I love reading mysteries because a well written mystery delves deeply into the depths of the human heart and psyche. I’m in partial agreement with Beth O’Brien, who says:

For me, the mystery books to read are personal. I want to know what happens to those directly affected. The family, the friends, the victims themselves. The general fiction section is where you’ll find the kind of mysteries I like.

GENRE KRYPTONITE: QUIET, PERSONAL MYSTERIES

She had me right up until that last sentence. While it’s true that some very good mysteries appear on the general fiction shelves, more often the best mysteries are found right where you’d expect them to be, on the mystery shelves. The main reason for this is that, once a writer has written a mystery and been categorized as a mystery writer, most book stores and libraries will continue to put all that author’s subsequent books in the same spot.

Like O’Brien, I don’t care for cozy mysteries (the kind in which, if the mystery were a play, the crime would occur off stage). And I’m not a big fan of the drawing room mystery, in which the sleuth, whether professional or amateur, gathers all the possible suspects in the drawing room and explains why each, one by one, isn’t the killer; the last person left is therefore the guilty party, and the sleuth proceeds to explain how the killer did the deed and how the clever detective figured the whole complicated mess out.

And I don’t like horror. I recently read two novels that were described as psychological thrillers that made me realize exactly what my definition of horror is: literature that uses a supernatural or inhuman phenomenon to deliver the promised twist at the end. (I’m not going to name those two novels so as not to spoil their endings for anyone who hasn’t read them yet.) It’s human motivation and interaction that I’m interested in, not goblins, demons, or other malevolent but external forces.

Finally, O’Brien says that she doesn’t like procedurals or courtroom dramas, and I disagree with her there as well. Procedurals, which pit a detective (who may or may not be a police investigator) against a bad guy or gal, frequently provide a look into the minds of both sides of that human equation. Courtroom dramas do the same, and often at the same time examine how the legal system works and how it affects human behavior.

Ultimately, though, O’Brien and I agree on the most basic appeal of a mystery. For her, it’s “about the people, the character development,” and I second that. The best mysteries are not pure plot, with one extreme event following another, careening off in seemingly endless directions. My purpose in reading a mystery isn’t to see what wild, unforeseen surprise the writer can throw at me. I read mysteries to learn about why people do what they do, how they interact with others, and what drives them. The best mysteries display as much character development as plot.

Here, then, are five mysteries that both interested and enlightened me. And you might want to click on the link to O’Brien’s article, where she offers five more.

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

In the winter of 1963 in England, serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady began killing children. Val McDermid uses this historical event as the starting point for her novel, in which a 13-year-old girl, Alison Carter, disappears in a small, rural English community distrustful of outsiders. The investigation falls to George Bennett, a young, newly promoted inspector. Although Alison’s body was never found, someone was convicted and executed for her murder. Despite this seemingly successful conclusion, the case continued to haunt Bennett for the rest of his career.

Decades later, Bennett tells the story of this case to journalist Catherine Heathcote. But just as Heathcote’s book on the case is about to be published, Bennett calls to tell her to stop. When he tells her he has new information but refuses to explain, Heathcote undertakes her own investigation of the case.

I’ve chosen this one of McDermid’s novels because it has stuck with me for years, but almost any of her books is worth reading, particularly her stand-alone novels. This book demonstrates how effective a procedural mystery can be.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old real estate agent, is about to close up an open house at the end of the day when a van pulls up. It’s been a slow day, and she hopes this last visitor might just be the buyer she needs. Instead, the van holds a psychopath who kidnaps Annie and holds her captive in a remote cabin for a year before she manages to escape. (This all becomes clear right at the beginning of the book, so I’m not giving anything away here.)

Annie narrates most of the book as recordings of her therapy sessions after her escape. The last part describes her efforts to re-integrate back into society after her terrible experience. As harrowing as this sounds, Still Missing is a story of survival and resilience that I still think about now, several years after reading it.

”M” Is for Malice by Sue Grafton

This novel, from the middle of Grafton’s alphabet mysteries featuring PI Kinsey Millhone, is one of the best. When a family patriarch dies and leaves his estate to be divided equally among his four sons, three of them hire Kinsey to locate their long-lost brother, the black sheep of the family, who has been gone for 20 years.

Kinsey is a good investigator, so find him she does. However, after witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between the other three brothers, she advises the prodigal son to consider carefully whether he wants to return to the fold with three men who would obviously rather split the inheritance three ways than four.

”M” Is for Malice aptly demonstrates how deftly Sue Grafton creates credible, complex characters and how the mind of an investigator can be just as compelling as the mind of a villain.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were childhood friends in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston. But one day a strange car pulled up while they were out on the street and tried to pick them up. Sean and Jimmy didn’t get in, but Dave did. Dave later returned, but something had happened to him that drove him away from his friends and changed his life forever.

Years later, Dave Boyle is accused of killing Jimmy Marcus’s daughter, and Sean Devine is the police officer in charge of the murder investigation. This character-driven crime novel examines childhood, friendship, community, and the power of secrets. All the characters are sharply and complexly drawn in a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

There’s a good movie, but read the book first.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, in her early 20s, is a well-liked art teacher at an alternative school in Chicago. She’s the daughter of a prominent but cold and demanding judge and a socialite mother. Mia’s family can’t understand why she chooses to live in the city instead of in their large home in a much safer suburban neighborhood.

When Mia’s not-too-steady boyfriend fails to meet her at a bar in the city one night, Mia leaves the bar with a stranger who calls himself Colin. A notorious criminal has hired Colin to kidnap Mia for him, but Colin soon decides to hide Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota instead of turning her over to his employer. Mia’s disappearance isn’t discovered until Monday morning, when she doesn’t show up for work. Most of the narration shifts between several point-of-view characters—Mia’s mother, Eve; Gabe Hoffman, who’s in charge of the police investigation; and Colin—as the search continues with very few leads.

Such use of multiple points of view characterizes many works of contemporary fiction and reflects the fact that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the events. Novels that present several points of view show readers how different characters perceive the significance of events and how they interact with other characters. This approach to storytelling allows writers and readers to explore fully the deliciously messy and complex workings of human nature.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Read in January

January was my month for reading memoirs, according to my reading plan for 2017. I only read two, but both, which had been on my TBR shelf for quite a while, were very good.


Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk
Grove Press, 2014
ISBN: 978–0–8021–2341–1

Highly Recommended

H Is for HawkWhen Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly, she was nearly overcome with grief. She cancelled an upcoming teaching assignment and struggled to find a way to reconnect with the world. An experienced falconer, she decided to fill her days by training a goshawk, the wildest, fiercest, most difficult to train bird of prey.

Macdonald had trained other hawks, but never a goshawk. She knew well the literature of falconry and followed The Goshawk, by T.H. White (well known author of The Once and Future King, a tome of Arthurian legend), as she progressed through her own training program. White’s book is a narrative about his experiences trying—and failing—to train a goshawk during the mid 1930s (although the book was not published until 1951). The comparison between her progress and White’s lack of progress in the difficult task of training a goshawk provides the underlying structure of Macdonald’s book.

Macdonald obtained a female goshawk, whom she soon named Mabel. As Macdonald became acquainted with Mabel, she realized “without knowing why, I’d chosen to be the hawk” (p. 58). Her identification with Mabel became stronger as the training progressed:

I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”(p. 85)

The hawk became a symbol “of things that must be mastered and tamed” (p. 113).

As she trained Mabel, Macdonald read about White’s fits and starts with his goshawk. In her book she examines White’s approach to training for clues about the mind of this brilliant yet troubled man, whose unhappy childhood underlay life-long insecurity and difficulty fitting into the world. Implicit in Macdonald’s process of understanding White through his book is the realization that readers will understand Macdonald, just as she comes to understand herself, through hers.

H Is for Hawk contains that necessary ingredient of a good memoir, an epiphany—something missing from many memoirs, such as the much over-hyped Wild. Macdonald’s epiphany begins with this realization: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all” (p. 195). She knew that she had wanted to slip onto the wild world of the forest with the hawk:

part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home (p. 220)

In the end she realized that she couldn’t overcome her grief by abandoning the human world to become a wild, feral hawk. Rather, she had to bring the lessons of the wild world back into the human sphere:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171)

The key to a memoir-worthy experience is not simply to endure, but to learn, to change, to grow.

Part of that growth is the ability to see new meaning in other aspects of the world. The broadly educated Macdonald fills her book with
details of the natural world: fields, flowers, bushes, trees, animals, rocks. Nature takes on new meaning because of the experience rendered in this moving and enriching memoir.


Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Free Press, 2012
ISBN 978–1–4516–2137–2

Highly Recommended

Brain on FireOne day in 2009 Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed, unable to speak, move, or remember how she got there. As she stared at an orange band around her wrist, the words FLIGHT RISK came into focus.

Cahalan’s journey to that hospital room had begun weeks earlier. Out of nowhere she began having paranoid thoughts; for example, with no evidence she suddenly believed that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and the voice in her head nearly overpowered her: Read his e-mails. The paranoia was rapidly followed by other symptoms: slurred speech, over-reaction to colors and sounds, nausea, insomnia, wild mood swings, uncontrollable crying, lack of focus, inability to write, facial tics, drooling, involuntary muscle movements, and seizures.

Physical examinations and extensive medical tests revealed no discernible cause for her symptoms. Various doctors prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications and used phrases ranging from all in her head to psychotic break as Calahan’s family and friends watched her condition continue to worsen. Finally, a new neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined the medical team and did one more medical test that saved her life. Dr. Najjar tested Cahalan for a newly discovered, rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to react against the brain. The disease causes inflammation that Dr. Nijjar explained this way: “Her brain is on fire.”

This book differs from most memoirs in that Cahalan has almost no memories of what happened to her during the period she writes about. Her father, who spent most days in her hospital room, kept a personal diary of the ordeal (hers and his own). In addition, her father and mother left a notebook in her room in which both documented what had gone on during their visits; the purpose of this notebook was to keep both parents informed about their daughter’s condition. Cahalan used these two documents, her medical records, and interviews with family, friends, work colleagues, and medical personnel as the basis for the book. Her journalism background enabled her to do the extensive research necessary to supplement those sources.

Despite the absence of her own memories, Cahalan maintains the focus on personal experience that’s necessary in memoir. When she can’t focus on her own experiences, she frames the story with the experiences of the people close to her: her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and her colleagues at the New York Post.

Cahalan excels at describing complex, arcane medical material for a general reader. Here, for example, is her description of how memory works:

My short-term memory had been obliterated, a problem usually rooted in the hippocampus, which is like a way station for new memories. The hippocampus briefly “stores” the patterns of neurons that make up a memory before passing them along to the parts of the brain responsible for preserving them long term. Memories are maintained by the areas of the brain responsible for the initial perception: a visual memory is saved by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, an auditory memory by the auditory cortex of the temporal love, and so forth. (p. 101)

After Cahalan was successfully treated for her brain inflammation, there remained questions about how much of her former self, particularly her mental faculties, would return. This book, with its extensive research and clear writing, demonstrates that her brain is now back to functioning quite well.

Brain on Fire has been made into a movie that will come out on February 22, 2017. You can find information about the film, including a link to the official trailer, here.


© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

With the Trump era now a week old and storm clouds gathering, many decent, salt-of-the-earth Americans not previously given to shows of popular unrest, never mind civil disobedience or outright vio…

Source: 11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

25 Great Books by Refugees in America – The New York Times

From Bertolt Brecht to Vu Tran, a sampling of major contributions to American literature by those who were forced to leave their own countries.

Source: 25 Great Books by Refugees in America – The New York Times

Last Week’s Links

All the buzz this week has been related to the U.S. inauguration.

Knitting protesters grab back at Trump with pink cat hats

The day after Donald Trump is inaugurated president, the signature fashion statement of women marching in protest will be this: a handmade pink “pussy hat” with cat ears tipped directly at Trump and the word he uttered unforgettably on a hot mike. Call it an effort to grab it back.

Both playful and polemic, the cheeky pink hats will appear by the thousands at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and at similar demonstrations in cities across America on Saturday.

Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reports on an interview with President Obama, who said that “reading gave him the ability to occasionally ‘slow down and get perspective’ and ‘the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.’” Kakutani points out that Obama found helpful presidential biographies and the writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But she reports that novels were also important; examples include Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the novels of Marilynne Robinson, and the science fiction apocalyptic novel The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Liu Cixin.

The New “O” Book Club: 12 Fiction Picks from President Obama 

Off the Shelf elaborates on the previous story with a list of 12 books recommended by President Obama.

Every book Barack Obama has recommended during his presidency

And here is the definitive list, according to Entertainment Weekly.

Inauguration sparks writers to lead protest

This article in the Boston Globe discusses protests around the U.S. by writers who oppose the policies of President-Elect Donald Trump. Here’s what one protest organizer has to say about these planned events:

“I think when you are engaging in the diversity of human experiences, you cannot help but have a broader empathy for people who struggle,” says [Daniel Evans] Pritchard, a poet and translator who is editor and publisher of the journal the Critical Flame. “Writers are engaged in that every day, through language. And that’s important because language is the medium we use to construct our laws and our politics.”

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

2017 Edgar Award Finalists for Mystery Writing Announced

On the 208th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, the Mystery Writers of America have announced the finalists for the 2017 Edgar awards. The Edgars cover everything from best novel and best short story to best biography and best TV episode teleplay. The 2017 Finalists include big names like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, and unsurprisingly, everyone’s favorite fall breakout series Westworld made the longlist for best teleplay. Stay tuned, the winners will be announced in April in New York City!

Source: 2017 Edgar Award Finalists for Mystery Writing Announced

10 Memoirs That Explore the Mother-Daughter Relationship (in remembrance of Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher)

Shortly after the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds on subsequent days, Susan Dominus examined the strained relationship between this mother and daughter in the New York Times: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, a Mother-Daughter Act for the Ages. Dominus writes:

There is something about celebrity mother-daughter acts like the one lived by Ms. Fisher and Ms. Reynolds that capture the imagination in a way that famous father-sons simply do not.

I’d say we can leave out the words celebrity and famous. Even the most ordinary mother-daughter relationship is archetypal, fraught with push-pull, attract-repel, love-hate, bond-reject, up-down, engage-disengage, support-undermine dynamics.

The HBO documentary Bright Lights, first aired on January 7, 2017, further reveals the intertwining lives of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

And here are 10 memoirs that focus on the relationship between mothers and their daughters:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Returning to My Mother’s House by Gail Straub

Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Then Again by Diane Keaton

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

National Book Critics Circle: National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists for 2016 Awards – Critical Mass Blog

The National Book Critics Circle, founded at the Algonquin Round Table in 1974, honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature.

Source: National Book Critics Circle: National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists for 2016 Awards – Critical Mass Blog

6 Books About Martin Luther King, Jr. for Readers of All Ages | TIME

In honor of the civil rights leader‘s birthday, here are five books on his life and legacy for readers of all ages.

Source: 6 Books About Martin Luther King, Jr. for Readers of All Ages | TIME

Last Week’s Links

He Fixes Cracked Spines, Without an Understudy

A wonderful story about Donald Vass, who cares for damanged books for the King County Public Library system near Seattle, WA. At age 57, Voss is approaching retirement age, but there’s no one to take his place.

NOT MY SHERLOCK

There was a lot of discussion on my Facebook feed about how bad the first episode of the new season of BBC’s drama Sherlock was. I don’t watch the show, so I can’t comment. Here, dedicated Holmes fan Brittany Cavallaro discusses how the making of a series from a canon of self-contained stories affects the way the persona of Sherlock Holmes is presented.

Sherlock’s New World Order

Josephine Livingstone uses that first of the season’s Sherlock episode as a springboard to a larger discussion of the role of detective fiction in society:

Murder mystery detectives usually live on the outskirts of society, or they pass unnoticed (Miss Marple, Father Brown) under the noses of authority. But that very outsider status depends on a stability at the middle of society. That stability is now wobbling. For as long as Sherlock can winkingly engage with its own tradition without becoming an absurd relic of a time of lost safety, it will succeed in helping its viewers escape their lives. But if it continues to overreach, to act out its plots on the global stage, the show will fall apart.

Considering the Novel in the Age of Obama

Christian Lorentzen looks at fiction as it represents the cultural times of various American presidents.

What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).

According to Lorentzen, four types of books have sprung from “four strategies of approaching the problem of authenticity”:

  1. autofiction, “narratives that appear to do away with much of fiction’s familiar scaffolding”
  2. fables of meritocracy, “often satiric”
  3. historical novels set in the near past
  4. narratives that “have placed the experience of trauma — rape, pedophilia, homophobic abuse, incarceration, the horrors of war — at their center”

This is a long read, but it’s well worth the time and effort required for the analysis of several recent novels within this framework.

Meryl Streep’s 10 Best Book-Based Movie Roles

In honor of Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech, here’s a look at her best book-based movies:

  1. Kramer vs. Kramer
  2. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  3. Sophie’s Choice
  4. Out of Africa
  5. Ironweed
  6. Postcards from the Edge
  7. The Bridges of Madison County
  8. Adaptation
  9. The Devil Wears Prada
  10. Julie and Julia

I’ve seen eight of these films.

What About You?

How many of these have you seen?

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown