250 posts… when I started this blog, about eighteen months ago, I honestly didn’t think I’d get past twenty posts, let alone a quarter-millennium. But, 184 book reviews, several short story reviews and a whole plethora of other stuff – not to mention the many discussions generated by the comments given by you, readers, and we’re still going strong. But, apart from significantly upping my reading, what have I actually learned from doing this? And have my tastes evolved at all?
Martin Edwards, at a recent talk organised by Formby Books, talked on the marriage of plot, character and setting that was the crux of the modern mystery novel. I was always of the opinion that, for me, with my mathematical background, the plot was the most important part and the rest would be a bonus, nothing else. So, is that still the case?
The notable difference in my reading since the blog started is that I’ve finished a number of books that in the past I would not have. Putting aside the books that have been, to be frank, a bit rubbish, there are some books – take, for example, Martin’s own The Arsenic Labyrinth or the recently read (and yet to be reviewed The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötsch) – that needed a little time to get into, but spending that time is so rewarding. Once upon a time, I might not have invested that time – that’s not the case now.
So given that my tastes have changed a little, what now makes a book unsatisfying for me?
Unconvincing Character Actions – look at The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson. A number of characters have to do some pretty stupid things in order for the plot to work. Similarly The Ten Teacups by the same author. I can remember a time when this sort of thing didn’t bother me so much, but it does seem to irk me more these days.
Unconvincing Characters – Agatha Christie always gets the finger pointed at her for this, and I really don’t think that’s particularly fair. One of the reasons that I’ve stalled on my Ellery Queen bibliography is that the central character is really getting on my nerves. It’s not exclusive to older books though – the killers in many modern thrillers who can be ranting nut-jobs one minute and act normally in their day to day doings – effectively a secret identity – is the sort of thing that has basically stopped me reading modern thrillers from the USA with a few notable exceptions.
Slow Plots – I don’t mind a book where things take a while to get going any more, but some sort of intriguing movement has to happen. Take for example, The Maze of Cadiz, a recent read where it basically moved from conversation to conversation until the final act. There has to be a reason to turn the page other than to simply get to the end of the book.
What has surprised me is the change in my opinion on the “fair-play” mystery. I’ve become less fussed about the need to have a narrative littered with play-along clues, and have come to accept the only-one-solution-makes-sense school of plotting. Take the recent The Demon Archer. There are many and varied occurrences that only form a sensible whole when looked at in the right way – which then makes perfect sense.
What about you? What makes a “bad” mystery for you?
But I’m pleased to say though at I’ve enjoyed at least 90% of the books that I’ve read – probably more than that, in fact, so let’s finish with some recommendations of authors that I’ve found due to the blog.
Kate Ellis – in part due to the blog, in part due to meeting her at Formby Books, I really enjoy her Wesley Peterson series. I’ve read five of them so far and the marriage of police procedural, twisty mystery and historical elements is an absolute joy.
Martin Edwards – probably have said enough about Martin before now. A writer of outstanding crime novels.
Peter Tremayne – historical mysteries set in seventh century Ireland, full of detail, character and busy plots. Very satisfying
Paul Doherty – have I not mentioned him yet? The master of historical mysteries, in my book. Go and snap up those cheap Athelstan books on Kindle while they’re still there…
Right. Back to reviewing…