Thursday, June 2, 2011

Books We Love, Books We Recommend

Elizabeth Zelvin

The Malice Domestic convention represents the biggest gathering of avid mystery readers (excluding Bouchercon as drawing lovers of crime fiction and thrillers as well). Malicegoers have a fanatical loyalty to their favorite authors and series characters and an encyclopedic knowledge of the books they’re read (and in many cases, reread over and over). It’s not guaranteed that attendees will have conversations about these books, apart from those of authors who are present and those nominated for the Agatha awards (or the Edgars, which MWA announces just as Malice begins). But it does happen. I had two such conversations during this year’s Malice: one with the old friend with whom I stayed (located conveniently two and a half miles down the road from the convention hotel in Bethesda, MD) and the other with the gentleman who sat on my left during the Agathas banquet, Steve Steinbock, recently appointed book reviewer for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

My friend and her husband are mystery readers, but they aren’t connected to the mystery community, so I had the fun of recommending writers they didn’t know, once they’d told me enough about their tastes to get a sense of whose books they might like. They read James Patterson but find his work “a little too formulaic” and his characters lacking in depth. (They knew nothing of Patterson’s team approach to writing.) They enjoy Robert B. Parker because the formula is redeemed by witty dialogue and characters they have become attached to. (They were surprised to hear that many readers don’t like Susan Silverman.) They don’t mind the gore in Jonathan Kellerman’s books, but think John Sandford goes too far. They had reservations about Linda Fairstein on the counts of characterization and excessive detail in the passages on police procedure.

Between the dealers’ room at Malice and the bag full of books given out to attendees, I was able to give my hosts books I knew they would enjoy along with the fun of making recommendations. Felony & Mayhem Press was selling some of my very favorite traditionals: I bought Janet Neel’s Death’s Bright Angel for them—a police procedural with sophisticated and intelligent characters the reader falls in love with—and Peter Dickinson’s Sleep and His Brother, which I had recently been thinking of and wishing I could reread, for myself. The husband is interested in the World War II era, so he got two excellent books from the goodie bag that I’ve already read: James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle and Charles Todd’s The Red Door. I can’t wait to send my friend a list of series authors she can put on her Kindle, including Margaret Maron, Laurie R. King, and Donna Leon, all of whom I’m sure she’ll love. I think the husband will enjoy Jan Burke, Reginald Hill, and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Steve Steinbock, whom I first met in the bar at Bouchercon a couple of years ago, is a kindred spirit who loves many of the same books I do. He agreed with (or at least let me rant on about) my theory that the middle ground between the heirs of Agatha Christie and the heirs of Raymond Chandler is occupied by the heirs of Dorothy L. Sayers, who introduced the character-driven novel to mysteries of the Golden Age. This goes largely unacknowledged in the perennial cozy vs hardboiled debate, although imho the descendants of Sayers include some of the most extraordinary writers of traditional mysteries, including Maron, King, Hill, and Julia Spencer-Fleming, as well as (arguably) Laura Lippman and S.J. Rozan (usually considered crime fiction writers) and Nancy Pickard and Charlaine Harris (usually considered cozy writers). Steve and I had a grand time talking about Manning Coles’s Tommy Hambledon spy novels. I was able to recommend to him a writer he didn’t know, Michael Gruber, whose The Book of Air and Shadows I consider the perfect thriller (plot, characterization, listen-to-this language, and even humor) as well as a brilliant World War II era suspense novel he didn’t know, the late Ariana Franklin’s City of Shadows. I also recommended Peter Dickinson's superb King and Joker, a refreshing alternative-history view of British royalty (and a propos as the royal wedding competed with Malice itself).

What mysteries do you love? Which authors do you recommend?


Caroline Clemmons said...

Although I love the late Robert B. Parker's Spencer and Jesse Stone novels (hate Susan Silverman), I love cozies like those of Rhys Bowen, Jacqueline Winspear, Carola Dunn, Alice Duncan, and others of that type.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think I would put Nancy Pickard in the traditional mystery category, not cozy. Her wonderful books deal with some dark subject matter.

Recommendations from friends with the same taste is the very best way to find new authors to read. When I love a writer's work, I recommend it to others, but I'm careful not to tell a strictly-cozy-with-no-nasty-stuff reader that she should read the latest Lisa Gardiner novel. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

I've read a number of those, but many of those titles (and authors) are new to me, too! Thanks for the list.

JJM said...

I like mysteries where truth and justice prevail in the end and the world is, overall, a friendly place to live in. Until the next body shows up, that is. If I want reality, I can just check the evening news -- that's why I seldom read police procedurals, noir, and the like, but stay on the cozy side. I value good writing (duh!), a sense of place, and a sense of humour. A touch of fantasy is not unwelcome. Above all, though, I value good characters and character-driven stories. I'll forgive a lot of bad plotting if I fall in love with the people.

It's very hard to pin down who my favourites are among current writers, but I'd have to mention Louise Penny, Vicki Lane, Donna Andrews, Nancy Pickard, and Sharyn McCrumb. Writers I'm only just discovering include Sandra Parshall, Alice Duncan, Ellery Adams, Betty Webb, Margaret Maron, Hannah Reed, Tim Hallinan, and Mark Schweizer, whose "The Alto Wore Tweed" had me laughing out loud over the weekend.

Of the "olde guarde", I guess my favourite remains Ellery Queen, especially during the middle period, when the character becomes less of a Philo Vance clone and more of a Mensch; I also remember "his" Drury Lane books, written under the pen name "Barnaby Ross", with great fondness. --Mario

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I was second guessing myself on Nancy Pickard this morning but decided not to revise what I'd said and see what others had to say. Her brilliant standalones are certainly in the character-driven traditional category, and the Jenny Cain series was written before cozies diverged so sharply from other traditionals. There were no fundraising tips at the ends of the chapters. ;) My favorite, btw, was Bum Steer.

Dru said...

I'm all over the place when it comes to mysteries and authors. Depending on my mood, I might read a light mystery, one with humor or one with dark elements. I love a good mystery especially if it has a satisfactory outcome.

Some of the authors I like are Elaine Viets, Deborah Coonts, G. A. McKevett, J.A. Jance, Donna Andrews, Cathy Pickens, Alafair Burke, Lorna Barrett, Marcia Muller and Nancy Pickard who I've yet to read but have her latest book.

I actually like James Patterson and Stuart Woods because they have short chapters.

Anonymous said...

I have so many favorites and so many I am still discovering.

One I think gets mentioned too rarely is Barbara Fradkin.


jenny milchman said...

You have described a night that could fairly be counted as bliss in this post, Liz! Sandy's description of Nancy Pickard is interesting to me--she is one of my favorites, and I agree that 'cozy' doesn't seem quite right--I consider her work literary mystery. Others I would put in her camp are Tana French, Cammie McGovern, Elizabeth Brundage, Laura Lippman's standalones...probably others I'm failing to think of. I also like literary suspense--people like Lisa Unger. And to use the great Oline Cogdill's term, family thrillers, by the likes of Linwood Barclay, Sophie Hannah, Harlan Coben, Greg Iles' TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. Finally, though he does nothing similar to anything else I read, Lee Child may be my current favorite author. And Stephen King is the most formative. Thanks for letting me compile a list! Hope to see you at Malice one day!

Jerry House said...

My current go-to list of authors are Max Allan Collins, Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, Joe R. Lansdale, and Bill Pronzini, with Ken Bruen itching to push his way into the top five. All of the above are males, hmmm.

Most of the woman authors I read are from an earlier time: Marjorie Allingham, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Helen McCloy, and Craig Rice.

Most of today's authors get one or two readings from me along with a silent vow to continue reading their work. I seldom do, however, there's just too many good books out there.