I’m Not the Same As I Used to Be*

An interesting comment exchange has got me thinking about the way our reading tastes and the novels and series that appeal to us change over the years. In part of course our tastes change as we mature and develop. Our tastes also change as we read more and expose ourselves to different sub-genres and authors. Want to see how you’ve changed as a reader? Pick up a book you first read at least ten years ago. Do you still feel the same way about it? Are there any authors whose work you used to love but have now drifted away from reading? I’m not talking here about authors who’ve changed their style; we’ve all had the experience of reading a novel by an author who’s long since ceased to innovate or who’s changed her or his style. I’m really talking about an author whose work you feel differently about because you’ve changed. There may even be authors whose work you used to dislike but have come to really like.

Some people for instance started out by reading spy thrillers, and there’ve been a lot to love over the decades. For instance, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File is the story of crime reporter Peter Miller, who happens to follow an ambulance to the scene of the death of Holocaust survivor Solomon Tauber, who’s committed suicide. Through Tauber’s diary entries and some of his own investigation Miller learns of an ultra-secret worldwide organization to re-establish the Nazis as a world power.

There’s also the work of John le Carré, like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In that novel, jaded and wearied British spy Alec Leamas is the leader of British Intelligence in East Berlin. When several of his agents are killed on his watch, it’s obvious that Leamas isn’t doing his job very well any more. Then, his best agent Karl Riemeck is murdered. Leamas is called back to London where he’s persuaded to take on just one more assignment: the murder of Hans Dieter Mundt, who organised the killings of Leamas’ agents.

Spy thrillers like these and the work or authors such as Robert Ludlum are past-paced and “high-octane” so it’s no wonder that they’ve sparked many people’s interest in crime fiction. Were spy thrillers your first introduction to crime fiction? Do you still love them as much as you did? Did you move on to more modern thriller authors such as Daniel Silva? Do you branch out into psychological thrillers such as those by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine?

Other people (and I am one of them) started out with classic or Golden Age crime fiction. For instance, one of the first crime fiction novels I read was Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. That’s the story of the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman, allegedly by her lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence begins to believe that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the matter and finds that several of the villagers are keeping secrets and that Mrs. McGinty had found out more than it was safe for her to know about one of them.

If you started out with the classics, perhaps you began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels or stories. The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, for instance is the story of pawnbroker Jabez Wilson, who gets hired for a job that seems too good to be true: he’ll be paid to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. When his “dream job” disappears, Wilson visits Holmes to ask his help in unravelling the mystery.

If you started with the classics or Golden Age novels, do you still love them as much as you did? Do you still read Rex Stout, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth or Ellery Queen as much as ever? Do you also read more modern authors such as Colin Dexter, Peter Lovesey or P.D. James who keep some of the classic traditions?

Lots of people began their mystery reading with books in the British or U.S. tradition, whatever the sub-genre, and have discovered translated crime fiction. For example, when Maj Sjöwall and  Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series was first translated in the mid-1960’s, many English-speaking crime fiction fans who’d been reading authors like Patricia Highsmith, Dick Francis or Ed McBain had a whole new series of novels to enjoy. The first in the Martin Beck series, Roseanna, is the story of the discovery of the body of an unknown woman who was murdered during a holiday cruise. She turns out to be twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she was murdered. Martin Beck and his team may not have had today’s technology, but they doggedly pursue the case and in the end, they find out who the murderer is.

There have been many other translated authors since then of course, from all over the world. Have you moved from work only in your own language to translated work? Have your feelings about “homegrown” crime fiction changed as you’ve read novels originally written in other languages?

There are also readers who began by reading cosy mysteries. If you started out with cosies, perhaps you began with LIlian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series featuring newspaper columnist James “Qwill” Qwilleran. Much of that series takes place in Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere” and follows the lives of Qwill, his two seal-point Siamese cats and the various “regulars” who live in the small town of Pickax. This was a very popular and enduring series actually; it lasted from 1966 until Braun’s death in 2011 (OK, there was an 18-year break between 1968 and 1986, but still!).

If your first mystery novels were cosies you might have begun with something like Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen mysteries. Swensen is a former aspiring teacher of literature who returns to her Lake Eden, Minnesota home town after the death of her father and opens a bake shop The Cookie Jar. Fans of this series have followed the lives of Swensen, her love interests Mike and Norman, and the other residents of Lake Eden for thirteen years as I write this. These mysteries have the small-town setting, the amateur sleuth, the theme and the recipes that have become features of several cosy series over the years, so it’s easy to see why cosy fans would have started here.

If you’ve stayed with cosies, are you a fan of other cosy series such as M.C. Beaton’s Hamisch Macbeth series or Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series? Perhaps you’ve branched out to “cosies with an edge” such as Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Or maybe you’ve moved on to something completely different.

Sometimes it’s really interesting to look back at the way your crime fiction tastes have changed. If you’re a writer, it’s also interesting to think about theyou’re your changing tastes in crime fiction affect your writing. So thanks, Kathy D., for the food for thought. 🙂


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s My Elusive Drug.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Colin Dexter, Daniel Silva, Dick Francis, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Frederick Forsyth, Joanne Fluke, John le Carré, Lilian Jackson Braun, M.C. Beaton, Maj Sjöwall, Margery Allingham, P.D. James, Patricia Highsmith, Patricia Wentworth, Per Wahlöö, Peter Lovesey, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell

30 responses to “I’m Not the Same As I Used to Be*

  1. Well, my reading started with Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown, but as I got older it was some Agatha Christie and American female authors: Cornwell, Paretsky, and Grafton. I like something darker every once in awhile too.

    • Rebecca – I read Nancy Drew books too as a child. You’ve brought back some good memories. It sounds as though you’ve moved from those to some of the classics to today’s women authors. I think more and more people have broadened their reading like that as women writers have become a force to be reckoned with. And sometimes, a well-written dark story can be compelling.

  2. I began with the Bobbsey Twins, then Nancy Drew (also Cherry Ames and Trixie Belden), but also tended to read a lot of biography and in a variety of fiction genres. I graduated into gothic mysteries, romantic adventures like the Angelique novels, then on to spy novels. Mystery series by John D. McDonald and Tony Hillerman and legal thrillers by Scott Turow came next, I think. Then I became hooked on cosies for a long time. All those years, however, I also read in most other genres and also in quite a bit of nonfiction, especially history. My tastes are eclectic, so I love wandering bookstores and libraries just to see what catches my eye. These days, YA books are tempting. They tend to be very well written and very original.

    • Pat – I really like the variety of books you’ve read! It’s nice too know that I’m not the only one who read Cherry Ames. Did you also read Donna Parker? It’s interesting that you moved from gothic mysteries to spy thrillers. On the surface that seems a big change but perhaps not really. I’m glad you’ve read a lot of Tony Hillerman too – he’s always been one of my favourites. And of course you can’t do better than a Scott Turow when it comes to a good legal mystery.
      I’m like you when it comes to wandering through bookshops. I have to say though that I always start at their crime/mystery/whatever-they-call-it section first. I guess I can’t help it…
      You make a really interesting point about YA novels too. They’ve come a long, long way in the past decades and some of them really are innovative and with good plots. And on principal I salute anyone who gets young people to read.

  3. Margot: While the girls were reading Nancy Drew the boys, including me, were reading the Hardy Boys. What I really loved growing up were the Tom Swift Jr. science based thrillers. In my 20’s I started enjoying Robert Ludlum. Probably my favourite book of the 1970’s was Shogun by James Clavell.

    • Bill – I think it’s great that you enjoyed the Tom Swift Jr. series so much. Unfortunately my primary and secondary science teachers were not very skilled at getting students interested in science so those novels were never as much “my thing.” And I can see why you enjoyed Clavell’s work. He wrote some solid Asia-based historical novels. That reminds me of my admiration for James Michener; I started reading his historical novels in the late 1970’s.

  4. Rebecca Bradley

    Great post. I do think our reading tastes change. I started crime reading with Agatha Christie but I doubt I would enjoy the books as much now, as I did when I first read them. I will always love her for being my first real taste of crime fiction, but she is a bit too sedate for me now.

    One thing I have realised lately is that I really do need to widen my reading experience but there just aren’t enough hours in the day and there are too many great books out there!

    • Rebecca – Why, thank you 🙂 – I think a lot of crime fiction fans started off with Christie. I know she was one of the first crime fiction novelists whose work I read and I’ve learned a lot from her. But of course as you say, tastes change and I think a lot of people move on to other things as they read more.
      I wish I had more time too to read more and more extensively. There just aren’t 80 hours in the day and there really are too many good books out there.

  5. kathy d.

    Yes. Great post. I started out at 11 or 12 reading Nancy Drew and some Cherry Ames, which I forgotten about until I read it here. I also read some of the Hardy Boys books, too! Then as a teenager, with Perry Mason on a weekly TV show and a father who read crime fiction, I read books about that famous lawyer as well as books with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Nero Wolfe. A few books by Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey were in the mix. Poirot and I parted company when I was 19 and I disagreed with some political and social opinions of the Belgium detective and the author, I’d assume.
    For years, I had read whodunnits, puzzles and a favorite genre of mine, legal thrillers, but read mostly U.S. authors and a U.S. ex-pat Donna Leon. A long-time Sjowall-Wahloo and Camilleri fan told me about those series. Then I read the Stieg Larsson trilogy. After that I started reading several terrific crime fiction blogs which wrote about global mysteries and I was hooked. Now it’s hard to read U.S.-based books when wanting to read international mysteries, but there are still many good authors here. For instance, a good reading friend got me into reading Michael Connelly.
    And then Yvette at Yvette Can Draw wrote up some hilarious posts about a favorite of hers, Nero Wolfe, and I started reading those books again, always good, especially after reading a particularly heavy or gruesome book. It’s great fun to laugh at Wolfe’s egocentrism and his and Archie Goodwin’s dialogues, such as, “Archie, I’m a genius, not a god.”

    • Kathy – Oh, I love that quote! Like you I read the classics and then moved out from there too. One of the things I think is really interesting about your reading is that you’ve “met” different authors through friends who recommended them. I think we’re often influenced by authors of kinds of books that friends enjoy. And aren’t you glad you were introduced to Sjöwall and Wahlöö and Camilleri? I know that I am. Once one starts reading a new kind of crime fiction or a new author, I think it changes one’s perspective on the genre. At least that’s how it’s been with me.
      But it’s still nice once in a while to read something you’ve always loved. I’m glad you had the chance to re-discover Rex Stout. He really did create some solid mysteries.

  6. i’ve always loved crime books. I started reading The Famous Five/Secret Seven when I was about 8 and then Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. When I was 13 I went to stay with my aunt in Wales who had a complete set of Agatha Christie books and I was hooked. I can’t remember which was my first AC (lucky you yours was Mrs McGinty which I love). I’m pretty sure it was a Miss Marple. I’ve read AC all my life in between other books.
    I can distinctly remember ‘discovering’ authors at various periods of my life: PD James at university; Sara Paretsky at my local library just after I’d got married etc. In fact my local library virtually shaped my reading early on in the days when I couldn’t afford to buy books. I remember saving up to by the HB copy of Gita Sereny’s ‘Albert Speer and his Battle with Truth’ when it came out as I love Sereny’s work. Books have certainly got cheaper to by in the UK although it is a controversial subject.

    • Sarah – Ah, so your aunt got you reading Agatha Christie? How lucky for you she had such a good collection. Like you, I still re-visit my Agatha Christie collection even as I read other things.
      You make a well-taken point about the way our reading is shaped by what’s available in our libraries. My school library and local library too had several of the classics, which is part of why I read them as a teen. I read a few best-sellers then too – same reason. Thanks for reminding me of Gita Sereny. She was a terrific writer and I need to read more of her work. And please don’t get me started on the price of books; a sore point here in the States too.

  7. Excellent point Margot. It would be nice to think that we truly mature as readers as we do as people – not sure I’m necessarily managing either very successfully though! I certainly started off reading mysteries in my teens like Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr for their puzzles, but then found that with the likes of Chandler and Hammett it was the style and humour and sheer attitude that I liked. Stout is fascinating as an author that brings the two elements together, though i still find it hard to differentiate one Nero Wolfe book from another ecept in a few cases – though this is not really a criticism as I always enjoyt them greatly.

    I do find it less easy to tolerate political and social points of view that i don’t share though, which can make reading some GAD authors a bit difficult it’s got to be said …


    • Sergio – Why, thank you 🙂 – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. So interesting that you moved from an interest in the “puzzle” aspect of mysteries to a focus on their styles and humour. And I agree; Stout’s novels blend those elements quite effectively. And I like the characters too. Stout’s work is always I think worth a read.
      It’s interesting that you mention the politics, social attitudes and so on of a lot of GAD novels. I find that difficult too. There are some passages that absolutely make me cringe. Still, the plotting and some of the other elements of those novels are so skillfully done.

      • Much as I enjoy cleverness, even for its own sake, and I still do, I would have to admit to preferring strong characterisation if it were a contest between the two, let’s put it that way. Having said that, if one thinks of plot-heavy stories as being therefore a bit superficial, to misquote Woody Allen, as mystery experiences go that can still be one of the best!

        • Well-put, Sergio. And Woody Allen 🙂 – You make a solid point that characterisation is really important in a solid mystery even if one enjoys the intellectual puzzle sort of story.

  8. I’ve always loved classic mysteries and still do. But my tastes have changed in some ways…before I had children I was able to read thrillers and child-endangered stories. In the past 15 years, I just don’t have the stomach for them anymore.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, what a well-taken point! I find it really, really difficult to read stories where terrible things happen to children too. I think once you become a parent, your whole perspective on children changes dramatically.

  9. kathy d.

    I can’t read about mysteries about children, even if they were lost or taken a century before and then someone hears cries from the same place, a child’s cries. Yikes! I’ll run 50 miles away. Or anything with a harmed animal. I can’t take that either. I automatically hate that character so I wish him will but don’t trust him again. And I hesitate to loan my copy of The Boy in the Suitcase to friends with young grandchildren…it’ll have to wait.

    • Kathy – I know what you mean. The Boy in the Suitcase was very difficult for me to read. An excellent novel, but difficult to read. And honestly I avoid books if I know animals are badly mistreated or worse in them. And if I unexpectedly run across a scene like that it’s a strike against the author. It really is.

  10. For me, I started with the classics like AC and Doyle. Then I started reading crime fiction like McDermid, George, Crombie, and other British crime writers. My problem is when I started reading British crime fiction and then tried to read American crime fiction or thrillers, the American fiction seemed too simple. I couldn’t get into it. So, I mainly stick to British. However, my goal is to branch out into fiction from other countries.

    • Clarissa – I know what you mean about how one’s perspective on certain kinds of crime fiction changes once one’s used to a different kind of crime fiction. When readers get used to complex plots, they stop finding linear ones interesting (except for perhaps to take a break, so to speak). When readers get used and really enjoy police procedurals let’s say, it’s hard to branch out and savour other kinds of novels. I think it does give readers a good perspective when they do branch out though.

  11. You make such excellent points here, Margot. And your erudition in all crime-related matters (books, I mean, not actual crimes themselves) is truly humbling!

    So I’m not very original at all: I too grew up with Famous Five/Secret Seven, then Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys, then Agatha Christie… maybe there is a classic trajectory for crime fiction lovers as they grow up!

    I now like pretty much anything – that is the whole joy of crime fiction, that there is such a variety of styles! I’m not that keen on cosy mysteries nowadays (although I do read them occasionally as a breather), nor on really hard-core spy type thrillers (perhaps because I lived for many years under a totalitarian regime, so have had enough of conspiracies). What I do seem to enjoy more and more is a foreign setting – discovering new cultures and how people from different cultural backgrounds relate to each other.

    • MarinaSofia – thank you 🙂 – How kind of you to say such nice things *blush*. I’m not sure if there is a classic trajectory but I do know a lot of crime fiction fans who started with Enid Blyton or the Famous Five/Secret Seven, then moved on to Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys and thence into Christie and the rest of more “adult” crime fiction.
      You’ve made a very interesting point too that our growing-up experiences (for instance, your living where you lived) can affect the kind of tastes we develop when it comes to crime fiction. I’m not surprised that hard-core spy stories don’t appeal to you. And I’ve learned too in the last years to really appreciate novels that teach me about other places and cultures. That’s why I get so annoyed if the stories aren’t authentic. I like learning and I don’t like feeling that the author isn’t sharing what really happens in those places and with those people.
      As you say, part of the real beauty of crime fiction is its variety so there’s always something to move on to when one needs a change.

  12. I was addicted to Nancy Drew as a child, but then turned my back on mysteries later when my mother read lots of the Sam Spade type novels which offended my budding women’s rights feelings. I only got hooked again when I had a weekly book review column in a newspaper in a Chicago suburb. I tried to include different genres to attract different readers, so I reviewed a Robert B. Parker Spenser book. That one book got me hooked and I’ve read countless mystery authors since then. Right now I’m reading Karin Slaughter’s Criminal which is just about as far from Parker as you can get. 🙂

    • Barbara – It’s not at all surprising that you didn’t care much for Dashiell Hammett and that ilk as you became aware of women’s rights issues. Those novels don’t always have what you’d call enlightened views about women. But it’s interesting that Parker, whose Jesse Stone and Spenser are definitely not “milquetoasts,” also treated women with respect in his novels. I like Parker’s writing style too. In fact, I’m it doesn’t surprise me in the least that you got re-acquainted with crime fiction through Parker. And yes indeed, Karin Slaughter is definitely pretty far from Parker. Interesting isn’t how our tastes change as we try new authors.

  13. I had never heard of Nancy Drew until I was about 18 and one of my younger sisters was addicted! My stepdaughter loved them too, when she was young. For my part, I began with Sherlock Holmes, which are really good for young children as they are short and each story relatively self-contained. I read anything in the house, my Dad had a shelf in the attic with his “popular” fiction, so I read lots of thrillers (James Bond included), many green penguins and so on. But I’d read anything. (Actually, before Sherlock I enjoyed Enid Blyton mysteries (various series) but these are firmly children’s books).
    When I was in my teens I read a lot of historical fiction, & in my 20s I read a lot of thrillers. I then went through a long phase in which I still read some crime fiction but mostly read other things. In the past 10 years I have come to read mostly crime fiction again, strongly preferring well-plotted books with character,atmosphere and originality to the fore, and gadgetry and bloodletting non-existent. I like translated fiction, my theory being that these are often 10 years old before being published in English, so were originally published at a time when publishers actually read the ms before deciding whether to take on a book, rather than just doing agented or other deals, as is so often the case now, when it is all about marketing. Hence you end up with the Jane Austen mash-up or the 85.3 shades of puce imitatory style, forget it 😉

    • Maxine – LOL! And another LOL! You’re quite right that a lot of books get published now without the publisher actually knowing what the story is. What amazes me even more is the number of readers who will buy something just because it’s “new” or by “the next [fill in blank with name of famous author]” or something like that. But honestly, you really do not want me to get started on that. You really don’t…
      You’ve had really eclectic reading tastes over the years and that’s probably given you a great perspective on crime fiction as a genre and on particular authors. Little wonder that you have no patience for slap-up plots and “cardboard” characters. Oh, and gore. Your comment makes me think of an interesting question, too: do readers who’ve read mostly crime fiction have a different view on the genre to that of readers who read mostly other things but also crime fiction? I’m sure there is a difference; I wonder how it plays out. “Food for thought” for which thanks.
      And about Nancy Drew? She’s a beloved childhood memory for lots of us. Funnily enough though, I didn’t really think about the Nancy Drew books as being crime fiction. They were just good stories. I really started thinking of crime fiction as such when I started reading Sherlock Holmes. You make a good point about the value of those stories too; I frequently tell my teacher-candidate students that they’re really quite effective classroom tools for the reasons you mention and because they give an interesting look at history.

  14. I rarely pass up an opportunity to respond to a post like this. The only problem is once you start, you don’t know when to stop, at least I don’t. Reading memories enjoy a sizeable share in our childhood memories. Instead of presenting a list of books that may or may not have stayed with me since the first time I read them, I will mention just one book that did and one which I finally managed to find, and buy (secondhand), 25 years after I’d first read it — the political thriller SAIGON by Anthony Grey, the noted British journalist and author. I recommend it highly. Many thanks, Ms. Kinberg.

    • Prashant – Thanks for your recommendation. It’s wonderful that you loved Saigon just as much 25 years later as you did when you first read it. That’s a testament to the book’s quality I think. There are certainly books like that, that we never tire of and that stand the test of time.

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