Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Things We Do For Love

Sharon Wildwind

Today is the big day. I’ve been asked to speak about mysteries at a library. Because the library is a bit of a drive from home, I told the program coordinator that I would speak twice, once in the afternoon and once in the evening. Then I jumped in with both feet and said that between the two sessions I’d have a mystery recommendation table.

The way I usually do this is, when someone stops by my table, I ask, “Who have you read lately that you enjoyed?” At this point I have to prepare myself not to cringe when I hear the answer because it’s likely to be, “Plain oatmeal.”

No, there isn’t a mystery author out there who, like a rap star, has renamed herself “plain oatmeal.” That’s my version of the mega-writers who are in every bookstore, have the huge end-cap displays, and show up on tons of selling-like-hotcakes lists. You can probably name a few yourself.

I have nothing against these authors, but I think it’s sad when they are the only people that a person has read. I’m reminded of a Peanut’s cartoon from decades ago. Peppermint Patty and Marcie watched the evening news. The sportscaster finished with, “. . .and that’s the sports news for tonight.” Peppermint Patty yelled at the screen, “That’s it? What about . . .” and rattled off three full panels of women athletes who had apparently not been included in the sportscaster’s report.

When I booked this gig about six months ago, I immediately got nervous. What if someone told me what they liked in a book and I couldn’t think of a single author who wrote books like that. I began compiling my lists.

First to the data base I keep for the authors I read. It’s a simple affair: author, title, protagonist, is it a series, and a star rating. I award one to five stars and, for events like this, any author who rated three stars or higher gets on the list. That gave me 4 pages of names.

Then I started my squirrel behavior, collecting lists from other people. I found Kevin Burton Smith’s list of the 100 best PIs from Mystery Scene Magazine. Good for 11 pages. Jason Pinter’s list of the 100 best mystery and crime writers from the 2009 November 4 Huffington Post produced another 4 pages. I don’t have to agree with these lists, I just have to recognize that a name on the list is a mystery author.

Then I went to the web sites for several mystery conventions, the ones that list authors who will be attending or did attend. Copy-and-paste is a great invention. In the space of a an hour I copied bunches of lists, sorted them alphabetically, deleted the duplicates and sorted again into three columns: authors I recognized, authors I vaguely recognized, and authors I’d never heard of. It constantly amazes me that the last column is always the longest. No matter how hard I try to keep up, people are getting published faster than I can keep up with them.

Now comes the mind-numbing part. Copy an author’s name I don't recognize into Google. Hope to goodness they have an easily-found web site. Tip #1: If you’re going to do have an elaborate all-singing, all-dancing entry screen, at least give me an escape button. On this pass I’m not interested in a six-minute intro, no matter how wonderful it is. Oh, yeah, turn the sound down on that intro music. I swear the music on one site could have brought down low-flying aircraft.

On each site, I try to answer these questions:

What was the first book they published?
What’s the most recent book they published?
How many books have they published?
Are they writing stand-alones or series, and if series, who is their protagonist(s)?
What location(s) are the books set in?
What the heck are they writing?

Tip #2: Is it too much to ask that the protagonist’s name and book location be in the summary?

A big-city hospital, a tortured surgeon, a medical thriller that rips the heart of out of medical ethics does not do it for me. It also makes me wonder what a doctor is doing ripping the heart out of anything.

Jot some quick notes. Move on to the next name.

I do get a couple of perks while doing this. First, I get to see a lot of web sites, and I get a good feel for what makes navigation easy. Tip #3: do not nest the list of your books inside three other folders. I only found that one by sheer persistence; I refused to believe the author would have that elaborate a web site and not list his books.

The second perk I get is to create a side-bar of authors who peak my curiosity. I’ll go back and look at them more closely later. Many of them end up on my to-be-read list.

So when I finished with this exercise, I had another 8 pages. Now that’s 4+4 +11+8 = 27 pages of author names. I’m good to go. One more quick pass. Add The Guardian’s list of the 250 books most checked out of United Kingdom libraries in 2009. Seventy-one of the books listed were by mystery or thriller writers. That adds 2 pages, for a grand total of 29.

My best finds:
Maiku Hama (Japan) by Kaizo Hayasi and Daisuke Tengan. A Japanese detective thinks he’s Mike Hammer. This is really funny if you say his name out loud.

A 1998 movie called Zero Effect, staring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller, that goes on my must-see list.

That S. J. Rosen has a new Lydia Chin and Bill Smith book out. Yes!

That C. J. Box is not a woman. I suspect that his name is not Carolyn Jane Box as I have always thought it was. I have no idea where I got that name.
Quote for the week:

Rex Stout (1886 to 1975) wrote 47 novels, 40 novellas, 5 related books, 35 short stories, and 3 edited collections featuring Nero Wolfe; 3 Tecumseh Fox books; 4 stand-alone paperback novels; and 9 stand-alone hardback novels. He edited multiple omnibuses and collections.

[What I want to know is did he sleep?]
Images used in the poster are public domain clip art.


signlady217 said...

One of my (and my brother's) favorite authors just passed away last week. Dick Francis wrote 42 novels, about one a year, and a ton of other stuff. I always liked how his books were about horseracing and something else. In one, the main character owned a wine store that catered a lot of parties at the track or homes of owners; another one had an artist that specialized in painting portraits of the horses. I always learned something new. He will be greatly missed.

Sandra Parshall said...

Wow, Sharon. You did all this for a library appearance? I hope those people realize what a gem they got when they invited you.

By the way, I believe I've heard CJ Box referred to as Chuck. And I've read his books, so I've seen his photo. Definitely a man, with a penchant for great big western hats.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Sharon, you're amazing! This is fascinating. You're a force of nature.

And to continue the concidental CJ Box festival, I just met him in Alabama. Yup, Sandra, he's Chuck, and wears a cowboy hat. And he is charming charming charming. I just read one of his books, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye--and it's a wonderful thriller. (Sharon, is that on your list?)

Wish you could come to OUR library!

Anonymous said...

Isn't it amazing what a lifetime of writing can produce? I am always awed by long bibliographies.

The library presentation was the catalyst, but this is a task I've been meaning to get to for a long time. The basic questions that I had rattling around in my head was what was out there in the mystery/thriller world that I was missing. That is, who else was out there that I hadn't read. The answer turned out to be more authors that I can possibly read.

Julie Kramer said...

This is a fabulous idea. I often have to travel to far flung rural libraries across Minnesota. Great enterprising, Sharon.