VOL. 13, No. 22
WHY SOME MYSTERY WRITERS
MARY HIGGINS CLARK, left,
CAROL HIGGINS CLARK
Some of the most popular authors have really lost it!
By JOANNE ENGELHARDT
Is Sue Grafton at Z yet? Has Z is for Zebra (or Zinnia, Zoophile or Zipideedoodah) come out yet?
How about James Patterson? Have he and the multitude of his other co-writers come up with The 87th Hour, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall or 101 Diving Divas yet?
And dont get me started on Mary Higgins Clark. By now she must be, oh, 130 or so, and she and her writing twin, daughter Carol, sound like two authors in search of something original to write. Even their book titles are boring: He Sees You When Youre Sleeping, Ill Walk Alone, The Shadow of Your Smile, Moonlight Becomes You, Ill Be Seeing You, On the Street Where You Live, Deck the Halls, ad nauseum. OK, Ill give them credit for knowing a lot of song titles, but, well, it takes more than that to make an interesting book.
The truth is: I guess Ive grown tired of mystery writers. Not the really good ones, you understand, but the cadre of sound-alike writers who churn out at least one or more of their copycat books every year or so. Thats being generous. Some even manage to write several a year!
John Grisham, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Dick Francis (well, not any more), Clark, Patterson, Grafton--all started out with a clear vision and some pretty good story ideas. Then, gradually, something happened. Their agents, and, indeed, a big chunk of the mystery fiction-reading public, couldnt seem to get enough, so they kept tap, tap, tapping away on their laptops without an original thought in their weary-but-wealthy heads.
I have to admit Ive been seduced by a number of these canny writers. Grisham kept my attention though The Firm, A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, even The Client. But when he penned The Runaway Jury, one of the most stupefying tomes ever written, it was all over for me. That jury went in and out of the jury room more often than my grandson goes to the bathroom daily.
Grafton was another early favorite, but if I have to read My name is Kinsey Millhone. Im a licensed private investigator, typically working 12 to 15 cases that range in nature from background checks to insurance fraud to erring spouses in the midst of acrimonious divorces one more time I think Ill scream my head off (or worse).
Patricia Cornwell is another mystery writer who started off great with books like Body of Evidence, and Postmortem, but then she went off the deep end with such bloody, gory detail that I cant stomach her anymore. The worst: Portrait of a Killer. Jack the Ripper Case Closed. It goes into miniscule detail about every death ever attributed to the infamous Jack. My question: Why??
I have mixed feelings about Donna Leons series depicting Commissario Guido Brunetti. Though Ive been to Venice and Verona, sometimes things happen in her books that make me feel as if Ive never been there. Perhaps its the cultural differences, but overall I have to admit that following the seemingly bumbling little commissario as he ambles through the city of Venice early in the morning or very late at night is still rather charming.
After The 6th Target (A Womens Murder Club Novel) by Patterson--and Maxine Paetro (she must be a silent partner because I dont know a thing about her), I decided I had had enough of Detective Lindsay Boxer and her three musketeer friends. This, despite, the books cover description: Another masterpiece.
But I made the mistake of deciding to go back to some of Pattersons earlier books, the Alex Cross thrillers (again, courtesy of the book cover). Years ago I whipped through Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls, and maybe one other in this series.
So, when I happened to find a copy of the 2009 Alex Cross whodunit mystery, Cross Country on a recent trip to Europe, I jumped right into it. One of the first-page promotional squibs reads: 'Cross Country 'is a novel that will live with you for a long time after youve finished reading. This is courtesy of BestsellersWorld.com, which, no doubt, has made a mint selling Pattersons books.
Well, that quote was correct in one aspect. Cross Country has stayed with me for a long time, but only because it is probably the most ridiculous, incredulous, stupid and utterly unrealistic story you could ever read. My one regret is that I wasted several hours reading it.
Lets start with this impossibly strong (6 6, 250-pound) African man named the Tiger, who kills people willy nilly but never gets caught or hurt. And he runs a gang of young black men who are named, of course, the Tigers boys. Our man Alex decides he must go after the Tiger because he killed the family of his old college girlfriend. Despite the fact that hes merely a metro D.C. detective, Cross figures out that the CIA is somehow involved and then devises a way to fly to Nigeria to go after the Tiger. Oh, pllllllleeease!
And thats only the first hundred pages.
From there it goes from improbable to unbelievable to implausible. (Did I mention I really hated this book?)
I guess the reason I have such strong feelings about Cross County is that it is dishonest. Theres no way on earth the things that happen in this book could possibly happen. Alex is jailed, tortured, starved, and a day or two later hes back in the fray, fighting a madman who nonchalantly murders people whenever he feels like it.
Not a scintilla of it rings true. And yet the novels just keep churning out of the Patterson factory of fantasy, and the residuals keep rolling in. Thats just sad.
Its not that Ive sworn off all mystery writers. For several years now my absolute favorite has been John Dunning, most likely because I think he knows when to quit. Actually, his last Cliff Janeway mystery, The Bookwomans Last Fling, was not up to par (at least, not up to MY par), and he hasnt written another one since then (it was published in 2006). But the four other books in this series are cherse, as Spencer Tracy used to say about Katherine Hepburn.
I wont say any more other than: If youve never read Dunnings Cliff Janeway novels, do yourself a huge favor and check them out of the library now. In order (and its best to read them in order), they are: Booked To Die, his best-known title; Bookman's Wake; The Bookman's Promise, and The Sign of the Book.
Notice the theme here? Yes, theyre predicated on books and bookstores. Dunning, in fact, a former newspaper investigative reporter, once owned a Denver antiquarian bookstore, so he knows a lot about old books. He weaves his affection for books and crime together in this series. Its only when he adds a third love of his, horseracing, into his last Janeway novel that I lost interest.
On his bookshop website (<http://www.oldalgonquin.com/home.php>), Dunning says he has had some medical problems including a benign brain tumor, which resulted in loss of sight in one eye and a long recovery process. He says he hopes to get a couple more Janeway stories written, and I for one sure hope he can. His distinctive writing voice is missed.
But until then, Ill just move on. Maybe Ill start reading gardening books or biographies of Winston Churchill or something.
Mysteries just arent much of a mystery to me anymore.
©2012 by Joanne Engelhardt. This column first posted July 9, 2012.
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