This year, for the first time since I started this blog in 2013, I’ve posted a book review a week. Estimating roughly, that’s between 10,400 to 15,600 pages of reading in 2018. And it would be an underestimate because I also read Jewish-themed books that I post on A Jewish Reader.
I couldn’t resist going back to see if I could decide what my favorite books of the year were. Picking just one proved to be utterly impossible. Looking over the list, I did find myself having multiple “Oh, yes! I loved that one!” They included:
- Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, a beautifully written, suspenseful story of an African-American Texas Ranger with several years’ of law school under his belt. He finds himself squeezed between the law, race, family and his own blindspots. This is a story that teases you long after you turn the last page.
- Author Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and Chance. The first was a haunting coming-of-age story of courage, innocence and evil. The second was a grabbing story of a Quixotic hero in a quest well outside his past experience and comfort zone.
- Killers of the Flower Moon; the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, a story that takes place near where I grew up and covers an ugly period of American history.
- Summer of the Big Bachi, a mystery set in Los Angeles involving Japanese Americans who came from Hiroshima, Japan. I love reading stories set in Los Angeles and this one led readers through the many ironies and tragedies of having Japanese roots and living in the United States.
Classics from detective fiction’s Golden Age
I also read a number of books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. These are books set in the years between the wars. Think Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers. Think of Col. Mustard murdered in the library with the lead pipe. Think of country house parties where the reader is encouraged to guess “who dunnit” before the author gets to the big reveal.
I discovered writers from this era that I had never heard of: J. Jefferson Farjeon, Mavis Doriel Hay, Francis Duncan or Anne Meredith, for example. They were considered “top tier” in their time but have been eclipsed by Agatha, Dorothy and G. K. since.
I found myself refreshed by this bygone world of genteel manners and carefully placed clues. It made me realize what I’ve come to hate in modern mysteries:
- Random acts of psychosis or psychotic obsessions. I like my murders to be the result of personal conflicts and psychology.
- Murders involving exotic means, projectile gore and exsanguinating evisceration. Not that the Golden Age murders were dainty, but the focus is on the fact that a life has been taken rather than blood spatter, torture and how many organs or how much tissue have exited the body.
- Murders that require the involvement of multiple federal agencies and military-grade technology to solve. Whatever happened to keen observation, reasoning and understanding human behavior?
- Sleuths who have superhuman physical prowess or a near-robotic ability to perform under pressure. I’d rather read a comic book where the superheroes truly are superhuman than to read about person I simply can’t identify with or believe.
Rubbish or literature?
The second was New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s eloquent 1984 response. Citing a number of well-known writers, she argues that modern “literary” writers have taken the detective story and twisted its conventions. Examples include Jorges Luis Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” in which the detective becomes the murderer’s final victim; or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Erasers, in which the detective and the murderer turn out to be the same person.
She quotes Yale history professor Robin Winks who suggests that “some writers of genre fiction are also serious writers . . . it’s less a question of what a writer is dealing with than of the literary skill he brings to it.”