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.
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.