For this, our year of (mostly) international reading, these are the titles we selected:
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (primarily Egypt)
A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana (Barcelona)
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Tokyo)
The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield (Australia)
The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr (Cumbria, England)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Southern Italy)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (France)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Istanbul)
A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani (Israel)
Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden)
(I did not read the Solana title, being immersed at the time in work on the true crime course.)
Each year we vote on our favorite discussion book. This year’s winner was Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Nothing surprising about that choice: this was a terrific read that elicited a very enjoyable discussion (ably facilitated by Marge). Tied for second place were The Devotion of Suspect X and The Bachelors of Broken Hill. (For me personally, first place was a tie between Until Thy Wrath Be Past and A Possibility of Violence; for second place, also a tie, I’d vote with the group.)
As usual, Pauline prepared helpful handouts for us. These included a grid displaying information about each of the year’s selections (awards received and any other relevant facts) and a list of general questions for discussion. Some of these questions elicited an exceptionally spirited response; others, not so much.
1. Has the decision to read international mysteries been worthwhile? This was answered in the affirmative, albeit to a different degree by each person present.
2. Do you think you’d be interested in participating in another themed year at some time in the future? This question was followed by a list of suggestions that was sufficiently varied and provocative that we agreed, albeit cautiously, that another “theme” year might be worth trying.
Here are those suggestions:
i. books that won an award– Edgar, Dagger, many others (I believe we agreed that award winners, arbitrary and even capricious as they can be, would be a poor basis for choosing a title. In addition, Carol pointed out that on occasion, these awards can and do devolve into popularity contests, in which the perky and ingratiating winner gets to bound up to the podium at a mystery convention and proceed to be irresistible for the benefit of fans and colleagues.)
ii. books by an author who is new to you,
iii. books made into a movie,
iv. books recommended by a friend,
v. first books in a series,
vi. books from a “best mysteries” list,
vii. books by a long-time favorite author,
viii. books that are a specific type of mystery, e.g. historical, police procedural, amateur detective, espionage, others,
ix. books with a specific setting, e.g. Africa, China, Maryland/Virginia/DC, New York City, etc.,
x. books written or published during a certain time period, e.g., Golden Age (c. 1920-1940), or a particular decade such as the 1950’s or 1980’s. (Carol’s question). Ann mentioned three series protagonists who were young women making their way in the aftermath of the First World War: Bess Crawford (written by Charles Todd), Maisie Dobbs (written by Jacqueline Winspear), and Kate Shackleton (written by Frances Brody). All, I believe, are well regarded.
3. There haven’t been any nonfiction books this year. Have you missed reading nonfiction? Of course, Yours Truly waved her hand wildly and said yes loudly. Others did not exactly chime in! But to be fair, Midnight in Peking – an Edgar winner, BTW – and The Poisoner’s Handbook both came in for favorable mention. I brought up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In that work, author Kate Summerscale, structured an entire society around a single – and singularly heinous – crime. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were both intrigued by the mystery. Elements of it appear in Lady Audley’s Secret, which I read as a result of encountering it in this book and enjoyed immensely.
4. We have read mysteries set in Cumbria and London in England, England/Egypt in Death on the Nile, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, Australia, Italy, France, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Israel, and Sweden— on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Australia. Is there a country or continent we should try to read about in the future? Or doesn’t it matter? I think we agreed that it didn’t much matter.
5. Which authors would you read again? Asa Larsson and D.A. Mishani were mentioned with special enthusiasm.
6. Did any of the protagonists stand out as being particularly memorable? Which ones did you like? Dislike? Were there any differences in the range of protagonists this year? Anyone really unusual? D.A. Mishani’s Avraham Avraham and Arthur Upfield’s “Bony” Bonaparte were mentioned in this context.
7. The breakdown of periods for our ten 2015 books is: Historic: 5—1836, 1937, 1940s, and 2 Mid-20th century, Contemporary: 5. We had a 50% division between historic and contemporary. Would you have preferred to read more (or less) about any particular era? I didn’t get a chance to bring this up, but it seems to me that a fair number of crime fiction novels are currently being set in the nineteenth century. Several have received excellent reviews, among them The Fatal Flame by Lindsay Faye, Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell (I very much enjoyed the predecessor of this title, Murder as a Fine Art.), Home by Nightfall by Charles Finch, and Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl.
8. Regarding the international titles we read this year, how important was the work of the translator? Did any titles stand out as being particularly good or particularly inadequate translations? Or is it possible to tell if you don’t know the original language? (Roberta’s question) I believe it was Pauline who observed that when a translation is well done, it does not draw attention to itself, whereas the opposite is true of a poor translation.
9. This year there have only been 3 female writers out of 10. Should we try harder to diversify, or doesn’t it matter? We agreed that it just turned out that way, and moved on.
10. When we read a book that was not the first one in a series did it affect our understanding or enjoyment of the story? These books are Death on the Nile, The Bachelors of Broken Hill, The Youth Hostel Murders, Temporary Perfections, A Possibility of Violence, Until Thy Wrath Be Past. We agreed that for books that were part of a continuing series, the author almost always fills in the new reader with facts he or she needs to know. This is usually done in a fairly unobtrusive manner. Jumping in in the middle of a series is not ordinarily a bar to enjoyment of the novel.
11. Please comment on any of the writing styles of the various authors that you wish to. (Frank’s question) I think we felt that we’d already addressed this subject when we talked about translations.
For this meeting, we were each asked to bring one or two books to recommend to the group. Here’s how that portion of the afternoon went. (Thanks to Pauline for this list.):
Mike: A Necessary End by Peter Robinson. Series with DCI Alan Banks. Marge and I couldn’t help thinking how long it had been since we first read this book, the third in a by now venerable series. Mike made us want to read it again – at least, that’s how I felt.
1. Blood Royal by Eric Jager. Murder in medieval France. nonfiction. Also recommended by same author:The Last Duel, nonfiction, medieval France. The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse: an Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue by Piu Marie Eatwell, nonfiction.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, nonfiction. Jar City by Arnaldur Indridasan, Icelandic mystery, 1st in series. There’s a film based on the book, but it may be hard to find.
Philip Kerr’s 30s mystery series. The 1st 3 are a trilogy called Berlin Noir with detective Bernie Gunther fighting crime and trying to stay away from the Nazi power structure. Very gritty and good. Latest in series is The Lady from Zagreb.
Somehow, I don’t feel as though this write-up conveys the liveliness and conviviality of this discussion. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. Thanks to Pauline for facilitating these proceedings.
Next year is already shaping up nicely. This January we’re reading Beast in View, Margaret Millar’s Edgar Award winner (1952). Some years ago I read An Air That Kills by this author and very much enjoyed it. Millar was married to Ross MacDonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar.
Just when you start feeling desperate for intellectual stimulation, along comes a session like this, to serve as a reminder that the life of the mind is still, in some circles at least, of vital importance. Oh and by the way, there’s nothing stodgy about these gatherings – we had our share of laughter. My fellow Suspects are witty as well as brainy; it’s a great pleasure to spend time with them.