Monthly Archives: June 2019

Mystery Novels

There are many ways to categorize mystery novels. Amazon, for example, has categories for serial murderers and British detectives among many others. I have my own system and I thought I’d share it with you here, both as a Venn diagram and a table. I’ll explain more after the images.

All mystery novels have some things in common – there’s a mystery, for one thing – and they have characters which they develop to some extent or another. I find that the best mysteries have one overweening characteristic that sets them apart. I’ve listed 20 mystery series or individual books that illustrate these features. I’ve shown them as four main subgenres: Procedural, Setting, Humor, and Action. Here’s how I define those:

1. Procedural – often called Police Procedural even though it applies to private detectives and amateurs as well, these emphasize the detailed, professional way the main investigator goes about the task of solving the case. The intelligence and inside knowledge of the investigator is the key feature. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the quintessential example. Sherlock Holmes fits here, but actually has a large action element, too.

2. Setting – These feature the setting, especially the geographic locale, but also the time frame or even vehicle/structure like a cruise ship or palace. Historical mysteries fall in this category, although I haven’t featured any on my chart. All stories have a setting, but I’ve chosen books where it is the predominate attraction of the book or series. You may quibble over Nancy Drew, but I include those here because many of her books were set in interesting places like the Crocodile Island one. Of course, how interesting or exotic a locale is depends heavily on the reader’s education and life experience.

3. Humor – These are characterized by a light, witty tone, or a black humor. Cozy mysteries always fit here although they have other elements. However, many regular, i.e. non-cozy mysteries also share this characteristic. Snappy dialogue is a typical trait of these. The delightful No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency series falls equally into Humor and Setting.

4. Action – These are typified by gunfights, fistfights, car chases, animal attacks, explosions or crashes, or to a lesser extent, suspense, such as whether a character will escape or survive a dangerous situation or pursuer. Virtually all mysteries have at least a bit of this, but only some have it as the main stylistic element for a series. I don’t like the Spenser books, but I’ve used them as an example of this type since that’s pretty much all they are – kick-ass action thrillers more than mysteries. Some LEO characters like Bosch and Pickett have substantial action elements, but the over-the-top stuff usually is confined to the private side because of the illegality of much of it.

I’ve also broken the diagram into black boxes to show the type of main character, usually the lead investigator. I don’t think that trait matters much to a mystery, not as much as the above subgenre anyway, but some people consider it important. There is also usually a lot of overlap. Amateurs and private eyes almost always have someone in the law enforcement world as a resource so that they can obtain police reports or other inside information not generally available to the public. Amateur is rather self-explanatory but may include some rather sophisticated investigators such as reporters. Police and Law Enforcement Officers (LEO) includes FBI, forest rangers, etc. Private Eye/Pro includes non-governmental professional investigators like Sue Grafton’s insurance investigator Kinsey Millhone and defense lawyers like Connelly’s Mickey Haller character (not on the chart). Many private eye protagonists are former LEO or may transition from one class to another during a series (e.g. Cliff Knowles). Making the main character a non-LEO provides the author a lot more freedom of action for the main character, but poses other problems.

It’s impossible to list all possible distinguishing traits of a book. Other factors some consider important or interesting are first person/third person; single/multiple narrators; unreliable narrator; age of the investigator; nature of the crime; amount of gore or bad language. I hope what I’ve chosen here is of use to you in evaluating a book.


The Captured by Scott Zesch

The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas FrontierThe Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Describing a book as educational can be the kiss of death, but this book is educational as well as enjoyable reading. Perhaps informative is a better word. It is a non-fiction history of white children captured in Texas, mostly by Comanches, but also by Apaches, and who were returned to white society. It’s quite remarkable how quickly young children adapt to the Indian ways and even lose the ability to speak English. Some readjusted well after returning to their white families, but many others, especially the boys, always considered themselves Indians and preferred that way of life until their death, even those who watched their captors brutally slaughter their family members. I was surprised at how spoiled the children, especially the boys, were by their adoptive families. The Comanches had long raided other tribes or Mexicans to acquire more warriors to build up their tribe, even before the white Texans moved into Indian territory. They were equal opportunity employers and the captives became full-fledged warriors with all the rights and privileges thereof. Even those who readjusted to white society defended the Indians and their way of life. The biggest knock I had with the book is that it’s history, which is not a favorite subject of mine, and it becomes a bit repetitive.

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The Suspect by Fiona Barton

The Suspect (Kate Waters, #3)The Suspect by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read The Child and enjoyed it so I tried this 3rd installment in the series. I liked this one even more. Barton has a real knack for clever dialogue, especially when the main character Kate is in a give-and-take with her fellow journalists. The plot is well done as well, keeping me guessing until near the end. There’s a bit more mother-son relationship stuff in there than I would have liked, but it didn’t distract from the main story line. Barton is a newspaper journalist, which no doubt makes the insider feel of the reporter’s life feel very real. It’s much the same appeal as Michael Connelly’s insider detail in his Bosch novels that brings it to nitty gritty life.

Although it may be a bit exaggerated in the book, the horrors of an exotic vacation gone wrong can serve as a warning to any young people planning to go off to Thailand or any other second or third world country for an adventure or to find themselves. It’s not as much fun as you think, at least, not unless you plan well and stay vigilant.

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Night Passage by Robert B. Parker

Night Passage (Jesse Stone, #1)Night Passage by Robert B. Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars is a stretch, but it’s an easy read and filled a few hours. Jesse Stone is a burnt-out, failed LAPD detective with an ex-wife and a drinking problem. He gets hired to be the new police chief of a small Massachusetts town because the selectmen want a lush they can control. The leading man of the town, Hasty Hastings, is corrupt and also leads a group of paranoid neo-nazi types. Jesse is the classic anti-hero cop. The plot doesn’t really exist. Jesse just exists there while the bad guys implode around him. If you’re looking for clever detecting or a police procedural, this isn’t it.

The style was interesting. Parker is obviously a journeyman schlock noir crime novelist. The story flows along with ease despite being content-free. He and the publishers know all the tricks. Almost all of it is dialogue with very short sentences and wide margins. This means almost every page is 96% white space. Chapters are on average three pages long with every new chapter starting halfway down the next page, so there’s an extra load of emptiness. This is a 75-page book stretched to 322 pages. One odd choice was irritating: for some reason every chapter’s first line was in a weird mock handwriting font that was hard to read. Jesse and nearly every other character respond to questions and many other comments with the one word “sure.” Much of the conversation is psycho-babble or other filler. Example:
“Jenn called the other night,” Jesse said.
“She broke up with Elliott.”
“The producer?”
“So what does that mean?” Abby said.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what does it mean to us?” Abby said.
“Us. You know, you and me…”
This riveting dialogue takes up most of a page.

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The Child by Fiona Barton

The Child (Kate Waters, #2)The Child by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This British mystery involves a body, but it’s not clear whether or not it’s a murder. The body is that of a child buried many years earlier that is unearthed during construction. The lead investigator is Kate Waters, a reporter, which makes this a bit different from the usual police procedural. We are introduced to two different women each of whom thinks the baby must be hers. The DNA matches the first one who comes forward, but the date and location match the timeline of the other woman’s experience. She buried her baby in that exact location, but is not connected to the women whose DNA matches. Neither knows of the other. It becomes Kate’s job to put it all together.

I liked Kate’s character and the plot is cleverly written. This is book 2 in what is a fairly lengthy series, I believe. I can recommend this book, but I do have one warning. Do NOT get the audiobook. There are five different readers, and this turned out to be a bad decision on the part of the producers. For starters, the actress who played one of the younger characters sounded much older than her character and another character who was supposed to be older, sounded younger. Since timelines are important in this story, this became very confusing right up to the end. Secondly, there is a lot of dialogue, which means the actress who is portraying character A is doing the voice of character B and C as well as A, but then it switches to another scene where another actress is doing the voices of A and C but sounds very different. The personality of a character changes, or seems to, based on who is reading that character’s lines in that chapter. One minute a character sounds posh, then a minute later sounds almost Cockney, feminine, then masculine, etc. It really became difficult to keep track of who was who, a complaint I’ve seen in other reviews, even those who read the book.

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Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi

Don't Let GoDon’t Let Go by Michel Bussi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My wife read the French version, but my French isn’t that good, so I followed her recommendation and got the English version. The translation is excellent. Martial and Liane Bellion are lying about the pool at a resort on RĂ©union Island, a department of France. Liane goes up to the room and is not seen again. Martial has a friend watch his young daughter while he goes looking for her. He reports her missing to the police. When the police arrive, they find signs of a struggle and blood in the Bellions’ room. Martial confesses to having borrowed a laundry cart from a maid and having wheeled it down to the car park. A knife is missing from his barbecue kit, a knife that shows up in another body nearby. Then he flees with his daughter. Open and shut case, right? Well, maybe.

Aja, a mixed race Creole captain and Christos, a lusty, pot-smoking forensic-trained second lieutenant are on the case. The setting is exotic, the characters interesting, the mystery deep. There is the suspense of the chase as the police try to find Martial and Sopha and a plot you won’t figure out. The twists fooled me almost to the end. The people who die and those who live aren’t who you expect. I spent more than a little time looking up RĂ©union, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, which were mere names I’d heard before this, as well as dodo birds and papangues. This is the most entertaining book I’ve read in quite some time.

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Time Traveler

I’ve created an interactive adventure/puzzle game for cryptography/cryptogram fans. You can make your way through it by trial and error, but it is intended to provide an opportunity to work several cipher problems in order to progress to the end. Click on the link to get started.

Time Traveler

Freefall by Jessica Barry

FreefallFreefall by Jessica Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Freefall is so much like The Wife Between Us and The Last Mrs. Parrish that I can’t give it a higher rating, although it is slightly better than either one. The author has a knack with words and I think she could write something worth reading if she would just apply her talents to something with a decent plot. This is not such a book. The plot is hackneyed, and, as I said, a familiar formula.

The main character, Allison, is a beautiful young woman in a bad place emotionally and financially. A rich, handsome man “saves” her, but a vacuous life of Prada dresses and supercilious “friends” who look down their noses at her turns out not to be the salvation she had hoped for. Prince Charming isn’t what she thought, either. The story begins with a plane crash. Allison survives a crash in the Rocky Mountains. We don’t know the back story at that point, but it slowly unfolds, largely through the narration of Ally’s mother. Mother and daughter have been estranged for years. Each blames herself for the estrangement. From there it becomes sappier and soapier than a week’s worth of daytime TV. One of my chief gripes is present here, too, and that is the totally inaccurate portrayal of law enforcement. Police ignore and dismiss every piece of compelling evidence and they, and their coroners, are all incapable of determining that someone was murdered. The author at least has a mastery of grammar and a good vocabulary, one that appeals to the reader’s intelligence, even though the plot does not. The language descends into the gutter toward the end, too, making the main characters unlikable.

I listened to this on audiobook, and that was a mistake. The multiple readers all overact terribly. The director should be fired. The good people and bad people are instantly recognizable by their venom-dripping sneers and sarcasm or kind words and friendly voices, so there is no suspense. They are all the most implausible stereotypes imaginable.

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