I love mysteries. I love reading them. I love writing them.
Readers who enjoy romances, science fiction, fantasy, or horror will say the same about their favorite genre. We love what we love for the entertainment we find in such books.
The appeal of mysteries for me is not a mystery. It’s not the gore, violence, or anything sinister. I'm drawn in by authors who delve into the depths of the human psyche. After all, most crimes are committed when something goes wrong and commiting a crime becomes a rational response. Emotions are heightened -- greed, anger, revenge, passion -- or something darker.
I discovered the Hardy Boys when I was about ten years old. One Christmas, I received three Hardy Boys books and devoured them, a book a day. By New Years, I asked my parents to buy me more Hardy Boys books. They did.
I was fortunate that my hometown of Williston, North Dakota had an excellet library donated by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Growing up, I walked two blocks from my home to the James Memorial library to roam the aisles, perusing histories, biographies, atlases, encyclopedias, travel, and fiction.
During teen summers, I’d check out a stack of books, read them, and return the next week for another stack. In those early years, I read Earl Stanley Gardner, John O’ Hara, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Eric Ambler, Robert Ruark, and Herman Wouk.
Introduction to Mystery Writers
My fascination with the mystery genre grew in the 1960s when I discovered Ian Fleming and John D. MacDonald. Fleming and MacDonald created iconic, larger than life heros: British secret agent 007 James Bond and Florida Keys-based 'salvage expert' Travis Magee who recovered lost treasure or stolen money for old friends and damsels in distress.
Fleming and MacDonald did what every author attempts - create a fascinating character and put him through life-threatening challenges against nasty villains. Suspense and danger grow with each chapter, often in exotic locations, and accompanied by a sultry woman. There's plenty of action and intrigue until the villain is dispatched in a grisly fashion.
My early motivation to write mysteries stemmed from reading the Travis Magee series. Although my characters are not like Travis, I drew lessons from how MacDonald used vivid descriptions of coastal Florida and a protagonist investigating a crime with suspense and off beat characters.
What I Read
A short list of my favorite mainstream American authors includes: Wallace Stegner, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. Favorite American mystery authors include Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, and Ross Thomas.
I love the Brits. Maybe it goes back to my early reading of Arthur Conan Doyle. What young boy or girl wouldn't be enthralled by the world of Sherlock Holmes whose cases involve exotic poisons, political scandals, sinister villains, and moody settings?
Three Brits whose works deserve special mention. Josephine Tey is in a special class of early British mystery writers who penned unique plots and characters.
William Boyd is a contemporary author who grew up in Africa where his father was a British diplomat. Boyd’s early books take place in Africa; later works include espionage, memoir, and thrillers. Boyd is a brilliant writer with an amazing ability to create memorable descriptions. Boyd’s Any Human Heart, is one of my favorite books of all time. An absolute treasure.
Simon Winchester, who read geology at Oxford, has written prolifically about history, culture, science, and geography. His non-fiction books come alive in a way that makes learning a treat. Three favorites: The Man Who Loved China, Krakatoa, and The Map That Changed the World. I recently read his Atlantic. How many authors would have the audacity to write a biography of an ocean? Winchester did, writing an ambitious book that chronicles a history of half of the world that touches the Atlantic Ocean.
My introduction to the Scandinavians started when I read my first Henning Mankell. I searched out other Scandinavian mystery writers and discovered Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a Swedish husband and wife team who were journalists and political radicals. They wrote a series featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck in the 1960s & 1970s. Re-reading their books years later, I was attracted to their focused writing style peppered with social criticism of Swedish welfare state.
A more recent Scandinavian discovery is Jo Nesbo, whose Snowman was one of the most complex mysteries I’ve ever read. I’ve tried Stieg Larsson's Dragon series, but haven’t been able to get through his first book. I’ll try again; maybe I’ll learn to appreciate him like many others do.
My interest in reading Italian mysteries began when I was researching Thirteen Days in Milan.
Three favorite series feature commissarios, Italian detectives, living in different regions of Italy.
Michael Dibdin, a Scotsman who unfortunately died in 2009, lived in Italy for eight years and wrote the Aurelio Zen series. Dibdin's grasp of Italian culture, lifestyle, and zeitgeist was amazing. BBC produced a Masterpiece Theater series of three Zen novels in 2011, all moody, dark, and full of intrigue.
American-born Donna Leon's novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti take place in the Venice that tourists don't see. One appeal of Brunetti is that he is a family man with a loving wife and two bright teenagers who bring joy to his life and frequently offer him insights into the crimes he's investigating. Leon was recently the subject of an NPR interview with reporter Sylvia Poggioli.
Andrea Camilleri series features Inspector Salvo Montalbano who investigates crimes involving deception, intrigue, and betrayal in Sicilian politics and the Mafia. Montalbano's fictional hometown of Vigata will inspire you to travel to Sicily to smell the salt air, sample delicious fish dishes at seaside restaurants, and swim in the ocean like Salvo does when he's trying to unravel a murder he's investigating.