2020 Mystery Wrap-up

In light of yesterday’s post, I was initially a bit confused. Is this, because it’s a wrap-up, the last Mystery Monday post of 2020 or, per yesterday, the first one of 2021? I say we wait until after the popping of the champagne corks, so this is the last one of the past year.

No question that this is a wrap-up of an active reading year when it comes to (murder) mysteries. I’ve enjoyed the genre from a very early age (the enjoyment was handed down by my dad). In this atrocious year, they’ve provided a welcome escape and respite.

The year also marks my return to library lending, albeit electronically.

Libraries loom large in my youth. They go so far back I can’t remember being introduced to them. My parents were avid readers and began taking me to the Minneapolis library when I was in grade school. By then I already loved books as much as they did.

My parents played a “trick” on me that’s interesting in light of current parental trends regarding very young children. My parents read to us, my sister and I. Always a bedtime story; many other occasions, too.

It was a way of being together, and it planted seeds for the love of stories and books, but they expressly made no attempt to teach us to read. They wanted us thirsty for it when we got to school.

We were. We soaked it up like sponges.

§

I always enjoyed school, but libraries really opened the world to me. When I was too young my parents would take me, but it wasn’t long before I could go on my own. Always I walked out with a stack of new books to read.

From an early age I was interested in science. Then and now I favor the “hard” sciences: astronomy, physics, and electronics, at first; computers and mathematics later on. The interest in astronomy and electronics faded over time, but the latter had a lot to do with my early career arc. (Most of my career arc, one way or another, involved computers.)

I spent a lot of time in the science sections of the library. That interest has branched many times over the years, but this year I once again find myself reading science books checked out from the library. The ages of man really are circular.

Also so far back I have no memory of our first meeting is my life-long love, science fiction.

As a science geek who loved stories, science+fiction was manna from heaven. It’s also surprising how much of my early advanced science knowledge came from science fiction. The two fed each other like fire and gasoline.

At this early point, as far as mysteries go, it was mainly Sherlock Holmes, who I thoroughly adored. I’m still a big fan of various versions and spin-offs. I also discovered Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason early — something about courtroom stories appeals to me. I think I see them as a form of truth seeking.

[BTW, speaking of Holmes: I thought Enola Holmes was awful. Terrible writing; terrible ideas. “Abomination” is too strong a word, but “travesty” might not be.]

§

In junior high (aka middle school), I was “working” (for class credit) in the school library. I already knew the Dewey Decimal system forwards and backwards.

For me it was an early experience in the difference between knowledge work and physical work. The former can be pretty cush, and it ultimately became my path. (I do sometimes wish I’d stayed in physical labor — there is something so satisfying about it. To this day a bit of me remains blue collar.)

In high school my girlfriend worked at the city library, so I spent extra time among the shelves. I learned the Library of Congress system there (no pun intended). My taste for exploration led me to many interesting worlds in that library. (It was a beautiful building, too. Fairly new, great multi-floor open design with an atrium from ground to ceiling. I loved that place. And the girlfriend. Alas, both gone to the mists of time.)

At long last getting back to the subject, it was in high school that my dad turned me on to Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin) and Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot).

I can’t say I really took to them (I was way into science fiction by then), but I enjoyed them okay. It’s really only as a mature reader that I’ve come to appreciate what my dad saw in them, the sheer quality of the writing.

§ §

I’ve been kind of blown away by Agatha Christie. I’ve had this vision of her as “quaint” and “veddy British” of that era. But wow can that woman spin a yarn. She was also not one to revisit the well, despite serial characters and lots of books. Every story is quite unique.

Her Miss Marple character never appealed to me for the same “quaint” reasons (and perhaps I should take another look), but of all the books my dad suggested, I took to Hercule Poirot the most. After all, he’s Christie’s very direct answer to Sherlock Holmes.

This year, thanks to not one but two libraries, I’ve read every Hercule Poirot novel I can get my hands on. Which was all 34 of them save seven.

Some time ago I bought a collection of the 50 Hercule Poirot short stories and was enjoying them as occasional treats. One thing led to another, I began gobbling them down, and then I went on a mission to read the novels.

Found and read 27 of them. (I deliberately saved Hercule Poirot’s Christmas for reading during Christmas!)

Thank you, libraries; Agatha Christie is really good!

§

And so is Rex Stout. I always knew those were good, and Nero Wolfe is also an intentional Sherlock Holmes avatar (with Archie Goodwin as a wise-cracking tough-guy doll-chasing Watson).

Apple offers many of them for the reasonable price of $4.99 (which we should always see as $5 — fight the fraud and flummery). In the last year or two I’ve bought those. (For ebooks, five dollars is my ceiling for anything older than 40 or so years. I’d be happier with $2 or $3.)

About half Apple’s Rex Stout catalog has their usual pricing ($9 typically), and I just won’t pay that for books written before I was born. Take a note, Apple. Libraries stole your lunch money.

I found all the remaining Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels at the libraries, so this year (starting in 2019) I’ve read all 35 novels and the 12 novella collections.

I’m hard-pressed to say who I like better, Stout’s Wolfe or Christie’s Poirot. I think Wolfe wins by a nose for being slightly more modern and so very American. Stout and Christie are certainly excellent writers.

§

Yet another good writer (and yet another Sherlock avatar): Dorothy L. Sayers and her gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Sayers doesn’t have the catalog Christie and Stout do. There are only 16 Lord Peter novels and 9 short story collections. Between a handful Apple had at acceptable pricing and the library, I’ve gotten all those under my belt as well.

I do enjoy the Lord Peter stories, but I’m afraid he trails after Nero and Hercule (and Sherlock himself). Although, that said, if I had to pick between Doyle and Sayers, I might go with Sayers as being more fun.

I especially like The Nine Tailors. I’ve considered doing a post on the bell ringer’s code as a way to encrypt messages (kind of à la the code talkers in WWII).

I have to give Amazon Prime some credit here. They offer a few of the Sayers and the first Hercule Poirot novel free to members, but they’re generally very stingy about what Prime members get for free. Their prices for old books are just as bad as Apple’s. Bad idea, I think, guys.

§ §

But wait, there’s more. I’ve been a busy reader this year!

I’ve long been a fan of the Tony Hillerman Navajo Tribal Police stories. While Tony died in 2008 (after writing 18 of the novels), his daughter Anne Hillerman has carried on, now having five books of her own. [See my post, Joe, Jim and Bernie, for more.]

I own paperbacks of most of what Tony wrote. I bought a last few from Apple to complete the catalog. This past year, between a first-one-is-free from Amazon Prime and then the libraries, I’ve read all five of Anne’s.

I rarely (more like almost never) follow a character after the author dies, but I make an exception for Anne Hillerman. For one, she’s keeping it in the family, and certainly the father’s daughter ought to know the work. More importantly, her books deliver the same love of the land and people her father’s did.

§

I also finally explored Tess Gerritsen and her Rizzoli & Isles novels. I read the first eight of twelve.

They’re okay, but not really my cup of tea. I’m just not that into serial killer stories.

[See my post: Tess Gerritsen]

§

Finally, I’ve mentioned (but somehow never gotten around to posting about) my favorite private eye series, Spenser (41 novels), by Robert B. Parker.

Parker has another character series I never tapped into. Nine novels about Jesse Stone, Chief of Police of a small town near Boston. Stone is a former LAPD homicide detective who was fired for drinking and insubordination. His gig as a Chief of Police on the other side of the country is a chance to for him to restart.

I’ve read the first two of these and liked them okay. Stone has a lot in common with Spenser. Unfortunately, the libraries don’t have the later books.

Other authors have picked up both the Spenser and Stone characters, but I’ve had no interest in pursuing them. I’ll read more of Parker’s Stone novels if I find them, but that’s about as much interest as I have.

I really need to write that post about Spenser. But it’s… complicated.

§ §

Clearly I’m a voracious reader! And, much as my parents instilled a love of physical books in me, I’m totally sold in ebooks.

I love that I can click a word and look it up. I love that I can highlight, copy, and annotate. I love that a large library fits in my hand and I can turn pages with my thumb. (Now if only the prices were more reasonable.)

I’ve posted about the Cloud Library app. I’ve also been using the Libby app, since neither app supports both my libraries. I’m as sold on these library apps as I am on ebooks.

Stay reading books, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “2020 Mystery Wrap-up

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’ve edited this post as usual — no explicit <P> tags. It seems to render fine in the Reader. I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if it continues to render properly…

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Merry 4th day of Chillaxmas! Hope you’re on vacation and kicking back!!

  • Anonymole

    That’s one helluva lot of reading. I can say I read nearly zero books this last year. Started a few, blah, forget this. I think I finished one, a fellow blogger’s novel, (Audrey Driscoll). Normally, I’d have read 20+. But, I swear, I’ve lost the taste; I’ve become hyper-critical. The first dumb sentence, implausible premise, or generic plot device and I’m out. An author’s haughty image of self? Later! The first intentionally clever phrase? Gone. I’ve become impossible to please. My loss, I’m sure.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Do you need better reading material or have you gone discontent on all literature? (I’m close to that with movies, but I still keep finding gems that tell me some people still know how to make a really good movie.)

      Growing expertise in an area can ruin it. Someone once asked me if studying filmmaking ruined movies for me. It can when it comes to poorly made movies — I’m much more aware of why they’re bad — but it also can afford things to notice others don’t. For example, if the writing really sucks, the camera work or lighting or set design or acting may be worth watching. There’s always something, but that’s in part because lots of people contribute to a film. Becoming discontent on writing would suck.

      Try some Agatha Christie. Might be a good litmus test.

  • Michael

    Merry Chillaxmas, Wyrd! Your reminiscing on libraries took me back to my childhood as well. I was also fortunate to have parents who read to us, and also took us on many trips to the library. The public library in Birmingham, AL, which was fairly new when we began visiting I think, had a beautiful, pyramidal glass atrium at the entrance and escalators(!) leading to the stacks.

    You’ll be pleased to know I did read The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. this year, on your recommendation, and loved it. I just saw on Amazon that Nicole Galland has written a sequel, but without Neal. Have you seen that one?

    My reading has been quite varied this year and I haven’t read any serial works per se, and not as much non-fiction as some years past, but I have been keeping a log of titles I’ve read the last few years. Some favorites this year were Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was my first by Ishiguro and I look forward to reading some of the works for which he is better known–Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

    Michael

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Merry Chillaxmas, Michael! 😉

      Speaking of D.O.D.O., Apple had it on sale, so I bought it. The copy I read was from the library, and I liked it enough I’m glad to own it. (I may have to break down and buy Snow Crash even though I have a tattered hardback copy. It’s still my favorite Stephenson, although D.O.D.O. gives it a run for the money.)

      I did not know there was a sequel. I’ll have to look into that, thanks!

      You recommended The Sellout which I got from the library and thoroughly enjoyed. That’s a book I could read again some time. I’ve got another of Beatty’s books (Slumberland) in my queue now.

      Now that I’ve kind of completed my Mystery Arc, I plan to get back to science fiction. That’s been shelved somewhat this year. Oddly, the SF I read is more real and less escapist than the murder mysteries. Good SF is often about the human condition, whereas murder mysteries are usually just rippin’ good yarns. I’m hoping the coming year(s) won’t call for as much escape.

      • Michael

        I second that, Wyrd. And thanks for letting me know you checked out The Sellout! I am very glad you enjoyed it. The only other one by Beatty is Whit Man Shuffle, which was also quite good. But I think earlier in his career and for me, not quite as complete a work as The Sellout.

        I have a little sci fi on the radar myself. I just picked up Wanderers by Chuck Wendig on a whim. Christmas gift card. 🙂

        And I did much enjoy Snow Crash myself. But its hard for me to put anything ahead of Cryptonomicon, my first Stephenson, and a world-changer!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It might be with Stephenson as it is with one’s first text editor, operating system, or love. That first one is forever special. Cryptonomicon has that early Stephenson flavor like Snow Crash. As he got more polished he got more like other writers. The early stuff feels more unique to me somehow.

        I looked up Beatty on Wiki, and The White Man Shuffle is apparently his first work of fiction. The Sellout turns out out to be his most recent, so the two kinda span his career so far. The one I’ve got queued (Slumberland) comes just before The Sellout.

        Right now I’m re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods because [A] I just love that book and [B] Apple had it on sale — 10th anniversary edition with the “author’s preferred text” (thousands of words he regret cutting from the first version). I like Good Omens better, but American Gods is a fun read. Very mythological. About our ancient and modern gods. The new ones want to get rid of the old ones.

      • Michael

        Please let me know if you enjoy Slumberland. I definitely look forward to reading more Beatty in the future.

        I went through a Neal Gaiman phase and read several–all of them great. Neverwhere sticks to my mental palette with the most distinction at this point, but I think it’s been a decade or so since I read any of his books. I definitely read American Gods, and have some memories, but not the whole thing in my brain. It might have been long enough I could reread it and totally enjoy it again!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I let you know about Slumberland, although it’s pretty far down the list. I want to tuck into some William Gibson and John Scalzi first. I just started Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man (2020) by Emmanuel Acho. It just came out in November, so he’s even mentioning COVID-19.

        I’ve got the graphic novel Neverwhere. I went through a whole graphic novel phase, but it didn’t last, and I can’t figure out why. In theory I still love them, but I can’t seem to pick one up anymore. (There’s two in my library queue and some on my shelf I’ve been meaning to re-read.)

        The American Gods wave-function collapsed for me, because Starz adapted it as a series. Neil Gaiman is associated with it, and the first season I saw was pretty good. I don’t have Starz anymore, so haven’t seen the next season. Point is, they cast Ian McShane as Odin, and now when I read the book he’s all I can see. That wave-function is collapsed (just like Lord of the Rings was by Peter Jackson). Fortunately, it’s perfect casting.

  • Brian

    I too had a parent that read to me. I actually remember when that stopped after being told I was too old to be read to! I also did a stint in the school library, working every lunch time with others, trying to get all the books in order (it was in such a mess that we didn’t succeed). And getting my library card, and having it upgraded when I was no longer classed as “Junior”! Our local libraries have been struggling for years, being faced with closures. This year has meant they are “open” but we can’t go in and browse, which is what I love to do – borrowing whatever books take my fancy at the time.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Another library child, hello! That was one great thing about physically going to the library (or a book store): walking around seeing what struck your fancy. I do miss that.

      The two library apps I use are fair-to-middling at offering stuff by category. I’ve seen and checked out some books I wouldn’t have even known to go looking for. One can search in the apps for authors or titles or characters, but general browsing capability is important, too. Neither app seems to have an algorithm offering me what it thinks I’ll like, which is nice.

  • Whither 2020 | Logos con carne

    […] consequence of access to all those free books is that I’ve done a lot of reading this year. I swept through entire catalogs of mystery authors. I read, and mostly thoroughly enjoyed, all The Expanse books. There were a bunch of other science […]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I only started doing Mystery Monday posts in December of 2019, but I made good progress with them in 2020.

    All that’s really left in that list is Chandler and Hammett (which I mentioned but probably won’t post expressly about) and the two McDonalds (Ross and John D). Also Robert Parker’s Spenser, which is just as hard to post about as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld — there’s so much to talk about.

    Nice to think I could actually reach the end of one of my lists…

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