Recent Reading: Mostly Mystery

At the bottom I’ll list what I (might be) reading next.

Just Finished:

Dick Francis, Straight and To the Hilt. Thanks to Rohan. These, my first two Francis books, had a lot in common: protagonist who is expert in his own field (jockey, painter) gets thrown into looking after a business thanks to family loyalty. The business is in trouble; he collects a motley crew of helpers (Francis writes great secondary characters), solves the mystery and saves the day. I love these heroes: men of integrity, who do the right thing because of those they care about; smart men who are often underestimated. Men who win the loyalty and support of others who recognize their integrity. (Also, they like smart, competent women). Why doesn’t the real world look more like this?

Joseph Hansen, Fadeout. Thanks to Sunita. I liked Hansen’s spare, elegant prose. I liked his decent, caring detective, Dave Brandstetter (honorable men is the theme of this post, perhaps). This was written in the late 60s, and while Dave is comfortable with his homosexuality, some of the language and attitudes are definitely reflective of the time (e.g. Dave describes his partner as “nelly”). I read the paperback from University of Wisconsin Press, and Hansen’s introduction, talking about his early struggles to find a publisher for anything but porn about gay people like himself, was really interesting.

Craig Johnson, The Cold Dish. I’m not watching Longmire on TV, but thanks to Jackie Barbosa‘s raves, I picked this up with an Audible credit (yes, I believed an author’s praise of a book on social media!). Aging Sheriff Walt Longmire is, yes, another honorable man; though he kind of tries to lazy his way out of it, he can’t help caring about victims. I liked the well-drawn characters of Walt and Vic, the transplant from Philadelphia. I liked the small-town Western setting. This was great on audio because Walt’s first-person narration is a strength of the book, and the Dennis Weaver-y drawl of narrator George Guidall fits it perfectly. But (and this is not a spoiler) I’m really tired of mysteries involving the sexual victimization of young women.

Elizabeth Peters, The Murders of Richard III. I love Amelia Peabody but have never tried her other mystery series. This works as both a parody and an homage to the classic cozy country-house-party mystery. The guests are members of a Ricardian society (which I enjoyed because I love Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time). Mostly snappy, fluffy fun, but I hated the portrayal of the greedy, malicious fat boy, Percy. It seemed like an overly nasty caricature even by the less sensitive standards of the mid-70s and lessened my enjoyment. This was audio, too–I liked Grace Conlin’s voice but her British accent was erratic.

Barbara Pym, An Academic Question. I read a lot of Pym‘s novels in high school and college. This seems kind of odd, as they are slim, ironic volumes featuring clergymen, middle-aged spinsters, minor academics and a lot of disappointment in life. I think in my youth I expected to end up as one of those spinsters with an unrequited passion for the curate. Fortunately, fate had other things in store. I think I may have read this before; it’s not one of her best, being edited together from drafts after her death. It did interest me because the main character, Caro, is roughly my mother’s age (she’s a young mother in the late 60s), and she seems caught in a generational shift–she drifted into early marriage and motherhood rather than actively choosing them; she has a degree but no career ambitions; she doesn’t seem to want to be like the older supportive faculty wives or like her husband’s divorced colleague, Iris. In case my mom reads this, I’ll say she is a much better person than Caro, who is kind of sulky and annoying, and that she did find satisfying roles for herself, including beginning a whole new career in her 40s. But in some ways I see in her life the same kind of shift in female roles happening.

Reading Now:

Carola Dunn, Miss Jacobson’s Journey. A Regency spy/road romance with Jewish protagonists. Pretty sure I’d heard about it before, but stumbled on it searching library e-books. I wish I knew more (anything) about Jews in England in this period, because I keep wondering stuff like would a rich merchant really want to marry his daughter to a rabbinical student, and would they know Yiddish? Some things seem implausible but I have no idea. It’s a fun story with engaging characters. The romance is pretty low key (I’m about 3/4 in).

Up Next:

Here’s what I’ve got from the library (there’s a good chance I’ll return some unread for lack of time):

Death Claims, the next Dave Brandstetter mystery. 

Christopher Hacker, The MorelsSpotted it on the shelf, thought it looked interesting.

Tom Reiss, The Black Count. Non-fiction about the man The Count of Monte Christo was based on. I think Jennifer Lohmann was talking about this (more recs from authors!) and I saw my library had it in e-book. (I really want to read Lohmann’s first book, too, because it’s set in Chicago. . . .)

Hot Spell anthology. I got this because I decided to embark on Meljean Brook’s Guardian series, and though I don’t feel the need to read prequel novellas, my library had it and none of the novels. Then I realized that it has an Emma Holly Demon novella as well. I love Holly’s crazy over-the-top demon erotica/erotic romances. Even though there are weird penis appendages. I say this because I know people have sometimes felt that I have criticized id vortex stories like I’m above them and have no id and that is not true. Holly’s stories have characterization and plot, yes, but I read them mostly for the sex–I like to know other people’s imaginings are as weird as mine. I prefer to get my shameless id fix in stories that are clearly not set in the real world, I guess. Or maybe I don’t always recognize that that’s what I’m getting. Anyhow, there’s my confession, insofar as I have guilty pleasures, this is one. I did glance at the Lora Leigh story in here, but despite the barbed penis, decided not to venture, because I saw the hero called the heroine “Brat.” My id does not go there. 

Not from library but exerting pressure atop the TBR:

Bee Ridgway, The River of No ReturnThis is time travel and I bought it when it first came out, having “met” Bee online because she teaches English at the college where I majored in it (long before her time, though).

Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Again. Janine Ballard sent me this and Gaffney’s Wild at Heart when she loaned me the Wyckerley trilogy. I’ve been meaning to get to it for ages, partly because I think I’ll love it and also because I feel bad about how long I’ve had Janine’s books.

My book eyes are definitely bigger than my stomach, or reading time.

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19 Responses to Recent Reading: Mostly Mystery

  1. SonomaLass says:

    Honorable men, hurrah! You describe exactly what I loved about Dana Stabenow’s Liam Campbell mysteries, more than a decade ago.

    I have to read that Peters, even if I will also dislike elements of to, because I share your feelings about Daughter of Time and have been jonesing for a good treatment of Richard since they dug him up in the car park. I’ve also wanted to revisit Peters’ writing since her death, so this is a bonus — thanks for the heads-up.

    Also, I love Meljean’s series, not at all guiltily. And I need to read more Seidel.

  2. pamela1740 says:

    I have sort of a stunned ear to ear grin on my face after reading your description of your relationship with Barbara Pym in HS and college. That’s exactly when I was reading Pym – which is, as you say, so kind of odd and dreary. It’s supposed to be a hopeful stage of life, and these wounded dove novels would seem to present a rather bleak fantasy. I was also reading historical romance then, but I think the Pym fascination had something to do with a generalized Oxbridge fantasy heavily influenced by Brideshead and other Masterpiece Theater productions. I was equally happy reading about unhappy spinsters and/or aristocratic drop-outs, if tweedy skirts, the British Museum, and teatime were involved – and there was a kind of timeless quality to this kind of selective fantasy that made it work whether the book was set in England the 20’s or the (early) 60’s. Now that I’m Pym-protagonist-aged I find myself very disinclined to revisit her — I have much less tolerance for fiction that dwells on the regrets and mundane disappointments of mid-life. Perhaps I just gravitate towards novels that take me to a place that is apart and opposite to where I am IRL, and it’s quite possible Pym’s lonely survivors seemed quite romantic to me as an adolescent. I hadn’t thought of her female characters in connection with my mother, who was also married and with young children in the early 60’s, but I think she too had an Oxbridge yearning and I realize now that she was quite ambivalent (like so many in her generation) about settling into motherhood in the suburbs before (or in place of) living as an expat and maintaining her writing career. She worked for a short time between college and marriage as a fashion reporter in NY, and I remember how mystified (and callously obnoxious) I was as a teen, when she referred to herself as a journalist. While I was growing up, she was a stay at home parent, volunteer, and occasionally wrote what I (again, obnoxiously) considered puff pieces for the local weekly. When my parents divorced in the 80’s, she got fulltime work as a corporate/internal communications writer at a Silicon Valley company, which was actually a pretty badass thing to pull off after 20 or so years out of the workforce, and certainly made me sit up and take notice — from my vantage point of an east coast college dormitory where I was holed up in shetland sweaters reading Barbara Pym.
    Apologies for the long digression – but I very much enjoyed your reflection on An Academic Question, which got me thinking about Pym for the first time in a while. I think Miss Bates reviewed a Pym novel sometime in the last several months, and now I want to go back and see what she thought, and whether it was a re-read for her, or a first reading at this more… mature stage of life.
    Finally, I have Bee Ridgway’s book near the top of my TBR as well. Her college is where I did my graduate study – a lovely place indeed, and chock full of bookish young women. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One reason I love blogging/social reading is the discovery of other people who share some of my strange reading history predilections. It’s a small world in the internet!

      Have you read Betty Neels? Because though the tone is utterly different and the settings are medical rather than academic, there is a certain timeless tweedy shabbiness that reminds me a bit of Pym. Only you have ingenues instead of spinsters and they get to marry rich Dutch doctors. Pym spinsters for the young, Neels ingenues for those of a certain age. Harlequin has re-released a lot of Neels digitally, and if you don’t know her work, you can’t go wrong starting your exploration at the awesome Uncrushable Jersey Dress.

      • pamela1740 says:

        Thanks for this rec – I love your notion that spinsters were romantic to a younger reader while ingenues may appeal to those of a certain age. I am intrigued by Betty Neels and always appreciate a certain tweedy shabbiness – that’s the perfect way to put it. The BBC drama from last year, THE HOUR, also sort of reminded me of Pym — their work was rather glamorous (TV) but the main female characters are single, working, and of a certain age – and there was that sort of rundown quality to all the surroundings.

  3. Janet W says:

    I’m delving into Dick Francis too–thanks to Rohan. I want to do a big glom of Helen MacInnes and I’d also like to re-explore C.P. Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson. At one time I read all of them and I’m wondering if they would hold up (or I would). Off topic, is it possible to subscribe to your blog?

  4. Sunita says:

    So much good stuff here! You are making me want to re-re-read Dick Francis. We have all the books, I’m pretty sure, because they were staple readings for both TheHusband and me in the 1980s/1990s, and we even broke our genre-fiction rule to buy them in hardback. I think they usually came out around Christmastime, so we would give them to each other (or to my future mother-in-law and then borrow them back).

    I’m so glad you liked Fadeout. I think Death Claims is even better. And yes, the introduction is both heartbreaking and uplifting. TheH was turned on to the Longmire through Keishon’s blog and has devoured the first four or five; his verdict is “quite good” which is pretty much a rave from him. 😉 And I hope you report back on The Black Count; that caught my eye when it came out and it’s in the endless TBR.

    I’ve read “Falling for Anthony” three or four times now; the first time I didn’t know WHAT was going on, then the second time I got it, and the third and fourth times I just read for Lilith and Hugh. 😉 Holly never did anything for me, and Leigh is definitely way out of my interest zone, so that’s the only story in the anthology I’ve read.

    On the Carola Dunn, I vaguely remember that one, and yes, entirely plausible. The Yiddish we know now is eastern European Yiddish, but there was a western variant that didn’t really die out until the 19thC. If you want to read more on Jews in Britain, just go find everything Todd Endelman has written. He has a terrific article on the “Jew King” (who shows up in Heyer along with his father), and I’ve read parts of the book on Jews in Georgian England and it’s wonderful.

    I am a huge Seidel fan in general, but Again is my sentimental favorite. It is one of the few books I finished and then immediately turned back to the first page to read straight through for a second time. And a couple more times since then. I gave it to TheH after my second reading and it fell into his “quite good” range. 😉 In fact, I think I have to go reread it again now.

    • Sunita says:

      Ack! I *knew* I’d forget to close a tag somewhere.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for the history rec! I love when a romance makes me curious to find out more about the period/culture it depicts. Basically everything I think I know about Jews in 19th century England is from DANIEL DERONDA which is not the worst source ever but hardly a complete picture.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      Again is my favorite Seidel as well.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    Don’t feel bad about how long you’ve had my books. I don’t mind. I hope you enjoy Again, but I’ll be interested in your thoughts on it regardless..

  6. victoriajanssen says:

    Again is really fun! Also, Rohan’s posts and now yours make me want to re-read Dick Francis, but they are all in a box. Amid many other boxes of books. Woe.

  7. lawless says:

    I glommed all of the Longmire books, including short stories, early in July. (My impetus was the TV show, which is significantly different in some ways.) Very few men write mysteries I like (thrillers are different story). I actually don’t think the core of DISH SERVED COLD holds up on a reread, but I liked the next book in the series, DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY, very much. That and AS THE CROW FLIES are my favorites. In addition to Walt and Vic, I like Ruby and Henry as well

    A couple of weeks ago, I read the seventh book in the Dave Brandstetter series, NIGHTWORK, and the first book in Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series, THE LITTLE DEATH, both of which I’d bought on sale. I liked the Brandstetter book better than the Rios book, in part because I believed in it more and in part because I like the characters more. Rios is cynical and more oppressed by his gayness than Bandstetter is, and that made his book more preachy. That may also be why it won a Lambda award when Hansen’s books, which I think are better written, never did as far as I know. But the preview for the next Rios book intrigued me, as did the preview for the next Brandstetter book. The question is when do I buy them, as they’re all full price at the moment.

    Even though I live in the NJ suburbs of NYC, my library is an unreliable source of books like these. I can’t tell you what a struggle it’s been to try to get an interlibrary loan of the first book in Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey series about a gay PI, set in my former hometown and place of work.

    I’ve read a lot of mysteries and detective novels over the years — it was my first love in genre fiction — and Dick Francis is the only writer of semi-hard-boiled fiction I’ve been able to read with enjoyment. However, I stopped after a few books of his, all centering around horseracing, and have never gone back.

    While Josephine Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME led me to read a biography of Richard III while I was in college, where I majored in history (among other things) and was friends with a grad student who had his portrait hanging over her desk, it’s got some holes historically (mostly having to do with why the princes in the tower disappeared before Richard’s death). The Inspector Grant novels aren’t my favorite Teys anyway; that would be a tossup between THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR and BRAT FARRAR.

    I read Barbara Michaels’ THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE (Michaels was the pseudonym Barbara Mertz used for her gothic suspense instead of Elizabeth Peters) shortly after her death. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected from the blurb, but it was a reasonably good variation on “husband gaslighting his wife, who enlists other people to help her.” I’m sorry to hear that THE MURDERS OF RICHARD III had such a stereotypical character in it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought Henry was an interesting character. I meant to say COLD DISH–I have mixed feelings about mystical/supernatural elements in mystery, as I tend to think of it as a rational/factual genre. And I kind of waffled on whether Henry was a bit of a stereotypical Wise Mystical Indian. But he was also very human and I just went with the supernatural element in the end.

      I have been really lucky in finding mysteries with gay and lesbian protagonists through my library–I’m guessing that because Vancouver has a fairly large gay community the library consciously collected such books. I am waiting for the 2nd Michael Nava, which is on order, but I agree on the basis of 1st books, I liked Hansen’s better. (And I see they have some Donald Strachey too).

      Those are two of my favorite Tey books as well. They stand up well to re-reading.

      It’s interesting that you think of Dick Francis as “semi hard-boiled,” because in the ones I read I’d say the characters were not at all hard-boiled, far less cynical. It’s true they are noble men in a corrupt world, but there are OTHER noble men (and women) around them, where I see the hard-boiled detective as alone.

      Mystery was my first genre love (dating back to my book crush on Encyclopedia Brown in 3rd grade), though I’ve been reading less in the last few years. I think I overdid it on dark Scandinavian books. A lot of my favorite mystery writers are male, though–Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill; I quite liked Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series. Hmm… but when it comes to historical mystery, I read a lot more women. Maybe more women write it? That’s an interesting bias on my part.

      Thanks for this great long comment!

      • lawless says:

        Ahaha, I specialize in long comments. I was a little taken aback by the mystical elements in COLD DISH myself, but looking back, it’s present in every book, or just about every book, and is connected with an Indian spirituality that Walt is (unwittingly) a part of. It’s especially prominent in HELL IS EMPTY.

        From what Craig Johnson’s written in prefaces and what I’ve seen elsewhere, he is legitimately close to and friends with people in the Indian communities near him, and his portraits of Indian characters in his books, in which the problems of their community are not minimized, present them as fully-rounded people with distinct personalities, some good, some bad, some somewhere in between. Most of AS THE CROW FLIES is set on the Cheyenne reservation, and Walt’s participation in a peyote ceremony in the middle of the book is one of its highlights.

        So while I agree that Henry borders on the Indian equivalent of the Magical Negro, he comes to make more sense in the end. For one thing, he’s such a long-standing friend of Walt’s that he can tell him off and motivate him in ways that others can’t. Also, Lou Diamond Phillips’ portrayal of him in the TV show is a hoot, although I’ve seen comments on IMDB by at least one person who’s stayed away from the show because of him. Perhaps because he’s not majority Indiain? (He’s mostly Filipino.) But he was careful to meet with Cheyenne elders and get their blessing before taking the role.

        Keep in mind that it’s been thirty or forty years since I last read anything by Dick Francis. That may also mean that the books of his I read predate what you’ve read of his by many years. Francis’ work is hard to categorize, but I tend to categorize books by men that are mostly about detecting and the setting and little about the psychology which are not clearly noir (the dividing line between hard-boiled and noir is another conversation) as hard-boiled, which I think of as a term that contrast with tea cozies or cozy mysteries. I therefore think of books by Tony Hillerman, Jonathan Kellerman (although they have psychological elements to them), Walter Mosley, and Richard Parker, to name those whose books I tried and found wanting (mostly because I was bored) (Faye Kellerman might be in there too, but I’m not sure if I’ve read anything of hers) as hard-boiled because how else am I going to categorize them?

        I’m also a fan of Encyclopedia Brown, but it was reading the complete Sherlock Holmes series, stories and novels, that really got me started on mysteries. Oh, and Poe’s stories featuring Dupin.

        Heh, I’ve never heard of the authors you mention. Maybe I’ve been looking at the wrong lists, or reading in the wrong places. Here’s a more or less complete list of the mystery writers other than Craig Johnson whose books I’ve glommed: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Elizabeth George (though I’ve skipped her more recent stuff), and P.D. James. Add to that some John Dickson Carr (much of Dr. Gideon Fell and one non-series book), some Ruth Rendell (I find her offputting for some reason even though her work has some resemblance to George’s and James’), a Rex Stout or two (one hard-boiled series I could get behind), and an Ellery Queen (a little too mechanical, but I could see reading another). As you can see, they’re mostly Golden Age writers.

        Jo Nesbo is the only Nordic/Scandinavian writer who I’ve read much of; I’ve read two of his Harry Hole books and have a third in my TBR pile. I enjoyed THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, though I thought much of the writing was uninspired (he does a lot of infodumping) but haven’t read any of its sequels.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Lawless — The Girl Who Played with Fire (#2 in the series) was a much better book than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, FWIW. Don’t get me wrong, the prose was still workman like but the plotting was on a whole other level.

  8. You’re reading the Guardian series!!!!!!! You know I really, really, really like those books, so I hope you enjoy them. You’re in for a treat of awesome heroines. I’ll stop talking now before I fangirl all over your blog and embarrass us both.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Your fangirling is the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the final kick in the pants, or something. Actually, I think it is easier for me to embark on the series now that it’s done and finite. I find long series daunting, because it’s not like I don’t have enough on my TBR, and once I start it can be hard for me to stop, even if I don’t really love a series–I somehow feel like I “should” keep going, or the sequel-baiting works too well on me, or something.

      Anyway, SO many people love this (but not in the “cracky doesn’t work for me” way) that I am anticipating a lot of enjoyment.

  9. Pingback: Betty(s) and Barbara(s): heroines of the ’70s, reading romance, nostalgia, and feminism | Badass Romance

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