The Usual Suspects hold their end-of-year summit

December 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

In recent years, the Usual Suspects, a mystery book discussion group, has concluded each year by examining how that year went with regard to choices of title and quality of discussion. We also hold a vote on the members’ favorite book; in addition, each person brings a book to recommend to the group.

It is our custom to dine together at a congenial venue before getting down to business. I say “business,” but it is really pleasure, this end of year summit. A comfortable quorum of ten members was present. Pauline, our resident intellectual (and statistician!), provided an overview of the year. (A comprehensive handout accompanies this activity.) First, we  review the titles we read. Starting in January, these were:

The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnson
The Suspect by L.R. Wright
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie By Alan Bradley
Any Maigret title by Georges Simenon
The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen
Kahawa by Donald Westlake
The Last Child by John Hart

We reminisced about each of  these meetings, with the leader, if present, offering his or her thoughts as to how the discussion went and how the various group members seem to feel about the book (or books). Then everyone chimed in. (There’s always plenty of “chiming” at our gatherings!)

This is an activity that I highly recommend to book groups. This end of year backward glance proved  fascinating. There’s invariably a divergence of viewpoint regarding the quality of one title or another. Everyone, however, strives to be the veritable soul of tact. Best to keep the more strident opinions, if one is entertaining them, to oneself! (And doesn’t that sound just like Isabel Dalhousie?)

In 2010, six of the authors we read were male, and three were female. This proved to be almost the exact obverse of last year, when the ratio was seven females to three males. We looked  at the nationality of the authors as well as the setting of their works. There’s invariably a lively discussion as to which subgenre the books belong to. Was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a cozy? Was Kahawa hardboiled? a thriller? Pauline provided definitions of the subgenres gathered from various books and articles that treat of the mystery genre. They were so useful, I’m going to partially transcribe them here:

“Cozies…usually take place in an orderly world where the violence takes place off-stage….” This subgenre often features an amateur sleuth.*
“Hard-boiled novels are violent, with sexual content, and protagonists are usually morally conflicted.”*
“Noir: Subset of hard-boiled, with protagonist usually not a detective and often a victim, suspect or perpetrator who is tied to the crime. Sexual relationships and self-destructive elements used to advance the plot. Lean, gritty writing style.” This definition comes from an article entitled “What Is Noir?” by George Tuttle. It appeared in a 1994 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. (In this context I highly recommend this list of the basic characteristics of film noir, formulated by David N. Meyer in A Girl and a Gun:

No good deed goes unpunished.
A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.
Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.
Character determines fate.
Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.
Kicks count for something.
Alienation rules.)

“Humorous: usually cozies, but many genres have humorous elements.”  (I would add here that if you widen the category to include black and deeply ironic humor, there’s plenty of it in noir and hard-boiled fiction.)
“Suspense: Page-turner, keeps reader waiting for a particular outcome, often has a character in danger. The read has a sense of constant or nearly constant fear and tension….”*
“Thrillers use a high degree of action, intrigue, adventure, and suspense. Involves reader emotionally.”*
“Classic: Mysteries of the highest quality, of enduring appeal.”

Asterisks designate material adapted from Read ‘Em Their Writes by Gary Warren Niebuhr.

Pauline quoted an interesting definition of historical fiction found in 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 time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research.)” The Mystery Readers International site is a veritable goldmine. For instance, here’s an interview of William Kent Krueger, conducted by Craig Johnson.

Last year the group read three novels featuring private investigators; this year we read none. No one was quite sure why this should be so. Are there fewer mysteries with private eye protagonists being written?  Do those that are being written have less appeal? (The titles we read last year that fell into this category were A Is For Alibi by Sue Grafton, The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The most recent of the three, Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone novel, came out in 1982. So we’re not talking new releases here. And who would have thought that we’d be saying goodbye to Robert B.Parker this year? For over three decades, his Spencer series was an endless source of delight!)

The topic of cultural and geographic diversity was touched upon. Someone mentioned a liking for American Indian lore, and we reminisced for a bit about the excellent career of Tony Hillerman, whose chronicles of the Hopi and Navajo nations of the Southwest are so compelling. The point was made that the crime fiction of William Kent Krueger and Craig Johnson is similarly enriched with a Native American presence.

Pauline’s handout also contained information as to which of “our authors,” in recent years, have received award recognition from the various mystery and crime fiction organizations and publications. Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, Patricia Highsmith, Louise Penny, and Ann Cleeves were among those receiving accolades. While these particular writers are certainly deserving, we nonetheless agreed that award designation is no guarantee of  a correspondingly great read. (For myself, I’m beginning to think that a great reading experience depends completely on the mood I happen to be in.)

Each participant was asked to bring a book to share with the group. This part of the evening is always fun and intriguing; you never know who’s going to bring what:

Frances brought . Marge remembered reading this when it came out in 1993 and liking it. I had started it and not cared for it, but Frances’s book talk made me want to try again. (The book’s Chicago setting  is, for me, another point in its favor.) Anne recommended .  Malliett is a fairly new author; this title, first in a series featuring DCI Arthur St. Just, appeared in 2008. This also sounded good to me, especially since the setting is Cambridgeshire, in the East of England, a region of that country that I hope one day to visit. Louise presented . This is the second in a well received series set in India. The protagonist is Vish Puri, who runs a private detective agency in Delhi. Mary Edna  shared her enthusiasm for . I’ve been wanting to read something by this writer, whose books have been recommended to me by several enthusiastic thriller readers. (Mary Edna said it was a real edge-of-your-seat reading experience.) Ann, who particularly favors historical mysteries, told us about . The group discussed an earlier title in this series, Ragtime in Simla, and enjoyed Cleverly’s vivid depiction of the British Raj in the years following the First World War. We stayed with historical fiction, this time going back to endlessly fascinating medieval England with Carol’s selection, . The group previously read a Dame Frevisse novel by this author; A Play of Isaac is the first in another series by Frazer featuring Joliffe, leader of a troupe of traveling players. On behalf of Barb, Pauline presented these titles: , , and. All three of these women, Barb enthused (vicariously), are  currently writing at the height of their powers. Interestingly, several members who had read Body Work and  considered themselves to be fans of Sara Paretsky’s work, expressed some reservations about this particular novel. Nevertheless, we agreed in general with Barb’s assessment. (In recent months, Barb has not been able to attend our meetings. Nevertheless, she has followed our progress and read our selections. I know I speak for everyone when I say that she’s been with us in spirit, and that we look forward to her return.)

Ellen recommended . This the first in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series. (Don’t you wonder why a writer would choose a hard-to-pronounce names for a character?) I’ve been meaning to get to this book ever since reading its stunning follow up, The Pure in Heart. Ellen commented that the ending of Various Haunts “freaked me out.” That’s the sort of remark that really piques my curiosity!

Marge had great praise for. She found the characters richly drawn and the Kansas setting, especially with regard to a huge ranching enterprise, vividly rendered. Finally, I concluded this segment of the evening with . Pauline informed us that Martin Walker, who lives in Washington a good part of the year, has been interviewed on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.  (Click here for my review of this title.)

Marge and I had offered to prepare a list of books to be considered for discussion. We were looking for titles that were well written, interesting in and of themselves, and finally, in our estimation at least, discussible. We did not include authors whom we’ve read fairly recently. (Additionally, copies of each title needed to be obtainable without too much difficulty.)

Here’s what we came up with:

Fiction

Kate Atkinson – Case Histories
Robert Barnard – A Stranger in the Family
Louis Bayard – The Pale Blue Eye
C.J. Box – Open Season (first in a series), Blue Heaven (standalone)
Agatha Christie – The Pale Horse
Gabriel Cohen – The Ninth Step
Michael Connelly – Nine Dragons
Deborah Crombie – Water Like a Stone
Paul Doiron – The Poacher’s Son*
John Dunning – The Bookwoman’s Last Fling
Martin Edwards – The Coffin Trail
Kjell Eriksson – The Demon of Dakar
Elly Griffiths – The Crossing Places*
Martha Grimes – The Blue Last
Cynthia Harrod-Eagles – Fell Purpose
John Harvey – Cold in Hand (Charlie Resnick series),
Flesh and Blood (Frank Elder series)

Susan Hill – The Pure in Heart
Morag Joss – Half Broken Things
William Kent Krueger – Boundary Waters
Dennis Lehane – Gone Baby Gone (first in a series), Moonlight Mile
Donna Leon – Acqua Alta, About Face
John Lescroart – Second Chair
Michael Malone – First Lady
Sharyn McCrumb – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, She Walks These Hills
(Ballad series)
Ruth Rendell – Road Rage (Wexford series),
The Birthday Present (written as Barbara Vine), Portobello

Peter Robinson – Bad Boy
Priscilla Royal – Wine of Violence (additional copies to be ordered by HCL)
Andrew Taylor – Bleeding Heart Square
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room
Charles Todd – A Duty to the Dead
Peter Turnbull – Informed Consent, Deliver Us From Evil

Nonfiction (True crime)

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum
The Gardner Heist – Ulrich Boser
The Fall of the House of Walworth – Geoffrey O’Brien

*Named by Kirkus as one of  the fifteen best mysteries of 2010.

The list was  received with approbation and provoked several questions and comments. Someone asked me about The Pale Horse, and I promptly had one of my notorious enthusiasm attacks. Marge reviewed our selection criteria and emphasized that this was a list of suggestions and in no way mandatory. I spoke of my admiration for the work of Andrew Taylor and my frustration concerning the lack of availability of the novels in his Roth Trilogy and Lydmouth series. I had wanted to place the first Lydmouth novel, An Air That Kills, on the list but forbore from doing so when I found that  the local library possesses only one copy. Furthermore, this title is out of print, at least in this country. I also briefly book talked the nonfiction titles. They are all three great reads and eminently discussible. (Both The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Fall of  the House of Walworth made Amazon’s list of the year’s Ten Best History books of 2010.)I was pleasantly surprised by the group’s enthusiastic reception last year of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Since we did not discuss any nonfiction in 2010, perhaps we might consider doing so in the coming year. (Britain’s ITV is reportedly in the process of  adapting Mr. Whicher for television, with actor Paddy Considine in the lead role.)

We were running out of time or I also would have taken the opportunity to sing the praises of Peter Turnbull. I’m currently reading the latest Hennessey and Yellich title, Deliver Us From Evil, and enjoying it tremendously, as I do all of this author’s finely crafted procedurals

Oh – and the vote for 2010’s favorite? There was tie, with The Cold Dish and The Suspect each getting two votes. (The voting was  carried out via secret ballot, of course. Luckily there were no hanging chads – remember them? – or other impediments to the fairness of the process!)

********************************

There’s  been a larger than usual flurry of post meeting e-mail, understandable considering the rich content of the meeting. There is Carol’s traditional summing up of the proceedings; she deemed the proceedings “very successful,” a judgment in which I believe we can all concur. Carol also informs us that a pilot episode of  Longmire has  been given the green light by  the A&E network. Yes – this is the Walt Longmire who’s the protagonist in Craig Johnson’s series. Apparently casting is still being worked out. I for one would love to see Johnson himself in the title role. With his genial manner,  folksy delivery, and  slightly rumpled Western duds, he’d be a natural! (See the video in my review of The Cold Dish.)

Frances sent an interesting interview by Dennis Collins of Myshelf.com with Michael Allen Dymmoch. Collins also reviews  The Man Who Understood Cats, even while confessing that he himself does not understand  cats, poor benighted fellow!

Frances posed the question as to how  members decide what they’re going to read in the first place. The answers varied: some are drawn to a certain setting or time period; others are returning to an author they already know they like. Several people said they get great ideas from the “What We’re Reading” section of the newsletter put out by the folks at the Stop! You’re  Killing Me site. (Subscribe to that newsletter here.) For my own part, I rely primarily on reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Publishers WeeklyBooklist, Mystery Scene Magazine, and Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. I’m also very fortunate to have friends (like my fellow Suspects) who are discerning readers of crime fiction and provide me with great suggestions.

*******************************

While I was writing about Robert B. Parker, it occurred to me that it might not go amiss to remember other writers of distinction to whom we’ve recent bid farewell. Dick Francis and Ralph McInerny come to mind, as does Donald Westlake, who passed away on December 31, 2009. (He was on his way to a New Year’s Eve dinner, where he would likely have had everyone in stitches with his gently irreverent humor.)

Ralph McInerny

Robert B. Parker

Donald Westlake

Dick Francis - yes, that's him, as a young jockey

******************************

I’ll let Frances have the last word: “Thank you all for being the wonderful group I am so glad I found several winters ago.” Frances, we’re glad to have you, and glad to have one another as friends and staunch proponents of crime  fiction.

*******************************

Fellow Suspects, please feel free to offer comments and corrections in the Comments section. And please forgive me if this post is rather too “Roberta-centric.” One does tend to recall one’s own thoughts and bon mots more clearly than the equally worthy ones made by others.

9 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    Great post! Just one very minor correction regarding Martin Walker. From time to time, he has been one of the journalists on Diane Rehm’s news round-up on Friday mornings on WAMU (which I try to catch as often as I can) and not the subject of any interviews. He is very interesting to listen to as he is extremely knowledgeable about politics and the international scene. I plan to read his books now that you have recommended them so highly.

    Thank you.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I’m glad you like the post, Pauline, and thanks for the correction re Martin Walker & The Diane Rehm Show.

      I really think you’ll like his books.

  2. Yvette said,

    Loved this whole idea of and end of year round-up. I’ve read some of the books on these lists. Martin Walker was an especially wonderful find. I am a major fan of Dick Francis and Robert Parker and mourned their passing his year.

    It’s interesting to see you talking about Michael Allen Dymmoch, I thought I was the only one who’d ever read these books. : )

    There are several writers on your lists whose work I will definitely be exploring this year.

    Happy Holidays to you and thanks for a terrific blog.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Happy Holidays to you as well, Yvette. And thanks for reading Books to the Ceiling so faithfully & enthusiastically!

      Roberta

  3. Carol said,

    Such a nice post, Roberta. One minor correction – each of the “Favorite Book” winners was given 3 votes each, not 2, and actually Barb’s e-mailed vote created the tie!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Carol!

  4. kathy d. said,

    What a wonderful and helpful post–helpful in that it will contribute towards my reading plans for 2011.

    Must write down several titles.

    I have read a number of the books, including works by Donna Leon, Sara Paretsky, and Marcia Muller, Kjell Eriksson (pleasant news: more of his books will be coming out in English), and others.

    One interesting series not listed is Inspector Van Veeteren’s by Hakan Nesser. Author and police detective are so smart; the plot is tight and suspenseful–and interestingly, humor jumps out of you unexpectedly–and you laugh out loud, or I do.

    I have read all of Paretsky’s fiction and am in the middle of Muller’s latest. While I love Sara Paretsky’s books, her main character, V.I. Warshawski and her politics, I had a bit of a problem with “Body Work.” Some of it–the plot about women and body painting–was too much of a stretch, not realistic. The book has other redeeming features. Her points are good, but a more reality-based plot device might have worked better. I will continue to devour her books, though.

    V.I. Warshawski is my favorite woman detective, although Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone are way up there, too.

    You all read such a variety of books, and each of you in the group has such individual taste, that I must reread this post, think and look up books.

    The whole Internet experience is just so good. I read daily “Petrona,” “Reactions to Reading,” “Mysteries in Paradise,” “Crime Scraps,” and “Detectives Beyond Borders.” These really boost my global reading, which has soared in the past year, and me the better for it.

    2011 brings new reading adventures; can’t wait.

  5. Frances said,

    Michael Allen Dymmoch’s writing has grabbed my attention. I have ordered as many of his works as I can find. I tend to be drawn to books with societal themes and complex psychological characterizations. The Man Who Understood Cats most certainly falls into these categories.
    Dymmoch’s observations concerning the mysterious felines merit attention. His comments are insightful, amusing and so very true. I’ve lived with cats for most of my life so have a trove of cat stories of my own! I wonder what Dymmoch would say about me becoming an owner of a dog named Bu, my Benji look alike, who has given me 11 years of joy? Can one be both a cat and a dog person? 🙂 It is no surprise that Bu thinks he is a cat and that the cats love him. Curious, no??

    • Roberta Rood said,

      From one cat and dog lover to another – Thanks, Frances!

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