Orts: OLLI, Sentences, and a Couple of Reviews

Lots of orts this month and no central theme, a reaction no doubt to the cold, then thaw, then cold again.

I’ve enjoyed the class I’m facilitating that introduces Maine Mystery Writers to students at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USM. OLLI is the Maine equivalent of Senior College and I’ve had some great discussions with the thirty or so people who signed up to meet local mystery writers and talk about the various subgenres. Great group, very engaged readers, and we’ve had some lively discussions. Looking forward to doing the course again in the fall.

I’m reading a very fine book on writing by Harold Evans called Do I Make Myself Clear? Evans is the former editor of the Times of London and a journalistic treasure. What I came across that startled me was his account of research into how sentences have gained clarity over the centuries. An academic named Lucius Adelno Sherman spent his career counting the various linguistic elements—words, prepositions, clauses, etc.—in classical texts and documented how sentences sped up from pre-Elizabethan times to the twentieth century. The early sixteenth century average length of a sentence was fifty words; by the early twentieth century , the average was down to twenty-three. Strictly word-nerd stuff, but fascinating.

I read thirty-two books in January (no, I’m not going to bitch about that 10-day frozen spell again) and most of them were crime novels but I’m making a concerted effort to try new things and so I want to give you a short review of several books by non-US writers that you may not have come across.

Henry Chang’s Detective Jack Yu series is about as noir as they come and urban as all get out. The protagonist is a New York City Police Detective who’s been transferred back to his old Chinatown neighborhood. The kids he grew up with are now gangsters and the precinct is as crime-ridden as any in the city, with the added complication of community leaders and tong bosses who prefer to solve their own crimes. Yu uses his knowledge of the community he grew up in to catch killers, trying to stay ahead of the possibilities of vigilante Chinatown justice. I read Chinatown Beat but there are others in the series.

Inger Ash Wolfe’s protagonist Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef presides over the Port Dundas Police Department but only temporarily, until her former protégé returns to lord it over her as his boss. A Door in the River begins with a well-loved resident dead of what appears to be a bee sting outside the Canadian reservation’s smoke shop. The tale spins out into subterranean gambling and prostitution and corruption around police with a finish worthy of the Lethal Weapon movies.

Colin Cottrell’s Dr. Siri series (not the Siri we already know and love . . .) is set in the Indochina of the 1970’s during the oppressive Communist regime. Dr. Siri Paiboun is the country’s only coroner and despite the politics under which he operates, keeps finding murders to solve. The glimpse of the historical situations, as well as the raucously funny character of Dr. Siri, made The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die easily the most laugh-inducing read of the month. There are a dozen or so in the series but you don’t need to read them in order.

I’m always fighting my own tendency to read only the writers I already know and it’s difficult. There is so much good crime writing going on, locally, nationally, and internationally that I find  it hard to keep up with my favorites, let alone try something new. But there is a round ton of good stuff flying around out there that repays a little investigation.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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6 Responses to Orts: OLLI, Sentences, and a Couple of Reviews

  1. sandy says:

    Oh Dick, that was just Great! Thanks for your suggestions and OMG! That many books just in January? You’ve inspired me to up my reading game. This week II am so delighted to reread “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King, the first book in a Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library monthly program called “Refreshing the Whodunit.” What a lesson in voice, that King can return to Sherlock Holmes, totally reproduce (and also reinvent) him and his singular voice, and give it all to us via a spunky female narrator, easily Holmes’ equal. I’ll share the reading list, and I am hoping if I attend I can help bend next year’s list toward talented Maine authors. Dick, please count me in when you teach your class next year. It seems perfect for lots of fine winter conversation.

    The Skull Mantra (Patterson), A Cold Day for Murder (Stabenow), Murder at the Nightwood Bar (Forrest), Dance Hall of the Dead (Hillerman). For more info: https://bbhlibrary.org/

  2. Pat Turnbull says:

    Thanks for reminding me of the Inger Ash Wolfe books. I one or two several years ago and had totally forgotten about her, but enjoyed her writing back then. You’re spot on about how it can be a challenge to branch out and read authors new to us.
    Also, we have OLLI at the U of AZ here in Tucson, and I know the person who coordinates the program; it’s a terrific way to keep our old brains working (speaking as a full-fledged senior citizen)!

    • Richard Cass says:

      Thanks, Pat. I’ve been very gratified by my experience with OLLI folks here in Maine–engaged, interested, and they buy books 😉 Cheers . . .

  3. I started Evans’s book, but it was on my kindle from the library, and expired. So I guess I’ll never be clear until I break down and buy it. Wildly envious of your reading tally. I thought I would read a lot on our vacation to India but alas…the days were so long and action-packed I barely read at all. Only three books since we came home. My full time job is coughing.

    Read on, and keep sharing.


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