk, Maine.  I will be blogging about the novel in a few weeks, and it occurred to me to wonder how many mystery authors come from a family where another member also writes detective stories or thrillers.

When the latest issue of the Mystery Writers of America magazine arrived with a profile of Alafair Burke, daughter of James Lee Burke, I started counting the familial relationships in mystery writing.  I came up with several other daughter/father writers:  Anne and the late Tony Hillerman, Sue and the late C. W. Grafton, and Liz Dombrosky and Tony Perona.  Then there are Caroline and Charles Todd, mother and son; Mary and Carol Higgins Clark, mother and daughter; Felix and his late father Dick Francis; Daniel and his late father Michael Palmer; and Faye, Jonathan, and Jesse Kellerman, mother, father, and son.

Does the nature/nurture question apply to couples as well?  Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Frances and Richard North, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Nicci Gerard and Sean French (Nicci French), Aimée and David Thurlo, and Alexandra Coehlo Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril (Lars Kepler) are a few who come to mind.   And here are the Kellermans again–Faye and Jonathan.  Did their writing natures draw these twosomes together, or are the careers nurtured by their partner/spouse?

One of the fun things about making these lists is that it reminded me of authors whom I hadn’t read, either at all or in a long time.  So I’ve been able to add a few more names to my to-be-read-soon list.

I’m a strong believer in talent, especially musical talent, running in families.  Loving as my parents were, they unfortunately had no musical genes to pass along to me.  But I did get my love of reading from them, especially from my father.  Add to that is the fact that my dad was a New York City policeman–patrolman, sergeant, lieutenant, and eventually captain–and you can probably see how I came naturally to my love of crime–fictional, that is.

So hurrah for whatever abilities we’ve gathered from whatever source–nature or nurture–it really doesn’t matter.  We may not be able to write as well as the members of the families listed above, but we certainly have one ability–we can recognize outstanding writing talent when we read it!


February 11, 2017

I’ve just celebrated my seventh anniversary of writing this blog.  The first About Marilyn post was written on February 1, 2010, and I’ve been averaging three or four a year in this section of Marilyn’s Mystery Reads.

Now, as the award winners do at the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys (I’ve left out the many other award-giving groups due to lack of space), I’d like to thank the people who’ve encouraged me through the years:  my son Rich, who told me the world needed a mystery review blog written by me; my husband Bob, who suggested that I write to the authors following the reviews of their novels to alert them to the post (I was sure none would respond to my emails; much to my surprise more than half do, with replies ranging from a single sentence of thanks to longer replies that let me know they’ve forwarded my blog link to their Facebook page), and to the rest of my family and friends who not only read my posts but let their families and friends know about it.

For a neat segue, since 2010 I’ve been a member of a program at Brandeis University (Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).  It’s a group of people, mainly retired, who take courses in a wide variety of subjects.  Sometimes a course is given by a professional in that area; I’ve taken courses in Hispanic studies with a former college professor, courses in English literature by another college professor, and a course on the American musical by a musical director of community theater plays.

I’ve also taken courses given by knowledgeable amateurs who have a strong interest in the areas they’re teaching:  a lawyer who leads literature and film classes, a psychiatrist and a teacher who discuss short stories, and courses on two pivotal twentieth-century decades taught by a librarian and a physicist.

The students at BOLLI are as diverse as the SGLs (Study Group Leaders) who conduct the classes.  I’ve been in classes with musicians, engineers, teachers, college administrators, scientists–you get the idea.  Everyone at BOLLI is engaged and interested in whatever subject they’re teaching/learning.

Now for my big news.  I’ve been asked to lead a ten-week course on the mystery novel this fall at BOLLI.  The title of the course and the novels/authors are my choice, and I’ve decided to start with books featuring my part of the country.  I’m tentatively calling it Whodunits/New England Mysteries, and it will feature female and male detectives, official, private, and amateur.

So you probably won’t see me lounging around the pool this summer or water-skiing on a lake (although there was a very, very small chance of that happening anyway).  I’ll be sitting on my patio, reading mysteries and choosing the ones that I think will promote the best and most active discussions in my class.

Wish me luck.



December 17, 2016

In this holy (holiday) season, my thoughts not surprisingly turn to clerical detectives.  I’ve always enjoyed reading about different religions, and a great way for fans of the mystery novel to do this is via detective stories featuring clergy who have a propensity for solving crimes.  And what better time of year to do this than during the cold, snowy days of winter, when reading is a perfect way to spend an afternoon or evening.

One of the first clerical detectives I read about was Reverend C. P. Randollph, featured in several novels by Charles Merrill Smith.  It’s been years since I’ve read the Reverend Randollph mysteries, a series that ended with the death of its author in 1986, but I remember being struck by the kindness and compassion of this protagonist, who seemed to embody the best of his Methodist faith and that of the author, himself a clergyman.

Another fictional Protestant minister, this one contemporary, is the Reverend Claire Fergusson.  Julia Spencer-Fleming’s heroine lives in upstate New York, in a small town ominously named Millers Kill (although in Dutch the word kill, less threateningly, means creek).  I suggest starting this outstanding series from the beginning so you can follow Claire’s path as she takes her place as the first female minister in the town’s Episcopal church.  The titles of the series’ first two books, In the Bleak Midwinter and A Fountain Filled with Blood, will give readers a hint that hers is not an easy road.

Moving to Catholicism, an old favorite of mine is Brother Cadfael in 12th-century England.  Written by Ellis Peters, these novels bring to life the Middle Ages, its wars, culture, and Christian faith.  Brother Cadfael, a soldier before he became a monk, is a delightful character with a scientific mind, years ahead of his time, with a great deal of worldly wisdom that helps him find those who are guilty.

The most famous Jewish detective who is a member of the clergy is probably Rabbi David Small, leader of the Conservative synagogue in Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts.  The eleven mysteries featuring Rabbi Small were written by Harry Kemelman, a former Boston school teacher.  Although he’s a husband and father to two children, we mainly see him as the religious leader of his congregation.  The word “rabbi” in Hebrew means teacher, and Rabbi Small strives to teach his congregants via the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish bible, also known as the Old Testament.  There are always a variety of opinions in his synagogue, and various members try in different books in the series to oust the rabbi from his pulpit, but in the end he remains to lead his flock to greater knowledge of their religion and, in his spare time, to solve a crime or two.

A great resource I recommend for readers interested in religious sleuths is Clerical Detectives.  Philip Grosset has compiled a list of over three hundred clergy-related protagonists, including widows of religious men and laypeople who are particularly pious; some of these books are contemporary, many more are not.  In addition to lists featuring the four clergy I’ve mentioned above, there are dozens of other categories, including ministers (to use a generic word) in the Buddhist, Hindu, Amish, Mithraism, Voodoo, and Druidism practices.  If, like me, you’re not totally familiar with the beliefs of the last three subsets, that’s a good reason to check out this excellent web site.

Happy Holidays and Happy Reading!





December 3, 2016

What do a war correspondent, a nurse, the founder of a detective agency, a dentist, and the 16th president of the United States have in common?  They all wrote mystery stories.

The above (Richard Harding Davis, Louisa May Alcott, Allan Pinkerton, Rodrigues Ottolengui, and Abraham Lincoln) are these five individuals who are not known for creating stories we loosely call mysteries.  It’s true that Davis and Alcott were writers, but they are certainly not remembered for writing in this genre.  Pinkerton founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (still in business, with their motto “We Never Sleep”), Ottolengui was the author of a 19th-century dentistry textbook that was used for decades, and Abraham Lincoln–well, you know about him.

So what made these men and women, plus dozens of others equally unlikely, venture into the new field of mystery writing?  After all, American detective stories only came into being in 1841, with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murder in the Rue Morgue.”  And even after that, the detective, whether amateur or professional, made few appearances.  It took Sherlock Holmes, more than four decades later and in another country at that, to make detective stories or mysteries a major part of the literary landscape as we know it.

In Otto Penzler’s excellent introduction to this anthology, he answers the question of how there can have been mysteries published before Poe’s Auguste Dupin came on the scene if we acknowledge that Poe is the inventor of the detective story.  Penzler explains this by giving the definition of a mystery as “any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.”  A detective isn’t truly necessary for a mystery–rather, it is the story of the crime as opposed to the story of the man or woman who solves it that makes it a mystery.  Thus, in this collection of stories, the first three stories were published years before Poe’s debut.  But I think it is fair to say that without his detective, the genre would have a very different feel to it than it does today.

Not all the stories in this volume are what I consider outstanding.  A few, including those written by very well-known authors of “serious” literature, I found mediocre.  On the other hand, some are really good and several are excellent.  Still, as Penzler concludes in his introduction, the mysteries/detective stories/thrillers of the twentieth and twenty-first century could not have been written without the earlier authors laying the groundwork.  And so those of us who enjoy mysteries must surely give thanks to the literary pioneers who started it all.



August 6, 2016

Well, women mystery writers finally are getting the attention that they deserve.  A lengthy article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic by Terrence Rafferty is an excellent critique of contemporary female authors in this genre and is definitely worth reading.

Of course, there have always been women who wrote mysteries, many of them absolute mistresses of the craft.  Naturally, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Patricia Highsmith, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Dorothy L. Sayers are five names to reckon with from the Golden Age.  And then there are contemporary women who began writing a couple of decades ago or more and whose novels are as fresh as ever:  Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, and Donna Leon to name five more.

But Mr. Rafferty’s article highlights a “third coming” of women writers, authors whose heroines can out-tough any male detective around.  Part of the re-blossoming, if I may coin a word, is the emphasis that these authors place on the feminine in their works.  With contemporary best-sellers like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Luckiest Girl Alive, The Good Girl, All the Missing Girls, Pretty Girls, and The Girls:  A Novel, it’s quite obvious that the focus has shifted from Raymond Chandler’s “down these mean streets a man must go” to Mr. Rafferty’s clever twist, “down these mean tweets a woman must go….”  Or perhaps that should be girl.

Many of these new mysteries strongly ask the reader to cherchez la femme.  But rather than look for the prototypical woman of the (prehistoric) pulps of the 30s and 40s, the bottle blonde with a slinky black dress cut down to there and up to here, now la femme is just as likely to be the police detective or the private investigator as she is to be the lady in distress.  She may have her own detective firm, be a county sheriff, or have risen through the ranks of a city police department.  Of course, she’s also just as likely to be the villain(ess) as be the heroine, but that’s what equal opportunity and Title IX mean.

Returning once again to The Atlantic article, Terrence Rafferty includes the poets T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden as among “… those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit….”  Perhaps now, with the proliferation of women authors and protagonists, the late poets Silvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks could have their illustrious names added to the list of other serious writers who enjoyed reading about the investigative exploits or treacherous plans of their own sex.

Just sayin’.


May 14, 2016

You could call it The Invasion of the Foreigners.  I recently picked up four books I’d requested at the Needham library, and when I got home I realized that not one was written by an American:  The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen (Norway), The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Siguardardottir (Iceland), A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino (Japan), and Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø  (Norway).

When I was younger, nearly every mystery was written by an author either from America or the British Isles, or at least every mystery I read.  Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald, and Mary Roberts Reinhart from the United States; Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey from Great Britain.  There were certainly mystery authors from countries other than the U.S. and the U.K., but most were not widely known in the United States in the fifties and sixties.

However, within the last thirty or forty years, there has been a global explosion of mystery writers.  Novels about South Africa, Denmark, China, Spain, and Mexico, to name a few of the countries now represented by police officers and/or private investigators in suspense literature, are on every library and bookstore shelf.

I think it’s wonderful.  From James McClure and his Kramer and Zondi series I was able to get a glimpse into South Africa during the apartheid period.  From Peter Hoag’s stand-alone mystery, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the Danish capital came into view for me.  Paco Ignacio Taibo II showed Mexican society up close and personal.  I could go on and on.

I’ve been to some of these countries but probably will never get to visit all the others I’d like to.  Still, I’ve learned so much by reading mysteries set in foreign places, and I imagine the same is true for you.  Aren’t we all lucky?


P.S.  A brief note on another topic.  The 2016 Edgar Awards (the most prestigious in the mystery field) were announced on April 28th.  Two of the books I blogged about last year, The Long Ago and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney and Die In His Footsteps by Lori Roy won in their respective categories, Best Original Paperback and Best Novel.  I loved both books and suggest that if you somehow missed reading them, do yourself a favor and get a copy of each.  You’ll understand why, in a very competitive race, they were the winners.


March 12, 2016

My first Golden Oldies column was an homage to what I believe to be the greatest mystery novel ever–And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  I rate it at the top because, as I said in my February 18, 2011 column, I’ve read it numerous times and still can’t find the clues to the murderer amidst all the red herrings Mrs. Christie so temptingly lays out for us.  Of course I know who committed the crimes, but I try to read it each time as if it were new to me, and I’m puzzled every time.

I’m writing about it again because the Lifetime channel is showing a two-part adaptation of And Then There Were None that airs Sunday and Monday nights.

The 1945 English film, which I’ve seen, was true to the novel until the last scene.  When the book was adapted for London’s West End in 1943, Ms. Christie and the producers agreed to change the book’s original ending to make it less grim, and the film used that ending.   Just goes to show you that even “geniuses” can make mistakes.

Interestingly, the book’s history is almost as complex as the book’s plot.  It was originally published in November of 1939 in Britain under the title Ten Little N——, a word that did not have the same racist connotations in England as it did in the United States.  When it was published in the U.S. a month later, the title was changed to And Then There Were None and still later to Ten Little Indians.

In its other incarnations, it has been a radio play, a board game, a television series, and a graphic novel.  It has sold over 100 million copies, making it the best-selling mystery novel in history and the seventh best-selling book in all publishing history.  In addition to being translated into all the “usual” languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), it’s also available in Ukrainian, Thai, Icelandic, Basque, and Bengali, plus dozens more!

So of course I’m very eager to see the 2015 BBC version that will be on Lifetime.  For more information about the film and Agatha Christie’s career, go to  And happy watching.


February 6, 2016

This month marks the sixth year anniversary of my writing this blog.  As people always say when celebrating anniversaries of various types, I can’t believe that so much time has passed.  But I truly can’t, as it seems more like months than years since I began reviewing new mystery novels, honoring writers who have passed away, mentioning favorite books from years ago, and occasionally writing about things that fascinate or annoy me.

I have many things to be grateful for that have come to me through this blog.  One is my connection with the wonderful Mainely Murders bookstore ( in Kennebunk, Maine, run by two former publishing executives.  Paula and Ann have made their garage-cum-bookstore a delightful place to visit, not only to find current best sellers but also hard-to-find older mysteries from around the United States and the world.  Putting aside their own comfort, these two intrepid women have braved such places as Santa Barbara, Scotland, and Paris, all to get their customers access to the best books available.  How much we owe them!

And speaking of owing people, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the publicists who have been sending me review copies of their firms’ latest mysteries for the past couple of years.  As I sit at my computer with ten novels to be read in the next few weeks, I’m overwhelmed with their generosity.  They’ve sent me thrillers, hard-boiled novels, and cozies too.  I’m feeling really fortunate right now.

My especial thanks to all those who read these weekly columns, tell me that they’re glad to get recommendations, and even sometimes let me know that they don’t agree with my reviews.  That’s okay–not every book strikes every reader the same way.  I’m just delighted they continue to follow the blog.

Here’s looking forward to my sixth year of blogging; I hope you’ll share the journey with me.


October 17, 2015

A few months ago I took a week-long seminar at Brandeis University on the subject of Hollywood westerns.  During one session we had a discussion about writing screenplays and novels.  The class leader mentioned that there was an on-line list of ten rules for writing fiction, so naturally after reading that list I checked the internet for ten rules for writing detective fiction.

I found many lists on this topic, including Raymond Chandler’s “Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel,” S. S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” Niall Leonard’s “How to Write the Perfect Crime Story.”  You get the idea–there are numerous tips for creating the perfect mystery novel.  Some are still in vogue today, many years after they were created, while others are not.  Here’s a look at three of them:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.  This precept has been violated countless times in detective fiction, most notably (spoiler alerts) more than half a century ago in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and today in Gone Girl.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.  Given the popularity of vampires and spirits on mystery shelves today, I’d say this is another rule that has gone by the wayside.
  3. If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.  Unfortunately, this rule is followed way too often.  Apparently some authors think that there cannot be a pause in the action or they will lose the reader, so another body is thrown into the mix.

Obviously, what is apparent is that there really aren’t rules or tips that automatically will create a riveting detective/crime novel.  The beauty of the genre is that a talented author may subscribe to all of these rules or none at all when writing.  Whether the author chooses plot over character development (Christie) or makes “place” central to the story  (P. D. James) or barely mentions it is of less significance than her/his skill in creating a mystery that will hold the reader’s interest.  We readers are very fortunate that there are so many writers, past and present, who are able to do this.


July 11, 2015

Something to wonder about when you can’t sleep.  Why is it that an author can have two or three series with different characters but only one catches the imagination of thousands of readers?

Do you know the creators of the following protagonists?  Tecumseh Fox was a private detective working in Westchester County, New York.  The author’s most famous characters are a pair of Manhattan private investigators who began their careers in the 1930s.*  Were you aware that district attorney Doug Selby came from the imagination of a man who was the best-selling writer in America at the time of his death?**  Or that the person who is still the world’s third best-selling author (after Shakespeare and the Bible) wrote a series of books featuring a husband-and-wife spy duo that is barely read today?***

Why does a certain character capture readers’ interest while another, created by the same man or woman, doesn’t?  I’m guessing it’s not the writing style or the plot, since that author has already shown mastery in those areas, so what is it?

I think that some characters are so strong, so vibrant, that they almost transcend the page.  Not every character that an author presents is that successful, as evidenced by the second paragraph of this post.  These characters might interest readers for a novel or two, but after that affection for them flags.  And I use the word affection deliberately because I think that’s what keeps a series alive.

If you look at it objectively, the pairing of an overweight Manhattan P.I. and his wise-ass sidekick wouldn’t seem to have anything over a Westchester detective.  But Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin were in thirty-three novels while Tecumseh Fox was featured in only three.  Doug Selby is the protagonist in nine of Gardner’s mysteries, while Perry Mason defended clients in over eighty, not counting his television appearances.  And Tuppence and Tommy Beresford were featured in four of Agatha Christie’s works, while Hercule Poirot appeared in thirty-three books, plus many TV shows.

When I mentioned this post to my husband, he said that perhaps the reviews of the other series by these successful writers weren’t good.  That’s definitely a possibility, but even so the question remains why?  If a writer can write multiple books featuring certain protagonists that capture the public’s interest and get good reviews, why can’t that writer do it with all her/his other characters?

Just asking, that’s all.

*Rex Stout   **Earle Stanley Gardner   ***Agatha Christie





March 14, 2015

As I begin my sixth year of writing Marilyn’s Mystery Reads, I need to give a shout out to public libraries, and the Minuteman Library Network in particular.  I believe at its start it had 19 participating libraries, and now it has 43 in total, 36 public and seven college libraries.  I patronize bookstores, of course, but libraries are my “go to” resource.

I am very fortunate to live in Needham, a town with a wonderful library.  When I first moved here, there was a main library and a very small storefront library, the latter within easy walking distance of my home.  I remember pushing my toddler son in his stroller to the branch, located conveniently at the railroad crossing so he could watch for passing commuter trains from inside the library while I chose my books. 

The small library closed a few years later, leaving the main library as the repository of all the town’s books and collections.  While I loved the library I was aware that it was quite outdated and overcrowded, made for a population much smaller than the town’s size at that time. 

In 1991, Needham had an override to fund library expansion, and it failed by twenty votes.  The resulting shortfall had the effect of shortening the library’s hours to below the state minimum required for funding, as it was open only twenty-six hours a week.

This had a double effect on the town’s readers.  Not only were we deprived of our own library, but surrounding ones refused to let us participate in inter-library loans.  We could read books while we were there, but we couldn’t take them home.  And, really, who could blame them?  Why should their taxpayers, in effect, be paying for us to read the books they had purchased when we refused to fund our own?  This “borrowing freeze” had the desired effect on Needham voters, and at the next election the override passed and normal hours were resumed.  

I don’t believe there’s ever been a request that I made to the library personnel that hasn’t been fulfilled.  I’ve borrowed books from across the state and beyond when my own library didn’t have what I wanted or needed.  And all kinds of events are held at the site, including children’s reading programs, senior exercise classes, speakers on topics from parenthood to military history, and an annual Art in Bloom weekend, featuring floral arrangements by three local garden clubs paired with art by our town’s high school students.

At the moment, I have twenty books on reserve.  What would we ever do without our public libraries?   I, for one, never want to find out.




January 3, 2015

This About Marilyn is just a brief note to thank all the readers of my blog and to update some of you.  The last two days of October and the first four days of November found me at a local hospital with a severe case of pancreatitis.  During the six days I was there I read a total of four pages on my Kindle.  I simply could not keep my eyes open to read.  Every few hours I would pick up the Kindle and try to read a chapter, but it was no use.  It actually took more than a week after I returned home before I could read more than four or five pages a day.

Perhaps some of you noticed that I missed two consecutive weeks of blogging–there are no reviews on November 1st or November 8th.  I returned home from the hospital on November 5th, which explains why there was no post on   November 1st.  For the following week I was simply exhausted and was sleeping sixteen to eighteen hours a day.  Honestly, writing a review or even uploading one I had written in advance (I usually have two or three written in advance) was beyond me.  Of course, it’s ironic that the backup reviews were unable to serve their purpose as I was too tired to send them out.  As they say, the best laid plans….

When I posted a review on November 15th, a number of you wrote that it was good to know I was feeling well enough to write.  Those e-mails came from relatives and friends who knew about my illness; other readers, I’m sure, simply thought I was on vacation or taking a hiatus for a couple of weeks.

I’m so glad to be back to my usual good health, reading and writing weekly for Marilyn’s Mystery Reads.  In addition to the usual new year’s wishes for good health and happiness for all, I’m adding the hope that lots and lots of new, wonderful mysteries are published.