A cornucopia of crime fiction at the Usual Suspects’ end-of-year wrap-up meeting

December 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

 

 

As she does each year, Pauline prepared a meticulously drawn up end-of-year summary. This excellent document begins with a month by month accounting, in a sort of modified spreadsheet format, of what book(s) we discussed, who led the discussion, and notable facts about said volumes, such as awards won or films made. The next section presents a compendium of general facts, along with some comparisons with the previous year. For example, this year we read four male authors and five female; whereas last year the breakdown was six male and three female. Also, here will be found a breakdown of the types of investigators – police, lawyer, private eye, and the like. The settings varied widely, from the expected British and American to the rather more exotic Saudi Arabia and Laos.

Here’s what we talked about in 2011: (In cases where I wrote a blog post on the discussion, I’ve provided a link.)

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland
Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie
The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
Disturbing the Dead by Sandra Parshall
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
The Wexford novels of Ruth Rendell: Simisola, Road Rage, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, End in Tears, From Doon with Death (Participants were asked to choose one title to read.)
Nonseries novels by Ruth Rendell: Judgement in Stone, The Crocodile Bird, Keys to the Street, Tigerlily’s Orchids, The Water’s Lovely (Participants were asked to choose one title to read.)

 

 

The third and final section of Pauline’s handout contains questions regarding the year’s reading for the group to consider. Which books made for the best discussion, and why? How important were setting, plot, and character development? What about the quality of the writing? What elements do you look for when deciding on which book to propose for discussion? What is your “ideal” mystery?

These and other queries prompted a most stimulating and enjoyable discussion. The general consensus: 2011 was a great year for the group. The overall quality of titles selected for discussion was exceptional; there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.

We voted for our favorite book of the year. (You were not supposed to vote for your own discussion choice.) Carol informed us that our selections were all over the map; nevertheless, The Coroner’s Lunch received the most votes.    This was the only discussion I missed this year, but I have read the book. Another of Pauline’s questions was, Which book surprised you the most? Cotterill’s novel certainly surprised me. I hadn’t expected a book set in Laos in the 1970s to be as  witty and diverting as this one most certainly was. (For me, this vote made for a tough decision, but I ended up choosing Dissolution.)

The biggest surprise for me this year was the strong negative reaction to Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell. Marge and I both really enjoyed this novel and were genuinely perplexed and dismayed when others in the group clearly did not. This was a classic case of the need to agree to disagree. There were, however, some subsequent compensations: people definitely “got” the sheer (if creepy) brilliance of A Judgement in Stone, and those who read The Crocodile Bird were quite positive in their assessment of that provocative and highly original work.

Also at this meeting, we finalized our choices for next year. It looks as though we have some great reading and discussing in store. Carol’s choice is The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, a novel I’ve always intended to read anyway.   I’ll get the chance to reread (or listen to) Crocodile on a Sandbank, the delightful first entry in the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. (Thanks, Anne!)   And Frances will be leading a discussion The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I am always glad to return to the work of this path breaking Swedish duo.   Other upcoming titles for the Suspects are I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, Caught by Harlan Coben, and Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel.        As for me, come July I’ll be presenting Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse.

Last on the agenda: we had each been asked to bring a book we’d like to recommend. This round table was full of delightful surprises, including books that one might not normally  think of as crime fiction. Examples: Mary Edna brought Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan, and Susan presented House Rules by Jodi Picoult.     Mike brought Saratoga Backtalk, an entry in the Charlie Bradshaw series by Stephen Dobyns (This stirred in me a faint memory of having enjoyed, in the distant past, The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini, a nonseries novel by this same author.)

 Louise recommended Sundowner Ubuntu by Anthony Bidulka and Down River by Karen Harper. (There was some question as to whether this was the same Karen Harper who writes the Elizabethan mysteries favored by some in the group. It is, in fact, the same person.) Frances recommended Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Swedish author Asa Larsson.  (There seems to be no end to these gifted Scandinavians!) She also brought The World in 2050 by Laurence C. Smith, a nonfiction title that, while not specifically about crime, has nonetheless made a deep impression on her.) Ann talked about William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, while Pauline discussed the Gerhard Self series by Bernhard Schlink (more familiar as the author of The Reader).  

I brought Michael Dirda’s delightful hommage, On Conan Doyle. For me, the chief revelation of this slender and lively volume lay in the sheer number of works by Sherlock Holmes’s creator that have nothing whatever to do with Sherlock Holmes. I knew about the historical novels but not about the tales of adventure and the ghost stories. These latter works are extremely hard to find, but mirabile dictu, I was able to download these two onto my new Kindle Fire: . (Oh…my new Kindle Fire…I guess I haven’t mentioned this. A separate post will be needed for this subject, I can assure you!)

In library circles, book talking is considered an art, one which requires a careful combination of artifice and spontaneity. One of the joys of Tuesday night was listening to the Suspects do an effortlessly great job of this – as though born to it, which perhaps we all were. I want to single out Anne for special praise. Her smooth and literate discourse on The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell had me completely convinced – not to mention thoroughly entertained.     Finally, Carol spoke with warmth about two titles: White Heat, by M.J. McGrath, and a nonfiction book by Melanie McGrath (one and the same person) entitled The Long Exile. Both are concerned with Ellesmere Island and the Inuit people. Carol made me want very much to read both. (I was also reminded of a particularly memorable true crime title I read some time ago but have never forgotten: Bloody Falls of the Coppermine by McKay Jenkins.)

I’ve not given full coverage of all the riches of Tuesday night. Let’s just it was the proverbial embarrassment of (mysterious) riches!

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I’d like to add a word about availability. We all feel frustrated by the increasing difficulty of obtaining multiple copies of the books we want to read with the group. This is especially a problem when we select older / more obscure titles. We’ve pretty much agreed that we need to explore further options: interlibrary loan, online used book sites (or, for that matter, brick and mortar used book stores like Books with a Past in Glenwood), and e-book downloads.

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In this season of gift giving, I’d like to express my gratitude for the gift given me by this wonderful group: the opportunity to share my passion for books and crime fiction with those who are like minded and who also happen to be warm, dedicated, extremely intelligent, and deeply caring people. (Barbara and Marge, please feel better fast. We look forward to seeing you in January.)

7 Comments

  1. southernfrances said,

    I, too, was struck by Anne’s very eloquent and elegant presentation of her recommenced book, The Pig Did It. I recall leaning forward to capture every word.
    I ordered it from an online used book source and can’t wait to read it.

  2. Susan said,

    Is the PIg Did It a mystery novel? I’ve seen it here in Canada, but haven’t heard much about it other than it has humour in it.

    I was just thinking that Dissolution was one of my favourite reads this year, and here it is on your list! Wasn’t it a good mystery novel, with so many layers and capturing the feeling of what the dissolutions then must have been like?

    I’m trying to catch up in the Asa Larsson series so I can read Until Thy Wraith be Past! I’ve also decided to read the Maj Sjowall – Per Wahloo series from the beginning, since I enjoyed The Laughing Policeman earlier this year so much. I think it was you who wrote about the series this year, didn’t you? The Mystery of Edwin Drood is fun! And I’ve been looking for a copy of The Coroner’s Lunch for most of this year. The second and third books in the series are easily available, but the first one is difficult to find.

    Good list of mysteries! It sounds like you had a very enjoyable book club this past year. Thanks for sharing with us.

  3. Pauline Cohen said,

    I hope this is not a non sequitur but here goes. I am presently rereading A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) and have awarded it 2nd place finish–after A Judgement in Stone–for the most arresting beginning of a book. In fact, the beginning was all that I remembered from my first-time reading long ago. From now on I will look more closely at the Vine/Rendell books and see if beginnings are one of her real strengths.

    I’m making this comment in light of the fact that you and Marge gave our book group such a great grounding in all things Rendell (although we didn’t look at her Vine offerings, but that’s splitting hairs).

    Do you have any thoughts on this point, Roberta?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Pauline,

      I’ve never really considered that beginnings might be a particular strength of Rendell’s fiction – only that the beginning of Judgement in Stone is so daring and justly famous. But hey, you may be on to something. I’ve never read A DARK ADAPTED EYE but would like to. Perhaps we could do a Barbara Vine with the group at some point – that is,once they’ve fully recovered the recent Rendell immersion!

      • southernfrances said,

        If we do a Vine, we should do it while RR’s other works are fresh in our minds, right?

  4. Anthony said,

    Thrilled to be part of this listing! Thanks Karen!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Anthony,
      Not sure who Karen is, but you’re certainly welcome! :))

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