Earlier this week, a fellow reading-forum member made a query asking for "whodunnit” recommendations. Since I've read an occasional mystery, I thought I'd glance through my list to see what I'd read in the genre recently that I might recommend. Imagine my surprise when—after I counted the mysteries, then tallied all the books I have read this year, followed by some calculations—the results revealed a full quarter of the year’s books have been mysteries. This is a number slightly disproportionate to the titles on my reading list, none of which are mysteries.
Although I don't exclusively read mysteries, it's true, I'm a bit of a junkie. How did this happen?
In another life, I worked for a publisher that is well known for its mystery publishing program. Some of my favorite clients were mystery bookstore owners. Actually, those same buyers were the most eager to place a book in my hands before I left their store. In the seven years that I was in daily contact with mysteries, I bought, traded, and borrowed scores. Yet, I read maybe a total of ten mysteries.
Shamefully, I've often dismissed the genre as being lightweight. But I will be the first to admit that not all mysteries are insubstantial. Many, like Eliot Pattison's series set in Tibet, are meaty and provocative. Those that are fluffy serve a higher purpose as pure entertainment.
So, I'm revisiting the mystery genre (which, for the sake of convenience, will also include thrillers). With thanks to the mystery guys who graciously tutored me: Steve Stilwell (former owner of Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis), Jeff Hatfield (buyer at Uncle Edgar's in Minneapolis), and Richard Katz (owner of Mystery One in Milwaukee). My other mystery guys are my husband and his father, who has been devouring mysteries in his retirement. He likes them hard-boiled. I can take or leave gritty.
I love mysteries with great characters. They can make up for poorly conceived and poorly executed plots. Further, as with all fiction, I like to be transported, so theme or setting can be nearly as important to me as great characters. Beyond that if a mystery is well edited, and the author shows promise in developing a series, then I'm likely to get sucked into it.
Herewith, a few of my favorite mystery series, in no particular order—some of which I had to go into the wayback machine to retrieve:
Before The Davinci Code was even a twinkle in Dan Brown’s eye, Peter Watson wrote a couple art thrillers featuring Michael Whiting, a London art gallery owner. Watson deftly blends the Bible and medieval iconography into a fast-paced, but richly detailed mystery. Even when I bought British editions at an upstate NY bookshop ten years ago, these books were nearly impossible to find. But Landscape of Lies has been reissued recently by Felony & Mayhem Press, a publisher that appears to specialize in reprinting overlooked mysteries.
Diane Mott Davidson
This was one of the first food-themed mystery series on the market, featuring caterer Goldy Bear. The setting is wealthy Aspen Park, Colorado, and the cast of characters runs to soap-operatic depths, including Goldy’s evil ex-husband, Dr. John Richard Korman, and her zany best friend, Marla, who was also married at one time to Korman. Davidson really hits her stride when Goldy steps into her kitchen, pulls an espresso, and prepares the food she’s catering. Recipes are included, but I find them to be a very minor part of the story.
This mystery series features sports agent, Myron Bolitar. Initially, each humor-loaded book in the series focused on a different sport (basketball, tennis, golf, and others), but Coben admitted at a book signing that he never wanted the series to be about sports and so has dropped this compelling theme. The series also features one of the best cast of characters outside of Seinfeld, including Winfield “Win” Lockwood III (Myron’s psychotic best friend), Esperanza aka Little Pocahontas and Big Cindy (former professional tag-team wrestlers who now work for Myron), and Myron’s mother. Coben took a break from the series for six years, and during that time became a New York Times bestselling author—a well-earned distinction. Promise Me was released this summer, and the first books in the series, which had been mass-market originals, are being reprinted in hardcover. Clearly Doubleday and Coben are committed to maintaining Bolitar. I’m looking forward to reading more!
PIs Bill Smith and Lydia Chin alternate narrating this series. When Smith is the lead sleuth, the stories are set in the seamy underbelly of New Jersey, and when Chin is the lead sleuth, the setting is New York’s Chinatown. I'm partial to the Lydia Chin books, which involve tong politics, as well as feature Lydia's mother who fiercely rivals Myron Bolitar's for Mother of the Year.
The Mommy Track mysteries are pure pleasure, featuring former lawyer turned amateur sleuth/stay at home mom, Juliet Applebaum. I can easily identify with Juliet, the mother of young children, who has given up a demanding career to stay closer to home. Plus, she’s utterly likeable—smart, witty, bold. Waldman is utterly likeable too. She’s smart, witty, bold, and sometimes controversial; is married to Michael Chabon; is a big reader; and has a great website.
These archaeological mysteries are a recent find. Protagonist Lara McClintock is an antiques dealer who travels to wonderfully exotic locales for work, and, like all good amateur sleuths, stumbles across a body or situation where she’s inclined to become involved in the investigation. Hamilton weaves in a parallel story from some historic period in the area where the book is set to good effect.
Two others deserve some sort of mention. I’ve only read one or two books in each series, but intend to read more. Eliot Pattison's series begins with The Skull Mantra. It’s a beautiful and smart mystery, set in the twentieth-century Tibet, with a splash of culture, politics, and religion for good measure. Then, Elizabeth Peters’ archaeology mysteries starring Amelia Peabody are pretty addictive, too.