June (and Early July): Mystery Madness

My blogging mantra needs to be “Never apologize, never explain.” Every now and then a post may appear.

In June, I “read” a ton of older mysteries, mostly via audiobook. I’ve hardly listened to any books this year, spending my listening time on podcasts instead, but in June my husband went to Belgium for a conference, and I needed something to distract me–I don’t sleep well when he’s away. So I checked out backlist mysteries at the library. Here’s what I read/listened to:

Simon Brett, A Nice Class of Corpse (library ebook)

A cozy mystery set in a private seaside hotel. This was first published in the mid-80s and seemed from a few references to be set then, but–like a Betty Neels romance–it felt like a much older world, perhaps post-war, with impoverished aristocrats and retired majors living out their retirement with other “proper” people. Mrs. Pargeter, it emerges, is not proper, but she’s a lot of fun. Pleasantly escapist.

Radha Vatsal, A Front Page Affair (library book)

A historical mystery featuring a young female reporter, Capability Weeks (known as Kitty), set in New York high society during the First World War–but before the US has entered the war. What begins as a society murder turns out to have political implications. Fans of Cathy Pegau’s Alaska-set mystery might want to check this out. I thought the characters weren’t fully developed and I didn’t love it, but it’s well researched and the series has potential.

I usually hate the book group stuff in the back of books (in fact it can make me averse to reading them), but I was interested in the author interview, because Vatsal is a woman of color writing about a very white world. (She was born in Mumbai and came to the US for boarding school as a teen). Her comments about how she identified with Kitty, who is something of an outsider, having grown up abroad, but also able to adapt herself to all kinds of company, made me see the book differently, and more positively.

While these cozy-ish historicals with intrepid heroines and possible love interests should be my jam, the truth is they don’t seem to be working for me these days. Others might like this a lot more.

Catherine Aird, The Religious Body (read by Robin Bailey)

A cozyish British mystery about a murder in a convent. It was OK, but I remember thinking as I finished it that I wasn’t tempted to read on. And I don’t remember much else.

Jussi Adler-Olson, Keeper of Lost Causes (read by Erik Davies)

Listening to it, I understood why I gave up on this one in paper; it’s quite slow-moving and overly long. But I have more tolerance for that in audio and I enjoyed the characters. The plot was pretty implausible but engrossing. I hated the way the narrator read the dialogue in a “Danish” accent–these characters are all Danes! It was especially jarring when he shifted from internal monologue, which he read without the accent. I’ve found that audiobook narrators and producers often make poor choices around accent use–sometimes ones relying on racist stereotypes–and I had an interesting Twitter conversation about that while listening to this book. Will I try more? Maybe.

Laura Lippmann, Baltimore Blues (read by Deborah Hazlett)

The Tess Monaghan series is one I never picked up when it was first published. I like series with a strong sense of place, which this one had, and I liked Tess, an out-of-work reporter who is clearly going to find a new way to use her skills as a private eye. But this is the only book my library has in audio, so I’m not sure I’ll go further.

Robert B.Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript, God Save the Child, Mortal Stakes, and Promised Land (all read by Michael Prichard)

Yes, I got hooked on Spenser. I’ve got two more downloaded. Partly it was that they’re on the short side, and that I found the narrator soothing. But that wasn’t all I liked. Again, there was a strong sense of place (this time Boston and environs). The hardboiled style and character are … softened? enriched? complicated? all of those, maybe … by literary allusions, Spenser’s love of cooking and attention to clothes, and the interesting relationship he’s developing with Susan Silverman.

Reading these books, published in the mid to late 70s, I thought about how details meant to give a book a sense of being of its time can soon come to seem like an intrusive display of historical research. If someone wrote a 70s-set book today and put in the lavish descriptions of 70s fashions Parker does, we’d call it info-dumping. (I find it delightful, but only because these are 70s fashions–if I book described current styles so often, I’d skip over it). Also. People smoke a lot, drink an awful lot, and get behind the wheel after drinking a lot. Mores do change. Completely hooked. Glad the library has lots.

Marcia Muller, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Ask the Cards a Question, and The Cheshire Cat’s Eye (all read by Laura Hicks) 

There are three long-running mystery series by women and featuring female private eyes begun in the late 70s/early 80s: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone. The only one of those I’ve read is Paretsky (who was a friend of my mom’s). Obviously, I’m remedying that now. Muller’s series is a bit softer-boiled, but, again, features a strong setting (San Francisco) and a woman finding her own way in the world. Yes, she’s semi-involved with a cop, but she rescues herself. I’ve got the next one of these downloaded too.

I’ve been interested in how Parker’s, Muller’s and Lippmann’s books reflect, resist, advance and comment on the feminism of their time. I’m not sure what, exactly, to say about this, beyond that it reminded me again that we can’t really label a book “feminist” or “not feminist” in any straightforward way, certainly none of these. Sometimes they seemed dated or reminded me how far we’ve come, sometimes quite the reverse.

I did read one non-mystery, and in case I don’t get around to writing a post on it, it was Sonja Larsen’s fascinating memoir about her childhood in various communes and a political cult, Red Star Tattoo. This review gives you a sense of it; be warned, the things you imagine could happen to someone who joins a fringe Communist group as a teen mostly do happen.

Playing now: Margery Allingham, Mystery Mile (read by Francis Matthews) 

I think I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the Campion TV adaptation, but never read a book. Sadly, this (second in the series) is all the library has on audio. Campion reminds me of Peter Wimsey or Sir Percy Blakeney, a very clever man playing the silly ass for his own ends. Thanks to my high school French teacher’s love for The Scarlet Pimpernel (she showed the Jane Seymour/Anthony Andrews mini-series in class), I have a big soft spot for this kind of character. Enjoying this enough that I will request paper from the library to keep going.

Cued up: Grafton’s “A” is for Alibi and an Agatha Christie

Going to make it 3-for-3 on the big female PIs at last, and follow Allingham with another Golden Age story.

Also reading: 

Very slowly, Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: I don’t mind slow character-driven stories, but it’s possible that’s not what I want from a book set in space. While I’m finding this easy to put down, I do get drawn back in whenever I pick it up, so I’ll probably finish.

Glenda Leznoff, Heartache and Other Natural Shocks I’m really enjoying this YA by a colleague in my college’s Creative Writing department.

I’m starting to think about my travel reading. I’m sure that, as usual, I’ll plan on reading three five ten times more books than I have time for.



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20 Responses to June (and Early July): Mystery Madness

  1. lawless says:

    Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries range from good to great. He’s a more whimsical, silly-seeming investigator than Lord Peter; while he is also of the aristocracy, he hides it and we never find out who he really is. The characters are less elitist, and the books are less class-obsessed.

    The Tiger in the Smoke is widely (and rightfully) considered her best book, but Campion is a less central character in it than in the others. It has Canon Avril, though, one of the group of unusually good characters who turn out to be both foolhardy and wise. He shows up in a later book too – The Mind Readers, I believe. There is also the pleasure of encountering recurring characters like Campion’s manservant, ex-burglar Mahgerfonstein Lugg, his eventual wife, aeronautic engineer Amanda Fitton, Inspector Luke, and current burglar Thos. Knapp.

    • lawless says:

      Just to be ckear, those recurring characters show up in her books at large, not specifically Tiger in the Smoke, although Inspector Luke features in it.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I have now gotten far enough in the book to meet most of these people, and they are quite fun. You’ve convinced me to try more even if they can’t be library audio!

  2. I read half of The Long Way in April, and then it had to go back to the library, and came through again sometime in June which is when I finished it. IIRC, I enjoyed the second half more than the first–it just seemed to have some more steam (in terms of action, limited though it is) than the first.

    I can also completely understand wanting a little more action (maybe like the Ancillary series?) from space stories! They ARE set in space, after all, which IS the playground of Kirk and Hans Solo! 😛

    And with that Betty Neels reference, you’ve now made me curious about the Brett!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It isn’t really anything like Neels–much more satiric, for one thing–but it has that same out of time feeling.

      I am pretty sure I will keep going with Long Way, especially as they have just been boarded by pirates. I do like the characters, although I see what people mean about the overt niceness/politeness. It feels a bit didactic at times in its discussions of dealing with other species.

      I found myself wondering if this book started as fan fiction, or if the writer comes from fandom. I know she funded completing it with a Kickstarter, and I have seen a lot of comparisons to Firefly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it could be one explanation for the slow, character-based story, which is a feature of (some) fan fiction, I understand. She doesn’t plot like a conventional space opera writer.

      • Ooh, I didn’t know it had been compared to Firefly. I loved that series! Hmm, the only familiarity I see though is the episodic nature of the story-telling. . . thought I did see it many moons ago, so maybe I don’t remember it much. . .

        And I guess, since I haven’t really read many space operas, it didn’t strike me as being anything very out of the blue, you know?

        Anyhoo, looking forward to your thoughts about the book if you decide to write something about it!

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I think the Firefly comparison is also because it’s character driven, and kind of a rag-tag bunch of oddballs? (I haven’t seen Firefly). To be clear, I don’t think anyone is suggesting this is Firefly fan fiction; I just thought it was interesting that it’s being compared to a show which, I believe, generated a lot of fan fiction, and the book’s appeal struck me as similar in some ways to some things people say they enjoy in fan fiction. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn this author came from fandom, though I could be completely wrong.

  3. Rohan says:

    That’s a lot of reading! I’m glad you’re hooked on Spenser, I reread some of the really early ones a couple of years ago and was surprised how much less I liked them than the later ones — and you are so right about the 70s fashion! That kind of thing drops away. I’ll be interested to see how you feel about Susan as the series goes on. I have always liked her a lot, but I know other readers who can’t stand her. There are times when the formula gets so pat it seems almost like self-parody, but even then I always enjoy Spenser and Hawk and Vinnie and the rest of the associated ‘Scooby gang’ of tough, righteous cops and agents and hoodlums who lend their taciturn support to every case.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      More listening than reading–I’m not sure how I fit so much in! Probably too much substituting it for sleeping.

      In the fourth book, I was really interested in watching Spenser and Susan negotiate their relationship and how to define it, what they were promising each other. I’ll be curious to see how that develops. (She seems dated in away–reading Bettelheim and Erickson!–but I am enjoying her a lot. I think she is needed to balance Spenser. Kind of like how I can only tolerate really alpha Harlequin heroes if the heroine can stand up to them). That book is where I met Hawk, too.

      I usually burn out eventually on long-running series, however much I like the characters and writing, but it’s the characters that keep me in it for a long-ish time. I like how they deepen and develop over a really long series, from often rather formulaic beginnings.

  4. willaful says:

    I read the Campion books as a teen and completely forgot them, except for a memory of one in which Albert wakes up in the hospital with amnesia, feeling infinitely relieved that a sweet young woman is there who will take care of him, and then having her break up with him immediately (not realizing his disoriented situation.) Oh the heartache!

    I really enjoyed that Simon Brett, though the rest of the series was too much of a muchness.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Maybe I read them and forgot too! I would have sworn I had read at least one, but nothing seemed familiar. Not sure I even watched one on TV; maybe I just saw stills from the show…. That one book sounds like the opening to a good HP.

  5. Oo, Front Page Affair sounds fun! I like a girl reporter, and I’m always on the hunt for new authors of color writing genre fiction. Even if this first one wasn’t a complete hit for you, I always (nearly always?) find that mystery serieses get better as they go along and you get more attached to the characters anyway.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Cathy Pegau’s book is set in Alaska around the same time, and also features a female reporter if that idea grabs you. I liked it a bit better (first is Murder on the Last Frontier, second is about to come out). I agree, though, that a lot of the issues I had with this book could be first book problems, and I can see it getting better if there are more–it’s kind of like when you go back and watch the pilot of a good TV show. Even great pilots seem kind of stilted compared to later episodes; maybe it’s partly that neither you nor the actors know the characters well yet.

  6. merriank says:

    I found a new urban fantasy police procedural series by EE Richardson which has a 55yr old female DCI in an underfunded police unit that responds to Ritual Magic crimes. Magic is real and common in this AU Britain. There is a crime per book and a multi book arc of dastardly corporate criminal conspiracy. If you’ve seen the TV show, Vera? I was reminded of that, with less alcoholism and silver hand cuffs.

    https://www.goodreads.com/series/131984-ritual-crime-unit There are 2 books & a 3rd out this month. I liked that the books are around category length and things move fast and the police work seems realistic

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Ohh, thanks, that sounds like fun! I like the blend of police work and fantasy, logic and magic. It seems so paradoxical.

  7. One thing to keep your eyes/ears alert for is how Parker and Muller handle the passage of time vs how it is handled by Grafton. Parker and Muller (and most authors of long running series) write in what I call Ed McBain-time. Each story takes place in the present day (of when it was written). Lots of current event references, etc. However, the main characters age very slowly. For example: Sharon McCone is in her early 40s in the latest by Muller! Nice trick, to age at half speed!
    In contrast, Grafton’s books are all pegged to Kinsey’s real-time. So the latest books are almost historicals Kinsey is still doing her sleuthing the ‘old-fashioned’ way.
    Happy listening/reading.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, interesting point! That kind of aging and growth is always tricky to handle in a really long-running series.

      One thing I enjoy about these 70s-80s mysteries is that they don’t quite feel like period pieces (the way Golden Age books do now), but they are so clearly of another time. I’m always interested in the plotting things they could do then that you can’t do now, with the advent of cell phones (just as technology enables new plots). People can’t easily call for help! They have to use payphones! They can’t be contacted immediately! Sometimes you see writers (for TV too) today stretching credulity to get their characters out of contact with help.

  8. SuperWendy says:

    This post brought back some memories. I’m dating myself here – but I used to love Marcia Muller’s books. Read several in mass market paperback that I checked out from my hometown library. Once I got my first professional library gig, I switched over to audiobook and I listened to the whole series (at that time) in order, on cassette. But for some reason one of the later books took forever to land on audio (Listen to the Silence, I think?) and by that point I was unwilling to switch back to print. One of my favorites at the time (we’re talking well over 20 years now so take this with a grain of salt) was Trophies and Dead Things.

    Sue Grafton is a comfort listen for me on audio. Sometimes I go back and just pick up a random letter of the alphabet for kicks. The later books are hit or miss for me, mostly because I feel like Grafton’s plotting isn’t as tight as it was in the earlier books. If you keep with the series I really dig “Q” and “U.” And I remember liking “D” quite a bit.

    I listened to the Keeper of Lost Causes a few years back and meh. The Scandinavian crime “thing” has mostly eluded me – I think precisely because of the slower pace so many of those stories seem to have. I remember liking this one OK, but not enough to keep going in the series.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      LOL, well I am more dated than you, I just didn’t get to these books back when they first came out. I was a bit young for Spenser when the series started, but I read Sara Paretsky’s first book when it was new. There is something nostalgic for me about reading books from this era. Thanks for the Grafton pointers!

  9. Sunita says:

    I don’t know how I missed her, because I was reading a lot of mysteries in the 80s (including Paretsky and Grafton by the bucketloads), but I’ve never read Marcia Muller! That must be rectified. I’m glad you enjoyed the Brett; they are slight and a bit samey, as Willaful notes, but I love his voice, and he’s the ultimate comfort read. Your brain is just sufficiently engaged. I read a lot of Allingham too, back in the day, and watched the TV series, but if I remember correctly the books and the TV series have slightly different characterizations.

    Sirius DNF’d the Chambers, which is rare for her, in part because it was so slow moving. The blurb promised a space opera and I guess it was definitely not that. And it did sound an awful lot like Firefly, not that there’s anything wrong with that. 😉

    On the Vatsal, I looked at the blurb and the author bio and almost picked it up, but like you, intrepid heroines in cozy mystery setups aren’t quite doing it for me right now.

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