Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mysterious Authors: UK vs USA

In the spot-the-trend category you may have noticed that all the mystery writers I’ve talked about in the last week and a half have been British. I don’t read mysteries from the UK exclusively, but I do tend to favour them over mysteries from the USA. I’m not sure why this is so. As I write this blog post, perhaps the half-formed (half-baked?) theory living in my head regarding this preference will become clearer.

The first possible contributing factor to my British preference is the fact that I lived and went to school in Greater London for almost a year when I was 7 (I turned 8 about a month before we came home to Canada). This was a formative year in my reading life, as it is for many children. I was just nicely into the read-anything-you-can-find stage, and what I found were mystery stories by Enid Blyton. It is possible that my current reading habits are influenced by nostalgia for the Famous Five, or the Secret Seven, or (best of all in my view) the Adventure series.

I do read some USAian mystery writers, but none of them so far have rated either collecting or re-reading. I usually take them out of the library, or borrow them from someone, or buy them second hand and dispose of them the same way. I’ve read Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell,  Kathy Reichs, Linda Farstein, Sue Grafton & Jane Haddam to name a few. Most of these books were all right, but I didn’t exactly run out and get everything by the author. In a couple of cases I made a clear decision never to read anything by the author again. On a more positive note, I recently read through all the Judge Deborah Knott books by Margaret Maron; they were very enjoyable. Maron I might even collect if her books were readily available in Canada. Fortunately the library has them. I think one thing that Maron does (that the others listed do not do) is create and sustain an interesting character who changes and develops through the series. I like this in an author whether from the US or the UK

One other thing I’ve realized is that I quite like police procedurals as a sub-set of the mystery genre, but I haven’t encountered many USAian mysteries of this type. I am possibly not looking in the right places. UK mystery writers seem to crank out police procedurals with abandon, and I’ve had no trouble finding them at all. In fact one USAian writer, Elizabeth George, who DOES write a mean police procedural sets her stories in the UK! Does the US system of policing not lend itself to detective stories? There  seem to be a lot of TV police mystery series set in various US cities, why not books? Perhaps I’ve just not been looking in the right places or at the right authors.

Finally, I think there is a difference in tone between UK and US writers. The books have different accents. It is hard to describe the difference, but you can hear it. I like the sound of the (writing) accents that come from the UK.


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British Mystery Men 2: Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson lives in Toronto but grew up in Yorkshire and that’s where his detective fiction is (mostly) set. He has sent his Yorkshire police detective (Alan Banks) to Toronto and he’s written non-Banks books set other places. I’ve only re-read one of Robinson’s books — the first one I read that got me hooked on the Banks series, In A Dry Season. Not too surprisingly, given my reflections recently, this one has historical bits in it and the historical bit is set during WW2. Possibly I should note here that my ADad was in the RCAF and stationed in Yorkshire during WW2, so I may have been influenced by my upbringing to pay particular attention to this book. I also think the book is very good and very interesting.

As you might guess by the fact that there are historical bits in the book, In A Dry Season deals with a cold case. A mystery is uncovered in a dry summer when a reservoir dries up revealing the town that was intentionally flooded when the river was dammed. DCI Banks is put on the case along with DS Annie Cabbot. A very good story with lots of twists and turns as well as memorable characters emerges. I think this is Robinson at the top of his game, though I haven’t read his latest yet. I might change my mind. Maybe.

Robinson has written 19 Alan Banks books and I think I’ve read almost all of them. I haven’t read the most recent, and possibly not one or two of the earliest, but certainly all the rest. The political games of workplaces, the psychological intricacies of motive, the things that are incidentally uncovered in a murder investigation are all a part of Robinson’s books, and all very well done. For all you music lovers out there, Banks has a continually changing and situationally appropriate play list on his iPod (more recently) or on his car/home stereo system. Jump into the series anywhere and check it out.

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British Men Who Write Mysteries 1: Dick Francis

Last week I talked a lot about detective fiction/mysteries that were written by British Women. My list of Books I Have Read 3 Times or More also includes two British Men who write mysteries. One is a Dead British Man, the other a British Man Living In Canada. Let’s start with the dead guy.

Dick Francis wrote a lot of detective fiction about horses and horse racing. The one of his I’ve read 3 times and that I like best is called Proof and it is about a wine merchant. Don’t worry, there are horses in the book, but it doesn’t centre around racetracks or training stables in quite the same way as some of his others do. There is lots of information in the book about wine and whiskey along with a very nice little mystery to be solved. I quite like this one. I’ve still got my copy.

There are two other books by Francis that I’d recommend: To The Hilt and Decider. All three of Proof, To The Hilt, and Decider have really interesting lead characters who aren’t jockeys or trainers. To The Hilt is more about painting and banking than horses (though there are always horses somehow), and Decider is about an architect who also has six small sons. Of these three I think Proof is the best, but the other two stand out among Dick Francis books as being a cut above the rest. Most of Dick Francis’s work is what I call brain candy — amusing and usually well-constructed mysteries. They aren’t solid food, but satisfy the (mental) sweet tooth.

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Sunday List: End of Year Round-Ups

Lots of Best of 2011 lists appeared this week in time for Christmas shopping. Its exciting that Advent 1 comes right after American Thanksgiving, so I don’t feel like I’m totally out of synch by insisting that celebrations be muted until Advent begins. It’s Advent!

Globe and Mail 100

Publisher’s Weekly best of 2011

Library Journal best of 2011

and the Guardian best of 2011

And a hymn for the first Sunday in Advent:

Lo He Comes

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True Confessions – A Saturday List

This week I decided to make a Saturday List in the spirit of the True Confessions listed when writing about P.D. James. I like books, but I find that people are constantly shocked by what I haven’t yet read. There’s such a lot to read! Here are my True Confessions about Books I Should Probably Read, But Haven’t Yet. (This is the Fiction Version of the list.)

1. War and Peace. A couple of years ago, my friend the Street Pastor and I challenged each other to read War and Peace because we both had a copy sitting on our shelves looking at us. The Street Pastor finished War and Peace. I didn’t. I started. I got through part one, then I decided to give myself a little break. Then the little break got a little longer. And pouf! the year vanished and I didn’t get further than part 1. Now War and Peace doesn’t just look at me from a shelf, it glares at me from my bedside table over the reading glasses of a bookmark. The thing is I liked part 1. I want to read the book. It just intimidates me with all the weightiness and seriousness of it. I’ve not read very many books in the Large Russian Novels category because of the intimidation factor. I read Anna Karenina, but that’s it. I need to get over this whole intimidation thing.

2. Anything by Michael Ondaatje. This horrifies my friend the Playwright who once had a cat called Ondaatje. I quite liked the movie version of The English Patient and realize that the book is probably better. I had a copy of In the Skin of a Lion that I cannot currently find. I’m sure it is somewhere in the stacks of books. I’ll find it, and I’m sure I’ll read Ondaatje someday. It just hasn’t happened yet.

3. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I like Atwood’s books quite a lot and my friend the Peace Pastor thinks AG is one of her best. (I actually think the Peace Pastor likes it because there’s stuff about quilting in it.) I’ve got a copy, I started it once, but it just hasn’t stuck yet. I realize that timing has a lot to do with this. I’m worried that I’ve got a lot of expectations loaded onto the book and it just won’t live up to them. I need to stop worrying and just read the book.

4. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Yes, I’ve read all the other Austen books, but not NA. Why? Why can’t I get over the fact that this is the last Austen book I can read and just do it? What am I saving it for? Am I being like Desmond on LOST carrying around the one Dickens book he hadn’t read so it can be the last book he reads? How will he/I know when to start reading? Too many questions. Clearly I’m a head case about this one.

5. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. “What???” yelled my friend the Constant Reader and her brother the Linguist. “You do math! You haven’t read Alice? What’s wrong with you?” (I’ve summarized what they said.) I quite enjoyed the Tim Burton take on Alice at the movie theatre. I then picked up a copy of the books to read. Haven’t yet. Too many other lovely things in the To Be Read pile. Possibly the expectations around the book are factored into my procrastination here as with Alias Grace.

This is a short fiction version of Books I Should Probably Read, But Haven’t Yet. Look for a non-fiction version coming soon!

What books do you feel you should read but haven’t  yet? True confessions please.


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Queen of the British Women Mystery Writers: P.D. James

True confession #1: I find that the mysteries of P.D. James are an acquired taste, sort of like Pride and Prejudice. I tried reading her detective fiction while still in high school as lots of people thought I would like it. I didn’t really get into it. Her detective had an unpronounceable name (Adam Dalgliesh) and was a poet. When I was in high school I thought poetry was pretentious hipster writing and thus that all poets were pretentious hipsters. I’ve softened my attitude toward poetry and developed a taste for the careful reading necessary to appreciate P.D. James.

True confession #2: The P.D. James book I’ve read the most isn’t a mystery. It is her excellent work of speculative fiction, The Children of Men. I think so much of this book that I have two copies — one hard cover (for reading at home) and one pocket paperback (for lending out and taking on the road). When I have a chance to teach a children’s ministry course this novel will be on the required reading list. It contains both a vivid picture of a sterile human race and some really interesting theology. I think that contemplating a world without children helps people see the value of children in the church. And really interesting theology presented in narrative form is always worth discussing.

True confession #3: I’ve not yet caught up on reading the P.D. James backlist. I’ve got more to go! This is exciting. I’m also pleased to see that Baroness James is still writing — Austen fanfic! Death Comes to Pemberley is now available. Loads of people had it in their #fridayreads this week. See me happily lining up for a library copy. I may get tired of waiting and just ask for the book for Christmas.

Advice if you are just starting to read P.D. James: realize that her writing is carefully crafted. It isn’t a fast read. I like both her recent work and her earlier work, but found her more recent work slightly more accessible to begin with. I’m now working back into the books written in the 1960s. (Side note: Am still amazed that PDJ has been writing for longer than my lifetime. And she’s still going.) If you don’t get into the books right away, try later. You might have acquired a taste for the Queen of Crime.

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The Suspense Continues: The Ice House

Minette Walters writes a mean psychological mystery. I have to be honest and say that I find the quality of Walters a bit uneven, but when she’s good, she’s very very good. I had a bit of a hard time choosing which of Walters to put in my Books-Read-3-Times List as I’ve three of hers that meet the minimum requirement, but none that I’ve read more often than that. I picked The Ice House as representative as it is her first book and one that I found memorable.

The Ice House is about an unidentified body found in an ice house on the grounds of a house shared by three friends. The three friends, all women, seem to have an us-against-the-world mentality and are not connected well to their neighbours. Of course the (murder?) investigation that follows the discovery of the body shakes up the neighbourhood as well as the three friends. Clearly there are secrets and hidden pasts, but it is not clear how or if the body is related to any of these hidden pasts.

The connection between the three friends sharing the large house and grounds is clearly tied up in the past in some way and unravelling their friendship and the (real) reason they share the house is a large part of the interest of the book. I’ve noted that I think this book improves upon re-reading. The psychology of the characters is complicated and it takes some effort to understand them. But I think the effort pays off. This book was made into a made-for-TV movie, but I didn’t like the adaptation much. There is far too much information given in the book via internal thoughts. These thoughts are not conveyed well in the movie. I think that other adaptations have done a better job with internal voices — the movie “About A Boy” springs to mind.

In the spot-the-trend note for today, you may have noticed that all the mystery writers I’ve discussed so far are British Women. I’m afraid I read rather a lot of mysteries written by British Women. To complete the set, tomorrow I’ll talk about P.D. James. Then we’ll get to the British Men.

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Re-reading mysteries: Killing the Shadows

It may seem odd to re-read mystery books, the point of which is to give clues toward an ending. Why re-read a book when you know the solution to the problem which is the point of the book? I don’t re-read lots of mysteries. There are loads of mystery writers that I like and read who aren’t represented on my list of Books I Have Read Three Times Or More, simply because I haven’t re-read them. Most of Val McDermid’s books I have not re-read, but I’ve read Killing the Shadows 5 times. Why this one and not the others? you may ask. Of course I’m happy to tell you.

1. I like Fiona Cameron. As I write about the books I re-read I’m finding that characters count for a lot in the books that I choose to re-visit. If I like the characters I tend to go back. If I don’t like the characters, I don’t. There are other factors as well, but this one is key. This is the only one of McDermid’s books in which Fiona Cameron is the main character. Dr. Cameron (another female academic, spot a trend anyone?) appears in two other books, as a background character (The Distant Echo), and in an off-screen consulting role (Fever of the Bone). I hope that FC will show up in another book as a main character but so far no luck.

2. I do love the story — mystery writers get knocked off using the methods written about in their books. Oh the deviousness of it all. This also means that writers are important characters in the story, and the writing process is discussed as it relates to these characters. I do enjoy that as well.

3. There is something about the way this particular book is written that draws me in. It starts with FC working at a serial murder case in Toledo in Spain (very interesting case) that you think might be the main point of the story, but that just ends up being an introduction to the key characters. The particular bit I like in the early part of the book is FC settling into work with the data provided by the police in Toledo — with a large carton of coffee. My kind of academic detective consultant. The action doesn’t really kick in until after the Spanish trip is over. And the action when it gets going really ramps up. This is one suspenseful book, very tightly written, and intelligently put together. 1Mom liked it very much for all of those reasons when I passed it to her earlier this fall.

McDermid is of the writers I now follow so that I can read their current books. Two of hers have been published this year, and I’m feeling behind because I haven’t read either yet. I’m looking forward to both. Most of the books include aspects of the psychological thriller as well as the police procedural. This can clearly be seen in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books — where Tony is the psychological profiler and Carol is the police detective. I got hooked on these reading The Wire in the Blood. Start there if you dare. “Wire in the Blood” is also the title of a British TV series based on the Hill and Jordan characters. (It stars Robson Green which is reason enough to watch it if you can find it.)

McDermid’s books tend to be dark and not very hopeful at times — I think I like Killing the Shadows because it has a lighter touch than some of her others. I enjoy reading them all, but KtS is the one I return to. It is probably that grace thing again.

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Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

Since I quoted from Dorothy Sayers yesterday when I introduced Mystery Week on the Backlist, it seems best to continue with DLS. I think Gaudy Night is at the top of my Preferred Mysteries list. It might be a tie at the top with Val McDermid’s Killing the Shadows, which I will discuss here tomorrow. But on with Gaudy Night and the general wonder of DLS.

Sayers was a very interesting person. She wrote all kinds of things including essays (two are now published in a small book entitled Are Women Human?, a lovely feminist piece), plays, short stories, and detective fiction. She also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, though she died before completing Paradiso. I worked very hard to acquire my set of the DLS translation of Dante. Of course I haven’t read it yet, but it is there, on my shelf, waiting for me to get up the courage to start.

I think Gaudy Night is one of the best Lord Peter Wimsey novels Sayers wrote. It doesn’t even have Wimsey as the main character. The key point of view character is Harriet Vane. Of course Lord Peter shows up from time to time, and even aids in the solution of the mystery, but most of the work is done by Harriet. I like Harriet’s character slightly better than Peter’s character, so this is possibly one reason I like this book. The other reason is the female academics who populate the book, as it is set in a women’s college in Oxford. Sigh. Oxford, the dream-land of academics. Sayers wrote the book in the 1930s with a contemporary setting. It is very interesting to read the book as a feminist work — which it is, I don’t think it can help being that — from the present time and see how far we’ve come. Or not in some cases.

GN has a large collection of very strong and interesting female characters, something that doesn’t often happen in fiction. I like it for the academic setting (places I wish I could live and work) as well as the interesting cast of characters. And, of course, Miss Vane. You should totally read it. If you’ve already read it, you should read it again.


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Agatha and the World of Mysteries

USA Today reported today that, despite being dead, Agatha Christie remains a best-selling author. This is not mysterious — people like mystery stories, and Christie is one of the best-known mystery writers in the English-speaking world. Why do people like mysteries you might ask. Well, let me tell you. Or at least let me give you a theory or two about why people like reading detective stories.

Eugene Peterson lists some mysteries in his extended book-form reading list Take and Read. In the introduction to his list of ten he suggests that one reason people might read mysteries is “that right and wrong, so often obscured in the ambiguities of everyday living, are cleanly delineated in the murder mystery.” We thus read these stories because they provide us with “moral and intellectual breathing room” in the confusing ethical stew in which we live. Hmm. I’m not sure I buy this argument as Peterson presents it. Lets see what else is out there.

Dorothy L. Sayers, a writer of great detective fiction, had a slightly different theory on the popularity of the detective novel. In her really interesting essay The Mind of the Maker she noted that people like to think that life is like a problem that can be neatly solved. This, she argued, is not true. Life is not like a problem to be solved, rather it is like a medium for artistic creation. However, scientific methods have given people the illusion that life is like a problem and it can be solved, and people want be convinced that this is true. This, Sayers argued, is precisely why detective fiction is so popular. Here is the complete paragraph where she makes this point:

“The desire of being persuaded that all human experience may be presented in terms of a problem having a predictable, final, complete and sole possible solution accounts, to a great extent, for the late extraordinary popularity of detective fiction. This, we feel, is the concept of life which we want the artist to show us. It is significant that readers should so often welcome the detective-story as a way of escape from the problems of existence. It ‘takes their minds off their troubles.’ Of course it does; for it softly persuades them that love and hatred, poverty and unemployment, finance and international politics, are problems capable of being dealt with and solved in the same manner as the Death in the Library. The beautiful finality with which the curtain rings down on the close of the investigation conceals from the reader that no part of the ‘problem’ has been ‘solved’ except that part which was presented in problematic terms. The murderer’s motive has been detected, but nothing at all has been said about the healing of his murderous soul. Indeed, a major technical necessity of the writing is to prevent this aspect of the matter from ever presenting itself to the reader’s mind.”

With Peterson, Sayers argued that detective fiction simplifies things. Contra Peterson she did not think this gives us “intellectual and moral breathing room;” rather, she argued it provides the reader with a comforting illusion that life problems can be solved. Sayers then explained one of her detective novels and showed how in that book she’d presented readers with three problems based in the main idea, one solved, one partially solved, and the third insoluble. Good mystery novels can thus present the realities of life, not just comforting illusions.

Why do you read mysteries? Or why don’t you? (Interesting point: C.S. Lewis didn’t read mysteries, even though he and Sayers were friends, he didn’t think much of her detective stories.)

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