Hi. Barb here. Or rather there. By the time you read this, I’ll be on the road to Key West, probaby somewhere in the Carolinas, if you’re reading on the day it posted.
Recently, I was thrilled to be included in an article on reading mysteries for book clubs, written by Ann Connery Frantz and published in the Worcester Telegram. Also interviewed were fellow Maine Crime Writer Kate Flora, and our friend Hank Phillippi Ryan. You can read the entire article here. I strongly recommend it.
Here’s how I answered Ann’s questions about general book clubs that were considering reading a mystery.
I’ve never been a member of a book club, but I have been a guest at several when they were reading one of my books.
My observation is that book clubs approach crime fiction in two ways. Some choose “literary” crime fiction, which is as well-written, well-rounded and affecting as anything else they read during the year. Others, may choose a “lighter” mystery as a good book for members during busy times, such as the holidays, or over the summer when everyone wants a great beach book.
Traditional mysteries ask the question, “Whodunnit?” and “Howdunnit?” In these stories the main character must follow clues and dig into other characters’ current lives and their pasts to unmask a killer. In a traditional mystery, the victim and the killer will always be someone readers meet in the journey of the book, often a part of the victim’s world or the book’s community. Thrillers, on the other hand, ask the question, “What the heck is going on here?” In a thriller, the main character must figure out what is going on, and who is behind it, usually to save themselves and/or stop something terrible from happening in their world or the world at large. In these books the villain may be an individual, a criminal organization, or a part of a vast conspiracy.
Traditional mysteries for book clubs
“Literary” mysteries are roughly defined as books you can read more than once and get something out of it every time—i.e. the treatment of character, theme, the use of language, etc. transcends the “puzzle.” It doesn’t wreck the book for you if you know the solution. These mysteries can contain many weighty subjects for book club discussion. For example, Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper Mysteries, about a white policeman in South Africa during apartheid, ask the question, “How can a moral man enforce the law when half the laws are immoral?” Plenty to talk about!
In the traditional mystery vein I would recommend any of Louise Penny’s fantastic Armand Gamache series, which take place in rural Quebec, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, which take place in the Adirondacks, Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch Mysteries about a Maine game warden, Craig Johnson’s Longmire Mysteries about a sheriff in Wyoming. I could go on and on.
If you don’t want to get involved with series, try William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, which won all the major mystery awards this year. Or B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, which is on its way to becoming a classic.
If your book club is looking for something lighter, try a cozy mystery. Cozies are just like traditional mysteries, with some additions. The sleuth is usually an amateur who has another interest or profession, and who is propelled into solving the mystery by a personal stake. They’re light on the descriptive gore (and the descriptive sex) and you can be virtually certain no child or pet will be harmed. These books make a nice break from a heavier reading schedule, and will still leave your group plenty to discuss.
Consider one of Cleo Coyle’s Coffee House Mysteries, set in Greenwich Village, Jessie Crockett’s Sugar Grove Mysteries, which follow a multi-generational syrup-making family in New Hampshire, Sheila Connolly’s Orchard Mysteries set in Western Massachusetts or my Maine Clambake Mysteries.
As for discussion questions:
Mysteries are full of relationships, the same mother-daughter, sister-sister, parent-child connections that you’d dissect in any book club discussion. In a mystery, almost every character has a secret, so it would be fruitful to mine this vein. Which secrets did you believe? Which did you guess?
Mysteries have themes. In fact, some people believe that while literary fiction today can tend to get a little preachy, crime fiction can treat serious subjects like PTSD or the abuse of painkillers, or the damage caused by prolonged unemployment, more adeptly.
Finally, you can dissect the mystery itself. Did you guess the solution before the end? When and why? Or why not? Did the author “play fair”—i.e. once you knew the solution, were all the clues in the manuscript? Could you have guessed if you’d wanted to?
As you can tell, I heartily embrace the idea of book clubs reading crime fiction!
As I said, I recommend reading the full article. Kate and Hank add a lot of meat to the discussion, and Ann puts it all together brilliantly.