Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Time of Year for Mysteries

Mystery novels are great companions for snowy, cold winter nights when the sun goes down early and, it seems, everyone closes shop by 7:30. I love to read mystery novels all year long but I find the winter to be a particularly productive reading time. There are fewer distractions in the winter--such as beautiful warm weather, long days, the beach--and a good mystery keeps the mind active during a season in which the mind would rather hibernate.

Too often, snooty readers think that mysteries are a "low" form of literature, that they are fluff, popcorn, easy to read and write. The truth is that mysteries are just as much literature as anything else you'll pick up to read; what makes them mysteries is that they have a narrative centering around a puzzle (usually a murder but not always) that the reader tries to figure out as they proceed through the book, picking up clues the writer has left along the way. This is the mystery in its most simplistic form, though it hardly encompasses all of the other subplots, characterizations, and every other element of a good story that are present in the best mysteries, and indeed, the best books.

One of my favorite mystery writers is Susan Wittig Albert. You can find a link to her website over in the left column, near the top in the list of writer links. She writes the China Bayles mystery series set in Pecan Springs, Texas. China, an ex-lawyer and amateur sleuth, is the owner of the herb shop in town. Together with an interesting cast of supporting characters, including love interest Mike McQuaid (ex-cop and college professor) and best friend Ruby (a partner in the business), China is at the center of every odd happening in the complicated but delightful Pecan Springs.

What sets the China Bayles series apart, now in its sixteenth installment, are the complicated plot lines and deep character development that we appreciate more and more with every book. Susan Albert is a writer who always delivers an entertaining read because her stories and hooks are innovative without being hackneyed. There is no need to read the series in order (I didn't) but it could enhance one's appreciation of the development of the town and characters over time. The latest three books in the series (Bleeding Hearts, Spanish Dagger and Nightshade) form their own kind of mystery trilogy that really explains a lot about China's family background. These volumes are among Albert's best work. I can hardly wait for the new one, out in April, called Wormwood. If anyone wants to send me a pre-pub galley let me know!

I have some other favorite mystery series. Margaret Maron's series about a North Carolina judge, Deborah Knott, is fantastic and seems to get better with every book. As with Albert, I was very late to the series even though my good friend Susan told me she loved these books for years. I read the latest paperback, Hard Row, and can highly recommend it. I've gone on to read High Country Fall and Winter's Child and more recently, Rituals of the Season, which has our heroine getting married to a pretty good guy.

And there are other authors whose series I like to keep up with: Donna Andrews, Sarah Atwell, M.C. Beaton, Rhys Bowen, James Lee Burke, Charlaine Harris, Joan Hess, Henning Mankell, Robin Paige (pen name for Susan Albert and her husband, Bill), Sara Paretsky, Marcus Sakey and others. I occasionally enjoy Robert B. Parker's Spencer series (his new paperback, Now and Then, is one of the strongest entries in many years). I am a new fan of John Hart, who just won the Edgar Award for his novel, Down River, and who previously wrote a great southern mystery novel, The King of Lies. Hart's books are set, like Maron's, in his native North Carolina.

I'm very much looking forward to reading Roberta Isleib's (relatively) new Advice Column mysteries, of which there are now three. They all center around Dr. Rebecca Butterman, a psychologist and advice columnist. I ordered all of them today and hope to hunker down with them in a week or two, before my Big Trip overseas at the end of December. Better yet, maybe I'll take them with me on the airplane.