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I don’t believe I know any girl or woman who didn’t grow up reading Nancy Drew.  Just mention her name and a whole host of other names pops into one’s mind–her father, Carson Drew; her housekeeper, Hannah Gruen; her two best friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne; and her sometimes boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.

I started reading the series when I was about nine or ten.  As I remember it, I started with the first one, The Secret of the Old Clock, and continued on, in no particular order, until The Ringmaster’s Secret.  That was number 31, and at that point I had “outgrown” the series.

But I never forgot it, and I think I can still tell you the plots of most, if not all, of the books.  And I certainly remember which were my favorites.  Everything I know about Gypsies (Roma) I learned from The Clue in the Jewel Box; everything I know about campanology I learned from The Mystery of the Tolling Bell. Hmm, I wonder if the people writing the series under the name Carolyn Keene got their facts straight.

What brought this to mind was the the book my book club is currently reading, Infidel. It’s the fascinating memoir of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s journey from her homeland in Somalia to Kenya and Ethiopia, then her flight to Holland to avoid living with the husband her father had chosen for her over her objections, and finally to the United States.

Her education in Africa was sporadic, learning a different language in each country, sometimes being home-schooled and sometimes going to all-girls or co-ed Muslim schools, depending on where she lived.  It was in Nairobi that Ms. Ali discovered Nancy Drew and “the stories of pluck and independence.” I imagine the novels must have seemed like fairy tales, with Nancy dressed in Western clothes, driving her own car, traveling by herself, and generally doing what she pleased.  This was a life so different from the life that the young Ayaan saw all around her that it would have seemed incredible.  But something in these books touched her and awakened a curiosity about the world outside the one she knew.

This is what I find wonderful about reading in general and mysteries in particular.  My own life has very little in common with Agatha Christie’s English villages, Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana, or Colin Cotterill’s war-torn Laos.  But reading takes me to all these places and gives me a glimpse of lives lived there. And I feel richer for it.


I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’ve read several of McCarthy’s other books–All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men among them–so I knew I wasn’t going to be reading a children’s story.  Even if I hadn’t known the type of books McCarthy writes, the subtitle of this book would have given it away–The Evening Redness in the West.  And the redness referred to isn’t the sunset.

Now, I’m used to murder and mayhem; after all, I’m writing a blog about mysteries, right?  But the number of dead bodies in Blood Meridian is beyond counting. The story is based on the Glanton Gang, a historical group of scalp hunters in 1849-50, immediately following the Mexican-American War.  The gang, led by John Joel Glanton, was hired by the Mexican government to kill marauding Indians and bring their scalps to the authorities to receive payment.  But soon the gang was murdering peaceful Indians and Mexican civilians to increase their totals and, as it appears to me, just for the joy of killing.  Eventually the government of Chihuahua offered a reward for the capture of the gang, turning them from semi-legal mercenaries to outlaws.

With a background story like that, Blood Meridian could hardly be sweetness and light.  But there’s not one character in the novel to whom I was drawn.  The Kid, who opens the novel, might have been that character.   After all, he comes from an abusive home from which he runs away at the age of fourteen, unable to read or write and without any skills except shooting.  He has to make his way in the world, and he does so by joining this para-military group.  But The Kid’s participation in dozens of ruthless killings robs him of any connection with this reader.  It was impossible for me to feel anything but antipathy toward him, toward Glanton, or toward Judge Holden, the book’s portrait of pure evil.

Yet the reviews of Blood Meridian are superlative.  No less a literary authority than Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University has declared it “the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer.”

So this is my point, or rather my question.  Even if there is stirring, evocative language in such a book, some of it quite beautiful, is it possible for a reader to enjoy it, to recommend it, to feel that it has been a worthwhile reading experience, when that reader feels no empathy, no attachment, no sympathy for a single character in it? It reminds me of a time years ago when a friend had read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and said to me, “I feel as if I’ve just spent the afternoon with a murderer.”  Although Blood Meridian isn’t a mystery, enough blood flows through it for a dozen crime novels.

Frankly, at the end of  this book, when every character except one has been killed, I thought “serves them right.  Too bad the judge is still alive.”  And that’s not the way I want to feel at the end of a book.

So while I’m happy to air my opinion, I’d like to hear from you. Am I alone in feeling that there has to be some connection between a reader and at least one character in the book?  Or does no one else care about this?  Let me know.


There should be a course entitled “How to Get Rid of an Unwanted Love Interest” offered to mystery authors.

Apparently every male detective (barring Catholic clergy and overweight New York eccentrics) needs a girlfriend/wife/love interest to spice up the novel and prove the detective’s masculinity.  That’s all well and good.

But the problem is–how do you get rid of that pesky woman when the author no longer wants/needs her? What to do, what to do.  Well, here are the ways three authors handled it.

Jeremiah Healy took the Road of No Return. When the first John Francis Cuddy novel was published, Cuddy is a newly bereaved man, his young wife having died shortly before the story begins.  After a few books Cuddy becomes romantically involved with another woman, and they have a serious relationship over the next several books.  But then she is killed in a plane crash (never mind all the other people who had to die along with her), and Cuddy is alone again.

William G. Tapply chose to go with Who Can Understand A Woman Anyway? His Boston lawyer/detective is divorced when the series opens and stays unattached for a while.  Brady Coyne finally meets someone special, they are together for a number of books, even moving in together, but in the last novel she leaves him.  No explanation, at least none that made sense to me.

Stuart M. Kaminsky made the hero of the Lew Fonesca books A Man Who Will Hurt Forever. In the first book Lew has just relocated to Florida to escape the memories of his wife’s death by a hit-and-run driver.  Later on, when he does meet a woman, he’s obviously unable to commit to any type of meaningful relationship with her, and eventually she moves away.

I can’t think of similar situations involving female detectives. Sharon McCone starts out single in Marcia Muller’s series but meets and then marries her lover.  And Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) and V. I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) have had a man or two in their lives, but they don’t become the problem for the women detectives that the women seem to be for the male detectives.

There are definitely exceptions to the male detective generalizations above.  Susan Silverman in the Spenser series, Kerry in the Nameless Detective series, and Zee in the J. W. Jackson series, to name just three.  But still, that being said, female romantic interests in the lives of male detectives don’t seem to hang around for very long.

Ladies, beware!


I am definitely getting less patient as I get older.

I used to think that if I started a book that I had to finish it.  I thought that if the author had spent so much time and energy writing the novel and getting it published that I owed it to him or her to read it even if I wasn’t enjoying it.  But I no longer feel that way.

A few years ago I bought a sweatshirt with the words “So Many Books, So Little Time.” That’s become my mantra.  There are simply too many good, not to say excellent, books available for me to force myself to finish one that I’m not enjoying.  If I’m not “into” the book after a couple of chapters, I’ll put it down and choose another.

It’s a bit like eating a meal in a restaurant or buying a pair of shoes.

You go into a restaurant or shoe store (bookstore or library), look at the menu or the racks (bookshelves), and choose a meal or a pair of shoes (crime novel) you think you want to eat or wear (read).  But when the meal comes or you put the shoes on (start reading) you realize it’s not what you want because the entree is too spicy or the shoes are too tight (or the book is too cozy, too violent, or just boring).

Just like you wouldn’t force yourself to finish a meal that you didn’t like or buy a pair of shoes that didn’t fit, you shouldn’t make yourself finish a book that’s not what you thought it was going to be.

And you shouldn’t feel guilty about it–I don’t.


Have you ever thought much about sidekicks? I hadn’t, until recently.

In films and television, sidekicks are the ones who usually aren’t as good-looking as the hero, never or almost never get the girl or guy, and never get the glory.  Think about it.  There’s the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes, Lucy and Ethel.  Am I right?

In mystery novels, things were pretty much the same.  There’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, C. Auguste Dupin and Poe’s nameless narrator, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  In the last case there’s a bit more equality, but even though Archie is younger, better-looking, and as narrator could emphasize his importance in the case, he’s always a step behind Wolfe.  Yes, in these novels Archie has the girl, but Lily Rowan is more like arm candy than a true love interest, always available to go dancing or have dinner at Rusterman’s, but that’s all.

In earlier books the sidekicks usually were subordinate in every way to the detective, as I mentioned above, especially when it came to who was the toughest guy in the room.  But, interestingly, the sidekick’s role has changed over the years.  I think this began with Spenser and Hawk.  Spenser certainly is tough and knows his way around criminals and low-lifes, but he has a moral center.  Enter Hawk.  When we first meet him, he’s a killer for hire.  And although he’s mellowed in the course of the novels, he still behaves in ways that Spenser can’t or won’t.  Spenser can do breaking and entering, but Hawk can do breaking bones.  That’s why Spenser needs him.

And here’s another facet of the new breed of sidekick.  There was a similarity between the roles of Spenser and Hawk and Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.  Pike’s conscience, like his eyes behind dark sunglasses, is hidden.  There are, or were, things that Cole didn’t do, but Pike did.  Now, however, that Pike has moved on to his own series, he, like Hawk, has gotten softer and isn’t so quick on the trigger.  If Pike is going to be the new hero, he can’t behave like the old sidekick.

We know that certain things, unpleasant and illegal things, may have to be done in order to solve a crime. But we don’t seem to want our hero, and it’s always a hero, not a heroine, to do them.  We don’t want his hands to be so dirty that they can’t be cleaned.  That’s apparently what his sidekick is for.

So what does this say about us as readers of detective novels?


If something is perfect, why change it?

My husband and I were on Cape Cod on July 11, and I read in The Boston Globe that Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express would be shown on PBS that night.  Now, as far as I’m concerned, Ms. Christie was/is The Queen of Mysteries.  I know, I know, the Golden Age style is no longer in vogue.  Now we need serial killers (see my July 7 post), sexual perversions, and child abuse to make a best seller.  But no one, past or present, could toss those red herrings around like Dame Agatha.

Very excited to see a new version of this classic novel, I sat through an hour-long promo of David Suchet going for a ride on the Orient Express.  I’m guessing he’s a Method Actor and needed to experience the train before he “became” Hercule Poirot.  I must admit that I’ve never been the biggest Suchet fan, but then I’ve never seen a Poirot I thought was authentic.

Anyhow, at 9 p.m. I was ready to view this mystery classic.  And was I disappointed! I thought that Suchet was acting as if he had a hyperactivity problem.  His facial expressions, his gestures, were so unlike the refined, mannered Belgian detective as to be almost (almost) humorous.  I keep waiting for him to calm down, to remember the character he was playing, but no such luck.

Of course, I don’t know if this (mis)characterization of the great detective was the author’s fault or the director’s.  But either way it was wrong, wrong, wrong.  There wasn’t a bit of Christie’s character in this production.

My feeling is, if you’re going to change the character or plot of a novel when you bring it to film or television, perhaps you should simply invent a new character.  Leave the old one alone and come up with your own idea.

And that way you won’t even have to pay royalties!


True to my promise in the April 22nd post, I’m still refusing to post reviews of books I’ve read but haven’t enjoyed or thought worth recommending. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think about those books and why I didn’t like them.  So now I’m going to vent a bit.  Okay, a lot.

I read three books in the last couple of weeks, all of which featured serial killers.  Honestly, I am really tired of serial killers. It’s so easy for an author to make a S.K. the villain.  You don’t need any motive, or at least any realistic motive, if your killer just keeps killing seemingly random people—sort of like the Energizer Bunny on steroids.

The author can blame everything on the killer’s childhood, which is what these three authors seemed to do, without actually explaining what it was in their childhoods that caused the man (the S.K. is almost always a man, almost always white, almost always in his 30s or 40s).  Actually, after I read these three books, I thought I could quit my day job and become a profiler for the FBI. Once the authorities have decided a S.K. is on the loose, they turn to S.K. 101 in their textbooks and come up with the above description, a one size fits all label.

So your parents made you eat all your veggies before you got dessert?  So you couldn’t have your own television/computer/car and all the other kids did?  So you got punished for coming home ten minutes past curfew?  That explains your compulsion to slice and dice women who are runners, men with beards, women over 50 with bleached hair the color of your late mother’s.  It’s easy, simplistic, and not at all convincing, at least to me.

I want a motive that’s realistic—love, hate, greed—all the old standbyes that make a person commit the unforgivable crime.

Do you feel the same?


Perhaps some readers of this blog have noticed that all my reviews are positive.  Are you asking yourself, “Is Marilyn so fortunate in the books she chooses to review that all of them are winners?” or “Does the woman like everything she reads?”

Well, the answer to both questions  is negative.  I’ve read plenty of mysteries that I don’t enjoy.  But I decided to write reviews only of books that I believe are worth reading. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m exasperated when I read a review and at the very end I find that the reviewer tells me not to bother reading the book.  I don’t want to find out what not to read–there are too many novels in the world that aren’t worth the time it takes to turn the pages.  I want to find out what I should read, or at least what someone whose opinion I respect suggests that I read.

This past week I read two mysteries that were so poorly written and so completely unconvincing that I was amazed that they were published.  I’m sure that this has happened to everyone at one time or another.  But I don’t want to waste valuable internet space and your time by reviewing them.  I’ll just chalk it up to a waste of time (my time, not yours) and pick up another book and hope for the best.

I used to have a sweat shirt with the logo, “So many books, so little time.” So let’s not waste time reading about mysteries that aren’t worth reading.  Our time is more valuable than that.


In my March 9th post I talked about wanting to know as much as possible about the lives of the protagonists in the mysteries I read. I said I felt most strongly about knowing about female protagonists, but really it applies to males also.

In the April 5th issue of TIME magazine (magazines always are dated a week ahead of the actual date of issue) there’s a Q & A column interview of Walter Mosley, creator of the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill series.  Two of Mosley’s comments seem to me to support what I wrote.

The interviewer asked if Mosley tries to focus on character over plot.  Mosley’s partial response:  “With the original hard-boiled detectives, there was no connection to the world.  No mother, no father, no friends, no dog.  With a person like that, there can’t be character development.” My sentiments exactly.  If I know nothing about the back story of a detective (such as Sam Spade or the Continental Op, to name two classic dicks), my personal involvement is limited.  I don’t know why they behave the way they do, what propels them, why they keep involving themselves in such dangerous situations (assuming it’s not just because it’s their job), so I somehow don’t fully relate to them.  But when I know more about the detective (V. I. Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone), I feel personally connected and more able to understand their motivations.  I know these books are works of fiction but a good author draws you in, and for the time you are reading, these heroes or heroines are as real to you as your family and friends.  That’s the mark of a true novelist.

The other comment that Mosley made that resonated with me was when he was asked how much of a character’s life was apparent to him when he first started to write about him.  Mosley said, “I just finished the first chapter of the third Leonid McGill book.  And I’m still learning about him.  And I will be learning about him until I come to the last book.” To me that means that McGill is as real to Mosley as if he were an actual person, not merely a character in a mystery novel.

My hat is off to Walter Mosley for so eloquently expressing what I feel, that regardless of the genre the novelist’s duty is to make his character believable and ever-changing works in progress.  Just the way “real people” are.

You can learn more about Walter Mosley at his web site.


I was talking to my sister tonight about my strong feeling regarding character development in mysteries.  One of the reasons I enjoy series mysteries rather than stand alone books is that I like to follow the heroine/hero from the beginning of the series to the latest book. When I pick up a book that has had several before it in a series, I feel as if I’m coming into a movie in the middle and there’s lots of back story I should know but don’t.

For some reason this is more important to me in books with female protagonists.  Not knowing the histories of Elvis Cole, Travis McGee, or Spenser is mildly annoying but doesn’t impact on my admiration for the authors’ works.  But I feel differently about female characters.  I want to know everything about them–where they were born, who their family is, why they’ve remained single or have been married four times.  Is this because I’m a woman and identify more with female characters?  Is it that women (warning:  big generalization follows) are more open about their lives than men?

I don’t know the answer, but in starting this blog I realize that my favorite women characters are those I know the most about–V. I. Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone, Deborah Knott, among others, which I something I’d never thought about before.  But with male detectives, this doesn’t seem to matter much.

Does the back story matter to you?  Or am I the only one who cares?


U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton: Book Review

Sue Grafton doesn’t need my review of her latest mystery to propel her to the top of the best-sellers’ list.  She’s been on top of the heap since her first mystery, A Is For Alibi, was published in 1982.  But it’s nice to report that this novel is as appealing as any of her others and gives us a deeper look into Kinsey than we have glimpsed before.

U Is For Undertow is somewhat of a departure from Grafton’s previous novels.  This is as much a book about families and relationships as it is a mystery. Those who have followed Kinsey’s backstory know that her parents were killed in a car crash when Kinsey was five, that she was raised by one of her mother’s sisters, and that she had no contact with and wasn’t even aware that she had other living relatives until midway through the series.  At that point she’s contacted by cousins who’ve known about her and now want to meet her.  Over the following novels she has kept this family at arms’ length, rebuffing their attempts to include her in their circle.

Even though Kinsey doesn’t age at the same rate as the rest of us do (she’s apparently going to remain in her thirties throughout the series), her maturity has increased as the series has moved on, and at this point she is wavering between her loyalty to her late aunt and a pull toward finding out the complete story of her mother’s expulsion by her family.  This backstory of familial relationships connects with several others in the novel.

Kinsey is approached by Michael Sutton, a young man who believes that more than twenty years ago he was witness to the burial of a little girl who was kidnapped. His story is nearly unbelievable, but Kinsey decides to work for him for a day to see what she can discover.  Michael, it turns out, has a bizarre history that includes repressed memories of sexual abuse by his parents, later proven false, and estrangement from his sister and brothers.  His history is connected to that of two other men in the fictional town of Santa Teresa where Kinsey lives.

All of these families–Kinsey’s, Michael’s, and the two men who now are respectable citizens of Santa Teresa–have skeletons, both metaphorical and literal, in their backgrounds.  The more deeply Kinsey delves into Michael’s family background, the more she’s pulled into her own.  And the two men have their own family issues that must be explored before the book is over.

Undertow shows us a Kinsey who is more introspective than the one we’ve known before.  She has come to the understanding that seeing things in black and white is not always seeing them clearly, that many shades of gray show up in every family relationship.  Even though she’s not getting older, she is getting wiser.

You can also learn more at Sue Grafton’s web site.

Based on my son Rich’s urgings, I’ve decided to start a blog reviewing mystery novels.  According to my mother, I’ve been reading since the age of two, but you know how mothers are.  In truth, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read, and mysteries have always been my favorite genre. Like most girls, I started with Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr, the usual pre-teen mystery novels.  Then I moved to adult mysteries.

I started a book club in 1970 that was featured in an article in The Boston Globe about clubs that were started way before’s reviews and Oprah’s recommendation became must-reads.  Although the Birch Street Book Club has never achieved that level of fame, we’re still ten members strong nearly forty years later.

We read novels, biographies, and non-fiction, but very few mysteries.  This blog will be my attempt to spread the word about my favorite mysteries, mostly new but some classics as well.

My son, who blogs on his web site, as well as connecting on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, tells me that one of the best parts of blogging comes from feedback from readers.

So I hope that people who find my blog, as you have, will respond to my reviews and give me your opinions on what I’ve written, make suggestions for future reviews, or direct me to your blog.  Hope to hear from you soon.

I’ve started off with a number of reviews to arouse your interest; my goal is to review a novel a week.  So here goes….