Mysterious List

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

Last week the Forest Park Library released a list of the ten most frequently checked-out fiction books in their collection for 2010.

They were overwhelmingly mysteries or thrillers. Stieg Larsson’s books were at the top of the list, as were Sue Grafton and James Patterson. Jody Picoult and Barbara Kingsolver were the only literary writers listed.

I was surprised.  I love mysteries but when I talk to some of my friends about what I’m reading, they sniff at my taste. They only read serious literature, they inform me. I try to explain that a good mystery is a good read, but they are skeptical.

Mysteries range from the silly to the sublime. Some of the most compelling stories I’ve ever read have been mysteries, and admittedly, some of the worst have been mysteries too. There are wonderful characters, such as Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawsky and Kreuger’s Sheriff Cork O’Connor that rival any characters I’ve encountered in the literature classes I took in college. They are memorable, flawed and yet trying to attain justice in a sorry world. They feel like people I would like to meet and so I have spent hours enjoying their exploits, wishing I could solve knotty problems and deliver witty retorts like they do.

Then there are the series that have talking cats and dogs that can sleuth. These are annoying in the extreme. I’m also not partial recipes masquerading as mysteries. In my opinion there is a surfeit of cook books and no need to interrupt a reasonably interesting story to explain how to blanch asparagus.

The best mysteries, like those of Raymond Chandler and P.D. James, delve into social issues and the moral responsibility we have to others. They can be riotously funny. Joan Hess has created a fractured world in Maggoty, Arkansas as has Sharon McCrumb in some of her books.

It’s even possible to learn history from mysteries. Most of what I know about Ancient Egypt is from Elizabeth Peters. There’s no other genre that has the breadth and depth of mystery fiction.

Like modern movies, best selling mysteries are often part of a series. I have no problem with this. If the characters are well done, I like to read more about them. I can’t always remember the plot of each book but I do remember how the characters changed and interacted.  Too frequently, though, the series becomes stale. The characters are no longer transformed by their experiences but become the vessels that keep the plot moving. Sometimes they become mired in their own weaknesses and I get impatient that they cannot learn from their experiences.  I don’y want to spend time with someone, fictional or not, who makes the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

But publishers discourage writers from striking out in new directions if the series sells. That’s too bad because as readers we need the challenge of new characters and new moral dilemmas.

To learn more about the Forest Park Library, check out their blog at

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Posted: January 9th, 2011 10:55 AM

I wonder if mysteries endure the same lack of respect that comedies get? I guess it's simply impossible that certain genres can offer anything lasting, profound or memorable? I hope we all know better than that!

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