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January 31, 2006



I'll be watching the comments here closely. I haven't read a mystery that I've loved in years, and the ones I have read I've either been neutral about or loathed (mysteries with a gimmick really need to be banned). I'm hoping that it's just a matter of looking in the wrong places.

Clair Lamb

Right with you, Tod. A genuine mystery I read last year and loved was Laura Lippman's TO THE POWER OF THREE, the story of a school shooting that is more and less than it seems. Jess Walter's three books have all been fantastic; John Connolly's Charlie Parker series is thoughtful, harrowing and sad; and Mark Billingham's Tom Thorne series is the one police procedural that continues to improve with every book. (I like Ian Rankin's, too, but wasn't crazy about the most recent book.)

Publishers have gotten cynical about what passes for quality prose. If a million people think THE DA VINCI CODE is the best book they ever read, they're obviously not reading much -- so they won't notice that they're getting the same warmed-up TV dinner time after time.

David Thayer

Dope will help you out of your funk. Most work by Jim Fusilli will too. For the Dogs by Kevin Wignall, Olen Steinhauer's Bridge of Sighs. Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy; I seond the Jess Walter notion, Citizen Vince was damned good. Bill Lashner for a Philly fix or one of the Munch Mancini books? I read Ah Treachery by Ross Thomas last month they don't write like that anymore.


here are some new "X" mysteries for you.
-Bangkok 8 by john burdett
- any of the three by PJ Tracy, a mother/daughter writing team, i really loved those.
-the Maisie Dobbs books by j.

i wonder if you're talking about michael connelley. i really really loved the first four Bosch books, and "blood work" (the book anyway. NOT the movie) and "the poet" are amazing. but then he just dropped off into schlock and his last couple of stand-alone books were atrocious and the latest Bosch ones have really lost their oomph as well.

i like lehane's kedzie and gennaro books, but i don't like his standalones that much. and every plot flaw people complained about the movie of mystic river are all things that came straight out of the book.


maisie dobbs by j. winspear - sorry. :)


I was going to reccomend Eric Garcia's "Rex" books, but I suppose it's possible that you might consider the overal theme of dinosaurs detectives to be a gimmick.

I suspect the reason that mystery series tend to get bad is that the author traps him-or-her-self.

They spend a year or three writing the first one. They have ideas for the next few, and lots of time to work on it while they sell the first one.

Then they get into a pattern, where their next book must come out in a year, or a year and a half. Sometimes, I'm guessing, it's the publisher that dictates that this happen. And I'm guessing that other times, the author realizes that if they don't get a book a year on the shelves, they're going to have to go back to a day job and actually do, you know, REAL work. So instead of taking a much-needed break, they just keep on churning...

Bob Sassone

First of all, what was the book that you read? Come on, we're all friends here. :)

Some books you should check out:

"Kiss Me, Judas": Will Christopher Baer, and "The Contortionist's Handbook" by Craig Clevenger. Two of the best novels I've read in the past 5 years. Sometimes in mystery, sometimes in literary, depending on the bookstore.

Anything by James Sallis, one of the best writers living today. He does mysteries, sci-fi, reviews, but they all cross genre lines.

"Man Out Of Time" by Michael Hogan. More a modern noir than mystery, and one of the few books about lawyers I can stomach.

rob roberge

looking forward to the Baer...read Clevenger's "Contortions Handbook" recently and really loved it.

as for if reviewers or readers are going too easy....i'd say, in light of some recent events (not here, so don't get your dander up, folks), that many people are so proudly flaunting their stupidity they wouldn't know a non-cliched book with interesting writing if it dropped on their crud-laden desks.

so, really dumb lazy readers who don't know any better...that's one reson.

but the bigger reason, i think, maybe is that a lot of people read a new book to, essentially, read the same book they've read over and over. even to the point of sequels and so on....they want to know how they'll feel even before they read the book...

and other people read a book for a new experience...something they've never read.

i think, maybe, reviewers should say something about their expectations, whihc might better frame a context for their take on the book(s)...


Sue T.

"i wonder if you're talking about michael connelley." That was certainly my guess, that "The Lincoln Lawyer" is the book in question...

rob roberge

just to be clear...that "I'm" was a typo...i didn't nod off while typing, though i am full of Gregg Almann's heroin.


My favorite mysteries are found on the shelf in the guest room. The ones from the fifties by authors nobody remembers anymore. The ones with the crumbling pages. The ones the hostess says, 'Oh take it with you, if you're not finished, I pick those up at estate sales.'


You can't read any book by a long-established author, someone who is majorly successful, and be surprised when it sucks.

I call it BAD - Big Author Disease. Somewhere around book #6 the mold start inevitably creeping into the work. It's particularly persistent in genre fiction like mystery and SF/F.

Kinda like rockers who start churning out sappy ballads in their fifties (yes, Steve Tyler, I'm looking at you).

Eventually authors run out of things to say, or get soft, or stop caring. They don't need to care any more, because people will still buy their books out of love for the characters, tone, world, whatever.

If you want a good book, you've got to look at authors who are just breaking out.... Or authors who have a track record, but haven't yet received that corrupting popular success.


dying to know which writer and novel you're talking about -

Just finished a really good novel, not really a mystery though it plays like that - CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson - I highly recommend it, a fast read, too, and very enjoyable -


"Whenever I get in one of these funks, invariably someone says, Oh, you need to read X, it will change your outlook."

You misheard them: They said "take some X, then read." You'll be blurbing in no time!

At root, the Harry Potter books are mysteries. (In the vein of Encyclopedia Brown.) I'll take my public stoning for saying that off the air.


Hi there, I've been reading your blog for a little while and really enjoying it! I saw this post and had to comment. I'm also incredibly annoyed by how bad mystery novels seem to be getting and how so many people just don't seem to notice. Have you ever read any Patricia Highsmith? She doesn't write mysteries, more like "psychological thrillers" (although I hate that term). Basically, she writes creepy novels that always involve a murder (sooner or later), but somehow manage to make you feel like the murder is the least significant part of the plot. Trust me when I say that cliche is completely foreign to the whole enterprise, and while the writing isn't flashy, it's generally solid. If you haven't read anything of hers I'd recommend starting with her Ripley books (The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc). If you've seen a movie based on one of her books, you can bet that the book is ten times as unsettling. Anyway, just my suggestion.

Sandra Ruttan

I can't tar a whole genre with the same brush. But I think, for me, part of the reason I continue to be such a mystery enthusiast is because I am very selective about what I read.

I prefer police procedurals over amateur sleuth any day of the week. In fact, there is only 1 amateur sleuth I read, and its almost certainly one you haven't heard of, being a little-known Canadian series. I read it because the author has such a quirky, funny style that I laugh outloud as her protag bumbles her way through smoking a joint after having sex with a cop and all kinds of stuff like that.

But typically, I don't even like the 'crime humor' stuff.

Blame for formulaic writing goes to a few sets of people, including the readers. Unfortunately, when people make something popular and want more of it, the publishers respond by cranking out what's selling. And so quality stuff that isn't fitting that formula gets set aside.

I completely agree with Claire, that To The Power of Three was excellent, and Mark Billingham does get better and better with each book, just like a fine wine. I can always find mysteries to get passionate about.

And I love to write them, because I use crime as a framework for commenting on society. It is not so much about the chase as it is about how it impacts the characters lives, though obviously the pursuit of justice is important.

If a character has me, I'll return to them. Whatever genre they're in.

Though I must say I'm not fond of gimmicks. Cats solving mysteries really isn't to my personal preference.


Couldn't agree more with you. The conventions of the genre have become completely hackneyed and make the majority of mysteries mind-numbingly dull to read. (But maybe that's the point...)

My personal pet peeve is the super-smart serial killers with artistic pretensions and/or the "high velocity" comic noirs with unbelievably high body counts. 30 people dead on Avenue C? Puh-lease.

But I can recommend an "amateur sleuth" novel that utterly breaks the mold. THE BEST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN TO A CROISSANT by Pablo Tusset. He's from Barcelona. He's a nut.

Mary R


What was the last great mystery you read? What great novels have you read since then?

A friend was once in sputtering anger after learning that fellow grad student didn't think Yeats was a great poet. I wondered how many great poets the fellow thought there were. If three, Yeats would not be expected to make the cut. If 250, I'd question his taste.

Aaron Weber

Bangok 8 is good, but the sequel ("Bangok tattoo") is lacking.

Most of the stuff under the Soho Crime label seems to be pretty good. I don't like mysteries and I liked those.

Tod Goldberg

The last great mystery? Hmm, well the ones that spring to mind are both pretty literary: Cruisers by Craig Nova & Train by Pete Dexter, along with a couple older Gary Disher novels I read a while back. A couple noir novels that impressed me were Blood Father by Peter Craig, Rob's More Than They Could Chew, Seth Greenland's The Bones, but I really can't think of a straight PI or cop novel that I've really been impressed by in a long, long time. Maybe Jolie Blon's Bounce by James Lee Burke?

Literary novels are easier: You Remind Me Of Me by Dan Chaon, Cottonwood by Scott Phillips, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Empire Falls by Richard Russo...there are plenty.


What do you think of Hammett and Chandler or Spillane? I find myself gravitating towards those stories more then I do anything else. It seems that the noir draws me in and makes me enjoy the writing more then the story sometimes.

m.g. tarquini

Not a mystery, I realize, but my absolutist, favoritist suspense story in the world is titled Green Eggs and Ham by a guy named Dr. Seuss. Starts out with the protag declaring he doesn't like a mysterious very small person who calls himself Sam-I-Am.

Sam-I-Am has green eggs and ham. Throughout the story, he plies the protag with these goodies, who insists he doesn't like them. Every time the protag turns down Sam-I-Am's offering, Sam ups the stakes, teasing the protags with a number of what-if scenarios - would he eat them on a train or a plane, in the dark for a lark. This continues in a relentless sing-song pattern vaguely reminiscent of sex to those truly in need of laid, until the surprise ending in which our protag decides...

Oh, sorry. Some of you may not have read the story yet, so I won't spoil the ending. But it's a must read, a classic that's stood the test of time.


Dude, the only memorable Bangkok 8 I know of is, "You look worse than a Bangkok whore on Sunday morning after the US Navy left town." Words of wisdom.

Bill Crider

I kind of liked Parker's latest Jesse Stone book, myself, but then I have low tastes in literature (and everything else).


Tod wrote: "The other day, against my better judgment, I sat down with a mystery novel by a best-selling, widely acclaimed mystery writer. I wanted some easy escapist fiction, something that wouldn't require much in the way of emotional involvement and which could be read in bed until the wee hours."

Isn't that exactly what you found? So what are you complaining about?

dave zarkin

A friend sold me his entire collection of Charlie Chan mysteries by Earl Diggs Bigger and those suckers would put a coffee addict to sleep in a New York minute. After reading two, I gave them away to the charity book sale. As bad as they were. the Monogram Pictures' Charlie Chan movies of the 40s were more compelling than the books. What's not to like about Birmingham Brown and Tommy Chan and who cares about the murder cause the guy was a dink and had it coming?

Sandra Scoppettone

I've always said no one should write more than four books in a series. I got talked into five in my Laurano series and number five is lousy.

Also, Tod, when you named the mysteries and books you liked, I didn't see one by a woman. You're not the first male writer to put out a list like that and I always try to say something about it because it makes me so sad.

Bill Moore

Current mystery novels are a dead loss, with few exceptions (M.C. Beaton). What one must do is re-read Christie and the other golden-age classics (most of whom are women). And re-read and re-read.

Beaton is no classic, she is merely readable and sometimes fun. But at least she is never downright insulting like 99.9% of her apparently top-of-the-bell-curve contemporaries.

Jack Edwards

I agree that there are a lot of bad mystery novels out there. But, with one exception, I can usally tell pretty early on if I'm going to enjoy finishing a book. The exception being the books with the flawed endings, for which I've started a Bad Mystery Book Endings blog.

On a positive note, I strongly recommend the following for hard boiled mystery fans:
* “Berlin Noir” a trilogy by Philip Kerr (“March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem)
* “Gorky Park,” “Polar Star,” and “Havana Bay” by Martin Cruz Smith
* “The Last Good Kiss,” “Dancing Bear,” and “Final Country” by James Crumley
* “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” by Norman Mailer

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