whodunnit? part the first

I've had a lot of people lately ask me to recommend a good mystery. I've always enjoyed murder mysteries, but in the past few years I've noticed that I've become much more demanding of the genre.

It all started when my sister bought me my very first Agatha Christie. I was in grade six, and she wouldn't let me read it until I had memorized all the capitals of the American States. Thus began one of the greatest love affairs of my life. For years, almost all I received for Christmas and my birthday were her books. Hers was the first autobiography I ever read. And to this day, Curtain Call : Poirot's Last Case is the only book I refuse to read. I don't want it to be over. What made Agatha Christie interesting in my view was her willingness to 'think outside the box' every once in a while, and outwit even the cleverest reader. Unfortunately, these are not books that held my interest once I was past my early teens. Rereading them is almost painful; only a few retain their shine. Among those, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and Ten Little Indians.

So what do I read now? Lots. Not all of it good, but I find it difficult to let go of a series, and so, in no particular order :

Jonathan Kellerman : C
His protaganist, Alex Delaware, is a child psychologist, and it's slowly dawned on me that he's a really boring guy. He doesn't ever do anything wrong. He never loses his cool, betrays a confidence, or snaps at his friends. He lives in a perfect house, with his perfect girlfriend, they have perfect sex, eat perfect food, and he is rich. The stories are interesting, but lately the plots have been too predictable. You know that he will get captured by the bad guys close at the end of the book, but will help the cops outwit them with his clever psychological manipulations. However, Kellerman recently wrote Billy Straight, which is not an Alex Delaware novel, and which I enjoyed immensely. Perhaps he just needs to shake it up and start from scratch.

Minette Walters : A
For those who enjoy character studies, these are the books for you. Minette Walters provides plenty of fascinating characters showcased within the parameters of her intelligent and believable plotlines. This is not an author who demands you relinquish your hold on reality. Rather, she blends subtlety with her own brand of stylish legerdemain and the result is some of the best mystery fiction out there. Recommended titles : The Scold's Bridle and The Sculptress.

Kathy Reichs : B-
One of the appeals of these books for me is that they are is set mostly in Montreal. While reading the first one, I literally sat up and looked out my window. Temperance Brennan, Reichs' multi-talented heroine, was walking by right outside. Although she makes a few mistakes geographically, and doesn't quite render Quebecois slang as authentically as she might hope, Reichs hits the right balance between action and science. Although some say Brennan is a poor copy of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta (more on her later), and the similarities are indeed frightening, Reichs' somehow manages to hold her own. The fact that Tempe (I know, yuck) holds the same jobs that Reichs does gives her a ring of authenticity, and adds to the intelligent appeal of the book. Recommended title : Death du Jour.

Joan Hess : C
I've only read the Arly Hanks mysteries, which are set in Maggody. They are fun, silly books that make a boring trip on the bus entertaining. Not memorable, and certainly not life-changing, but worth what you will be charged at the second-hand store. I can't recommend any one in particular. None of them stand out among the rest, but the fact that they are consistent is okay.

Ian Rankin : B+
I've only just discovered this author, who has been around for a long time, but managed to slip beneath my radar. John Rebus is an original anti-hero : an alcoholic Detective Inspector who falls off the wagon quite often, has on-again off-again relationships with flawed women, and who has managed to alienate collegues and family alike. Needless to say, I really like him. He is an entirely believable character, in an entirely believable city, and the politics portrayed in the books are dirty enough to be believed as well. Recommended titles : The Hanging Garden and Black and Blue.

Sue Grafton : C+
Although this too has become entirely predictable, the 'alphabet series' is a lot of fun. Kinsey Millhone is a private eye in the best tradition. Solitary, brash, and set in her ways, this sturdy thirtysomething does her own thing, equally unafraid of being rude or breaking the law. I buy the new Sue Grafton every time it comes out, but I do not anxiously await it. I know that anticipation can be the best thing about a book, but sometimes it is just exhausting.

Caleb Carr : A
I didn't want to read The Alienist. It was on all the best seller lists and the racks at all the pharmacies. It seemed that the department responsible for the PR of this novel had gone haywire. But so many people recommended it, so many different people, that I felt I had to give it a chance. What a ride! It tells the tale of the first real hunt for a serial killer, in a time when even fingerprint evidence was not recognized in court. Watching this team of investigators hestitatingly fumble their way toward a profile was intriguing. What was also interesting was the realization that our culture has been exposed to so much criminal psychology in the past years that the reader could actually guess at motives and symbols better that the nineteenth century scientists in the novel, and the author played that up, all the while portraying his characters as intelligent investigators. Required reading : The Alienist.

...stay tuned for whodunnit? part the second...

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