by Maggie King
Like many young girls I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls. I’ll never forget the day my mother brought home The Hidden Staircase after a trip to the P.M. Bookshop in Plainfield, New Jersey (a wonderful used book store). My friends and I started swapping tales of those intrepid girl detectives like mad. We loved the puzzles and the adventures. My parents were great role models for mystery reading with the stacks of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks atop their night stands.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the works of many gifted authors. I’m including a short (very short!) list of my favorites. Most, but not all, are women. And most, but not all, are mystery writers.
A co-worker introduced me to Willa Cather twenty-five years ago when I lived in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, overlooking the Antelope Valley. I spent many an hour sitting under my sycamore tree, devouring the works of this renowned writer.
Willa Cather’s best-known works tell of frontier life on the prairies of Nebraska (O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and A Lost Lady). In other works, she reflects on the oppressive effects of life on the prairies and in small towns. She offers glimpses into the psychology of her characters using the “show, don’t tell” writing technique to great effect.
The Southwest, New York City, and Quebec also serve as settings for her novels and short stories that showcase her beautiful and nuanced style. Song of the Lark includes a vivid description of ancient cliff dwellings in Arizona.
In my twenties I had a bout of flu and my mother showed up at my apartment with chicken soup and a stack of Agatha Christies. Thirteen at Dinner (aka Lord Edgware Dies) started my lifelong love of all things Christie.
I’m not sure if I’ve read every title in her vast oeuvre, but I’ve certainly read most, and re-read many. Then there are the movies, TV adaptations, and plays.
Why has Agatha endured for me and for so many readers? To put it simply, she wrote a great story. She excelled in plot development, her puzzles complex and simple at the same time. Her sleight of hand and unending supply of tricks keep her work timeless. She travelled extensively, often setting her stories in the exotic spots she visited.
Please excuse me while I re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
There’s a scene in Michael Connelly’s Blood Work that kept me awake one night. It was that vivid and horrifying. But a sleepless night didn’t stop me from reading more of his work. And Mr. Connelly hasn’t topped Blood Work in pure scariness!
He created an especially well-rounded and complex character in Harry Bosch. Harry often squares off against authority, imperiling his career. But he considers his strong sense of right and wrong more important than a mere career.
As I lived in Los Angeles and environs for many years, I enjoy reading anything set there. Michael Connelly brings the city alive with iconic places like Union Station and Philippe’s (home of the French dip sandwich). Check the photo gallery on his website (michaelconnelly.com) where he showcases scenes from his stories.
My favorites of favorites are Angel’s Flight and The Overlook.
I discovered Sue Grafton in the early nineties. Up till then my mystery reading was limited to Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, and the writing leg of my career was a distant dream. I started with E is for Evidence (I never was one for reading in series order) and Sue had an instant fan. To this day when someone asks who my favorite mystery writer is, I don’t hesitate: it’s Sue Grafton!
A is for Alibi is, as you might guess, #1 in the alphabetically-named series. When Kinsey Millhone, Sue’s PI, introduces herself, she says, “I don’t have pets. I don’t have houseplants.”
I identify with Kinsey Millhone in many ways: I’m a loner, a non-conformist of sorts, and care little about material possessions. But, unlike Kinsey, I do have pets and houseplants, and I’m not very neat. I enjoy seeing Santa Barbara (called Santa Teresa in the series) through Kinsey’s eyes. I love the laugh-out-loud asides.
Over the years I’ve eagerly anticipated each installment of the series. There was only one that I didn’t like and one that I didn’t like that much (no, I won’t tell which ones), but two out of twenty-five is a pretty good record.
In Y is for Yesterday Kinsey resolved some personal and professional issues and seemed to be settling into a satisfying life with a ragtag adopted family. So, while we won’t get Z, Y ended on a good note for the series. It’s almost like Ms. Grafton knew her alphabet would end in Y.
When I heard the news of her death shortly after Christmas last year, I cried.
The Wycherly Woman, Black Money, The Blue Hammer, and Zebra-Striped Hearse: talk about attention-grabbing titles! But Ross Macdonald’s talent didn’t stop at his titles. He created Lew Archer, a detective operating in Southern California. Archer is more humble than some of his counterparts, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. I call Macdonald’s stories “family tales,” as his complicated plots often turned on Archer’s discovering secrets and lies buried in the lives of wealthy families. These secrets could go back several generations and sometimes involved wayward children. The author was skilled at making it seem unlikely that the families had anything to do with murder—but they always did.
Stories involving complex relationships are a favorite of mine—some say that my own follow that model—and Ross Macdonald is a master of the craft.
When mystery author Marcia Muller published The Broken Promise Land in 1996, she visited Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena, California. I joined a long line of her fans, all of us eager for her signature. This was my first author signing, and you never forget your first anything: first day of school, first kiss, first … you get the idea!
I had been a huge fan of Ms. Muller’s Sharon McCone PI series for many years. It’s set in San Francisco and has remained fresh over forty plus years. Her other series include one with Elena Oliverez, Director of the Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara; and one featuring Joanna Stark, an art security expert in San Franciso.
Then there are the stand-alones, and the series written with her husband, Bill Pronzini (also a terrific mystery writer).
On that day in 1996, I found Marcia Muller to be a petite, soft-spoken woman. Her appearance and demeanor surprised me because I picture her heroines as being tall, dark-haired, and assertive. But authors have alter-egos and this is why we write, to let our alter egos come out to shine.
I’m still reading Marcia Muller’s works. My favorites are The Broken Promise Land, Vanishing Point, and In the Eye of the Storm.
Barbara Pym was a British novelist. In the 1950s she published a series of social comedies, of which the best known are Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. For many years she could not get published, but her career revived in 1977 when critic Lord David Cecil and poet Philip Larkin nominated her as the most under-rated writer of the century.
Barbara Pym’s characters are ordinary people leading quiet, unremarkable lives. With her unique style, she studied the human condition with a particular interest in the state of marriage; in unmarried middle-class women living on the fringes of society; in ineffectual and hapless men, often in the clergy; and in the Anglican Church.
While the above doesn’t sound like compelling reading (who wants to read about characters leading quiet, unremarkable lives?), a gifted writer can make us care about characters we might overlook as we seek more exciting prospects for our reading pleasure. Barbara Pym did just that.
Anthropologists figure prominently in her work, especially in Excellent Women. Her experience working for the African International Institute in London inspired her to create comedic, fictional characters based on her anthropologist colleagues.
Along with Excellent Women, I recommend Quartet in Autumn.
Like many writers, I study the works of those who excel in the craft of taking words and ideas and spinning them into a page-turning tale. During the years (and years!) of writing my debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, I analyzed the character development, story structure, and style of Gillian Roberts (aka Judith Greber).
Gillian Roberts is a former English teacher who gave the same occupation to her amateur sleuth, Amanda Pepper. Amanda teaches in a Philadelphia prep school whose students are underachievers from wealthy families.
I enjoy the humorous commentary on the trials and tribulations of being a high school teacher as Amanda interacts with students, administrators, and colleagues. Amanda’s dealings with Philadelphia homicide detective C.K. Mackenzie, her innamorato who keeps his full name a secret, also provide fodder for wry humor. And many of us can relate to her family, especially her mother who wants to get Amanda married off ASAP.
Despite the laugh-out loud moments, most Amanda adventures address a serious social issue.
Before publishing the last Amanda book in 2008, Gillian Roberts held a contest. Whoever came closest to guessing how the series ended won a galley copy of All’s Well That Ends. I was happy to be the lucky winner!
Helen Hath No Fury is set in a book group and that likely explains why it’s my favorite.
Joan Smith is an English journalist and human rights activist. She penned five Loretta Lawson mysteries, published between 1987 and 1995. Along with Gillian Roberts, I consider her one of my author mentors.
Loretta Lawson is a London-based feminist scholar. She has a reluctant friendship with her ex-husband, a journalist who helps with her investigations. Like many amateur sleuths, Loretta gets involved in murder investigations when she herself is a suspect or when her friends need her aid. And sometimes she’s just plain curious. The tone of the Loretta Lawson stories is serious, and a menacing mood lends an element of suspense. If you prefer your cozies on the edgy side, this is a series for you. The titles are cryptic: A Masculine Ending, Why Aren’t They Screaming? Don’t Leave Me This Way, What Men Say, and Full Stop.
I could go on. And on. Like I said, this is a small representation of the many authors I’ve cherished through the years. This list tends to include established authors who I “met” years ago, but every day I find out about new-to-me talent. My TBR list is long and I might have to include it in my will! But the TBR list is a welcoming one, with always room for more.
Readers, tell us your favorites.
Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and to the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology.
Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and the American Association of University Women. She has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. Maggie graduated from Elizabeth Seton College and earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. She has called New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California home. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys reading, walking, movies, traveling, theatre, and museums.
Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/2Bj4uIL
“When Hazel Rose is asked to look into a grisly murder, she realizes her long lost cousin is the prime suspect. With her book group, she runs into hidden lives, more distant relatives and more bodies.” –Betsy Ashton, Author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery Mystery
“It’s as if Nancy Drew grew up and put together a crew of smart, funny, brownie-baking avengers.” –Lyn Brittan, author of the Mercenaries of Fortune Series