Reading: the old familiars
I find myself re-reading more these days, and picking up new books less often. Part of this is because I'm in the middle of writing a book, and for some reason it's easier to stay focused on my own plotline when I'm not feeding my subconscious with new stories. Those books—Ruth Sims' The Phoenix, Don Hardy's Lovers Knot, the newest books from Charlie Cochrane and Alex Beecroft—those are sitting on my shelf or hard drive, waiting for a post-partum binge.
But I can't write while I'm eating, and after hours at the keyboard the spring dries up, my characters sit down and refuse to budge, and I need someone to tell me a story—not a new one, but one that's familiar, like visiting with a friend even when you know how the conversation is likely to go. Mealtime is reading time—I firmly believe that reading aids the digestive process. Never mind the TV, just give me something to prop on my book.
I lean heavily toward mysteries—whether it's true that the whodunnit is a morality play where justice triumphs and the bad guys are held accountable (so delightfully unlike real life) or just that I enjoy a puzzle, that genre is the top of my re-reading list. If this house ever collapses, it will probably be from the weight of all our books—over two tons of them, according to the moving company that had to lug them all up here.
Some of my favorites:
The Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If Irene Adler was The Woman to Holmes, he is The Detective to much of the reading world.
Elizabeth Peters, whose series heroines are so much larger than life that they could not possibly be restricted to a single book. Amelia Peabody and Jacqueline Kirby are the kind of women who are so outrageously outspoken (and always right, at least in their own minds) that they'd probably be very difficult to deal with in person. But on the printed page… priceless!
Joan Hess has two mystery series. One of them stars a librarian who is such a doormat I wanted to slap her after a couple of books. But the other series, featuring small-town cop Arly Hanks, is a gem. If my own dad hadn't been born in just such a small Arkansas town, I'd think her fictional town of Maggody, sort of a run-down Mayberry RFD, was hyperbole. But… well, Hess is an Arkansawyer herself, and I've met the sort of people she writes about (some of them in my own family). There's a little exaggeration for effect, but not that much, and a delicious skewering of religious hypocrisy and small-town bullies, both male and female. Hess also has a knack for showing the good side of her characters—most of them—and some of them rise to the occasion with an unexpected warmth and honesty when the chips are down. And these are good mysteries, with fair clues sprinkled throughout.
Dr. Gideon Oliver was detecting fictitious crime from skeletal remains before "Bones" was a twinkle in television's eye, and Aaron Elkins has taken his forensic anthropologist from a grieving widower to a married university professor whose ears perk up like a tracking dog when someone calls him in to inspect a pile of bones. Elkins is one of a very small number of male writers I've run across able to write a male character who is both happily married and in love with his wife, and writes the female lead, Julie Oliver, as a competent professional who contributes to the solution of the mystery. The ongoing supporting cast is also a delight, and the technical details always have to be explained to one of them, so the reader is gently instructed without ever being lectured or talked down to.
Robert B. Parker. Sigh. Rest in peace, sir, and thank you so much. Another man who wrote an intelligent, sexy adult male who could maintain a long-term, monogamous relationship with an intelligent adult female. The books are better than any of the TV or film adaptations, though I liked his Spenser and Jesse Stone series more than his Sunny Randall series. I was hoping Parker would have a PG Wodehouse lifespan, but he left us at only 77… the books are eminently re-readable, though, and a bounty of them—eighty or so, a superb lifetime's accomplishment.
Dorothy L. Sayers was, by all accounts, a very difficult person. But her craftsmanship was first-rate, and the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series is, I think, some of the best detective fiction ever written. Stylish and sophisticated, they give a wonderful sense of their place and time, as well as an interesting look at the changing relations between men and women in the early part of the 20th century.
Charlotte MacLeod (aka Alisa Craig) wrote a string of slightly screwball mysteries, four different series' worth. They're well-crafted mysteries and she has good points to make, but trying to describe any of them in a short space is difficult. Try "Rest You Merry," or "The Grub-and-Stakers Move a Mountain" to see if they're to your taste.
Rex Stout was a mathematical prodigy whose life was as interesting as that of his best-loved sleuth, Nero Wolfe. He wrote some 70-odd books between 1934 and his death in the 1970's, and his narrator, Wolfe's leg-man Archie Goodwin, is the archetypal wisecracking private eye. Good, compact mysteries, always worth another read.
But woman does not live by mysteries alone. I could survive for a year with nothing to read but Lord of the Rings, the collected works of Terry Pratchett, a set of Heyer's Regency romances, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, and Lois McMasters Bujold's Barrayar series—intelligent sci-fi that has all the trappings of space adventure but also solid science, a critical look at serious ethical issues, and a cast of characters, male and female, who are three-dimensional, complete human beings. Bujold's been winning awards practically since she first started writing, and she deserves all of them.
Oh, and of course there's PG Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Richard Armour… and I could go on, but had better rein in my enthusiasm and get back to my long-suffering WIP.
Copyright Lee Rowan, March 2010