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.