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required summer reading
solving the joys of the detective novel
by michelle von euw
8.10.09
writing

Summer has always been the best time for reading. Perhaps because I've spent almost my entire life on a semester schedule, the months of May through August have been the ones in which books I read for pleasure take a top priority over the ones that I have to read.

Asking me what genre of books I prefer is pretty much like asking me what type of fiction I write: both questions are met with an uncomfortable silence, some verbal hedging, and then usually the words "literary, but not too literary" and "character-driven" are thrown in there somewhere. During the winter, I tackle the popular tomes, books that have prizes adorning their covers and are written by people like Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon and Nicole Krauss and Jane Austen, books that give me knowledge while allowing me to admire a particularly well-turned phrase.

In the summer, however, I remember my first love: mysteries.

It started the first time I held the sturdy, confident hardback version of The Secret of the Old Clock and eagerly paged my way through the adventures of Nancy Drew, even though it was long past my bedtime and even though I was scared silly by the various threats faced by our girl detective. Nancy was soon replaced by Trixie Belden, a girl detective who actually had faults, which made her a hundred times more real, and a thousand times more appealing to me as a young reader.

With these two detectives, I began what would become a lifelong trait of obsessively reading my way through entire series, finding comfort with familiar characters whose habits were long established, where a frequent reader could be rewarded for having a good memory for past adventures.

As I became a teenager, my reading tastes broadened and developed (and to be honest, probably worsened, if the large collection of Sweet Dreams, Couples, and of course, Sweet Valley High paperbacks stashed in my parents attic are of any indication), but I never truly lost my love of mysteries.

I've tackled the legal thrillers, the psychological twisters, and the crime subgenre; I even for a brief while became enthralled with the sleuthing of an amateur detective/professional quilter. In my twenties, I became enthralled with, and eventually discarded, the serial novels of Patricia Cornwell, Nelson DeMille, Jonathan Kellerman, John Grisham, Sue Miller, and Iris Johansen, among others.

Two of my comfort books books I reread over and over, year after year, are mysteries: one, Murder On Her Mind, is a straight-up whodunit, featuring an appealing red-headed rookie detective embroiled in a political conspiracy set in Hollywood. In so many ways, it's the perfect book: political intrigue, glamorous actors, a plucky master of disguise who falls for her golden boy client while solving the mystery of her career. I have read the book so many times, I'm surprised the pages haven't fallen out.

The second, Madeleine's Ghost, is less of a typical mystery, and more similar to the subset that attracts my current sensibilities. The genre is definitely more literary, but the central plot ties together an academic stuck in a bad part of Brooklyn with a 19th century Louisiana tragedy, and concludes in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Unlike 90 percent of the mysteries I read, the protagonist is male, and he's wonderfully atypical of the genre: an academic who unravels the mysteries not by bashing heads, but by using his history PhD, and not in an overly pretentious way like the heroes of Dan Brown novels.

This summer, in addition to revisiting the above two books, I've rediscovered a trio of mystery writers that I'd frankly forgotten about during the winter months: Laurie King, Elizabeth George, and Linda Barnes.

Barnes has the hard-bitten female detective down pat, and her Carlotta mysteries have the added bonus (for me) of being set quite realistically in Boston. Like Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane, Barnes writes about the underside of my hometown with a native's touch, getting right the differences between, say, East Cambridge and Harvard Square, while exposing sides of the city rarely gotten right by authors who rely on maps to craft their texts. Carlotta Carlyle is a deeply flawed protagonist, and one who doesn't always get it right, but when she does, it's through a combination of brains, skill, and sneakiness that is endlessly appealing. She also has had terrible luck with men, though the latest in the series suggests that may be changing.

George committed a cardinal sin a few books back by killing off an immensely popular secondary character, and I've been loath to turn again to her Inspector Lynley/Barbara Havers series. I skipped a book or two (unheard of for me), and picked up her latest, allowing myself to get pulled into George's prose and her uncanny plotting abilities, and her acknowledgment of the hole left behind in the imaginary, British world by the significant death.

Like George, King sets her Mary Russell series in England; unlike George's characters, Russell is a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes. Not just a contemporary -- his wife. King has shaped a series around the later years of the famous detective, pairing him both professionally and personally with the much younger, first person narrator. Some may call this blasphemy; to me, it's a brilliant way to incorporate a beloved fictional detective into a fresh, well-crafted series. My only complaint about King's latest Russell mystery is that it ends on a "To Be Continued" note, one of my least favorite literary tricks.

In case you may mistakenly believe that my mystery preferences sound a little highbrow, I have on vacation with me this week not one, but two of the Sookie Stackhouse supernatural mysteries that inspired the HBO series "True Blood". From what I can tell so far, the books carry all the weight of a Twinkie, mysteries populated with supernatural participants, with a heavy dose of frothy sex on the side.

But it's summertime, and for these long, warm days, any mystery will do.


ABOUT MICHELLE VON EUW

Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
8.10.09 @ 7:34a

A few summers ago, when I was traveling for business a lot, I liked listening to "The Cat Who..." mystery series by Lilian Jackson Braun. These audio books would make the miles fly by. There was just enough quirkiness to be interesting without being too cloying, and, for the most part, the mysteries didn't tax my brain.

russ carr
8.10.09 @ 4:36p

This makes me wonder if they're still publishing the "Encyclopedia Brown" series.

Answer: indeed! Though the new photo covers seem terribly contrived; bring back those classic '60s sketch covers!

[edited]

tracey kelley
8.11.09 @ 7:39a

Oh, I loved reading Encyclopedia Brown when I was little.

alex b
8.13.09 @ 6:00a

Tracey, I loved Encyclopedia Brown, too! May have to pick 'em up again.

Michelle, I think I read all the Sookie Stackhouse books under a month. You cannot expect to merely read one chapter at bedtime; you will read five, then seven, and have to stop at eight. Total Southern vampire crack. LOVED 'em.

lisa r
8.17.09 @ 7:12a

I cut my teeth on mysteries--Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes...

These days its also "The Cat Who..." series in my world, Tracey. I can't resist smart animals and quirky characters. The Rita Mae Brown/Sneaky Pie Brown "Mrs. Murphy" series is another cat-as-detective series I love. Other favorite summer reads:

Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" series
G.A. McKevitt's "Savannah Reid" series
J. D. Robb's (Nora Roberts') "...in Death" series
Nancy Martin's "The Blackbird Sisters" series


Past faves: (courtesy of "Masterpiece Mystery Theater" on PBS)

Colin Dexter's "Inspector Morse" series
Reginald Hill's "Dalziel & Pascoe" series
Caroline Graham's "Midsomer Murders" series
Ngaio Marsh's "Inspector Alleyn" series

lucy lediaev
8.18.09 @ 3:21p

I've been a mystery junkie my entire life. Some women escape with a romance novel; my choice for an escape from reality has been a mystery. I particularly like British mysteries and those based in academia.



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