Deathly Diversions

Like many writers, we seek literary escapism in the writing of … other writers. (Wow, that was recursive, wasn’t it?) To restate in English, reading your own work multiple times isn’t much of an escape. It’s more like a trap. For one thing, you already know whodunnit, which significantly diminishes the suspense. Secondarily, and given the amount of work that goes into getting a book out the door, reading your own work ex post facto can be a nightmare, one in which you dream that, despite reviewing your work 18 times or paying a professional to do the same, you found a typo only after publication, such as using “grizzly” instead of “grisly” to describe a murder scene. (Note: the former only works if the killer was an ursus arctos horribilis (grizzly bear). One of us actually did find that mistake in a murder mystery that she finished reading last weekend. She notes that no grizzly bears – or teddy bears – appeared in the mystery, which takes place in England in the 1930s.)

There are many mystery writers whose work we enjoy as a pleasant escape from the grind (dark roast, of course) of writing and whose protagonists we reference in our book, e.g. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie), Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters) and Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene) Without further ado, we therefore tip our (warning: shameless reference to Denial of Service follows) obnoxiously lime green tam o’shanter to a few of our favorite mystery writers.

When we just need to laugh-out-loud we turn to – no surprise – Janet Evanovich. We particularly enjoy the Stephanie Plum series (beginning with One for the Money and sequentially “numbered” to the “just out but we haven’t read it yet” Notorious Nineteen). Regardless of how many times a “shtick” appears in one of her books, she finds new ways to make it funny. For example, her heroine, skip tracer Stephanie Plum, has an unfortunate tendency to have her cars explode, at least once a book on average. Not to mention, Stephanie’s sidekick Lula, a former ‘ho who thinks nothing of shoving her ample frame into brightly colored (and many sizes smaller) spandex is a hoot. Lula’s idea of a diet is leaving the whipped cream off her second helping of pie, a sentiment we relish (whipped cream counts as serving of dairy, right?) We look forward to a new Plum mystery the same way we enjoy finding a new kind of M&M’s. (And just like M&M’s, a Plum mystery is to be devoured voraciously and without a smidgen of guilt.) We enjoy Ms. Evanovich’s work so much that we found it a particularly nice compliment when a reviewer of Outsourcing Murder compared Emma Jones to Stephanie Plum.

When we’re in the mood for gentle humor, we read Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (the first of which is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the most recent of which, the 13th, is The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection). The series has become immensely popular and has recently been made into a perfectly wonderful HBO series. His main character, Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally sized lady,” is the founder and owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana. The mysteries are less “dead body in the den” than missing person or husband’s suspicious behavior (did the wife really want to know the truth?) The subplots are as interesting as the main mystery, involving as they do matters of the heart, or matters of heartbreak. Other characters are stalwartly drawn, from Mr. J.L.B. Maketone of Tlokweng Speedy Motors (who keeps Precious’s tiny white van running) to her secretary (who scored 97% percent on the Botswana Secretarial College exam – a record! – as she often reminds other characters). Each book is a charming gem, teaches you something about Botswana and leaves you singing “Africa Africa Africa Africa” in your heart.

We can’t claim direct, tangible inspiration from Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series but only because Emma hasn’t mastered time travel yet. Maisie Dobbs, the protagonist of the series, is a former ambulance driver in the Great War who later becomes a psychologist and investigator of sorts. Ms. Winspear manages to do something very difficult for mystery writers or even most writers: the resolution (“who shot John?”) is secondary to the writing. You want to reread her books, even after you know whodunnit, because of the quality of her writing and the human face she brings to the Great War and the years thereafter. While our education barely touched on the 1920’s except for flapper fashion and Jazz Age music, Jacqueline’s books improve our understanding of the difficult time in Britain during those years. She explores everything from the horrific injuries many servicemen experienced (e.g., the aftereffects of chemical warfare (mustard gas)), to the shortage of marriageable men, to the rise of Nazi Germany (and the many people in England who admired Hitler, before they didn’t).

Far from the riotous humor of Janet Evanovich and the gentle renderings of Alexander McCall-Smith and Jacqueline Winspear is the suspense-filled world of C.J.Box. The Joe Pickett series comprise many of his books. Joe is a Wyoming game warden and the series showcases the wilderness, those who inhabit it and love it, and those who attempt to protect it. Wild mountain men? Check. Eco-terrorists? Check. Poachers after trophy animals out of season? Check. Jurisdictional arm wrestling among law enforcement agencies? Check. Humor? Not deliberately. After finishing a Joe Pickett novel, you feel you’ve experienced everything the wilderness has to offer except mosquitoes and black flies. Oh, and litter from tourists who won’t pack it out. And serious amounts of elk doo-doo, which the one of us who lives in Idaho knows a lot about. The first rule of hiking: watch out for the umgawa.

We appreciate our devoted fans (we believe we have developed a few besides out mother who is, after all, somewhat partisan). We hope someday to have the breadth of enthusiastic following that the above writers have. In the meantime, we thank them for many hours of unapologetic escapist pleasure and hope our readers will discover and love them, too.

Next blog: Mystery writers envisioning murders at every turn