What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mystery Monday: Overlooked/Underrated Mystery Series To Check Out

I was griping to a friend recently that there are too many mystery writers who keep going and going -- just like little Energizer bunnies with word processing programs -- long past the time when they should have gracefully retired their characters and moved onto something new, different -- something fresh. Take Patricia Cornwell, whose tomes featuring Kay Scarpetta I stopped reading several volumes back; Anne Perry's William Monk and Thomas Pitt mystery series, that I invest in only irregularly; even Daniel Silva's novels (the catalyst for the gripe in question), which have begun to feel very "same-y" of late.

I began to ponder what makes a mystery series really long-lived, for readers beyond just the devoted coteries who would devour every novel written by an author in question even if it ended up winning the Bulwer-Lytton award for most overwrought opening sentence (and continued in the same vein for 850 pages.) My conclusion? It's all about the characters. I want more than just the same old characters, spouting familiar phrases and philosophies, dealing with different crimes and situations. That's what makes Elizabeth George's novels so readable to me still, even though she must have written nearly 20 of them by now. Her half-dozen or so main characters have changed dramatically over the decades; her secondary characters, those caught up in the mysteries she crafts, are equally convincing. True, not all of the books are as successful as her earlier ones and the task gets harder as she keeps going, but she's done a better job of keeping me an engaged and committed reader than, say, Deborah Crombie. True, Crombie's main characters are a major focus of the books, they have married and built a life together over the course of the series, but really, each book is about mixing together a bit of that story with a bit of a crime story, to a predictable formula. It's like realizing you're eating another chocolate cupcake when you're in the mood for something a tad more exciting.

Here's the most recent book in one of the series that I do think augurs to be sustainable over the longer haul -- and a list of some others to keep a keen eye on.

Two for Sorrow is the third in a series of mysteries by Nicola Upson featuring the imagined adventures of real-life crime novelist Josephine Tey (who wrote too few books, rather than too many...) It's been out in the UK for a few months, and hits bookstores here in the US tomorrow -- aka Tuesday, August 9th. And I'd suggest you make a foray to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy, along with An Expert in Murder (Upson's debut) and Angel with Two Faces.

All three novels are set in the London of the mid-1930s and onward, and Upson explores the link between Josephine Tey's real life and imagines the kind of people she knew, convincingly weaving crime stories that deftly showcase links to her own crime novels. (In this one, for instance, there's a character called Miriam Sharpe, a clear reference to Marion Sharpe, the "heroine" of The Franchise Affair, as well as a plot twist related to identity, an amusing one to ponder in light of Tey's later novel, Brat Farrar, some of the plot elements bring to mind Miss Pym Disposes.)  Above all, however, these books -- in particular, her latest -- is a thumping good read, one that comments intelligently on the fate of the lost generation of women left husbandless by the killing fields of the World War I trenches, and how they crafted careers and alternative kinds of relationships for themselves.

Two for Sorrow begins with Upson imagining Tey's effort to imagine the hanging of two condemned baby farmers, found guilty of murdering infants. The 1903 case was a real one, and the fictional Tey has decided to build a story around the aftermath of the crime on those affected by it. But as she pursues her research, with the help of a former teacher, Celia Bannerman, who worked as a wardress at the prison and who guarded one of the women in the days leading up to the execution, she doesn't realize that another crime is brewing -- the brutal murder of a young woman who discovered more than she should have about an outwardly-respectable figure in society. And what is the connection between this most recent crime and the tragedy of the baby farmers, more than three decades earlier, besides the fact that the young woman had been in the same prison that had housed the condemned women many years later and for much more minor offenses?

Upson takes on the complicated plot and never drops a single strand of the narrative; nor does she do violence to either the historical narrative or the needs and wants of today's mystery reader. She reads between the lines of Josephine Tey's life and presents a plausible version of what she was like, of what she wanted, of how she might have approached the kind of mysteries that she wrote about in real life had she encountered them in reality. There's a tremendous amount of convincing detail here; the author not only writes well but has constructed an entire universe in which readers can immerse themselves. Here's one mystery series that I feel has been overlooked and deserves a lot more readers than it may be getting: the books are so good that I can't ever see them as being referred to as merely "the new Nicola Upson".

Some other suggestions of mystery series to peruse if you're bored with the "same old" writers and characters:

  • Paul Johnston: Avoid his dreadful, gory thrillers (the most recent novels) and head off to find the four books featuring Quintilian Dalrymple in an eerie post-Apocalyptic and dystopic Edinburgh. Fascinating and imaginative; the books include Water of Death.
  • Rennie Airth: The author of three widely-spaced books featuring John Madden, survivor of World War I and the trenches, set in 1919, the early 1930s, and the beginning of the end of World War II. Fabulous and complex stories; utterly chilling. Start with The Blood-Dimmed Tide.
  • Check out two novels by a new Canadian author, Inger Ash Wolfe,  The Calling and The Taken. In both, Hazel Micallef finds that rural Ontario isn't such a peaceful place to work as a provincial police inspector...
  • Jill Paton Walsh is best-known in mystery circles for her Lord Peter Wimsey sequels -- I enjoy these, but like her mysteries featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at a Cambridge college, still more. These are midway between being cozy and being suspense, and combine the best of both worlds, along with offering some great writing. Try The Wyndham Case, A Piece of Justice, The Bad Quarto, etc.
  • Hannah March is one nom de plume for an author who has also penned novels under the name of Jude Morgan. But the Hannah March novels are excellent, set in Georgian England, where the author's amateur sleuth deals with highwaymen and opera singers and meets a young Mozart. I'd rate most of these five stars, and really wish someone would bring them back into print!
  • Ann Cleeves has penned a lot of mysteries, but she isn't that well known on this side of the Atlantic. I hope the Shetland Island quartet -- staring with Raven Black -- will change this. Read the four books in order; it's important! Really compelling.
  • Kate Charles is now working on her second series of clerical mysteries (an English contrast to Julia Spencer-Fleming's novels featuring Rev. Claire Fergusson, for those who have discovered those v. good novels.) I'd recommend the first series, with books like A Drink of Deadly Wine, which will be back in print in mid-August. That said, the first two books in the Callie Anson series are well worth a look, as well. I'm putting my money where my mouth is; discovering the series is now on Kindle, I've just ordered 'em all.
  • Elly Griffiths is a newer author whose first novel, The Crossing Places, was so good that I didn't want to wait for the newest one to be released here and paid an exorbitant amount to have it shipped from the UK. Ruth Galloway is independent, slightly curmudgeonly -- not a classical heroine at all. She loves archaelogy, and that's about it. But Griffiths has some fun with Ruth and her character when a more modern burial is discovered...
  • David Downing has so far written four novels, all named after a different train station in Berlin, that take the reader through the rise and fall of the Third Reich through the eyes of an American journalist living there. In each of the novels, there's an element of a crime and a mystery, but they are as much historical and political novels as anything else. The series starts with Zoo Station; the newest, Lehrter Station, will be out in a few months' time. 
  • A few other names to ponder: Jassy Mackenzie (previously mentioned here); Giles Blunt (a Canadian novelist with five books in his John Cardinal series); Joyce Holms (who wrote the Fizz & Buchanan novels, set in Edinburgh) and Colin Cotterill (whose Dr. Siri continues to bring a smile to my face.)
Something all of these authors have in common, looking back on this list, is that they keep their series manageable in length. Downing has an end planned to his, as does Cotterrill. Jill Paton Walsh has only authored a few Imogen Quy mysteries; there are four featuring Quintilian Dalrymple. In other cases, the series is too new for the author to have fallen in love with his/her own creation or to resort to desperate measures in terms of the plot.

So, tell us all: do you have a favorite "overlooked" mystery series or author you think we should all be reading? Please share!

1 comment:

  1. I don't read much mystery, and I think that is partly because the number of series there are puts me off. Thanks for the recommendations :)