How often do you recommend a book, mystery or otherwise, to a friend? How often are you asked to make a recommendation? Because people know I write mysteries, I’m asked from time to time to recommend a good one. And because friends know I like to learn about new writers, I’m often on the receiving end of advice.
The latter was the case recently when I got two recommendations. The first came from a high school classmate with whom I’ve have been in contact only by email. He got in touch with me out of the blue after reading my mysteries, which he had learned about through a questionnaire I had submitted for a high school reunion that I didn’t attend. He liked my books and asked if I had read any mysteries by Kathleen George. As it happens, she attended the same high school, though two years ahead of me. I was surprised I hadn’t read her or even heard of her since we came from the same town in western Pennsylvania and attended the same university, where she ultimately did a Ph.D. and is now a full professor. In the event, my friend was right that she does great work. I immediately got the first two of her books (Taken, 2002; Fallen, 2004) and enjoyed them thoroughly, perhaps especially because they’re set in Pittsburgh, familiar territory, although quite different from my own mysteries. When my local bookstore reopens I’ll be ordering more of hers.
So that was a great recommendation. The second recent instance was different. A good friend who has written academic books and articles about mysteries and has read mine and taught several in one of his courses recommended a writer also unknown to me. (I’m not going to identify her here.) He recommended two of her many mysteries because both concerned thefts and murders at historic house museums, a natural fit with my own writing. I got halfway through the first, fighting my mounting frustration as I reluctantly turned yet another page. Terrible, I said: too many characters to keep straight, too little development of major characters, preposterous coincidences, cliché piled on cliché. I reluctantly reported my reaction to my friend, who agreed that the book did have some problems (what an understatement!) but that I should try the second one because he considered it much better. I read it with great pleasure, wondering how the writer of the first one could have improved so much. Then I got to the final twenty or so pages when two murders were “solved” by authorial fiat, without earlier clues and with shocking speed. I thought of Twain’s remark that if you can’t find a good way to end a story you can always throw someone down a well.
When I reported my view of the second one, my friend apologized for recommending the writer. She has published extensively, won multiple national awards, and makes a very good living from her work, all of which I gladly stipulated. But I assured my friend that he need not apologize for the recommendations because I thought I learned some things from reading what I saw as flawed books: the nature and timing of planted clues, the need to surprise the reader without making her feel stupid or misled, the reasonableness of the wrap-up, etc.
But as to recommendations, given or received, what do I, as it were, recommend?
*First and most important when making a recommendation, that old advice: know your audience. Make sure you understand what the person asking for a recommendation really wants and what he likes and dislikes. I’m always a bit reluctant to make an out-and-out recommendation and often hedge by probing for details about the requester’s interests: prefer cozies to police procedurals? like action more or less than character? is setting important? And so on. When I get more clarity about those matters I generally go ahead and make a recommendation, but always with caveats and conditions.
*Second, don’t oversell. When someone tells me “this book will change your life,” I generally decide I like my life as it is. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that changed my life.
*Third, be humble. Qualify your recommendation even if you don’t think it needs to be qualified. I usually say, “I liked this when I read it, but I might feel differently today, and you may not have the same response I did. Give it a try and see what you think.” And if you don’t like something recommended to you, employ humility again. Say “I probably was in the wrong mood when I read it” or “I can see why you liked it, but I had some trouble getting traction; I’ll give it a try again later.”
*Finally, be grateful. I’m so pleased my old classmate recommended Kathleen George’s mysteries. I should have known them, and now I do—what a gift!
How do you make and receive recommendations?