An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath

April 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

You expect to be haunted by the ghosts of departed family members and close friends. You don’t expect to be haunted by the memory of someone you barely knew. Or at least, I didn’t expect it.

In June of last year, when I still worked part time at the library, I was asked to present a program of book talks for employees at a facility for the frail elderly. The request had come from a board member who worked there. I’ll call her Jill. I had never met her, but she was warm and enthusiastic on the phone, and I looked forward to meeting her and doing the book talks for her staff.

Jill proved as warm and welcoming as I had expected her to be. She was tall and slender, with blonde hair that framed a lovely face. We chatted for a while. When the staff members had arrived, she introduced me, and I launched into my spiel, enjoying myself hugely as I always do when I talk about books.

Here, with some emendations and illustrations thrown in, is the list I handed out that day:

The Many Faces of Crime Fiction, or a selective serving of murder and mayhem!

Variety of locales – some exotic, some not so exotic:

India during the British Raj: The Last Kashmiri Rose, by Barbara Cleverly

Botswana: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

Sweden: One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell;The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo [The Laughing Policeman, written in 1968 and published here in 1970, is one of my alll time favorite mysteries!]

Italy: Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

Canada: Still Life, by Louise Penny

[Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. They got the idea for their Martin Beck procedurals while translating Ed McBain’s books into Swedish.]

In the U.S, some of the “hottest” places are the coldest places!

Steve Hamilton (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula)

William Krueger (Minnesota)

Archer Mayor (Vermont)

Florida and California are still popular settings for crime fiction:

Florida (Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiaasen)

California (Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, Sue Grafton)

And of course, there’s Baltimore own Laura Lippman

Historical mysteries:

Middle Ages very popular right now. Started with Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries

Victorian era: Cater Street Hangman and The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

The England of Henry VIII: Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

Ancient Rome: Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor

British Inspectors (books commonly known as police procedurals)


Robert BarnardDeath by Sheer Torture

P.D. James (Commander Adam Dalgliesh)

Ruth Rendell (Inspector Reginald Wexford)

Reginald Hill (Andy Dalziel & Peter Pascoe)

Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse)

Martha Grimes (Richard Jury)

Peter Robinson (Alan Banks)

Caroline Graham (Barnaby & Troy)

Ellis Peters – Death and the Joyful Woman* (Inspector Felse)

Dick Francis’s protagonists are primarily jockeys rather than policemen. He has used the character Sid Halley in several of his novels, the latest being Under Orders. [Actually, there’s now a new title, Dead Heat,* which Dick Francis and his son Felix wrote together. This is not a Sid Halley novel; it features a new protagonist, chef and restaurateur Max Morton.]


Ian Rankin (John Rebus);

A Scottish setting, though not a police procedural: The Right Attitude to Rain* by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie series)

International Intrigue

Restless by William Boyd
The Warlord’s Son by Dan Fesperman

Psychological Suspense

Puccini’s Ghost by Morag Joss
The Minotaur by Barbara Vine
Seven Lies by James Lasdun

Legal Suspense

Scott Turow
King of Lies by John Hart


Historical fiction:

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
An Imperfect Lens by Anne Roiphe*
Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone
The March – E.L. Doctorow
Pompeii and Imperium by Robert Harris
Alice in Exile by Piers Paul Read*

Great reading for folks who just plain love fiction:

Intuition by Allegra Goodman
The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers*
The Photograph by Penelope Lively
Second Honeymoon* and A Spanish Lover* by Joanna Trollope
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Digging To America by Anne Tyler
Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon*
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass*




The Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Nonfiction that reads like fiction!

City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
Archie and Amelie by Donna Lucey*
England’s Mistress by Kate Williams*
May and Amy by Josceline Dimbleby

Nonfiction in a class by itself:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler


A pleasure to listen to:

Imperium by Robert Harris, read by Simon Jones

Judge Dee mysteries by Robert VanGulik, read by Frank Muller [Do yourself a favor and get your hands on these – either the audio versions or the books. They are just great! And Robert van Gulik himself had an amazing life.]

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, read by Ian Carmichael.

[ Ian Carmichael, perfectly cast as Lord Peter Wimsey]

Digging To America by Anne Tyler, read by Blair Brown

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency* series by Alexander McCall Smith, read by Lisette Lecat

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries and Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, read by George Guidall

*love story alert!


Useful websites for readers:

Mystery and Romance

Stop! You’re Killing Me

On this site you will find information on the geographical location of a mystery series, type of protagonist, e.g. policeman, lawyer, academic, firefighter, etc., and ethnicity of protagonist, as well as the order of books in a series.

Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine

This great little “fanzine” is one of the first places I turn to for reliable recommendations.

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection

This exceptionally literate site is maintained by “guru” Michael E. Grost.

The Romance Reader

On this site, you’ll find reviews, recommendations, and author interviews.

General, including book clubs


This site pulls together starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist.

Reading Group Guides

Find a discussion guide for the book your group is reading.

Available on your library’s website, this terrific resource has book lists galore, plus exceptionally thoughtful reading group guides.


(Jill had mentioned during our phone conversations that several members of my prospective audience were devotees of the love story. Although I don’t ordinarily read books specifically labelled as romance, I nonetheless often encounter love stories in my reading. Several of the books on the list qualify, I informed her. This is how the “love story alert” came about.)

As it happened, nonfiction titles got relatively short shrift. Jill made note of that fact, and I responded that I hadn’t really thought about it; the list had just turned out that way. After a pause, she commented, “I used to read a lot of fiction, but I don’t any more. Now, I want to read for knowledge.” She glanced sideways at me and smiled, an enigmatic half smile like Mona Lisa.

When I left, Jill presented me with a gift bag containing, among other things, a ceramic mug with the name of the facility embossed upon it.

Five months later, after I had retired, I opened the local paper and saw Jill’s face staring out at me. She really was beautiful. I recognized the smile at once.

It was the obituary page.

The mug is dark blue; the lettering is gold. I fill it with tea or coffee and think of Jill. And in recent months, I have come to favor nonfiction over fiction (with an exception made for my beloved mysteries). I retain a vivid recollection of Jill stating, in simple terms, her own preference. I too now read primarily for knowledge – though whether the knowledge I need most urgently will come to me as a result, I cannot say.

Meanwhile, as we pursue happiness and dwell in pleasant gardens, like the one depicted in the post just below this one, we cannot entirely escape the ancient reminder, Et in Arcadio Ego. Or, as a poet in our own age has rather mordantly put it: “Most things may never happen: this one will.” The line is from “Aubade,” by Philip Larkin:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


  1. Kay said,

    I loved this post. Such a wonderful list. I’ve been thinking of beginning to do some booktalks at my branch of the library. Not sure how it would be received, but you never know.

    I also loved the part about Jill. How touching. I hope she was able to continue her quest for knowledge right up to the end.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Thanks, Kay. This post is special for me, too. It was a great deal of work, yet I felt compelled to do it. I am pleased to have been able to offer this memorial in the form of an exhortation to read and love books.

  3. BooksPlease said,

    A really great post, so many books (some I’ve read and loved). Jill has made an impression on you and now on me too. Some people are such a pleasure to meet.

  4. Lynn said,

    Roberta – The link provided to Overbooked in this post and under Books on the right-hand side of your homepage is incorrect.

    Instead of, it should be

    At least, it better fits the description you’ve provided in this post of:

    “This site pulls together starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist.”

    Now the person maintaining writes that she fell behind in updating the list of starred reviews due to health problems, but is now “catching up”.

    It is a unique and valuable site, so I thought you would want to know.


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Many thanks, Lynn. I always enjoyed using Overbooked; I was afraid it was gone forever.

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