Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening!

December 16, 2009 at 3:18 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Those of us who were privileged to attend the Usual Suspects’  end-of-year assessment Tuesday night of last week were treated to a discussion that was – well, it was just plain terrific! (So much for my resolution not to gush…)

The first hour was devoted to book talking. Each Suspect was enjoined to talk about one title. I recently wrote that I was chafing slightly at this stricture, but in the event, it proved exactly the right decision. We only ran slightly over the hour allotted to this activity; moreover, the discussion moved at a brisk and invigorating pace.

Working in the library all those years, I had the pleasure of hearing  some terrific book talks. Now, book talking is one of those activities that is much harder to do than you would suppose. Or I should say, it is hard to do it well. Most of us have a tendency to get tangled up in the chronology of the plot, to the detriment of the book’s other aspects, e.g.  characters,  setting, and crucial for many of us, the quality of the writing.

As far as the art of the book talk is concerned, the Suspects soared! Carol kicked off the proceedings with a lively traversal of Agatha Christie’s autobiography. For Yours Truly, this brought back intensely pleasant memories of our visit to Torquay, Dame Agatha’s birthplace, in 2006. Located on Devon’s South Coast, Torquay possesses a lovely harbor and a surprisingly temperate climate. If I’m not mistaken, Carol and several other group members will be staying in Torquay as part of a mystery-themed tour this coming spring.

To Carol’s recommendation of the Christie autobiography  Ann added this suggestion:

In her turn, Ann commented on the difficulty she had this year finding mysteries that appealed to her. She then mentioned two books by Suzanne Arruda, March of the Lion and its sequel, Stalking Ivory. While she likes this author’s African setting, she finds her protagonist somewhat inauthentic.

For his part, Leo was having the same problem as Ann. Sometimes, in this situation, the only consoling course of action is to return to an author that you’ve known and loved for years. In Leo’s case, this meant going back to the books of Bruce Alexander, aka Bruce Cook. Alexander wrote a series of eleven novels featuring Sir John Fielding, “the blind beak of Bow Street” and younger brother of novelist Henry Fielding. Sir John lived from 1721 to 1780, and Alexander limns the time and place with great vigor and conviction. ( The particular title Leo read was Murder in Grub Street. This is the second entry in a series that ran from 1994 to 2005.)

Bruce Alexander passed away in 2003, leaving us with an historical fiction series that is a model of the subgenre. (I especially recommend the audio versions read  by John Lee.) Here is an interview with Alexander that appeared in January Magazine in 1999.

And what’s this? In the course of researching this subject, I discovered  City of Vice, a  BBC series based on the lives of the Fielding brothers.  The DVD is already available and is owned by the Howard County Library. (I have not thus far found any indication that these programs are based on Bruce Alexander’s novels.)

Next, it was Mike’s turn. She began by commenting that her frustration with the inadequacy of many new books has led her to a return to older titles. (I feel this way much of the time myself.) She read this:

Now, Mike’s choice really intrigued me. I have long cherished the film version of Anatomy of a Murder but I’ve never read the book. Mike, on the other hand, has read the book – and greatly enjoyed it – but not yet seen the movie. Mike, you are in for a real treat!

Louise recommended Fire and Fog by Dianne Day.   I had almost forgotten about Day’s Fremont Jones series. Fremont is an enterprising young woman who flees her stifling New England milieu in order to make her way in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. I read the first series entry, The Strange Files of Fremont Jones, shortly after it came out in 1995 and enjoyed it very much.

On to Frances, who is a relative newcomer to the Suspects. And what a great addition to the group she is – she possesses great warmth and wit, with a terrific mind into the bargain. It follows naturally that such a person would love crime fiction. (How could I possibly stop myself writing that last sentence?) Frances is our resident Sherlockian, and her recommendation, Dust and Shadow by Lindsay Faye. In this debut novel, Faye pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper. The tale is told by – who else? – Dr. Watson. By the time Frances had finished her eloquent summation, I wanted to dash right out and get the book immediately! Ditto for The Tale of Murasaki by Liz Dalby. I don’t think this delicious-sounding historical novel is a mystery, but somehow it got thrown into the rich stew of irresistible fiction titles that we were brewing that night.

Frances concluded by praising the novels of Rita Mae Brown and Asa Larsson.

And now it was my turn.

I indicated in a prior post that I was having a good deal of trouble deciding which book to talk. In fact, I didn’t actually decide until about fifteen minutes into the discussion. Yes, I had done some narrowing down. Several candidates were stowed in my book bag; I finally settled on this one:

It turns out that several group members had fond memories of Ellis Peters’ s Inspector Felse series. In particular, Ann was quite familiar with them. She informed us that the detecting duo of Dominic Felse and Tossa (real name Theodosia) Barber also appear in two series titles set in India: Mourning Raga and The Knocker on Death’s Door. (You can see why it is such a joy to talk about mysteries with these people, with their vast knowledge of the genre coupled with a boundless enthusiasm!)

I now realize that the real joy of this series is not so much Inspector Felse himself – though he is a pleasant and intelligent enough gentleman – but his son. Dominic, with his heart-on-his-sleeve and his winning ways! Why do we not encounter more characters like him in mystery fiction – young men and/or women approaching adulthood with that tantalizing mix of avidity and trepidation…

In the post I referred to above I mention my delight in being introduced, by Ellis Peters, to the fujara. What is it? Click here to see – and to hear.

At the tail end of my spiel – and emboldened by Frances’s having mentioned more than a single title! – I threw in the anthology Line-up. This delightful compendium is edited by Otto Penzler, legendary proprietor of New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop.

Pauline followed me with a recommendation of Locked In by Marcia Muller and Skin and Bone by Tom Bale. (From what I can determine, the latter has not been published in this country.)

Finally, Marge praised the novels of John Lescroart, whom she feels has never achieved the recognition he deserves among crime fiction aficionados. In particular, she recommended these two titles:

Marge’s persuasive pitch certainly convinced me to give this author a try. In addition, she raved about Sara Paretsky’s latest, Hardball.

Communicating via e-mail, Barb seconded Marge’s praise of Hardball, adding this observation:  “It is curious that in their latest books, both Sara Paretsky and Sue  Grafton (in U Is for Undertow) have reached back into the ’60’s for a part of their plots.” Barb then added her title choice for the evening:

So: so far, so good…for Hour One.


Next, we were asked to consider and  comment on the salient points raised in Pauline’s erudite handout. In it, she examined our year in crime fiction from various angles, such as subgenre, gender of the author, and gender of the protagonist. These last two yielded an interesting fact:  of the ten novels discussed in 2009, seven were written by women. Yet only one – A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton – featured a female protagonist.

Here’s what we read in 2009:

A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly
The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister
The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker
Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
Still Life by Louise Penny
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Although many of us have an abiding affection for mysteries set in the past, only two of  our ten selections were clearly  historical: A Free Man of Color and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (the latter being nonfiction). There followed a discussion of what actually constitutes historical fiction. The handout contained this definition, courtesy of the Spring 2008 issue of Mystery Readers Journal: “A book…written at least 50 years after the events described or…written by someone who was not alive at the tike of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).” This is taken more or less verbatim from the one provided by The Historical Novel Society, and while one could certainly take issue with it, it strikes me as a reasonable jumping off point.

As to the other subgenres, we agreed that the edges around some of these category definitions are starting to blur. Is it hardboiled? softboiled? lightly boiled? three minute? (As you can see, at this point we were in comic relief mode!) We also felt that the term “cozy” is becoming diffuse. Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries have been called cozies, but we don’t think the term applies accurately to this series.

When we examined the question of setting, we were surprised that at no time in 2009 did we venture beyond North American and the British Isles. We are of course very aware of, and generally enthusiastic about, the ascendancy of international settings and crime fiction in translation. In the past, we have read and discussed  the novels of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, Boris Akunin, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, and others. But we didn’t venture to such foreign climes this past year. Should we make doing so a priority? asked Pauline. Only if the books are worth our while, was Marge’s rejoinder. No arguing with that.

So: suggestions? Marge mentioned A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley (Botswana); Pauline brought up The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (Australia). The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall was thrown into the mix (India). Someone mentioned Karin Fossum, whose writing I especially love and whose latest novel, The Water’s Edge, was to my mind a small masterpiece. Finally I whipped out Judge Dee at Work. I continue to be fascinated by Robert van Gulik’s amazing evocation of China in the seventh century AD. At which point Ann reminded us of I.J. Parker’s novels, which are set in eleventh century Japan.

At one point during the meeting, we had  been given ballots on which we were to indicate which book and/or discussion we had most enjoyed. Apparently, the nine people present all voted differently; the only title that got  more than one vote was Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. (Last month, Marge led us in an excellent discussion of this title.)

After some vacillation, I cast my vote for Strangers on a Train (with The Maltese Falcon and Raven Black running a close second). Interestingly, Strangers was the book-cum-discussion that Carol liked the least. She felt that there was enough evil in the real world without our having to deal with the pure malevolence emanating so strongly from the pages of Highsmith’s book. But I felt that the novel offered a brilliant portrayal of a man who was not fundamentally evil but was fundamentally weak, whose artist’s gifts and love for a fine woman should have led him to higher ground but didn’t, who should have been able to resist the evil incarnate of another man, when his influence bore down so powerfully.

Final thoughts? At a remove of one week, I’m mostly remembering my own: I appreciated the inclusion of classic titles among the selections. I found that reaching back to discuss the first novels in long-running series – Sue Grafton’s A Is for Alibi and Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript – was illuminating and fun. I was surprised that two titles that I thoroughly enjoyed got a thumbs down from almost every one else (the Parker title and Tinderbox by Jo Bannister). Finally, I feel deeply fortunate to be part of this wonderful group of crime fiction fans!


A note to the Usual Suspects: I apologize for any errors and/or omissions, and I welcome your comments.


  1. Frances Goodson Wang said,

    Roberta, this is a terrific overview of our last meeting’s animated and stimulating discussion. We all spoke quickly to get as much information as possible on the table. In the end the analysis of our year’s reading helped me, and perhaps others, to understand and expand my knowledge of the genre and sub-genres of mystery writing. I left with voluminous notes, hoping I had heard and captured all that was buzzing around as we plunged into the analysis with enthusiasm. My favorite book of the year was The Tinderbox, which grabbed me immediately and which I still think about months later, with all the others coming in second. As usual, I will have to search out the interesting books our members suggested.

    As I said at the meeting this group’s diverse book choices has served to stretch my personal reading comfort zone, something I was hoping for and have found in this wonderful group which is going on its 11th year, which is quite an accomplishment.
    Thanks to Ann, Barb and Chris for being a wonderful hostesses this year, to Carol and Pauline for their leadership and to all our members for being who they are. It has been almost a year since my first meeting and I hope there will be many more years of sharing my love of mystery with the Usual Suspects.
    Speaking of categories overlapping I find it hard to nail the exact differences between mystery thriller and mystery suspense, both qualities being inherent is mysteries as far as I can tell.
    I also wonder if Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is half historical and half contemporary? What do you call a novel that is set in dual time zones? Is there a term for such a book or do we get to invent a new one?? 🙂

  2. Kathy D. said,

    This is a wonderful summary of your group’s discussion. Will make notes of books recommended.

    I agree with several comments, particularly about Hardball (one of Paretsky’s best), Locked-In (a top one in the McCone series). Bad Things Happen was one good read–very well done, witty, fast-paced, so clever. Dolan is writing a second book with two of the main characters featured.

  3. Crime fiction backlog: some good ones here… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] was already plenty of buzz among the Usual Suspects concerning the fifth entry in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series by the time I got around […]

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