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.
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 http://www.mylifetime.com/movies/and-then-there-were-none. 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 (www.mainelymurders.com) 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
October 4, 2014
Going back a few months, I had been having a run of bad luck. If I were a gambler, I’d have been heading away from Las Vegas as fast as I could go.
Not to mention names, but there are two publishers of mystery novels whose books I have decided not to bother reading ever again. One publishing house is fifteen years old, the other thirty-five or a bit more, so they’ve published quite a few books between them. But each of the half dozen books I’ve picked up recently with their imprints has been a disappointment, so much so that I’ve not finished a single one.
First off, I don’t like the way their books are formatted. The text is not well-spaced, too close together, making it difficult to read. But secondly, and more importantly, is that their books are not interesting or well-written. Some start off well but lose their steam after a handful of chapters; some, to my mind, don’t even start promisingly. After a couple of dozen pages, it’s obvious to me that this particular book is going nowhere.
My second complaint is an objection to a couple of books I’ve read recently that seem to be copies of The Silence of the Lambs. That book was a terrific read, one of the reasons being that it was an original.
But now, the idea of a crazed, psychopathic killer who is behind bars in an absolutely secure facility from which no human being could possibly escape but who manages to do just that has been done to death (pardon the pun). He or she returns to terrorize the protagonist or the world at large so that yet another sequel may be written. It’s not a good idea for a novel in 2014, not creative at all.
Do I put my opinion above the authors of these books and the publishers who chose to add them to their lists? Well, yes, I do. It’s my time and money (or, at any rate my time if I borrow a book from my local library) that’s being spent, and if I don’t like the way the story is headed, I’m free to put that book down and choose another.
I’m looking for authors who are able to come up with new, inventive plots, ones that don’t have criminals “coming back from the dead” or getting out of a prison from which Houdini himself couldn’t escape. These are cheap tricks, in my mind. We devout mystery readers deserve better.
Luckily, my run of bad mysteries seems to be over. I’ve been reading some absolutely wonderful ones over the last few weeks, and I look forward to sharing them with you in the near future.
August 2, 2014
A few weeks ago I read Robert Galbraith’s novel Silkworm. In this excellent mystery, the second in the series featuring English private investigator Comoran Strike, the detective has a serious handicap: he was wounded in the war in Afghanistan and has a prosthetic left leg from his knee down.
Somehow that got me to wondering about other fictional detectives with physical or emotional handicaps. I knew a few of them–a blind detective (Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah), those missing a limb (Dan Fortune by Michael Collins, Sid Halley by Dick Francis), a deaf detective (Joe Binney by Jack Livingston), those with emotional challenges (Adrian Monk by Andrew Breckman, Ian Rutledge by Charles Todd), and a quadriplegic former policeman turned scientist (Lincoln Rhyme by Jeffrey Deaver).
But in going over the list available at thrilling detective.com, there was a notable shortage of handicapped female detectives. Then I found one on my own, Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham. She has Cotard’s Syndrome, a delusion in which the sufferer believes that she/he is dead or missing body parts.
The question in my mind is, why do so many of the male detectives we read about have physical or mental problems but not the women? There are certainly enough books featuring women detectives for a few of them to have some of the issues that their male counterparts have. But strangely enough, they don’t.
I’m familiar with only two women detectives with major physical issues and none other than Fiona Griffiths with a mental handicap. First there is Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone. Sharon is shot by an assailant in Locked In and is unable to move any part of her body except her eyelids. She struggles to rehabilitate herself in this novel and its follow-up, Coming Back. (Spoiler alert: Sharon doesn’t begin the series with a handicap, and she is rehabilitated; her physical problem is not permanent.)
The second is Rita Mondragon, not as well known to mystery readers, who is the owner of a Santa Fe detective agency and is in a wheelchair. The main protagonist in Walter Satterthwait’s series is Joshua Croft, but Rita also has a substantial role.
There are a few other mysteries featuring handicapped women sleuths, but such authors (Jane A. Adams, Brigette Aubert, and Hialeah Jackson) are hardly household names and have not written novels in years. Certainly none is well known enough to be thought of without spending significant time with a search engine.
Do authors, both male and female, feel that being a woman in a “man’s field” is handicap enough? Or is the idea of a woman being blind, or losing a limb, too difficult for people to write about? I don’t know the answer, I just find it an interesting question.
June 7, 2014
So these are a few of my least favorite things:
Poor proofreading. It probably should be a minor annoyance, but for me it’s more than that. After the first couple of errors, I find myself asking why the copy editor was so lax. Did the editor find the book so uninteresting that he/she barely read it? That makes me wonder why I’m wasting my time with it.
When one character calls another with vital information but refuses to disclose it over the phone, saying that they have to meet. In every case, the caller will be murdered before the next chapter. This ruse has appeared in so many mysteries that it’s a device well past its prime. The reader knows that if only the caller had been willing to tell what he/she knew, which ostensibly is the reason for the call, the novel would end there and then. But this way there will have to be another hundred pages or so before the detective figures it out.
When the bodies keep piling up. When in doubt, kill someone. That seems to be the mantra of some authors today, as if a higher body count makes the book better or more frightening. Not true. One perfect crime is all it takes to tell a good story.
Print too small/lines too close together. This complaint, I know, is due to my age, but I’ve come to the point of checking the publishing house before I buy/borrow a book. There are two publishers whose books I don’t read because the format is so difficult, at least for me.
However, enough complaining. The good news is that there are so many excellent mysteries published every month that, with a little care, one can avoid all the above annoyances and get on with the enjoyment of reading a good book.
April 5, 2014
All at once, the world’s best-selling author is everywhere!
I’ve been asked many times to choose the mystery I’d take with me to a desert island, if I could take only one. It’s a no-brainer for me, something I don’t even have to think about. It’s And Then There Were None, a.k.a. Ten Little Indians, by Agatha Christie. To my mind, it’s her most perfect puzzle, illustrating mastery with every re-reading.
Three times during this last week I’ve been reminded that although Mrs. Christie has been dead for more than thirty-five years, there is no decrease in her popularity or in her name recognition.
The first was a quote in the Boston Globe late last month, when a blizzard dropped nearly a foot of snow on various towns on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In a sidebar to an article noting people’s reactions to the storm, a woman at a Cape resort said, “It’s like being in an Agatha Christie novel, that feeling of being cut off from society.” So nearly four decades after her death, Agatha Christie’s novel still is referred to when the idea of complete isolation comes to someone’s mind.
Second was a documentary on PBS television last week about Mrs. Christie, outlining her childhood, her marriage to Archibald Christie, their separation, her mysterious disappearance for ten days (still not completely explained), her divorce, her marriage to Sir Max Mallowan, and the films and multiple television series featuring her creations Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.
And third was the daily Kindle deal of March 30, featuring three of her novels. Really, can there be more proof of this author’s longevity?
Mrs. Christie was an original member of the Detection Club, a group formed in London in 1930 to promote detective literature and to persuade authors to “play fair” with the readers by not holding back any information that would help them solve the mystery. While I assume that all the members were well-known at the time of the club’s founding, only a few names still resonate with dedicated mystery fans–Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, most notably.
But how many readers today can recognize these writers or have read their books–Arthur Morrison (Martin Hewitt, detective), John Rhode (Dr. Priestley, scientist), Jessie Rickard (various detectives)? Their books, along with those of many of their literary colleagues, may possibly be found far back in library stacks, but certainly they are not available at airport bookstores. Over two billion of Mrs. Christie’s books have been sold, according to the PBS program. Only the Bible has sold more copies.
I’m constantly pushing friends to read Agatha Christie’s books. Sometimes a response is that they don’t read “old mysteries,” that if a book doesn’t feature cell phones and GPS devices, they’re not interested. But I maintain that a true devotee of the genre has to read the very best, and that best was written by the Queen of Mystery. Take it from me.