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About Marilyn

Blame it on the coronavirus!

When I walked upstairs after using the treadmill this morning, my husband asked me why I had sent out a blog post today instead of on Saturday.  But I didn’t, I protested.  Well, he said, I got one this morning.

I rushed to my computer and there it was–my review of Harry Dolan’s THE GOOD KILLER.  When I finished writing it last night, I obviously pressed publish instead of saveSeriously, my mind is a jumble nowadays, dealing with how best to get groceries, missing visits with family and friends, and teaching my mystery class online.  Those are my excuses—I mean reasons–for the midweek blog.

In any event, I tell myself it could have been worse.  I usually write about half a review and leave it to percolate for a couple of days before completing it and sending it out.  What if I had sent out only half a review?  I guess I could have covered it up by saying that after all this is a mystery blog; readers would have to be in suspense until Saturday for the second half of the post.  I did notice one typo, and there may be more since I had not proofread the blog carefully before accidentally pressing the publish button.  I hope not.

At any rate, I hope the post’s early arrival didn’t shake you up too much (if you even noticed); a friend had already emailed me by the time I saw the post to say it threw her entire week off schedule.  I definitely don’t want to create more uncertainty during an uncertain time.  In these difficult days, I plead for a little understanding.

Stay well.


Monday is the first day of the spring term at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program.  It will be my sixth time teaching a course on mystery novels, and this semester the title is WHODUNIT?:  A STUDY IN SIDEKICKS.

Frankly, I don’t usually think about sidekicks when I pick up a detective story.  The main focus, of course, is on the detective and not any assistant she/he may have.  But when I started to think about the subject a few months ago, I realized how many of my favorite authors have incorporated interesting, charismatic, funny, frightening, but always ultimately fascinating seconds-in-command.

I think the first sidekick that comes to most readers’ minds is Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ colleague.  Of course, everyone knows that Holmes was the one who solved the crimes, but if you read the short stories and novels carefully you can see how much the good doctor contributed.  Sometimes it was his medical knowledge, sometimes his willingness to bring his gun along to a possibly dangerous encounter, sometimes simply his obvious admiration of his friend’s abilities, that made this twosome work.

So that’s where the course will begin, with THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, published in 1890.  It was a time of gaslight rather than electricity, mail and telegrams rather than email and cell phones, hansom cabs instead of cars, but the personalities and characteristics of Watson and Holmes still resonate with readers today.

Then we’ll jump into the twentieth century with THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN by Rex Stout, featuring the inimitable Archie Goodwin as Nero Wolfe’s assistant, secretary, “legs,” and all around pain-in-the neck.  This will be followed by PROMISED LAND by Robert B. Parker (Hawk and Spenser), I KNOW A SECRET by Tess Gerritsen (Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli), THE WANTED by Robert Crais (Joe Pike and Elvis Cole), PROMISE  ME by Harlan Coben (Win Lockwood and Myron Bolitar), GHOST HERO by S. J. Rozan (Bill Smith and Lydia Chin), and A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR by Dennis Lehane (Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie).

Some of the sidekicks in these books are more clearly secondary characters, with the major detective work done by the detectives.  But in other novels, there’s not such a clear demarcation, and the role of the sidekick is more important, both to the detective and to the book itself.

I invite you to read along with us and perhaps get a different perspective on what being the main character’s friend/partner/colleague means in detective fiction.  I promise it will be a fun trip.

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.



We’re all familiar with New Year’s resolutions.  More exercise, healthier foods, more connections with friends and family.  Some we’re able to keep, some not so much (or not as much as we’d hoped).  But today I’m writing not about resolutions but about second chances.

I’ve just celebrated my 10th anniversary writing about all things mysterious on this blog.  But I wasn’t always the confident, smooth, literary woman you know as the author of  When my son Rich suggested in 2009 that I write a mystery review blog, I waived away his suggestion–I was no Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times--who was I to let people know what books I was reading?  Why would they care?

But Rich persisted, so a few months later I launched this blog, and much to my amazement people started reading it.  Not only family and friends but friends of friends and people from far away (I know that because I receive emails from people across the States and abroad) were reading my posts and often responding to them.

Then my husband suggested that I write to authors when I reviewed their books.  Again I declined, and it was only after a year or two of Bob’s prodding that I took up his suggestion; lo and behold, many of these authors, well-known authors and first-timers, responded to my emails with gracious letters of appreciation, telling me that they were putting a link to my blog on their Twitter/Facebook accounts.

And, as another bonus, I have been receiving books to review from publishers and publicists for the last three or four years; no obligation, but they hope that if I enjoy their books I will write about them.  And if I do, I will.

A few months after starting my blog I joined BOLLI, an adult education program at Brandeis University, where  I took two courses each semester for three years.   Then I was approached by two Study Group Leaders who knew about my blog and asked me to teach a course on mystery novels.  I know this will come as no surprise, but I turned them down.  Who was I to teach mysteries?  The women waited a year and tried again, and this time I said yes.  I have taught five courses and am preparing for the sixth one that begins in March–WHODUNIT?:  MURDER WITH SIDEKICKS.

And in December I was asked to interview Hallie Ephron, the author of more than a dozen mystery novels, when she spoke at BOLLI.  And then she interviewed me for the blog that she and six other women mystery authors write, Jungleredwriters.  I was so honored both times.

Writing this blog and teaching at BOLLI have been outstanding experiences for me.  I’ve been lucky to have had several second chances and finally got smart enough to take them.  If you have an opportunity to grab a second/third/fourth chance, take it.  It’s definitely possible to grab the gold ring then, even if it slipped through your fingers the first time.

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.




It’s amazing how quickly the year flies by when you and I are reading wonderful mysteries.  And really, can there be a better time than winter to hunker down with a cozy/thrilling/chilling novel and a cup of hot cocoa or tea?

As was true last year, it’s simply been too hard to narrow my list of Best Books of the year to fewer than fourteen.  Truly, I could have added several more, but one has to stop somewhere.  So here are my choices, in no particular order.  I’ve blogged about each one, so by going to the Search For box on the left side of my home page, you can read my posts about each choice.

NEWCOMER by Keigo Higashiro, THE NOWHERE CHILD by Christian White, LIVES LAID AWAY by Stephen Mack Jones, DECEPTION COVE by Owen Laukkanen, THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper, FINDING KATARINA M. by Elisabeth Elo, A BEAUTIFUL CORPSE by Christi Daughtery, IF SHE WAKES by Michael Koryta, AFTER SHE’S GONE by Camilla Grebe, SCRUBLANDS by Chris Hammer, LADY IN THE LAKE by Laura Lippman, A DANGEROUS MAN by Robert Crais, THE COLD WAY HOME by Julia Keller, and GOOD GIRL, BAD GIRL by Michael Robotham.

Eight novels take place in the United States, one in Japan, three in Australia, and two in Europe; eight were written by men, six by women.  The majority feature private investigators, but there are also a couple of police procedurals.  Most are either stand-alones or possibly the first in a series, although four are part of continuing series.  That is very different from my choices last year, when most of the books I chose were mysteries in a series.  You can see that there’s no formula, at least for me, in what type of mystery will make my “best of the best” column in any given year.  It all depends on the characters, plot, and style of the book.

I hope you’ll take a moment to read my blog posts for the books you’ve missed.  I promise they are all well worth reading.  You can also check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at my website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and additional About Marilyn columns that feature opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

Wishing you a wonderful 2020, complete with family, friends, and dozens of excellent mysteries to keep you entertained.


There’s a wonderful song from “The King and I” that encapsulates the feelings I have about teaching at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.   It’s from “Getting To Know You,” and it’s sung by the Welsh teacher Anna Leonowens to the children of the king of Siam.

She has come to the country at the king’s invitation to teach his children about all things “scientific” so they can take their place in the modern world and show Queen Victoria that he and his people are not “barbarians.”   It’s the first verse of the song’s introduction that is so powerful for me:  “It’s a very ancient saying, But a true and honest thought, That if you become a teacher, By your pupils you’ll be taught.”

Oscar Hammerstein II got it exactly right, I think.  When I taught my first WHODUNIT? courses in 2017, I was nervous about the actual teaching but not about letting the class members know why I chose the books I did.  I was certain they would all agree with me about my choices, bowing to my expertise (!) in the field.  Well, perhaps I thought that there might be one or two outliers in each class who would come in with different opinions after reading that week’s novel, but soon they would be overwhelmed by my many reasons why each choice was a perfect one.

However, as we all learn sooner or later, pride goeth before a fall.  It didn’t take too long into that first course, Murder in New England, before people let me know that they didn’t always agree with me about the excellence of a book we were reading and discussing.  And,  I discovered, their opinions were as valid as mine.

Where I might have found the dialogue in a certain mystery clever, a class member found it forced and gave examples to prove it.  Where I explained the intricacies of a plot, others told me that they found it repetitious and slow-moving.  And, most amazing of all, some even had the temerity to say that Agatha Christie was not the be-all and end-all of mystery authors.

All of this led to a bit of soul-searching on my part and made me realize something that I really, truly had known but perhaps had been reluctant to admit.  Each reader brings some very personal feelings and thoughts to every book she/he reads; assuming that the reader has read the book with an open mind, all those different opinions are as reasonable as mine, humbling though it is to admit.

I’ve enjoyed all the WHODUNIT? courses I’ve taught at the BOLLI program, and I hope the members of my various classes have enjoyed taking them.  But there’s no doubt in my mind now, if there had been any before, that the teacher/student relationship works both ways, and each is taught by and learns from the other.

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


Do you hear the school bell ringing?  That’s because it’s almost time for the fall semester at BOLLI–the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute–to begin.

This will be my fifth semester teaching a course at BOLLI on the appreciation of the mystery genre.  Each course begins with the word WHODUNIT? and then gives the specific title of that term’s subject.  The previous ones have been MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND, MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES, MURDER IN SCANDINAVIA, and MURDER MOST BRITISH.

This semester’s class is WHODUNIT?:  MURDER, SHE WROTE.  It features all women authors and all female protagonists.  We’ll read eight novels during the ten week course, with the first and last weeks an introduction to mysteries and an overall discussion of the books assigned, respectively.

As I’ve noted in previous About Marilyn’s columns, what I find most interesting is what brings people to the classes.  There have been class members who have been reading mystery novels their entire lives and are familiar not only with the most popular authors but also with many little-known writers; there have been others who “confess” that they have never read a mystery or, if they did, it was many years ago.

So those who are devoted fans of mystery novels are presumably eager to explain and share their love of such books, while those who are new to mysteries are eager to learn why others find them so fascinating and perhaps to find an author or two who greatly appeals to them.

After a brief introduction of mystery types, we’ll spend part of the first session talking about Nancy Drew and what explains her popularity ninety years (!) after The Secret of the Old Clock was published.  To date, eighty million books in the series have been sold, a truly astonishing number, especially given the fact that the presumptive author, Carolyn Keene, is as fictitious as Nancy herself.

Carolyn Keene was the brainchild of Edwin Stratemeyer, founder of the syndicate that bore his name, and several authors were used under the Keene name to write the books to the formula Mr. Stratemeyer outlined.

Starting with the second class, we’ll be examining the eight novels I’ve chosen in the order they were published.  Since the first was published in 1930 and the last in 2017, we’ll be discussing not only the books’ heroines, plots, and settings but also the changes that have taken place in the culture and in women’s status in the nearly ninety years from the first novel to the most recent one.

If you’d like to read along with us, here are the books for this semester:  The Murder at the Vicarage  (1930) by Dame Agatha Christie, Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) by Marcia Muller, “A” is for Alibi (1982) by Sue Grafton, Indemnity Only (1982) by Sara Paretsky, A Trouble of Fools (1987) by Linda Barnes, China Trade (1994) by S. J. Rozan, Baltimore Blues (2006) by Laura Lippman, and The Last Place You Look (2017) by Kristen Lepionka.

Our first class is on Monday, September 9th.  Happy reading!


P. S.  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.

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.


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:

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.



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!




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.


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.










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.




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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Happy Reading and Happy Holidays!


October 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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