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About Marilyn

Can a person be a bibliophile and a bibliophobe at the same time?  If so, I think I am one.

Being a bibliophile comes naturally to me.  My late mother used to tell people, perhaps with a bit of motherly exaggeration, that I was reading at the age of four.  That was her story for years, but then she lowered my reading age to three and finally to two-and-a-half.  Just wondering if she mis-remembered….

But getting back to the first sentence of this post.  Frankly, I feel somewhat of a bond with Eudora Welty’s character, the one who lived at the post office.  I (almost) live at the Needham library, visiting at least twice a week in search of the perfect mystery/mysteries about which to blog.

If I have fewer than three library books in my study, I go into a slight panic mode.  What if there’s an unexpected snowstorm?  (Yes, I know it’s June now, but stranger things have happened–haven’t they?)  What if the library loses electricity and has to close unexpectedly?  Or a thief empties all the shelves?

In addition to library books, there are also the novels that I’m fortunate enough to receive from various publishers/publicity agents who would like me to review their authors’ mysteries.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted when there’s a package containing a mystery novel in my mailbox, and this happens several times a month.

But that’s where bibliphobia comes in.  Merriam-Webster defines that condition as a “strong dislike of books.”  Of course, that doesn’t apply to me, but it’s the closest I can come to in explaining a panic similar to the one I experience as a bibliophile.  For example, at the moment I have five books sent by publishers and four library books on the shelves in my study, one more waiting for me at the library, and ten on reserve.  What happens if they all arrive at once?

My husband’s solution for me is not to reserve so many books but simply to arrive at the library and see what’s available.  I suppose that makes sense, but what happens if I read someone’s review of a great mystery this week and don’t reserve it?  I might (probably will) forget about it until some time later, and by that time there are 50 people who have already reserved it.  There’s a word for that condition too–fear of missing out, or FOMO.

Now I have three problems which with to deal.

Marilyn

As I start my tenth year writing Marilyn’s Mystery Reads, I’m once again amazed by how quickly time moves.  It certainly doesn’t seem as if a year has passed since I wrote about my second time leading a course on murder mysteries at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  Both writing this blog and teaching are truly exciting and fulfilling for me.

Now I’m preparing for my fourth BOLLI course, this one entitled WHODUNIT?:  MURDER MOST BRITISH.  The class will begin with two novels, set in England, that take place in the past.  We’ll start with works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reading several short stories as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles, and move on to Dame Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  We’ll arrive at present-day England with Jane Casey’s After the Fire.

Then we’ll move north to Scotland to read Denise Mina’s Garnethill and Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black.  After that we’ll head south to Wales to Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead and finish by crossing the Irish Sea and the North Channel to arrive in Northern Ireland with Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast and Adrian McGinty’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

As was true in my previous classes, some of these authors, most certainly Doyle and Christie, will be familiar to most if not all of the students.  Other authors may be known to some but not all class members, and still other authors may be new to everyone.  Re-reading old favorites and getting introduced to new authors is, I think, part of the fun of the course.

At the beginning of the discussion of each novel, I show a brief video of the author, if one is available.  As I was putting together the section on Arthur Conan Doyle, I went on YouTube to see if there was an interview with him, not really expecting to find one.  Imagine my delight to view a 20-minute video of Doyle discussing both his interest in the spirit world as well as his iconic fictional detective.  It was amazing to see a video of this man whose personality and kindness come to present-day readers through the magic of Youtube.  Here’s the link to the 1927 video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWjgt9PzYEM&t=44s

The course starts on Monday, March 4th, with an overview of the mystery genre.  We’ll then be reading a book a week (with the exceptions of April 15th and April 22nd, two vacation weeks at Brandeis) until May 13th.  Our last class will be on May 20th with concluding thoughts and opinions of what we’ve read.  Why not read along with us?

In addition to the About Marilyn column, this site contains posts on Book Reviews, Golden Oldies, and Past Masters and Mistresses.  I hope you find books that keep you reading mysteries from the world’s best mystery writers.

Marilyn

 

It’s that time of year when “the best … of 2018” lists are compiled.  You can fill in the dots–best films, best songs, best whatever.  So as not to disappoint the readers of this blog, here is my list of the Top Ten (and more) Best Mystery Novels of 2018.  

Please note that one big advantage of writing a blog is that I can make up any rules I want, so my Top Ten is really my Top Fourteen.  I’m listing them in the order I reviewed them, starting in January and continuing through last week.

The Wanted by Robert Crais (1/26), Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh (3/16), The Man in the Crooked Hat by Harry Dolan (4/16), The Plea by Steven Cavanaugh (6/8), A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee (6/15), All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson (7/13), The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridasôn (6/22), The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey (8/10), Bone on Bone by Julia Keller (8/31), City of Ink by Elsa Hart (9/14), Fogland Point by Doug Burgess (11/9), Shell Game by Sara Paretsky (11/23), The Night Ferry by Lotte and Søren Hammer (12/1), and November Road by Lou Berney (12/22).

Going over the list now that it’s complete, I’m struck by several things.  First, eight of the books are written by men, five by women, and one by a sister/brother team.  Second, nine take place in the United States, five in foreign countries.  Third, only Doug Burgess is a first-time mystery novelist.  Fourth, the majority of the books are part of a series.

On the last two points, I’m not sure if that means I’m partial to a protagonist I can follow from novel to novel or if it’s merely a coincidence that it almost always takes an author more than one book to fully “find his/her voice.”  At any rate, that’s how I view the novels I reviewed this year.

One of things that makes compiling a list of favorites so interesting is comparing it to others.  Because there are so many types of mysteries, and we all prefer some types to others–psychological thrillers, series, cozies, police procedurals, for example–probably no two people will pick the same dozen or so novels.   But as my readers know, every book I blog about is one I think highly of and recommend.

At any rate, here is my very personal list.  The books I chose all have outstanding plots, terrific and realistic characters, and subjects that struck a note with me.  I enjoyed every one of  these novels and hope you get an opportunity to read one, two, or more for yourself.

All my good wishes for a happy 2019!  May it be filled with an endless supply of wonderful mysteries!

Marilyn

 

 

The fall semester of BOLLI (the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) is underway, and for the third time I am teaching a course on mystery novels.  The “umbrella” title of my courses is WHODUNIT?, and the two earlier ones I taught are MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND and MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES.

This semester’s course is MURDER IN SCANDINAVIA, exploring a group of countries known for their bleak landscapes and dark crimes.  This course, as did my others, runs ten weeks, and the class reads and discusses eight books in that time.  The first week is an introduction both of the class members and of the genre itself, which in each course I’ve taught has been new to some and familiar to others; the final class lets us choose our favorite author/book and talk about the merits and shortcoming of what we’ve read.

Given the abundance of excellent mysteries from Scandinavia that have been translated into English during the past few decades, I had a hard time deciding on my choices.  To make things even more difficult, I expanded the term Scandinavia to include three countries that are not now part of Scandinavia but were in the past.  I thought that would make it more interesting in terms of discovering differences and similarities among these nations.  So in addition to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (each with many outstanding mystery authors), I included books from Greenland, Iceland, and Finland.

I am going from west to east geographically–Greenland (Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg), Iceland (The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurdatdottír), Norway (The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø), Norway (Hell Fire by Karin Fossum), Denmark (The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen), Sweden (The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe), Sweden (Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell), and Finland (Snow Angels by James Thompson).

I am not exaggerating when I say that choosing among the dozens, if not hundreds, of outstanding mysteries from these countries kept me up at night.  For every one I chose I could think of half a dozen others, either by the same author or by another author from that country, that would fit just as well into the syllabus.  The only exception to that was Smilla’s Sense of Snow because it is the only mystery I know with a strong sense of Greenland.

As in previous classes, this semester has brought forth a great deal of thoughtful discussion, strong opinions, and respectful disagreements among its participants.  Everyone who is attending my class at BOLLI is there to enjoy the novels and share likes and dislikes.  As I write this post the course still has some weeks to go, and as winter days grow shorter and shorter, it will be a perfect time to curl up with a Scandinavian mystery or two or more.

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.

Marilyn

Fame, they say, is fleeting, and in many cases that’s true.  But some people do have reputations that last long after their final books are published.

My daughter-in-law’s father, former ABC radio entertainment reporter Bill Diehl, is an intrepid devotee of flea markets and “antique” shops.  Bill is not an avid mystery reader, but whenever he’s at these venues he’s on the lookout for something for me.  Recently he made a spectacular find–three copies of the Mystery Writers of America Annual magazine–from 1965, 1970, and 1973.  He sent them to me, and they made for fascinating reading.

I found the most interesting items in each issue were the ads listing that year’s newly published novels.  Seriously.  It was an amazing opportunity for a mystery fan to see which writers are still known and read today.

Of course there were names familiar to most mystery readers, although they are from a past generation or two:  from Dell Publishing–Agatha Christie, John le Carre, and Ed McBain.  From Avon–Robert Van Gulik and John Dickson Carr.  From Fawcett:  John D. McDonald.  From Viking:  Rex Stout.  From Random House:  Margaret Millar and Bill Pronzini.  These authors have definitely stood the test of time.

But equally interesting is the fact that other well-known mystery authors of the 1960s and ’70s have faded into oblivion.  Do you know the books of Rubin Weber, Frances Rickett, Margaret Manners, Cornelius Hirschberg, or Charlotte Jay?  I’d never heard of any of them.

Who were these men and women?  I looked them up in the Minuteman Library catalog, which contains the contents of thirty five member libraries in Massachusetts, and not one of these authors has a book in any of the collections.  Also interesting is something I Googled (naturally)–not one of the above-mentioned publishing houses of these well-known writers is still around.  Each has either been totally shut down or taken over by the giant conglomerates that control publishing today.

Does all this mean that the mystery authors of the past that we read today are the best and that the ones who have not been read in years are not?  How can we know whether an author is good if his/her books aren’t readily available?  Perhaps the works of Weber, Rickett, Manners, Hirschberg, and Jay are masterpieces that simply got lost in the deluge of the many mysteries that are published each year.

Fleeting fame doesn’t apply only to mystery novels, of course.  Back on Google, I looked for the list of Nobel Prize recipients in literature.  Do the names Paul von Heyse, poet (1910), Haldor Laxnew, novelist (1955), or Yasunari Kawbata, novelist (1968) sound familiar?  I must confess, not to me.

As they say, life is short, and apparently so is fame.  So my advice is to curl up with a mystery now; it doesn’t matter if someone will be reading it a generation or two from now.  Carpe diem, carpe libro.

Marilyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I feel like a full-fledged “professor.”  I’ve just finished leading a second course at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  BOLLI is an adult-learning program featuring courses in varied subjects.  This semester, for example, there were classes in literature, history, creative writing, health care, and law, and those were just the ones offered on Monday!

My course was entitled WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES, and as you might surmise we read mysteries about groups who have a distinct religion or ethnicity:   Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Amish, Latino, African-American, Chinese-American, and Native American.  Some of these groups are largely self-contained, preferring a limited relationship with those outside their community:  e.g., Orthodox Jews and Amish.  Others interact much more with members outside their group:  e.g, Latino and African-American.  What all these communities have in common is something, or more than one thing, that differentiates them from the larger population nearby.

One of the commonalities in these books (for the list of our readings, check out my February 16th About Marilyn column) is their reluctance to seek outside help with their problems.  This may come from a distrust of the authorities, the belief that the police will not take their complaints seriously; it may come from a desire not to show the shortcomings of the group to a larger population, believing that the group’s problems will reinforce the unflattering stereotypes that outsiders hold; it may come from a desire to protect one of their own, regardless of the cost.

The class I led was well-informed, dynamic, and willing to share their thoughts about all these novels.  What I found so interesting in this course, as in my previous course (WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND), was the diversity of opinions about the books–strong feelings about authors, plot lines, and characters.  This makes such a class a true learning experience for everyone involved, as it opens everyone’s eyes (definitely including mine) to other valid points of view.  More than once, what was mentioned as one member’s favorite was another’s least liked book.

I loved teaching MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES and am already looking forward to September and to leading my third BOLLI course, WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN SCANDINAVIA.  I’ll let you know the reading list then and hope you’ll read along with us.

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.

Marilyn

A BAKER’S DOZEN OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2017

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!

Marilyn

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.

Marilyn

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!

Marilyn

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.

Marilyn

 

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!

Marilyn

 

 

THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE 19TH CENTURY: Edited by Otto Penzler

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.

Marilyn

 

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’.

Marilyn

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?

Marilyn

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.