The first Thursday of each month is a day I look forward to; our mystery reading group meets at The Moonstone Mystery Book Store, and it is always fun and stimulating. Having tried other reading groups outside of a bookstore setting, and finding them disappointing or chore-like, I have tried to figure out why this one works so well. Is it just good fortune that we have a compatible group of people? Or possibly that we are discussing mystery books? Or the meeting place which is conducive to serious discussion?
A few years ago when I decided to try organizing a store sponsored reading group, I did it for both business and personal reasons. For the business, I thought it would attract serious readers on a regular basis; for myself, I thought it would be a good reason to read some books I might not otherwise find time for and have a chance to discuss them. I hoped that we could avoid some of the disappointing aspects I had seen elsewhere.
The internet is full of resources for starting a group, organizing it, choosing books, managing meetings, and handling group dynamics. I read about the process to the point of dismay. Then I decided to go for it in a way I thought would work, keeping others’ experiences and caveats in mind, but seeing how it would flow on its own.
Getting people to commit was the first hurdle. In the beginning, it was a matter of promoting it to mystery readers at the store. As with many such endeavors, we got a lot of names and e-mail addresses followed by a lot of excuses when it came to actually attending. Nevertheless, we started with four attendees, not as many as we would like, but a beginning. Currently, there are 32 people on the list regularly receiving information and updates on the group, with 8 or 9 attending every meeting. Over the years, the membership has rolled over, so that only one person is from the original group. Yet the group has always had a camaraderie that has made the meetings seem almost like a social event for old friends, while happily welcoming newcomers. Those who have dropped out have generally done so because of personal conflicts with time and scheduling, while most new members have joined through “word of mouth” rather than store promotions. None of the current members are lifelong mystery fans, except for me.
Methods for deciding which books to read vary among groups. Some groups assign a moderator for each month and that person chooses the book. Others use a suggested list. There are many lists available, depending on the focus of the group. After the first few meetings, when I preselected the books to get things going, we have fallen into our preferred method: at the end of each meeting, members make suggestions, giving a short summary of why they think the book is a good choice. The entire group decides which ones we want to read. We try to plan two or three months ahead, but there are so many good choices that we now have our schedule through September. The schedule is always open to change, if the group feels something more interesting has appeared. Frequently the books are the first in a series that we want to try; we discuss the initial book, and those who like the series continue on independently. It is an excellent method of introducing readers to new authors. This month our choice was Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. During the week preceding the meeting, I had more than a few e-mails to make sure I had the second (and beyond) in this series in stock so they could be picked up at the meeting. This outstanding historical (12th century England) series was obviously one of our hits. Those that have been less warmly received were usually older, and although popular in their day, and even considered “classics” by some, seemed dated. Examples are Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a very early “Scandinavian” thriller and Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn. It seems that contemporary writers have taken the examples set earlier and refined the genre or subgenre so that the works of 40 or even 20 years ago seem less sophisticated. Even when a book is not universally loved, the discussion of why not is illuminating, and someone always has comments on the strengths he or she sees in it.
Discussions of the books are always lively. Again, there are many sources of advice on how to structure meetings that allow everyone a chance to speak and to draw out opinions. The moderator in our group will prepare a list of questions or topics to discuss, but it is rarely used. It is a backup in case the discussion flags, which it never does. We are blessed with a group of talkative people who are also extremely polite and considerate. They listen to each other, and will draw out a quiet member without the moderator having to intervene. Since the members are not lifelong mystery fans, but are avid readers, they bring a wide variety of perspectives to the discussion, and we all learn a lot about books we have not read.
Characters in the books get the most attention: did we like a particular one, were they full developed, and, most important, were they believable. Most criticism is of characters whose behavior is inconsistent with previous actions, especially if it appears to serve the plot rather than to show another dimension of the person. Because we are discussing mysteries, the most enjoyable part of the discussion is usually about clues. With so many great minds dissecting the plot, all the clues are pointed out, even though most of us have missed more than one. In our discussion this week, one reader said that she had figured out who the killer was in the second or third chapter, because of the way he behaved in a certain situation. She was right, and the rest of us had missed it. This reader is a particularly good observer of human nature, and it was delightful to realize that the author was subtly planting clues to the reader early on. We also had an even greater appreciation of the author, who could show the character’s true nature and still keep us guessing.
So why does this group work so well? The meeting place keeps it from becoming a purely social event, as so frequently happens when meetings are in people’s homes. The mix of participants, male and female, old and young, from varying reading and professional backgrounds creates an open-minded atmosphere; we all learn from each other. The lack of adherence to an imposed reading list or agenda for meetings allows all the variety of experience to be brought forward, even if the discussion occasionally strays beyond the book at hand. Most of all, though, I think it is the focus on mystery fiction. Books with a good puzzle, combined with good characterization and a well-researched background and setting, are catalysts for wide-ranging discussion. I mentioned that most of the group members are new to the mystery genre, or not widely read in this area. They joined because someone else told them it was an interesting group. They discovered what the genre has to offer. And became fans.