Hot Weather – Cold Mysteries

Here we are in one of the hottest summers on record, the critters have just ravaged my garden and eaten all my tomatoes and flowers, and my laundry pile is growing exponentially from the multiple changes of clothes I’m forced to make…all due to the excessive heat.  What’s the cure?  Read a book that takes place during the winter!  And that I have, in fact, more than one.  Being on a mystery kick (it is summer after all–no heavy lifting), I started out with Margaret Maron’s Three-Day Town (A Deborah Knott Mystery).  The action takes place in a New York City hi-rise during a blizzard.  The novel begins with a sort of Preface that takes place during 1940, when a lurid statue is stolen from a professor.  You guessed it, that statue turns up later in the story, and is the likely murder weapon in a strange turn of events which leaves the dead body of the building supervisor in our honeymooning couples’ apartment.   Although the story did the trick in the “cool me off” with lovely descriptions of the snow-blanketed city, it also left me cold as far as the author’s ability to craft a good mystery tale.  Sorry Maron fans!  This one she seemed to phone in…it was slow getting started, then she threw a mish-mash of over the top characters at us, finally put the hero in peril at the end, then hurried an ending that, to my mind, left a lot of loose threads.  Maron has a following, and perhaps that is what I am missing, because I did not know the background of the characters having not read her previous books.  That brings up the question of whether many mystery novels today a trading on the loyal following of their established characters instead of a well-crafted plot.  It appears to be a trend, especially in mysteries, to use a favorite investigate for a whole series.  And why not, if the author likes him, readers like him???  Only, it sometimes hard for the reader who comes in in the middle of the love affair.

The next mystery in a cold climate was Moment of Truth by Lisa Scottoline. It starts out when lawyer Jack Newlin comes home to find his wife murdered.  Thinking he knows who did it, he decides to confess in order to cover for the real criminal (or is it really who he thinks?)  Enter Mary DiNunzio, a junior lawyer, inexperienced in criminal law, who Jack hires specifically because he thinks she will botch the case.  Interesting premise, and Scottoline certainly knows the ins and outs of the law, but here again the story devolves into what I thought was at times downright silliness with Mary falling for Jack at first sight, characatures for bad guys, and an all too typical tough guy investigator and his bumbling but lovable partner.  She included lots of twists and turns, but you see them coming.  The motivation of the characters is thin and hard to believe, and you’ll figure out the real villain before Mary does.  But, it takes place in Philly during a real cold snap!

The last mystery was Stephen White’s Cold Case–get the theme?  the name? Legal eagle Lauren Crowder and her husband, psychologist Alan Gregory are called in by an elite cold crime investigation team to work on a case involving the death of two teenaged girls.  White is himself trained in psychology, so his mysteries tend to focus on the mental cat and mouse game played in conversations between his character, Alan, and our presumed bad guy…in this case, a wealthy politician with high ambitions.  Again, much of the attraction of the story may be visiting again with the familiar characters of Greg and Lauren, who were now expecting a child.  I, who was not read in on their backstory, found the digressions to discuss Lauren’s health and the all-too-often reference to her putting a hand to her belly distracting and artificial.  The story was interesting, but if you want action, you will have to wait until the last few pages, then he makes up for all the talk in the previous two-hundred pages with an almost ridiculous cascade of events one after another that leaves the reader almost too exhausted to care.

Well, you may by now be thinking I am too critical.  I am wondering if many mystery writers started out strong, and have de-volved in their plotting skills and are relying more heavily on their familiar and loved characters to keep readers coming back.  Opinions?  Any suggestions for a great mystery to read?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Hot Weather – Cold Mysteries

  1. Faith

    Lisa,
    Of course I couldn’t resist responding to your mystery comments. I’m just sorry it took so long. I’m surprised some of our other book club mystery fans haven’t contributed a remark or two.

    I found your comments on mysteries interesting. After the summer you described, I think you’re solution of mysteries set in the cold was a good one. We’ve had an exceptionally wet and chilly summer here with only a couple of weeks of hot weather. We appear to be into fall weather now.

    I’m a mystery reader, although I largely stay away from Scottoline (legal thrillers) and the type of book Cold Case sounds like – a psychological thriller. Three Day Town’s description sounded a bit more like my type, but I’ve never read any of Maron’s work. For light reading, I enjoy what are described as “cozies,” historical mysteries, and also just plain quirky mysteries. Interesting settings and characters are every bit as important to me as the mystery itself. Authentic details in the historical mysteries are a real plus and a good way to gain an understanding the society of another era. It’s sometimes the case that the author is also a scholar on the historical era. And I don’t deny that I enjoy mystery series. A series with a built-in following is no excuse for a poor story, though. I’ve abandoned series that have become too formulaic. The Amazon reader reviews by series devotees on Three Day Town were mixed, with a lot of long time fans being seriously disappointed. So it’s not always the case that delivering the next in a series will guarantee an overwhelming reception from the series fans.

    If I see a mystery book description with an appealing setting and a main character that sounds intriguing, I check to see if it’s a series. If it is, I usually go back to the first book in the series and start from there. It’s almost always worth it to get acquainted with the characters from the beginning. There are many series where once you’ve read the first one or two, you can enjoy #5 and #7 equally as well with the minor catch-up the author gives you in the beginning chapters. Also, the first book is usually a very good one (not suffering from series fatigue). For example, to name a few of my favorites, all safely in the cozy subgenre:
    – Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries set in Charleston
    – Any of Tamar Myers (humorous)
    – Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series set in the English Cotswolds
    – Both of M.C. Beaton’s series – Hamish Macbeth in the Scottish Highlands and Agatha Raisin in the Cotswolds

    I don’t know if these will appeal, but some series I have highly enjoyed reading as a series – i.e. enjoying the character development as much as the mystery itself, although all the mysteries have been strong, are:
    – Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series. In this set of stories, Mary Russell marries a semi-retired Sherlock Holmes. Sounds unlikely I know, but these books are good. I love the Mary Russell character.
    – Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries. Yes, Jane is the detective. These are very authentic, very true to the spirit of Jane Austen, and stay within what little is known of her life. I really enjoy them.
    – Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series. I haven’t read all of these, but I read the first few way back in the beginning and really enjoyed them. They’re set in Victorian England with lots of period details. Thomas Pitt is policeman who rises up through the ranks in the series. Although I lost track of the series at some point, I just read the most recent offering – Dorchester Terrace , and thought it was excellent, and this is book #25! I’m thinking of going back and picking up where I left off. I expect I would have enjoyed this book even more if I had been following the characters more closely.

    I know our book club is aware that I have also have a soft spot for quirky books. Lately I’ve enjoyed Simon Brett’s Blotto and Twinks series which is set in the 1920’s with a brother and sister representing the frivolous upper crust English society of the 1920’s – with absolutely ridiculous slang and outrageous mystery plots. They’re just fun.

    For well plotted, period mysteries, no series involved, you could do a lot worse than the Georgette Heyer mysteries Sourcebook Landmark Publishers has been reprinting. They’re intelligent and good reads. I have bought several and sprinkle them in my reading as a special treat.

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