Hardly Anyone Has Seen How Good I Am*

Not long ago, I did a spotlight on Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. And, as always seems to happen, the best thing about the post wasn’t the post at all. It was the discussion that followed it. In this case, a few of you commented about Haddam’s series, and wondered why it’s not much more widely read than it is.

And that’s got me thinking about other series that are like that. You know the sort of series I mean. They’re well-regarded, and may run to five, ten, or even more, books. But at the same time, they aren’t very widely read, and you don’t see them on a lot of ‘recommended’ lists.

It’s a difficult question to answer, really. After all, people differ greatly on what ‘counts’ as ‘widely read’ and ‘well known.’ That said, though, it’s interesting to consider why some series catch fire, as the saying goes, and are talked about a lot, and others aren’t.

Haddam’s is arguably one such series. For those not familiar with these novels, they feature former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. He has an Armenian background, and is a member of Philadelphia’s Armenian community. In fact, most of the novels in the series are set in and around that city. Although he’s retired, he does consult with the police under certain circumstances. And a lot of the cases he investigates come through his best friend and local parish priest, Father Tibor. This is a 29-book series, so it’s not just a matter of a few books. And Haddam’s won awards for her work. And yet, plenty of people aren’t familiar at all with her series.

The ‘Emma Lathen’ writing team of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart created the very well-regarded John Putnam Thatcher series. As fans of the series can tell you, Thatcher is a vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The Sloan is often involved in mergers, acquisitions, international banking, and so on. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for nefarious doings, including fraud and murder. This series is 24 novels long, and, like Haddam’s, has won awards. In fact, one of the entries, Murder Against the Grain, won the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA)’s 1967 Gold Dagger Award. And the team won the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. Admittedly, this series is arguably more widely known than Haddam’s. Still, it doesn’t always make the list of best-known authors and series the way, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series might.

The same might be said for the work of Marian Babson. Since 1971’s Cover Up Story, she’s had more than 40 books published. Interestingly enough, they’re all standalones (although some do re-use characters). They’re traditional-style mysteries, usually involving amateur sleuths. That said, though, they aren’t really what you’d call ‘cosy.’ While they tend to be low on violence (especially graphic violence), they aren’t ‘light, frothy’ books. Babson’s work is very highly regarded, especially among those who prefer traditional mysteries. She won the CWA’s 1996 Dagger in the Library Award for her body of work. And yet, a great many readers, including crime fiction fans, aren’t familiar at all with her work. And it’s not for lack of quality or high regard. Like Haddam and the Emma Lathen team, it’s also not because she only wrote a few novels.

There’s also the case of K.C. Constantine. He is the author of the Mario Balzic series, which takes place in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Rocksburg, where Balzic is Chief of Police. Beginning with The Blank Page, there are 17 novels in the series, most of which feature Balzic (two feature his protégé, Detective Sergeant Ruggiero ‘Rugs’ Carlucci, as well as other ‘beat’ cops). Rocksburg is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so, as the series evolves, we get to know Balzic, his wife, and several other people in the town quite well. And, in fact, character development plays an important role in the series. It’s a highly-regarded series, and fans will tell you it’s well worth reading. And, yet, you might easily be forgiven for never having heard of these books. In a way, that’s how Constantine likes it. He chooses to remain as anonymous as possible, and values his privacy, and that of his family, very much. So, even if you’re a crime fiction fan who goes to conferences such as Malice Domestic, Crimefest, Bouchercon, or other such events, you’re not likely to meet him.

And then there’s Jill McGown’s series featuring Detective Inspector (DI) David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. Beginning with 1983’s A Perfect Match, this is a traditional-style police procedural series. As the series goes on, Lloyd and Hill move along in their careers. They also continue their romantic relationship, eventually marrying and having a family. But the focus in these novels is on the mysteries. All in all, there are thirteen books in the series, and they’re well regarded. In fact, A Shred of Evidence was adapted for television film in 2001. McGown’s fans are devoted, too. And yet, this series is arguably not a ‘household word,’ the way, say, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is.

There are plenty of other series, too, that fall into this category. I’ll bet you could name far more examples than I could. And there are a number of reasons that a series might not be particularly widely known. Even if authors are willing to go to a lot of conferences, etc., to promote their work, there’s a lot of competition. And with today’s self-publishing and other digital publication, there are even more book choices. So, readers have to make decisions about what they’ll choose. So do publishers. Even if an author is talented, and gets professional acclaim, that doesn’t mean that particular author is a best-seller. And publishers are interested in promoting the work of authors whose work sells a lot.

There are other reasons, too. What do you think about this? Which authors do you feel deserve a lot more attention than they’ve gotten? Why do you think those authors haven’t ‘caught fire?’ Thanks to those who commented on that earlier post, and got me thinking about this!


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


Filed under Colin Dexter, Emma Lathen, Jane Haddam, Jill McGown, K.C. Constantine, Marian Babson, Sue Grafton

45 responses to “Hardly Anyone Has Seen How Good I Am*

  1. Very good points. I have heard of Emma Lathen and of Jill McGown, but I don’t think I ever found more than one book by each of them at the library, so I haven’t gotten to know them well. It’s a shame, as quite a few of these sound really interesting.

  2. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    From Mystery Writer/Blogger Margot Kinberg–

  3. An underrated mystery writer I enjoy is Robert J. Ray, author of the MURDOCK Mystery series. Anyone looking for an enjoyable, traditional private-eye series might want to check him out. 🙂

  4. Another author who I enjoy, will publish the 21st book in her DI Wesley Peterson series this year & has the 22nd slated to be published in 2018, is Kate Ellis. I enjoy how she combines mystery with a splash of history in each book. They are a lighter read, perfect in between grittier works.
    When I mention her to others, many have never heard of her before.

    • It is a fine series, Anne; I agree with you. The stories are well plotted, and the characters are strong. But, as you say, a lot of people haven’t heard of her work.

  5. Very interesting topic, Margot. I’d add to that, Magdalen Nabb’s Marshall Guarnaccia mysteries set in Florence. They are excellent, but rather quiet in tone and character based, so that might be why they are not better known.

    • Thanks, Christine. And I’m intrigued by your suggestion of the Nabb series. I’m not familiar with it, which goes to support your point! Something new for me to try….

      • This is part of what I wrote in a post a few years ago: (there are fourteen spanning 27 years [maybe also why she is not well known] and I think they are in some respects a little uneven in terms of plotting, though the skill with which she conjures up the atmosphere of Florence remains constant. She’s an elegant and classy writer. The best ones for me are the first one, DEATH OF AN ENGLISHMAN, THE MARSHALL AND THE MAD WOMAN, THE INNOCENT, SOME BITTER TASTE, and THE MARSHALL’S OWN CASE. The only one that I didn’t really like was THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, based on a notorious series of real-life murders.

        • Oh, interesting, Christine. Thanks for those details. I think it must be very difficult to write a fourteen-book series without any unevenness. And the setting is really appealing…

  6. Hi Margot
    excellent article, but a quibble from me too (so whatelseisnew… -grin-) re. Marian Babson series books:

    Cover Story by Marian Babson was only the first of a 4-book series about the Tate Advertising Agency, not stand-alone. 1st book in series: COVER STORY, 1971, but the second book is the best of those, MURDER AT THE CAT SHOW, 1972. There are two others.

    And my favorites of her books are the two connected novels that she called her “Brimful Coffers” series, about a truly bizzare little village filled with eccentric writers who had a tendency to, um, go mad now’n’then and do outrageous things, including murder. Very funny but you need an anarchic sense of humor to enjoy it I think, and yes, you should at least somewhat enjoy cats. CANAPES FOR THE KITTIES, 1996, and PLEASE DO FEED THE CAT, 2004.

    and how could anyone forget her Trixie & Evangaline series, about an over-the-hill movie star and her best friend? Wonderful plots, and two magnificent elder ladies being a bit overly-curious… First book REEL MURDER, 1986, and there are six more.

    and I LOVE Jane Haddam, started with her books twenty years ago. That series got darker and darker, less sweet and cosy style, and by the mid-2000s was not only quite grim and deeply psychological, her writing had gone friom good/entertaining, to superb.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, Mizabigail, how an author’s writing evolves over time. As you say, Haddam’s certainly has. And thanks for the comments on Babson. I always like the depth of knowledge I het from you folks who are kind enough to comment.

  7. Jerry House

    Margot, one only need look at the list of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Masters to find authors who are underrated (or completely ignored) today. Certainly the name of the first MWA GM — Agatha Christie — still enjoys a well deserved acclaim, but how many people remember or read the second Grand Master, Vincent Starrett? Other Grand Masters with a significant body of enjoyable (and sometimes dazzling) work include George Harmon Coxe, Baynard Kendrick, Aaron Marc Stein, W. R. Burnett, Helen McCloy, Stanley Ellin, Dorothy Salisbury Hughes, Judson Phillips, Michael Gilbert, Phyllis Whitney, and Hillary Waugh. How many of these wonderful authors are in print today? Even such recent winners as Dorothy Gilman (2010) and Ellen Hart (2017) are relatively obscure. Times change and tastes change with it and there are always great new writers appearing on the scene but the fact that many superb writers are not recognized by many modern readers seems a shame.

    • It does, indeed, Jerry. And thanks for mentioning those names, too. I’ve read some of them here and there. But the real body of their work? Not as much as I might. And, as you rightly point out, it has nothing to do with the quality of what they’ve written. It’s more a matter of factors such as popular taste, competition, publisher emphasis, and other such things. This is why I think it’s useful for all of us to talk about those lesser-known authors who are/were extremely talented.

      • oh, boy…! This is meat’n’potatoes for me, Ms M!

        You might want to have a look at my bookshelves at Goodreads sometime, I’m (always…) working on what I call my Fems Project, and have a shelf set up for this called “myst-fems-project” there. It’s my probably misguided attempt to, at first, read all Christie in sequence as written, and simultaneously be reading her contemporary female writers that *I* felt either wrote in similar styles (she used many) to her, or just seemed to me somehow “similar”. (quite idiosyncratic, of course, choices). Most of them long, long forgotten. (her press was better organized…).

        That encompassed a lot, as she wrote for fifty years (1920-1970s) and traditional mysteries, thrillers, soapish romance, farce, spy stories, all sorts of styles and approaches, with all sorts of detectives too. I tried to keep it at “just” 1920-1940, but alas, I’m now “finding” interesting -grin- books and authors from 1920 to 2000. So my shelf for this has almost 2000 books on it and, no, I haven’t read them all, likely never will, because I keep finding more.

        I have been reviewing as I go along, and I could send you a list of all the female authors I think “apply”, but it’s eNORmous. Fun, though. And I’m willing to bet that the majority of ’em lots of folks haven’t ever heard of.

        BTW, check out Sarah Weinman’s work and books, her latest is as editor of a two-volume set of forgotten authors from the 1940s and 1950s,WOMAN CRIME WRITERS; each book has 4 novels, one each from several then popular authors, i.e., Vera Caspary, Margaret Millar, etc. It follows her popular “TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES: stories from the trailblazers of domestic suspense” from a couple of years ago.

        and another wonderful series I love that most don’t remember, well two: -grin-

        Dorothy Simpson’s “Luke Thanet” from mid-1980s to late 1990s, superb Detective Inspector in a smallish British town and his new sargent, the nicest bits are that this detective is *not* angst-ridden, has a stable and happy life, and is not only smart but hard-working and, yes, I fell madly in love with him… Excellent plots, good scene setting, great pacing, wonderful characters. wow. First in series: THE NIGHT SHE DIED, 1981; there are 15 in the series and I have reviewed most of them.

        and the other is one some folks might know, Ruth Dudley Edwards, it’s called the “Robert Amiss, Civil Servant” series but the true lead is Baronness Jack, who shows up somewhere around book four or so. Wildly subversive “take” on British government, sense of proper protocols and manners, and just plain chutzpah. Wonderful mysteries too. -grin- First book is CORRIDORS OF DEATH, 1981, and there are 12 in series.

        ‘nuf stuff from me for now, right? -g-

        • sorry, forgot info: am “Abbess” or Abbey at Goodreads, if you are a member you should be able to access my bookshelves easily. (membership is free btw).

        • Thanks! I’m a member, so that’s quite helpful.

        • I really appreciate all of your input on this, Mizabigail. You’ve given us all several authors to check out, which is quite helpful. I think it’s fascinating, too, that you’ve set yourself the task of reading all of Christie’s work. She was prolific, as you know, so that’s quite the job. and what an interesting journey into the one person’s writing, as well as the development of the genre. Folks, this sounds like quite a rich Goodreads resource! And please, feel free to chime in any time.

  8. I love this post, Margot – it’s truly amazing and a little disheartening to see how many very good authors, with fine mystery series, disappear almost as quickly as they appear. As I’ve said here before, I’ll never understand why Catherine Aird isn’t better known and more widely read in the U.S. Here’s an author with nearly two dozen books in her Calleshire Chronicles series featuring D.I. C. D. Sloan, a series written with wit and humor, traditional puzzle-type plots mixed with some procedural features, and she’s hardly known in the U.S. at all – in spite of the fact that she’s still (so far as I know) writing new books!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Les. I don’t know, either, why Aird isn’t better known and more widely read in the US. Certainly her Sloan/Crosby series is a fine traditional-style police procedural series. And it’s one of the very well-regarded series out there. She’s not the only one, either, as I know you know. There is, admittedly, a great deal of competition out there for reader attention. And in a way, that’s a good thing. But I really think it does mean that a lot of highly talented authors don’t get the attention they deserve.

  9. Keishon

    Great topic and I’ve blogged about it as well. I’ve read series that are not “widely known” and who knows why they stay in obscurity. I think that’s life. You have many people whose accomplishments remain unrecognized until someone comes along and brings it to light and for some reason they have to be the right person to bring it to the attention of the masses. Quick story. I remember when I couldn’t get any of my co-workers to read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. I thought it was captivating but flawed with YA angst that drove me crazy. That book caught fire by the right somebody so who knows. On a last note, I don’t know why Colin Cotterill is not better known. He’s a consistently strong writer.

    • He really is, Keishon. I like his Dr. Siri Paiboun series quite a lot. And your larger point (thanks, by the way for the story about Stephanie Meyers) is well taken. Sometimes it is a matter of the right person at the right time taking notice of one’s work. As you point out, this sort of thing is a part of life – certainly the life of an author – and I think we can all name several authors we wish were better known. Thanks for the kind words.

  10. hmmmm your post raises a really good point; there are simply too many books and not enough time to read them all! I think your geographic location has a lot to do with it too. For example, because I’m Canadian, I try to seek out Canadian writers or series that I haven’t seen much of because I want to read ‘local’. Not sure if others feel that same need, but worth mentioning all the same…

    • Very much worth mentioning, Anne, so thank you. The decision of whose work to read, and the question of whose work one notices, are both impacted by geography. Besides the fact that one might want to read work by one’s own, so to speak, there’s also the question of availability. Sometimes, a book, or an author’s body of work, is simply not available in one or another country. I know I’ve found that to be true for certain authors I’ve wanted to try. Thanks for adding that dimension to the discussion.

    • oh, yes, I’m guilty of that too. “Local” for me means New England or Canadian Maritimes -set mysteries or other books, or authors who live or seem connected to “here”.

      More “forgottens”, 2 of my -grin- locals:

      Nancy Pickard, Jenny Craig series ending mid-1990s (and several other series and books), first book GENEROUS DEATH, 1984, 10 in series.

      my beloved Phoebe Atwood Taylor, superb plotter and overall writer, 1930s & 1940s. Cape Cod, Asey Mayo stories: first book THE CAPE COD MYSTERY, 1930, 22 novels, 6 novellas in series ending 1951; when first book published she was 20, twenty! wow.

      oh, ‘nother one:
      Charlotte MacLeod, but she needs a lot more time than I can devote right now (it’s getting late here and you are all probably getting tired of ME! -grin- good night).

  11. Such good points and despite considering myself a crime fiction lover I have only read the Jill McGown books out of the ones you’ve chosen. I could never understand why these weren’t more popular – at the time I discovered them (before the internet was everywhere) it was hard to even find some of the books.

    • Thanks, Cleo. And I know just what you mean about the McGown series. It’s not all that easy to find entries into that series, is it? And yet, they’re well-regarded, well-written, and so on. I’d like to see them get more recognition, too.

  12. kathyd

    I haven’t read Jill McGowen’s books, although some friends recommend them.
    There are many writers I wish were more well-known, like Catherine Aird, and then those whom I cheer on, like Angela Savage, Sarah Ward and Margot Kinberg.
    I read little gems here and there, but never again hear of the writer.
    But this is all a pipe dream sometimes, as we need 24/7, no tasks or errands or work or bills to pay, to read everything we want to read. So often I am satisfied with reading book reviews and blogs.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kathy. And I do recommend McGown’s work when you get to it. It is really hard, isn’t it, to read even a little of what one wants to read. There’s often so little extra time for reading; and, even if there were more time, there are so many books and authors out there, that there’s no way to get to them all.

  13. Col

    I was thinking Constantine as I read down the post. Joseph Hansen and his Dave Brandstetter books spring to mind, though I haven’t read many myself. Even Bill Pronzini for all his talent never seems to get discussed too much anywhere.

    • You know, you’ve got a point about Pronzini, Col. Even he doesn’t always get the mention that he might. And thanks for mentioning Joseph Hansen. I’m not (yet) familiar with his work, but that’s the point of this discussion; perhaps I ought to be…

  14. Thanks for this very fine post, Margot. It encourages me to read books in series which, as you know, I seldom do.

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, Prashant. It really is very hard, I think, to keep up with series, especially when there are so many good ones out there…

  15. It’s interesting that I often learn about these little-known mystery authors from your blog, Margot. A lack of promotion/marketing is probably the main culprit. As you said, there are so many writers and so many books that the competition is overwhelming. Those who can’t afford to hire a publicist may get lost in the shuffle. I also think readers are broadening their interests and not so many focus only on crime fiction. I read all genres these days (well…most genres) as well as non-fiction, and I think a lot of other readers do the same.

    • You’ve got a very good point there, Pat. Readers are broadening their horizons, and there’s only so much time to read in any one day. That’s to say nothing of the competition, as you so rightly point out. A promotion/marketing plan does help get people to notice an author, but unless it’s really effective, they still may not be drawn in and actually buy the book. And thanks – I do try to be eclectic about the crime fiction I talk about here…

  16. Lovely post Margot, and I so agree with you. I know all the writers you mention apart from Constantine – so must sample that series on principle. It is not necessary to put down the people who do get attention (though sometimes one is tempted…) but it would be nice to see some more promotion for them. there are really two different streams here – writers who have been unjustly forgotten, and contemporary writers who aren’t getting the attention they deserve. I would suggest in the first category Charlotte Armstrong, Mary Mc Mullen. In the second, Lesley Thomson and our own Chrissie Poulson. There must be room, amid all the awards around these days, for one to promote the undervalued authors…

    • I telescoped a sentence above – *nice to see some more promotion for the writers under the radar. There are really…*

    • Thank you for the kind words, Moira. And I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s not a ‘zero sum game,’ as far as I see it. There has to be a way to promote authors whose work isn’t as well known. All of the names you’ve suggested are excellent examples, too, of very talented authors who need to be much more widely read than they are. There is, of course, a finite amount of time that anyone can spend with a book. Even so, it would be nice to see more of those lesser-known names. As to Constantine, by the way, I think you’d like the series. It starts with The Blank Page and, in my opinion, gets better as it goes on.

  17. Sadly, the average reader probably only reads a couple of books per month. And often one of them is a book that a lot of buzz. Always fun to be able to discuss books with friends. Of course it always helps if you can get Stephen King or Lee Child to sing praises 😉

    • 😆 Yes, it does, Anne! And you’re right that there’s never enough time to read. As you say, very often at least one of those books is ‘the one people are talking about.’ Sometimes that means truly excellent books don’t get the attention they deserve.

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