Sue Trowbridge, filling in for the vacationing Erin Mitchell. I am a lifelong mystery reader, as well as webmaster to the stars (or at least Dead Guy’s own Jeff Cohen).
A couple of weeks ago, Dale Spindel wrote a post about “book club mistakes to avoid.” In most cases, Dale’s advice is spot on, but I belong to a rather unusual book club that breaks many of her rules.
For instance, the first mistake: meeting too frequently. Dale suggests every six weeks. When I tell people that I belong to a book club that meets every week, jaws drop. “Do you really read a book a week?” Yes. Yes, we do. And for several years – before I joined, and before yesterday’s fast-paced 200-page mysteries morphed into today’s 450-page doorstops (just compare the sizes of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi and V is for Vengeance) – group members read two books each week. Not surprisingly, several of our number are retired, and only one member (who attends sporadically) has both a full-time job and a kid.
My group is helmed by the formidable Janet Rudolph, publisher of Mystery Readers Journal and winner of a slew of awards and honors in the mystery field. She started the group back in the 70s, and while none of the original members still belong, there are several who have been onboard since the 80s and 90s. I joined in 2000, a couple years after I moved from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area. Being an introvert, it can be hard for me to meet new people, but it turned out that joining the book group was practically like becoming part of a second family. Not long after I joined, I became part of the planning committee for Left Coast Crime 2004 in Monterey, and several members of my group have worked on numerous other LCCs, including Hawaii ’09, Sacramento ’12 and our 2014 return to Monterey (please come!).
When we’re not planning mystery conventions, you can expect to find us busily working through the lists that Janet gives us at the beginning of every session. Dale’s second mistake, “regularly choosing books that are more than 400 pages,” is a challenge for a group reading serious modern crime fiction. For some reason, the publishing world seems to have decided sometime in the last couple decades that readers want big books, and I sometimes groan when I pick up selections like Peter James’ police procedural Dead Man’s Grip or Jussi Adler-Olsen’s quirky Danish noir The Keeper of Lost Causes and see how huge they are. Still, I found both books riveting and easily managed to polish them off before Tuesday night rolled around.
In some cases, I have to fight to make it to the end, or simply give up after determining that a book just isn’t for me. Dale’s ninth rule, “Thinking that because a book has won a major literary award, everyone is going to enjoy reading it,” is true indeed. It’s rare that my book group ever agrees on anything, but I vividly remember one prize-winner by an author who has racked up every mystery award under the sun that every single one of us hated with a passion. To be honest, that discussion was sort of fun and cathartic.
More frequently, there will be spirited disagreements, and over the years, some types of books have found themselves sort of permanently off-limits. For instance, some of our most contentious meetings have been devoted to “humorous mysteries.” Half of us (including me) find Carl Hiaasen to be laugh-out-loud funny, while the other folks don’t crack a smile. Nobody’s going to change their mind, so Hiaasen’s been banned. We also try to steer clear of child-in-jeopardy books, and if an author kills off a dog or cat, someone is sure to complain vigorously.
Since we don’t meet during the summer months, I often delve into literary fiction – I’ve recently read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Liz Moore’s Heft, both excellent. Still, I’m looking forward to the group reconvening after Labor Day. Besides the camaraderie, I have discovered so many terrific books and authors I may not have found on my own: Spencer Quinn (who knew a series narrated by a dog could actually be good?), Kate Atkinson, Deon Meyer, Celia Fremlin, and many others.
As for Dale’s final mistake, “not serving refreshments” –I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing goes better with a mystery, or a discussion of a mystery, than a nice cup of tea and a cookie.