Archive for Essays – Page 2

A Short Tribute to Mrs. Pollifax

unexpectedmrspollifaxI have been feverishly re-reading Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books – it’s been long enough that I don’t remember the particulars, but I do remember how much I enjoyed Mrs. P, though in my memory she was a bit softer than she actually is on the page. Gilman’s portrayal of her in the very first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966), is one of the best first mysteries ever. The set-up is clever – an older woman, unsatisfied by life, goes to the CIA to volunteer her services. When the CIA’s Carstairs sees her in the waiting room he thinks she would be the perfect innocent abroad. And through 13 books, she was. Gilman lays down her adventure story format leavened with Mrs. Pollifax’s generous yet knowledgable heart in the very first book and the formula holds. Gilman often provides the reader with surprisingly penetrating insights into human behavior, courtesy of Mrs. P; one of my favorite moments involves a Whirling Dervish (Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, 1990). Re-discover her for yourself.

An Appreciation of William Kent Krueger

William-Kent-Krueger-2014-2William Kent Krueger visits us this September, appearing, as he has with nearly every one of his now sixteen novels, at Aunt Agatha’s.  This lucky association started for us back in 1998 when Kent called and invited himself to the store to sign copies of Iron Lake.  I was delighted with Kent and his books back in 1998 and I still am today.  In between, our tiny staff  have all become hard-core Krueger fans and have relentlessly pressed his books on almost every reader we can think of.  Every one of them comes back for more.  Even my brother, a mystery reader who doesn’t remember authors, asks about that “Minnesota guy.”

And Kent has only continued to grow and challenge himself as a writer.  In a long running series, it’s sometimes difficult to keep things fresh, but Krueger manages to make each of his Cork O’Connor books somehow distinct from one another and enjoyable on their own merits, though I couldn’t recommend more highly reading this series in order and seeing the incredible depth of characterization that Krueger manages to shade into all of his characters as the stories progress.

His 14th O’Connor book, Windigo Island,  is another wonderful outing.  The widowed Cork, now a private consultant, finds himself drawn into the case of a missing young Ojibwe woman, something which leads him into the world of teenage prostitution.  Krueger still manages, all these books in, to be fired up about an issue, manages to infuse something new into Cork’s journey, and manages to continue to evoke emotion and tension in equal measure.

Sometimes there are things in his novels that a lesser writer might not be able to get away with, but Krueger somehow manages it.  I always finish one of his books with a box of Kleenex at my side.  Long ago when I first read Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time I was captivated by her concept of the “educated heart.”  This is a quality Krueger possesses in spades.  Nowhere was this quality more evident than in last year’s publication of his Edgar-winning stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace.

It felt like all the things Krueger had been learning as a writer, the things he had been polishing up in his writer’s tool box, were put to use in that incredible novel, a coming of age story set in 1961 Minnesota.  And happily, Ordinary Grace has been richly and deservedly rewarded by the mystery community with a slew of award nominations and wins.

And for Jamie and I, who were honored to win a Raven award presented at this year’s Edgar ceremony, it was very satisfactory to see our pal Kent, whom we had known from the start of his career, win Best Novel after a long and steady climb upward.  Sometimes bookselling is incredibly rewarding, and that was one of those moments.  So please, come meet one of the masters of our genre this September 14 when he will talk about his latest Cork O’Connor novel, along with Denise Swanson and Julia Keller.

Essay: Do Men and Women Write Differently?

I have asked this of several people,  and all the writers I have asked, male or female, have denied that they do.  But I, a mere reader, disagree.  There are exceptions to every rule – Memoirs of a Geisha, anyone? – but on the whole, I always think you can tell whether the writer is male or female.

I’m not saying one is better, either – just different.  A male writer is (usually) more focused on direct action, plunge ahead narrative.  The male writer’s character often has a certain kind of guy “code” he lives by – doing the right thing, helping the downtrodden, etc.   I think we are all familiar with the “White Knight” P.I. trope.

A female writer may be just as concerned with narrative, of course, but as she achieves her goal of telling a story she may notice along the way what’s for dinner, what went into shopping for the dinner, how messy her house/apartment is, what color her sofa is, etc. I know the kind of china collected by Deborah Crombie’s main character.   I know Spenser cooks, but he does “guy” cooking – i.e., he finds an onion and some mayo in the fridge and manages to make something out of it.  He hasn’t planned ahead.

Sara Paretsky, who writes a series every bit as hard boiled (perhaps more so) than Robert B. Parker’s, never the less has left her readers with the knowledge that V.I. has a treasured collection of her mother’s wine glasses.  I have an idea of what her apartment looks like.  I have no idea what Spenser’s looks like, though I do have a good idea of what his office looks like.

Again, not better, just different.  A woman is interested in her mother’s wine glasses, and assumes you might be too.  And – I am!  I imagine Spenser drinking out of jelly glasses.  Or whatever.  And of course, wait, you say – I know what Harry Bosch’s house looks like.   And what Elvis Cole eats (again, guy cooking – lots of barbeque and beer).  But the emotional details Paretsky shares when she talks about V.I.’s wine glasses are a different emotional detail than one Parker includes when he talks about Hawk’s sweat suit and bare chest, or even the ones Harry Bosch shares as he wanders gloomily around his sparsely furnished home, listening to jazz.

I guess what I’m saying is that the detours male and female writers take on their story telling paths are different.  Women plan ahead – they buy groceries, for example – and men forge ahead, grocery-less.  That’s not so different from real life, in my experience.  One of my favorite quotes is from a  series  by Lee Martin, encapsulating one difference (in my mind):

When Harry arrived he had my shoulder holster and service revolver with him, packed neatly in a brown paper grocery sack.  He handed the sack over and collected Cameron and while he was tucking the baby in his safety seat I was donning the shoulder holster.  Of all the trade-offs I have ever made in my life, I think that was my least favorite.
Deficit Ending, Lee Martin, 1990

Of course this is a female narrator – so it may not be a fair example, but this quote captures the juggling act that most modern women – who work, have families and lives – are a part of.   It’s a trade off, and this character knows it’s a trade off.  Sophie Hannah’s main character in The Wrong Mother has a cascading pile of tasks that if brought only slightly out of balance will make everything else fall apart.  That’s a book written two decades after Lee Martin’s, as are Deborah Crombie’s.  Her Gemma Kincaid is managing a blended household – with a very agreeable partner, certainly – but she’s often the one figuring out what’s for dinner.

Running a household is still a detail women don’t leave out.  Women’s lives may have changed since the overwhelmed new mother in Celia Fremlin’s 1950’s classic The Hours Before Dawn, but somehow there are some familiar details that persevere.

An interesting case in point is Robert Ellis’ fine LA police series which has a female main character.  I love the series, but I still know a man wrote it.  Lena juggles nothing (except emotional baggage) – she forges ahead.

Here’s another quote, this time from Barbara D’Amato’s terrific novel, Death of A Thousand Cuts, where the main character is a female cop:

Park and I stood in the Hawthorne House kitchens with the evidence tech.  My arms were folded across my chest, but lightly.  I was trying not to wrinkle my clean linen blazer, which was just as crisp as my sharply creased navy pants.  It was important in my department not just to be efficient but to look as if you were efficient.  Unfortunately these clothes would look like dishrags by tonight.  And I hate to iron.

OK, so here’s a character obviously on the job (the evidence tech) but she’s worried about wrinkles (thinking ahead to the end of the day) and she manages to throw in a bitch about ironing.  This paragraph, to me, could never have been written by a guy.

Here’s one from Dennis Lehane’s Prayers for Rain:

Tony sat in the back of the black ’91 Cherokee I’d picked up when the engine of my Crown Victoria seized up that spring.  The Cherokee was great for that rare bounty hunt because it had come with a steel gate between the seats and the stow bed in back. Tony sat on the other side of the gate…cracked open his third beer of the early afternoon, then burped up the vapor of the second.

OK, this is a pretty “guy” paragraph – his engine seized up (um, what?) so he needed a new car, the bounty hunting, the beer, the burping…and yet, Dennis Lehane’s emotional punch is every bit as strong as any female writer’s.  He just gets to it differently.

As I said, not better, just different.  Can you tell, dear readers?  I always think you can.

Essay: Searching for Christie, by Carolyn Hart

I was lucky enough to attend a panel at Bouchercon about Agatha Christie. One of the panelists, Carolyn Hart, author of the Death on Demand and Henry O mysteries, is a well known Christie devotee. She had prepared a wonderful essay on Agatha to share, and she graciously agreed to let me reprint it here. Enjoy!

Agatha Christie was among the world’s most retiring authors. She rarely gave interviews, dreaded public appearances. If we were to have the good fortune to walk beside her in an English garden, how would we find our companion?

Those who knew her personally agree that she was shy, observant, an accomplished musician, a faithful friend, disciplined, self-conscious about her lack of a formal education, brave, well-read in the Victorian sense, familiar with the classics, with Shakespeare, with the Bible.

But looking beyond one-line descriptions, what was this remarkable woman like as a person?

Essayists and critics have often bemoaned the lack of public utterances by this reclusive author.

Christie’s autobiography concentrates on her childhood, in which she recalls in loving detail a most protected youth. Janet Morgan’s excellent biography is, nonetheless, the picture presented by an adoring family. Throughout these writings there is a clear reserve, a dignified restraint.

In today’s vulgar society, a successful biography is often a compounding of surmise about an individual’s most private thoughts and actions. In reality, neither the psychobabble kind of biography nor the restrained remarks of intimates provide readers with a true picture of personality.

Is it sadly true, then, that we who read her detective fiction, admiring her genius with plotting, her cleverness in dissembling, and her brilliance with character are doomed never really to know her?

No. What mattered to Agatha Christie, her attitudes, and her passions can easily be found. Read her books again. This time, read not for the plot or character, not for pleasure or intellectual stimulation, but read as an ornithologist watches for a rare, hard-to-sight quarry. Read for the author’s heart.

Christie’s heart is in her books, speaking to us through her characters, just as clearly and forthrightly as she would speak could she walk into her drawing room and greet a friend. Every writer reveals in print the stamp of his soul. The qualities an author admires, the emotions that rule an author’s heart are there for the finding.

Here are comments made by characters in various Christie novels which represent a clear picture of Dame Agatha:

Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit: “I had the firm conviction that, if I went about looking for adventure, adventure would meet me halfway. It is a theory of mine that one always gets what one wants.”

The young nurse in Towards Zero speaking to the would-be suicide bitter at being saved: “It may be just by being somewhere – not doing anything – oh, I can’t say what I mean, but you might just – just walk along a street someday and just by doing that accomplish something terribly important – perhaps without even knowing what it was.”

Virginia Revel in The Secret of Chimneys: “It’s just as exciting to buy a new experience as it is to buy a new dress – more so, in fact.”

John Christow in The Hollow speaking to his lover, Henrietta, a sculptor: “If I were dead, the first thing you’d do, with tears streaming down your face, would be to start modeling some damned mourning woman or some figure of grief…”

Ariadne Oliver in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead commenting on the misery of having a book adapted to the stage: “…you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things they never would have said and do things they never would have done.”

Maureen Summerhayes in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead: “I never think it matters much what one eats…or what one wears…or what one does. I don’t think things matter – not really.”

Miss Marple in “The Bloodstained Pavement”: “there is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people never realize how very wicked the world is.”

Hester Argyle in Ordeal by Innocence: “it’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent.”

Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d: “Children feel things, you know. They feel things more than the people around them ever imagine.”

Mrs. Crabtree in The Hollow to Henrietta Savernake, mourning the loss of her lover: “Don’t fret, ducky – what’s gorn’s gorn. You can’t ‘ave it back.”

Parker Pyne in “The Case of the Middle Aged Wife”: “A woman tears a passion to pieces and gets no good from it, but a romance can be laid up in lavender and looked at all through the long years to come.”

Miss Marple in The Body in the Library: “The truth is, you see, that most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told to them. I never do. I’m afraid I like to prove a thing for myself.”

Agatha Christie is there, in the insouciance of Tuppence, in the determination of Poirot, in so many laughing quips and telling comments. Read her books once again and catch glimpses of that most elusive, most reclusive author. Read for her heart – it’s there to find.