Category Archives: Domingo Villar

Red, Red Wine, Stay Close to Me*

Vineyards

When you’re having a nice dinner or perhaps sitting in a wine bar, you may not think a lot about the work that goes into making that delicious glass of wine you’re enjoying. But it doesn’t get there by magic. Vintners take their work very seriously, and the best ones take great pride in producing memorable wines. It’s a tricky business too. An oenologist can tell you that producing great wine requires exactly the right mix of weather, grapes, fermenting, bottling and so on. It takes real dedication to make a success of a vineyard. And any number of things can happen in the process. What’s more, one bottle or batch of less-than-good wine can ruin a vineyard’s reputation. So a lot’s at stake too. But as those who enjoy wine know, a good glass of the right wine is a real treasure.

Vineyards feature quite a lot in crime fiction and that makes sense when you consider how important wine is in many cultures. I only have the space here for a few examples; I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.

Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas lives and works in Vigo, in the Spanish region of Galicia. Galician wine has a world-class reputation for good reason. Trust me. And Caldas’ father is a part of that region’s vineyard culture. Since the death of his wife, Caldas’ father has built up the family vineyard little by little, and has gotten to the point where he’s producing some decent wine for which he has very high hopes. For him, growing grapes and making wine is not only a tribute to his late wife, but also a way to connect with the land and with growing things. To him, that’s real, if I may put it that way. And although his son is a cop and always will be, he does respect the process of wine making and when he visits the vineyard, he feels a sense of connection to his parents.

In Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie, Sydney DI Alistair Fitzjohn and his assistant DS Martin Betts are seconded from their own Day Street station to the shortstaffed Kings Cross Police Station when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is discovered at a marina at Rushcutter’s Bay. There are several suspects in this murder, since a variety of people stand to benefit from Rossi’s death. One angle that the detectives pursue is Rossi’s interest in Five Oaks Winery, which has been in the family for a long time. The victim’s niece Charlotte is set to benefit from that connection and what’s more, Rossi had had real disagreements with some of the Five Oaks staff about running the vineyard. So on more than one level, the vineyard is a place of interest. The truth about the murder isn’t as simple as the tragic result of an argument, but the police do get some interesting background on the family, and readers get a look at New South Wales’ winemaking culture. When it comes to Australia’s superb wines, I can also personally vouch for South Australia’s McLaren Vale wines. Trust me.

California also produces some very well-known and highly-regarded wines. Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys in particular are known for their vineyards and wine-making. And there are plenty of mystery novels and series that take a look at the Northern California wine industry. For example, there’s Michele Scott’s cosy Wine Lovers series. This series features Nikki Sands, who began to be interested in wine when she was waiting tables between acting roles. When she’s hired on at a major Napa vineyard, she has no idea how dangerous it will be.

Wine expert Edward Finstein’s Pinot Envy features Woody Robins, a ‘wine guru’ whose specialty is rare wine artifacts. Powerful grape grower Walter Pendry has heard of Robins’ reputation, and Robins is the man he wants for a case of theft. Pendry’s the owner of a very rare double magnum of wine that was once owned by Napoleon. When his prize property is stolen, he hires Robins to get the bottle back. What starts as a case of theft turns into blackmail, Mob activity and murder. This novel is about the case of course, but it also shows readers the Napa food and wine culture.

At the beginning of Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series, her sleuth is the postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also manages her own small farm. As the series goes on, changes in the postal system mean that Harry leaves her job at the post office. But she still needs an income. So in Cat’s Eyewitnesses she decides to try her hand at winemaking. In Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned oenologist Professor Vincent Forland. Harry is hoping he’ll be able to give her feedback on her grape growing and advice for making good wine. But before she can ask him, Forland disappears and is later found dead. So Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.

And of course, I couldn’t discuss vineyards without mentioning Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. Their Winemaker Detective series is only now being translated into English although it’s not a new series. Thus far two novels, Treachery in Bordeaux and Grand Cru Heist have been translated. The series features well-known and respected oenologist Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien. Between them, the two have an awful lot of expertise, which they bring to bear in Treachery in Bordeaux when a local vintner finds that some of his wine has been contaminated. In Grand Cru Heist, Cooker and Lanssien investigate when there are two murders and a theft of two priceless bottles of Grand Cru. All of these are connected with the hotel where Cooker is staying during a trip to the Loire Valley; they are also connected with his own Bordeaux region. This series gives readers an ‘inside’ look at what goes into the entire winemaking process, from growing the grapes to bottling and later selling the wine.

The process is a lot more complicated than you may think when you’re choosing whether to go with a Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon with your meal. It involves a real commitment of time and effort, some ‘weather luck’ and a store of knowledge about how wine is made. And that vineyard context makes for some delicious crime fiction too. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the examples there are, but there are plenty of them. They range from cosy to darker, from sweet to dry, from hearty to light…. Well, you get the idea. Which vineyard-based crime fiction have you tasted?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, made popular by UB40.

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Filed under Domingo Villar, Edward Finstein, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Jill Paterson, Michele Scott, Nöel Balen, Rita Mae Brown

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

It Was Committed Discreetly, It Was Handled so Neatly*

Good Places for a MurderSome places are especially good choices if you’re going to commit a murder. Not of course that I’m condoning that, but it is a lot easier to cover up a murder in some places than it is in others. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the death of Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan, who was giving a speech when he collapsed of a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips, where he’s operated on immediately. He survives the operation only to die shortly thereafter of an overdose of hyoscine. Alleyn and Fox soon establish that the victim was murdered, and sift through all of the events of the operation to find the killer.  It doesn’t help matters that just about everyone who was involved with O’Callaghan, including his wife, had a motive for murder. What makes everything even more difficult is that, as Alleyn puts it, an operating theatre is a very good place for a murder. Everything is routinely disinfected, replaced, put away and so on, so critical evidence is lost. Alleyn and Fox do figure out who the killer is, but he’s right about how easy it is to cover one’s tracks, so to speak, in an operating theatre.

We also see that in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is taken to Heron Park Hospital with a broken femur and is scheduled for what’s supposed to be a routine operation. It doesn’t turn out that way though and Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill comes to the hospital to make what’s supposed to be a cursory inspection and fill out some paperwork. But Higgins’ widow insists that this is a case of murder. Then one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, says the same thing after having too much to drink at a party. She even says that she knows how the murder was accomplished. When she herself is found dead soon afterwards, it’s clear that Cockrill has a full-scale investigation on his hands. Part of his challenge is that the operating theatre is kept scrupulously clean and therefore, free of direct evidence. Everything is carefully stowed away after a procedure, too, so it’s very difficult to tell if anything was out of place or misused.

Of course, operating theatres aren’t the only good places to commit a murder. As Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun begins, a group of people on holiday is enjoying the sun at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is among the guests and he’s been asked whether he’s there on a case. He says that he isn’t and one of the guests then says,

 

‘This isn’t the sort of place you’d get a body.’

 

Here’s Poirot’s response:

 

‘Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr. Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs. Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.’

 

Poirot has a point. A tourist destination is an effective place for murder. Not only can a person be at a resort without having to explain why, but also, the victim may very well be more easily accessible. And we see exactly that when Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled. It’s hard for the police to even work out where everyone was at the time she was killed. And what’s more, it’s very difficult to prove that the killer was deliberately there to commit murder. Poirot manages it, but it’s not an easy case.

Even when one’s not on holiday, the sea is an effective place for a murder. It can be hard to prove whether a drowning death was an accident, a suicide or a murder. And even if one can prove it was murder, evidence that points to the killer is hard to get. For example, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo has washed up on the shore near the small Galician town of Panxón. Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez look into the case and soon find that this was not an accident. And yet, it is very unclear whether Castelo’s drowning was suicide or murder. It’s even less clear when it comes up that his death may be related to another death several years earlier. Castelo and two other men, Marcos Valverde and José Arias, were on a fishing boat with their captain Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up and Sousa drowned. None of the men has really said much about that night. It’s hard to say whether Sousa was murdered, drowned accidentally, or was killed through the other men’s negligence. So it’s very hard to tell whether Castelo committed suicide out of guilt or was murdered to keep him quiet. The case is made much more challenging because the water has washed away a lot of evidence.

We also see how effective a murder spot the sea is in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. While they are there, they take a tour that’s led by a young woman nicknamed Pla. When Pla’s body is later found washed up in a cave, both Keeney and Patel are very upset about it. They work out an agreement to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to find out what happened to her. The official report is that she drowned accidentally or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. Keeney doesn’t think this was an accident, since the victim was an expert swimmer. Suicide can’t be ruled out, but it’s not long before Keeney suspects that this was murder. There’s not much to go on though, because the physical evidence isn’t conclusive, and the water has done its job washing away anything that could lead directly to the killer. In this case, the waterway has been a very wise choice for the murderer. That doesn’t stop Keeney investigating though…

M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad shows us another kind of very effective place for a murder: a hunting setting. Colonel and Mrs. Haiburton-Smythe have invited several guests for a week-end in honour of a visit by up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering. The Halburton-Smythes are hoping for the news of an engagement between Withering and their daughter Priscilla, so they want this to be a successful event. One of their guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. Bartlett is a boor who drinks too much, can’t leave women alone and treats the women who do get involved with him horribly. Bartlett makes a bet with another guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can shoot a brace of grouse before Pomfret can, and the two men agree to meet the following morning for the competition. But Bartlett leaves long before the agreed-upon time. Later his body is discovered, and it looks as though he’s been killed in a tragic shooting accident. There are other hunters about (both legitimate and poachers), so there’s nothing to say that this couldn’t have been an accident. And nothing specific links the death with anyone staying at the Halburton-Smythe home. So Superintendent Blair is inclined to call this a terrible accident and leave it at that. But Constable Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure. And in the end, he is proven to be right.

It’s not easy though, and that’s the thing about really well-chosen places for murder. They make it very hard to prove that a death was anything other than accidental or suicide. And even when it’s clear that the death is a murder, it can be almost impossible to link that killing to a particular person. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here; I’m sure you can think of lots more than I can.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Surprises.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Christianna Brand, Domingo Villar, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh

We’re Not the Same But We Can Talk*

Different CulturesAs I’ve mentioned before on this blog, culture has profound effects on the way we think, act, dress and speak. Sometimes we’re not even aware of how much we are affected by culture until we work with someone from another culture. The experience of working with a team-mate from another culture can broaden our horizons and enrich us. But it can be awkward at times too. Different cultures see the world in different ways, and those differences can result in ‘culture clash.’ But as the world continues to get smaller, so to speak, it’s more and more the case that people work with others from different cultures.

In fiction, those cultural differences, and the way they’re worked out, can add a really interesting layer to a story. Certainly it can in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I can.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are from two different cultures. In many ways their cultural differences don’t impede their work. Yet there are some cultural issues that both of them have had to get used to over time. For instance, Poirot grew up in a culture where greeting and leave-taking involves embracing. Hastings on the other hand is not accustomed to that kind of physical contact in that context. So Poirot has had to learn to shake hands, because he knows that anything else makes Hastings feel awkward. For his part, Hastings has had to get used to Poirot’s habit of hot chocolate for breakfast and tisane instead of beer, wine or something like whisky. Their cultural differences add an interesting layer to their characters and a measure of interest to the stories that feature them.

In Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, we meet Janusz Kiszka, unofficial ‘fixer’ for London’s Polish community. When a young woman named Weronika goes missing, her landlady Pani Tosik gets concerned and asks her priest about it. The priest in turn asks Kiszka to try to find out where Weronika is and what happened to her. The trail leads to a friend of Weronika’s, who is later found murdered. That’s how Kiszka’s path crosses that of DC Natalie Kershaw, who is investigating a series of deaths. The two are suspicious of each other at first. Kershaw sees Kiszka as a possible suspect in the murders. For his part, Kiszka isn’t fond of the police to begin with, and Kershaw is certainly not his idea of what a cop ought to be like. They have many cultural differences too that make communication a challenge. But slowly they begin to work together as each comes to see that the other can be helpful. You couldn’t call them friends, even at the end of the novel, but they do establish an understanding and they do learn to work together.

Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan has to work with someone from a different culture in Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money. Madeleine Avery has hired Quinlan to find her missing brother Charles. Since Charles Avery’s last known whereabouts was Bangkok, Quinlan starts his search there. It turns out that Avery isn’t in Bangkok though. He’s gone on to Cambodia, so Quinlan follows the trail there. When he gets to Phnom Penh, Quinlan meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who’s lived in Cambodia all his life. Sarin and Quinlan are from different cultures, but each has reasons to want to find out what happened to Avery. As the novel goes on, Nette uses those cultural differences to share some of Cambodia’s history and culture with the reader. And it’s interesting to see how these two, who are from very different backgrounds, work together.

Angela Savage’s PI Jayne Keeney is also Australian. She lives and works in Bangkok though, so she’s gotten accustomed to the Thai culture. Keeney is a reader of crime fiction (you gotta like that in a fictional sleuth ;-) ) so she becomes a regular at a bookshop in Bangkok’s Indian neighbourhood. That’s how she meets Rajiv Patel, whose uncle owns the shop. In The Half Child, we learn that Patel is from a traditional New Delhi family. He doesn’t want to live that traditional lifestyle, but he is a product of that culture. Keeney of course has her own culture and cultural assumptions. The two become business partners and later, lovers, so they are motivated to work together and get along. But they do sometimes have to bridge cultural gaps. For instance, Patel communicates a great deal of information by moving his head in certain ways. As we learn in The Dying Beach, Keeney comes to know that Patel’s side-to-side head nods are

 

‘…as nuanced as a Thai smile…’

 

Patel has to get used to Keeney’s way of looking at life too, and it does cause friction between them. Those cultural differences and nuances add much to this series.

In Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing, Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police is asked to go to Beijing to help investigate the death of Justin Tan. Justin was the son of Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy, so his death is not going to be ignored. What’s more, his mother believes he was deliberately murdered. The police theory is that he was murdered in a robbery gone wrong, and that’s the theory under which Singh operates when he begins his investigation. But soon enough he begins to suspect that Susan Tan is right. As he digs more deeply into the case, Singh works with former Beijing police officer Li Jun to find out who would have wanted to kill the boy and why. Singh and Li Jun are from different cultures, and they have to get used to each other. And sometimes that does cause some tension. But each respects the other and each has skills that contribute to solving the case.

What’s interesting about cultural differences is that you don’t even have to be from a different country to have cultural differences. Just as an example, Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is Galician by birth and culture. He lives and works in Vigo and is accustomed to life there. His assistant Rafael Estevez on the other hand is from Zaragoza, in the autonomous community of Aragon. Even though both men are Spanish, they are from different cultures and have different ways of looking at life. And those differences do come up in the course of their investigations, although each respects the other. It’s an interesting look at the number of different cultures there can be, even in the same country.

I’ve only had space to mention a few examples of team-mates who work through cultural differences. There are a lot of others of course (e.g. Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear, or Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden and Fr. John O’Malley). Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Unholy Trinity.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, Domingo Villar, Margaret Coel, Shamini Flint

You Picked a Real Bad Time*

Bad TimingReading and reading experiences are often very subjective. Of course, no matter who’s doing the reading, ‘flat’ characters, stilted dialogue and cumbersome detail are signs that a book isn’t well-written. But the fact is, our impressions of a book are also affected by things such as personal taste and preference. What we think of a book is also arguably affected by when we read that book. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean about the way timing can impact our impression of a book.

A lot of people prefer lighter reading during holidays. Somehow, lighter, cosy mysteries such as Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series or comic caper novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s just seem to ‘fit’ when you’re beach reading or curled up by the fire. There are many, many examples of this kind of lighter reading, and of course, personal taste is going to figure into which novels one chooses. But there’s something about holidays and vacations that seems to invite one to read a lighter novel.

What’s interesting is what happens when you pick up that kind of novel at another time, say, when you’ve just been reading about an important social issue and you want to mull it over. Suddenly, the Bev Robitai or Simon Brett theatre-based novel that seemed so absolutely perfect…doesn’t seem that way anymore. Nothing at all has happened to the quality of those novels (I recommend both authors, by the way). They’re still interesting stories with appealing characters. What’s happened is that the timing isn’t right for them.

The same kind of thing happens with novels such as Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent or Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Those are both difficult novels to read in that they deal with important but harrowing social issues. And there are times when one’s open to those more challenging stories. You might just have read an article about a certain topic, or you might have just come back from a holiday and be ready for a challenge. At those times, books like these can feel like the perfect choice. You can appreciate the message and you’re willing to invest yourself in the harder parts of the story.

But suppose you decide to try something such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second when you’re off on a fun trip. The same book that you might have thought of as difficult, even harrowing, but exceptionally well-written and worth reading, now becomes far too difficult to read. Now this kind of book is unutterably depressing and hard to finish. The fact is (and you already know this of course) nothing’s happened to the book’s quality at all. It’s still an excellent story with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and some compelling characters. The timing’s just wrong for the book.

Did you ever notice that when you’re planning to travel somewhere, you get quite interested in reading books that take place in your destination? I know that’s happened to me. So if you’re planning a trip to Spain you might be especially interested in Teresa Solana’s, Antonio Hill’s or Domingo Villar’s work. I’ve only mentioned a very few examples of Spanish crime fiction but you get my point. As you read those books you try to get every nuance of culture and geography you can, since you’re attuned to it.

But what if you choose a book like Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X when you’re having ‘one of those weeks’ and you’ve only got small amounts of reading time? Then, the very nuances of culture and geography that you love at other times can seem burdensome, or you might not pay attention to them and really appreciate them. That feeling might not have much to do with the quality of a given book. Rather, it’s the timing of your reading.

There are times when the action and suspense of thrillers such as Lindy Cameron’s Redback are exactly right. Thrillers like that can be the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening when it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be up against international terrorists. But maybe it isn’t the best choice if you’re not feeling well and not ready to deal with edge-of-the-seat ‘roller coaster rides.’

A ‘quieter’ sort of mystery such as you find in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series might be really appealing for those times when you have a few days to follow along and appreciate the subtler approach and more slowly-evolving story line. At those times, you can see the real appeal of character development and nuance. But pick that sort of book up when you’re waiting in an office or when you’re anxiously awaiting word on whether you got that job, and you could easily find such a novel too slow. Those details of character development that so draw you in at other times now just seem irritating. The series hasn’t changed (by the way, I recommend Brunanski’s series – I really like Bart’s character a lot). The fact is, it’s the kind of series that’s best enjoyed when you’ve got the time to ‘slow the pace down’ a bit.

And I think we’d all agree that mood plays a role too in what we think of a book. Grumpy or feeling crotchety? Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice might be the perfect fit. Need a good, irreverent laugh? Christopher Brookmyre has done some very funny novels. You get the idea.

So as we all start to plan what we’re going to read in 2014, do you think about this timing issue? Do you plan your reading so that you’ll take the lighter stuff with you on holiday for instance? Or do you adapt yourself to the book you’re reading?  What about when you start a book and then realise it’s the wrong time for that novel? Do you give up or pick it up at another time?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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