When I Want to Run Away*

Books as EscapismLet’s face it: the world is sometimes not very much fun at all. Whether it’s your personal or professional life, or the larger world in general, there are times when you just need to take a break. And book lovers know that there’s nothing like the right book to help you escape.

We all have our own ‘escape routes,’ too. Some readers like to turn to light crime fiction. You know, the kind that takes place in small towns, with a minimum of violence, quirky characters, and maybe even some romance. There are many examples of this kind of cosy mystery, of course. Lorna Barrett’s Booktown mysteries, which feature mystery bookshop owner Tricia Miles fall into this category. So do Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which ‘star’ retired folk art curator Beatrice Coleman. If you enjoy cosy series, I’ll bet you’ve got several to add to this list.

These series, when they’re done well, can create for the reader a world where things work out, and where it’s all going to be all right. It’s a little tricky to do such a series well, though, without it getting too ‘frothy.’ The best cosy series have enough realism and solid characters that they’re not too full of ‘sugar content.’

Those kinds of series aren’t for everyone, though. For some people, ‘escape’ means a ‘high-octane’ sort of thriller, complete with narrow escapes, undercover operatives, and shadowy groups. Robet Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels come to my mind as an example of this. So does Lindy Cameron’s Redback, which features a crack team of Australian retrieval/rescue specialists who go up against a mysterious and very dangerous terrorist group. By the way, Ms.Cameron, if you happen to be reading this, I think Redback would make a terrific film.

Some thriller fans don’t mind suspending quite a lot of disbelief, and it’s easy to see why. It’s escapism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect real life. Other thriller fans like their ‘wild rides’ to be more realistic. So, for the thriller author, there’s always the question of just how much to stretch credibility. But even so, there are plenty of readers for whom ‘escape’ means the ways in which Ian Fleming’s James Bond gets himself out of trouble.

‘Escape’ can have another meaning too: travel. For some readers, the novels they read when they need to ‘get away from it all’ are set in exotic places. I see you out there, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. It’s not hard to appreciate the allure of gorgeous weather, delicious food and white, sandy beaches. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series is also set in what for many people is an exotic location: Singapore. Inspector Singh travels quite a lot in the series, to places such as Mumbai, Beijing, Cambodia and Bali. So the novels really give the reader a chance to ‘visit’ all sorts of different locations.

A series set in an exciting, different sort of place can’t just trade on its setting, of course. The story and characters do matter, and readers don’t want their crime novels to start resembling a travelogue. But sometimes, when the world gets a bit much, a virtual trip to Greece, or Malaysia, or Ibiza, or perhaps Botswana, can be very enticing indeed.

There are also plenty of crime fiction fans who like to escape using a virtual time machine. Life might not have been better during the Victorian Era, or Ancient Rome, or the early 1950s. In fact, in some ways, it was very much harder. But it can be really interesting to learn about life in a very different time. And isn’t it nice to contemplate a life without spam email and ‘robo-calls?’ C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, for instance, are set in Tudor England. Life at that time, and in that place, wasn’t very easy, even if you had money. But there’s plenty of court intrigue and insights on the customs of the times to invite readers to forget their modern-day worries, at least for a time. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is set in the 1950’s mostly in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s not completely idyllic; there’s post-war financial difficulty, for instance. But Bradley does evoke a quieter time.

Of course, readers only enjoy literary escapes if their destinations are well-written. It’s not enough to have a cosy premise, or an exciting ‘thrill ride,’ or a solid historical context. Character development and story content really do matter. But that said, there are just some novels and series that are perfect ‘getaway vehicles.’ I’ve mentioned a few. Now it’s your turn. When you’re looking for a book simply to escape, what sort of series do you choose? If you’re a writer, do you write escapist novels? I know, that’s not an easy question as we all define that term differently. What’s your take on this?


On Another Note…


Thanks very much to all of you who voted on which of my stories you’d like to see continued. It means a lot to me that you liked them that well. Interestingly, A Bite to Eat and Giving All Your Clothes to Charity were tied. So the matter was settled by a coin toss. The winner? A Bite to Eat.  Look for the next instalment very soon!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.


Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, C.J. Sansom, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ian Fleming, Lindy Cameron, Lorna Barrett, Robert Ludlum, Shamini Flint

35 responses to “When I Want to Run Away*

  1. I’m of the travelling mindset. I love to read crime fiction in exotic settings, whether known or unknown to me. A little bit of everyday escapism. Some of the recent ones I’ve enjoyed have been: John Enright’s series set in American Samoa, Martin Walker’s Bruno chief of police series set in the Perigord region of France and the Greek settings of Jeffrey Siger and Anne Zouroudi.

    • I almost mentioned both Zouroudi and Siger, Marina Sofia, but I didn’t. So I’m quite glad you did. And I really must put one of Enright’s novels in the spotlight. I’ve not (yet) done that, and I should. So thanks for the reminder.

  2. mudpuddle

    a late entry in the world of “cozy” mysteries is stephen rigolosi’s “the outsmarting of criminals”. i found it flowed nicely, with interesting data on small town life as experienced by a retired secretary. the plotting was a bit peculiar but the characters were, what can i say, but nice…

    • Thank you, Mudpuddle. I admit I’ve not read that one, but it’s that sort of story – with well-developed, appealing characters – that makes the cosy mystery so appealing for a lot of people.

  3. Nice one, Margot. I’ve passed on your post to Lindy Cameron, too 🙂

  4. Ha! I think I escape to just about all of these at different times! Actually I see crime fiction on the whole as an escape, which I know is why I so often get grumpy about books that are too gritty, gory or miserable, even when they’re very well done. But for sheer escapism I love Anne George’s Southern Sisters mysteries – I wish there were more of them – and Harlan Coben’s thrillers. Have to be in just the right mood though…

    • I do the same thing, FictionFan! And you’re right; when you’re reading a novel for pure escape, you don’t always want it to be gritty and gory. And thanks for mentioning the Southern Sisters mysteries. I need to spotlight one of those at some point. And yes, Coben writes a good thriller. Some of his early Myron Bolitar novels are quite good, too, in my opinion. But as you say, mood plays a big role. Each need for escape is a bit different, I suppose.

  5. Like you and Fiction Fan I like to escape in all these ways at different times – but it can be hard to find good ones of all these categories. I think a lot of people think it’s easy to write “escapist” or “airport” novels – but just because readers want to have a bit of fun doesn’t mean we like to be treated like idiots. I still want the story to make sense and the characters to be engaging.

    For cosy mysteries I like Ellery Adams (I’ve tried 3 of her series so far but the book retreat one was probably my favourite) or Julie Hyzy’s series set in the White House because the setting is such fun. My favourite historical escape is probably Sulari Gentill’s books about 1930’s Australia because of the settings and the fabulous characters. I’m finding it hard to find thrillers I really like these days (many authors confuse detail about boring stuff like weapons and vehicles for plot development) but I have enjoyed Greg Barron’s two books. For virtual travelling it is hard to pass up Camilleri

    • You’ve hit on something really important, Bernadette. It’s not easy at all to write escapist (I love the term ‘airport!’) novels. As you say, just because readers want some fun and relaxation doesn’t mean they don’t want a solid plot and interesting characters. And they don’t want to be condescended to, either. That’s not an easy balance to strike.

      I’m glad you mentioned Adams and Hyzy; both write solid cosies. And I couldn’t possibly agree more about Sulari Gentill’s series. I like her Rowly Sinclair and his friends very, very much. And she’s quite good at sharing life in the 1930s. You really feel you’re there, and yet she doesn’t go on and on about the times, if I can put it that way. I’m less familiar with Barron’s books, but I may try them (I’m a bit of a hard sell when it comes to thrillers). And you’re right; it is hard to beat Camilleri’s novels!

  6. My favorite escape novels are fast-paced, dark contemporary thrillers that force me to flip the page no matter the time of day/night. I love being swept away to dangerous and frightening worlds, but the story must have a good footing in reality, or the author will lose me.

    • I know just what you mean, Sue. In that sort of novel (well, really, any sort), if there’s something jarring in the story – something that pulls you out – then it doesn’t succeed at sweeping the reader away. And then it’s hard to feel you’re really escaping.

  7. Margot, you hit the nail on the head when it comes to reading for me. There are so many wonderful ways to escape that it keeps things interesting. I love being able to go from one genre to another and find interesting characters, fascinating settings and things to ponder. What type of escape I select depends on my mood or the mood I’m trying to get out of. Great post!

    • Thank you, Mason. And you make a really interesting point about mood. Because there are so many different kinds of crime fiction (and other fiction, too!), there are also a lot of different ways to escape. The ‘escape route’ we choose really does depend in part on our mood.

  8. My first choice for escape would be a historical crime book, even though I am quite picky about them – not every one will do. Last year I was made extremely happy by discovering Ariana Franklin… though now I have read all her books.

    • I know what you mean, Moira. Historical novels are not all created equal. And I’m glad you mentioned the Ariana Franlin series. It’s a terrific set of novels, and it’s so sad that there will be no more of them.

  9. You know me Margot. I am a runner. Every book, every boat, plane, train and automobile and every dream takes me away. The latest book I read took me to Zambia on a rape case. It stayed with me for a couple of weeks. (The Garden of Burning Sand).

  10. I like mine on the lighter side. Although I have read some darker stuff.

  11. Kathy D.

    Escapism: So many crime fiction novels fit in that category. When I need to escape, I pick up a book starring the crazed commissario Montalbano by Camilleri, or Linwood Barclay (easy-to-read thrillers, not weapon-laden), the Precious Ramotswe series, tried-and-true Nero Wolfe books. Also, Donna Leon never disappoints, though they require some thinking.
    Also, when I had a weekend a few months ago and needed to zip through a book mindlessly, I read Sue Grafton’s “X,” which fit the bill.
    A Lisa Scottoline book would work, too.
    Humor always helps.

    • Yes, it does, Kathy. And you’ve shared some good examples of authors and series that are very effective ‘escape routes.’ The trick is, I think, to create a balance, so that the story has interesting characters and plot, but still allows the reader to, well, have a break from the world.

  12. Kathy D.

    Corinna Chapman is also good to visit when one needs escapism.
    Am glad to see your survey results. I was torn between those two stories, and I even forget which one I voted for, but will be glad to see more.

  13. I have been escaping into spy fiction lately. Although it is sometimes a very dark place to escape to.

  14. Kathy D.

    Oh, and the Bernie Rhodenbarr books were perfect for escapism. I think Donald Westlake’s would be, too.
    There are a lot out there. Russell Quaint, too, although I can’t find more here.

  15. Margot, I don’t read series books but I like escaping into my kind of fiction — westerns, fast-paced action, and espionage — that require little intellectual thinking or understanding. They are just good stories that I can read in one or two sittings. On the other hand, there are times when I have escaped from books — imagine that! — and not read anything for as long as a week. I used to feel guilty earlier; now I do exactly as I feel like. There’s no point in doing anything under pressure or obligation. I suppose that sort of thing comes with age.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Prashant. At some point in time, I think one learns to do what one needs, whether it’s a sick day when one feels awful, a change of books (or a break from them) or something else. And if Westerns and spy thrillers are your way to enjoy an escape, why not?

  16. Kathy D.

    I find it’s maddening to myself when I go through nonreading spurts, like I’ve gone through in the last few weeks due to a lot of work. I would even pay to have a reading weekend! Oh, and those pesky dvd’s that keep arriving at my home or the library. Drat Acorn Media and the BBC!

    • Ha, yes, Acorn! I know just what you mean, Kathy. And yes, those times when work and other things get in the way of reading are frustrating, aren’t they? I only wish we had 40 hours of reading time in a day…

  17. Col

    I think a different setting to the UK, usually does it for me in my reading.

  18. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…3/29/16 – Where Worlds Collide

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