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About Marilyn


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.







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, 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.






February 1, 2014

As I celebrate the beginning of my fifth year writing this blog, I feel overwhelmed by the embarrassment of riches it has brought me.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the idea of writing to the authors of the books I reviewed had never occurred to me.  When my husband first proposed it, about a year or so after I started blogging, I told him there was no way an author would be interested in hearing from me, an unknown woman writing her opinion of his/her book.  But Bob persisted with his idea, saying that if I didn’t try it I’d never know, so I finally gave in and started letting authors know that I had written a review of their most recent book.

Sure enough, I began getting responses.  I’ve never tabulated it, but I probably hear from at least seventy-five percent of the authors to whom I write.  Some write a quick ‘thank you so much for your kind review,’ while others write longer notes.  I notice that first-time authors usually take the time to write, which of course isn’t surprising.  At the beginning of their careers they have received fewer reviews than established authors and are eager to have their books reviewed.  That said, I have truly been surprised and gratified by the “big names” who have taken the time to express their appreciation of my posts, even those authors who regularly appear on the best seller lists.

Recently something else has been happening.  A few authors have written to me saying that they’ve asked their publishers to send me a copy of their latest book to review.  The first time this happened I was absolutely amazed, overwhelmed, and “gobsmacked” (as the British say).  And even though it’s been occurring more often now, I am still delighted and somewhat surprised when an advance reading copy or a newly published novel arrives in my mailbox for my reviewing pleasure.  As I write this, there are five such mysteries waiting for me to read and review–heaven!

Can you tell how much I enjoy writing this weekly column?  It’s been four years of writing posts for Mystery Reviews, Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and About Marilyn.  I’m looking forward to another exciting year starting right now.




December 7, 2013

Majority rules?  Or one lonely voice?

I recently started reading three mystery novels, each of which had glowing endorsements on the front and back covers.  “Wonderful”– “thrilling”– “a writer to watch”–you get the idea.   And not only were the endorsements glowing but, to continue the metaphor, they were written by stars in the mystery field.  And yet I couldn’t get past fifty pages in two of the books, and when I finally finished the third one I was extremely disappointed.

So now I’m wondering what happens when a well-known writer is asked by a friend/a friend of a friend/his or her own publisher/for an endorsement, reads the book, and doesn’t like it.  Does the “star”admit that she/he didn’t enjoy the book?  Give a less-than-glowing endorsement?  Bite the bullet (particularly apropos for a mystery) and write something positive, if not totally truthful?

Or is it me, unwilling to believe that my own opinion could be so diametrically opposed to those who actually write books as opposed to reviewing them and that I could be wrong?

I am certainly aware of valid differences of opinion; I’ve blogged about a book that I’ve enjoyed, only to have a close friend tell me that she didn’t like it at all.  I’ve read mysteries recommended by others that I decided not to review because I didn’t think they were worth it.

But when it comes down to putting my own opinion against those of authors I admire, my confidence slips.  Am I being too judgmental, too harsh?

I’ve decided to keep giving my own opinion, flawed though it may be at times.  After all, this is my blog, so my readers know that the thoughts are my own.  If they want to they can read other columns and blogs to get the ideas of others about books, and I’m sure many do.

After nearly four years of blogging, I definitely know what I like.  But if you don’t agree with my reviews, feel free to let me know.





October 5, 2013

All mystery readers know that there are three things that police and district attorneys in novels look for when they accuse someone of a crime.  Does that person have the motive, opportunity, and means to commit the crime?

I’ve recently read two novels in which motive was nearly completely absent.  The books were really well-written and suspenseful, and I was looking forward to blogging about them.  But when I finished the final chapter in each book, I had to go back and re-read it.  I must have missed something, I thought.  There’s no reason that this person would have committed these crimes.  Because in both cases, there were multiple murders.  But why?

In both books, there was absolutely no reason for the follow-up murders.  There was an original crime, for which there was a reason, but then the author continued the killing spree.  Perhaps the thinking was that if there were a series of murders, then the reader would be so overwhelmed that he/she wouldn’t notice the the missing motive/s.

Unlike real life where sometimes we never know what caused someone to murder someone else, in a book it’s a cheat to disregard the motive.  It leaves the reader both unsatisfied and dissatisfied, feeling that the several hours spent reading were wasted.  Giving the reader multiple crimes to read about doesn’t make up for this.

In real life, it’s my understanding that the prosecution doesn’t have to provide a motive for the defendant in order to try him/her for a crime.  But I imagine it would be hard to convince a jury to convict someone without some sort of plausible motive brought forth.  It could be greed, jealousy, fear, even mental illness, but there must be a reason for the crime.  While in real life the reason that caused the crime may be undiscoverable,  that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, hold true in mysteries.

In books, it’s the author’s job to give the reader a believable motive to commit a crime, especially the crime of murder or multiple murders.  Without such motivation on the criminal’s part, the novel falls apart.  I don’t expect to come across many more books like the two I mentioned at the beginning of this post, at least I hope not.






August 3, 2013

It’s a funny thing about novels.  They sweep you into their worlds so that you forget you’re reading something that came out of the author’s imagination.  If it’s a really good book you are part of it, inside it with the characters that the author has created.

Kate Atkinson, author of One Good Turn (reviewed on this blog), has a new best-seller, Life After Life It’s a fabulous book, not a mystery but a tour de force about the many lives of Ursula Beresford Todd.  Ursula was born in England in 1910, the third of five children of Silvie and Hugh Todd.

She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, and she never drew a breath.

She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, but the doctor was able to cut it off and she lived.

She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, and her mother cut it off because the doctor hadn’t been able to arrive in time for the birth.

Do you see a problem here?

Life After Life tells the many (possible) stories of Ursula’s life, assuming that she didn’t die at birth.  She never marries, she marries an abuser, she goes to Germany and marries a Nazi officer, she doesn’t have children, she has a daughter.  It all gets a bit confusing.

The stories of Ursula’s life are engrossing and wonderfully told.  She’s a young child during the Great War and a grown woman, married/unmarried, in England/Germany during World War II.  There are episodes that made me gasp with surprise or dread or sorrow.  But then I would remind myself that none of this happened because on the previous pages something totally different had occurred.

When a reader enters the mind of a novelist, of course there’s a suspension of belief.  We know these things haven’t really happened, we know that it’s all made up and that the author can make anything happen the way she/he wants.  But, at least for me, all the different paths of Ursula’s life kept me at a distance.  I kept reminding myself that because all these things couldn’t have happened to Ursula, none of these things did.

It would be like reading a mystery and finding out that the crime wasn’t solved, as if the author laid out all the clues and left it up to the reader to figure out who did it.  If there are any mysteries like that out there, I don’t want to know about them or read them.  There’s a contract between an author and a reader–the author writes a complete story and the reader gives it his/her complete attention and (hopefully) belief.  If the author doesn’t fulfill the first part of the contract, the reader can’t be faulted for not fulfilling the second part.

All the statements on the cover of Life After Life are true:  “Extraordinary,” “Excellent,” and “Smart, Moving, Powerful” are just some of them.  Life After Life was on the best-seller list for months, deservedly so.  But for me, and perhaps only for me, because of the many narrative paths in this book, a little of the magic of entering the writer’s make-believe world was gone.


June 10, 2013

Writing after death–good idea or bad?

In The Boston Globe on May 12, there was a fascinating article by Zac Bissonnette entitled “Robert B. Parker is Dead. Long Live Robert B. Parker!” It may seem a strange headline to the non-mystery reader, but to those of us familiar with Parker’s works and his death in January 2010, it makes complete sense.

Robert B. Parker was the author of nearly seventy novels, many of them in the Spenser series. His family, particularly his wife Joan, was faced with the question that has faced the families of other writers in the crime genre. Should a series, or perhaps more than one series, be ended with the author’s death, or should another writer be found to continue it?

Obviously, this is a decision that each family must make for itself. There are arguments on both sides. Readers of a popular series are reluctant to “let go” of their favorites, and they may be ready to accept another author’s similar, if not identical, version of the protagonist and the people with whom he surrounded himself. Other readers are perhaps more loyal to the author than to his creation; they don’t want anyone else’s fingerprints on the characters that the deceased developed, even if those fingerprints are barely detectable.

According to his widow, Parker never discussed his wishes regarding whether or not someone else should continue writing about his three protagonists: Spenser, Sunny Randall, and Jesse Stone. It apparently was hard for Parker to discuss his mortality, even though at age 77 it should have been obvious that his writing life was considerably closer to its end than its beginning. But, says Joan Parker, “He was convinced he’d live to be 100. So that was not in the scheme of things at all.”

Speaking only for myself, I vote to let the characters go quietly. I agree with the estate of the late, great John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee series. “It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist,” MacDonald’s son Maynard has said. Travis McGee died with his creator, which is one way of handling the situation.

Another is for the author to write a novel in which the character dies. Agatha Christie did this very successfully with Hercule Poirot, so much so that Poirot became the first and only fictional figure to have a front-page obituary in The New York Times. Although Ms. Christie wrote Poirot’s final book in the 1940s with the plan of having it appear after she died, she changed her mind and Curtain was published in 1975, a year before her own death.

Tired of writing about his popular hero, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes to his (apparent) death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. “I must save my mind for better things,” Doyle wrote to his mother, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” But, as we all know, the public refused to accept Holmes’ death, and the author was forced to bring him back.

So apparently there is no perfect answer to the question of whether the character should live after the author’s death.  And although I read Ace Atkins’ novel Lullaby and enjoyed it, I would have preferred to have Spenser disappear when Parker died. As the New Testament has it, let the dead bury the dead. Amen.