Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus – a review

June 28, 2015

Like so many adult readers, I’m expanding my reading exploration into YA literature. Some titles I’ve enjoyed recently include The Doubt Factory by Paul Bacigalupi, Adaptation by Malinda Lo, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King, (which is aMAzing).

In a way, this is my third return to YA, the first being when I actually was Y myself and a wise librarian pushed a bunch of good books into my arms, the second during my undergraduate years when I discovered a branch library for the education department and decided to do an independent study on trends in young adult fiction just for fun (which it was). Now there’s a lot to catch up on as this turns out to still be one of the most intriguing segments of the book industry.

So when I was offered the chance to read one of the University of Minnesota Press’s YA titles, I jumped at it. Here’s my review.

Enchantment Lake
A Northwoods Mystery
by Margi Preus
University of Minnesota Press, March 2015

When 17-year-old Francie gets an emergency summons from her eccentric great aunts, she abandons an audition in New York to fly (and bus) home to Enchantment Lake, where many of the residents on the side of the lake that can only be reached by boat have died unexpectedly in bizarre accidents. Francie isn’t a detective, but she played one on TV, and many of the residents of Enchantment assume, despite her protests, that she is a skilled investigator. What else can she do but try to find out what’s really going on? Who is behind the effort to build a road to the side of the lake that is home to long-time residents living in modest cottages – and is that why residents are dropping dead?

Though billed as a YA book, it’s really for the young end of the age spectrum and reads like an old-school Nancy Drew adventure, including the conveniently absent parents and a teen who in a matter-of-fact way has nice things, like a New York apartment and an established if precarious career as an actor. There is a lot of investigating, introducing a cast of local characters (in every sense of the word), but also a healthy dose of action and a (very) light touch of romance.In this otherwise light-hearted mystery there are the moments when Francie wonders what happened to her mother, who disappeared before Francie had a chance to know her. Those passages are a bit like walking barefoot on a sun-warmed path and feeling a momentary chill as you pass through a patch of shadow – only to step into the sunlight again. Angsty this is not, but it benefits from those moments of depth. The sense of place is also evoked nicely with bits of description that will evoke a sense of nostalgia in anyone who has ever visited a lakeside cabin up north and wishes nothing would change, knowing it will.

As an example: “From here it seemed as if the forest stretched on forever. North and north into the great boreal forests of Canada. On days like this, when the wind blew from there, the smell of endless pines and lakes and granite filled the air. She felt herself snuffling the scent like a dog does, filling her lungs with it. It was a smell that called up some primal part of her, her wild, natural self. Her real self, she thought suddenly.”

To be honest, though, what delighted me most about this book was its design – it’s gorgeous. The cover is a Wanda-Gag-inspired patchwork of flora and fauna that includes visual hints of the mystery. Every chapter begins with a small, unique image and a page number framed by tiny loon silhouettes. It’s an old-fashioned children’s mystery with an old-school attention to design that is all too rare to find in book production today. And, for all that, the price for the hardcover is no higher than a typical trade paperback. Kudos to the University of Minnesota Press which kindly provided me with a review copy.

Dorothy-L: An Interview with Diane Kovacs

May 16, 2015

Readers have used pretty much every internet-enabled pathway to talk about mysteries since the early days of the internet. Some of those paths have closed or migrated from platforms that are no longer available to new ones, but some of the most durable conversations are hosted on a server but delivered to subscribers via email. One of those platforms is the LISTSERV software, developed in 1986 by an engineering student in Paris. It quickly became a commonly used discussion platform for email lists maintained at universities. Dorothy-L was born on that platform in 1991 and continues to host its conversations among over 2,500 members from its host server at Kent State University.

I reached out to Diane Kovacs, a fellow academic librarian who, with other Kent State University librarians, created an incredibly useful subject directory of discussion lists back in the day, as well as more than one library-related discussion lists. Currently she is (in her own words) a “Librarian at Large and Web Teacher” who teaches library science courses, has a book forthcoming on online teaching from ALA Editions, and is the recipient of a prestigious Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the Design 4 Learning project. (Full disclosure, she also co-edited a book that I was involved with.)

But most mystery lovers know her as the founder of Dorothy-L. She kindly answered some questions about the origins of the mystery-focused mailing list that holds the record for longevity and membership. It has been a significant site for online conversation for readers and writers for a quarter of a century.

I know the idea for the list came up at an Association of Research Libraries conference. LISTSERV was still pretty new. (Say, weren’t you one of the people who maintained a subject directory of lists? Flashback moment! That was huge.) Why mysteries? Why not some other genre or fiction more generally?  Did you have any idea how popular it would become?

Yes, in fact the Directory of Scholarly Electronic Journals and Academic Discussion Lists 2000 edition is under my monitor keeping it at a good height.  It is three inches thick.  I loved working on that.

The reason that we have Dorothy-L is because of Ann Okerson’s ideas. She was one of my early mentors and I wanted to do something for her in turn. She proposed creating a discussion list on golden age mystery literature – specifically Dorothy L. Sayers – OR on chocolate. Because Dorothy L  was euphonious, I chose that topic. Back then you had to put an L at the end. I’m not sure if that was required by the software or just a convention. Besides, I also had to justify to Kent State University that this was a scholarly topic. My English Faculty were thrilled at the idea and I had two full professor faculty sponsors (long since retired).

What was the list like in the early days? How did people find out about it and join it?

In the early days it was all word of mouth  and email. While my English faculty felt the project was scholarly enough, my boss in the Library wasn’t so convinced. I started Libref-L [an active discussion list for reference librarians] and it is still going strong after all these years also.

How has Dorothy-L changed over the years?

We were very much a group of academic types in the first five years. The Internet didn’t go public until 1994 and initially I think almost everyone was either a librarian or an English professor. Kara – aka Dangermouse – kept everything going.

What do you think made it a thriving community? What were the challenges?

Moderation and rules. We didn’t let anyone intimidate us into letting them post politics, hate speech, or flames in the name of “freedom of speech”. At one point we had some assistance from the University Counsel. He was thrilled to be in on the issues of early technology. But he verified we were on firm legal ground to create a “defined public forum” online. We could define and maintain the topic – our topic – because people who didn’t like our topic could go start their own listserv discussions and so they did.

I believe we have created a safe space where people can post their reviews and ideas and market their books a bit without being attacked and belittled and shouted down. I’ve watched other forums crumble under the domination of the bullies. I’ve put up with a lot of personal flaming over the years. Simply informing one particular person that he could not post about his politics or political actions caused him to go off and start his own forum. It is long gone. Another person accused Kara of interfering with his right to free speech when she stopped him from posting semi-pornographic attacks on some authors. We also lost some of my very favorite people because of the flame wars that erupted over self-publishing and formulaic writing, which is why those topics were banned – or rather why we let them go a bit and then rein them in when they start to get personal.

There are so many other social platforms like Goodreads and LibraryThing devoted to books, plus Twitter and Facebook and other opportunities to share reading experiences. Do you have any thoughts about how social media are changing the way we form communities? 

Goodreads has turned into a nasty flamewar and they do not give authors any protection. It is almost as bad as Amazon. I’m avoiding it. Librarything doesn’t seem very community-like to me. I’ve not had the patience to sit and input my reading. It just seems a chore. I’d like to see Dorothy-L move more into Facebook and even Google Plus because I like the Facebook format and communications possibilities. I incorporate them into my courses as well. Email is increasingly difficult to keep free of spam. I suspect that many of our continuing subscribers are folks who are just very comfortable in email communications and not really interested in changing.

I’ve expected the Dorothy-L listserv to wither away for the past five years. But it keeps trundling along. I’m glad I started it.  Most of the really awesome things that we did were initiated by the subscribers and not by us moderators.

Many thanks to Diane for answering my questions, which she did far more quickly than I composed this blog post. 

Goodbye, FriendFeed

March 13, 2015

It has been a long time coming. Still, I’m gutted. Friendfeed is pulling the plug on a platform that has been a big part of my online social life.

Chances are you’ve never heard of FriendFeed. It was a bit under the radar, but those who used it were avid. It had a simple, uncluttered, and intuitive interface where you could form groups, have RSS feeds stream to the group, and have fflogodiscussions – with any active discussion popped to the top of the page. It allowed anonymity (which can be extraordinarily useful) and private messages, which is where surprise parties were planned. Facebook aquired FriendFeed in 2009, but somehow it kept going. Every time it went down for a few hours there were panicked backup plans made, but it always bobbed back up – until the final offical announcement was made.

This is awkward. I’m writing this in the past tense as if it’s an obituary but we still have a few weeks to run.

Maxine Clarke, who I’ve written about before, intoduced me to FriendFeed by inviting me to join the Crime and Mystery Fiction group.Knowing that Maxine was not only a trustworthy guide to crime fiction but also extremely informed about technology (helping make Nature one of the most lively interactive and trend-setting web presences for science), I dipped my toe in. I found a lot of bloggers who I’d already discovered and met far more. It was easy to go to one place and get a stream of new reviews, interesting links, and companionship. Though the room functioned primarily as a place where we could share RSS feeds and occasionally comment, real friendships bloomed. I intend to stay in touch with those who I met there, but it won’t be as easy. A Facebook group has been set up where refugees can go, but I’m not a friend of Facebook, so will have to update my Feedly links and try to make the rounds of blogs to keep up the interaction there, which is where a lot of the more extended conversations happened, anyway. I sensed a kind of unspoken preference for taking comments to the original blog whenever possible so as not to dilute their impact.

It will be trickier to replicate the community found among librarians in the LSW FriendFeed group. After getting to know my way around the Crime and Mystery Fiction group, I poked around and stumbled across what has been my go-to professional (and just-for-fun) group ever since. FriendFeed has been the Library Society of the World’s most active hangout for some time. Previously Meebo was an LSW space. It was acquired by Google and killed in 2012 in hopes we’d all flock to Google+. These ceremonial sacrifices don’t always pan out, do they?

Rather than use the platform as a shared RSS feed, it was a conversational space. It wasn’t unusual for the threads to run to dozens of comments. Members would raise problems (is this database acting weird for you, too? can someone check this reference for me?), professional issues (open access, privacy, the behavior of publishers or funding agencies, how to do cool things for our communities), and a lot of giddy fun and companionship. Because there are a number of technically adept members, we’ll probably have another meeting place of some kind rigged up by the time the plug is pulled. We’ll pass the hat to pay the costs. There isn’t really a commercial substitue for what we have ensjoyed until now, and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

It’s hard to know what makes a social media platform work for a group of people who come together in a community. It’s clearly not the infratructure itelf. The two FriendFeed rooms I participated in regularly used the affordances of the platform very differently. It really is the people and the way they develop a common identity through individual practices (choosing what to post and how to respond), a means of welcoming new members and celebrating membership, and the indirect development of group norms. How those norms evolved in this space is truly mysterious.to me. There were no posted rules. There was some kind of administrative status some members took on – was a very light hand on the rudder (mostly refreshing feeds if they stopped working). Every now and then there would be drama in either of these groups, but even at its most heated it never seemed to fundamentally alter the nature of the community. Perhaps the relative obscurity of FriendFeed made it unattractive to trolls and spammers. In any case, these were remarkably civil, balanced, and inviting spaces.

One other thing true of both groups: they may be tight, but they are diverse. FriendfFeed earned users around the globe. I was intrigued when the news broke to see Tweets about it in Turkish, French, Spanish, and (above all) Italian. In fact, some Itaian programmers have knocked out a replacement. For the LSW, the mix was in library types (academic, public, and special) and geography (U.S., Canadian and British librarians as well as a Singaporean member and others). The Crime and Mystery Fiction group was smaller in membership but more widely distributed geographically, with members from the UK, Australia, Canada, the US, Spain,Denmark, and probably other places I’m forgetting at the moment. These international reading communities create an interesting situation – the buzz around books doesn’t respect the regional boundaries around rights. Books are released at different times (or not at all) in different regions with different covers and, often, titles. It will be interesting to see whether online commerce and these international reading communities might break down some of those borders or whether the separate sale of rights by region will continue to feature in the publishing world or perhaps even be artificially reinforced, as it was with DVDs splitting the world into regions and continues with streaming of videos tied to location – the sort of control of audiences that seems so self-defeating.

Finally, one thing that is lost as the plug is pulled – the record of those conversations. FriendFeed has an excellent search feature which I often used to find a link or retrace a debate that I needed for one reason or another. That won’t be possible. As we entrust more and more of our lives to companies that come and go, the words we wrote, the things we think of as ours, are not under our control. As we lose our community gathering places, we also lose our histories. Something to think about as we live with our heads in the cloud.

my crime fiction top ten for 2014

January 2, 2015


Thanks to my gang at 4MA (an online mystery discussion group) I have made a habit of sorting through my notes and choosing ten books that stick with me in some way. Here are the mysteries and thrillers I enjoyed most in 2014 – a hard choice, as there were others that could have made the list.

This book, coming off of a reading slump, totally blew my socks off. I had avoided it because it sounded formulaic (crazy serial killer, weirdly mutilated bodies, yawn) but it was a complete surprise. Beukes is a seriously fine novelsit and I agree with a the reviewer who finally got me to read it, that she has things in common with Richard Price – and, I would say, Tana French. Both novelists probe deeply into a place and the people who are shaped by it, and (like French) Beukes is willing to depart from the must-be-rationally-explainable rules of crime fiction to stretch our assumptions about reality. In this case,  Beukes (a South African writer who is unafraid of writing about race in America) weaves stories together that all touch at points and give a multifaceted portrait of a very messed-up Detroit. One of the characters is a cop; her daughter is another; a third is a failed journalist trying to make money with social media; a fourth is a man who works at a church and makes his way by selling off items from abandoned houses; a fifth is a psychotic artist (and perhaps a sixth is his illness, which becomes more and more powerful, an entity breaking free of the body it inhabits). It’s a stunningly good and daring book that combines elements of crime fiction, fantasy, horror, and sharp observations of contemporary life in a compelling narrative. The cover, alas, is a great example of the way marketing departments segregate women’s fiction – salmon pink and a pretty white girl with golden tresses paint on her face. Puhleez.

Dahl (Jan Arnold) continues exploring Sweden in a globalized Europe through the cases of the A Team, and ensemble cast of detectives remeniscent of Maj Sjowäl and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series (and with its dry sense of sad amusement). A simple bar fight turns out to be far more complicated. A pornography investigation unexpectedly offers a glimpse into unrelated crimes. Things that seem trivial hold layers within layers, and it’s only the intuition and the stubborn curiosity of the reassembled A Team that can tease out the meaning behind run-of-the-mill violence. Just as you think you’ve come to last layer of the onion, you discover something even more deeply hidden.Full review.

Though not perfect, I really enjoyed this debut novel by an Irish journalist that explores the potential for creepy surveillance that comes with seeking community online. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective. he title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum. Full review.

Third in the Edie Kiglatuk series set in the arctic among an Inuit community relocated from Hudson’s Bay to Ellesmere Island for political reasons, the roots of which contribute to this mystery. This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Full review.

Margie Orford WATER MUSIC
Another South African woman writer in this list – this one, author of a series that explores the social roots of crime in post-Apartheid SA and confronts sexism through the perspective of a journalist and researcher who heads a unit of the Capetown police department that focuses on violence against women. A young musician goes missing from a conservatory, a small, half-starved child is found nearly frozen, tied to a tree in a wooded area outside Cape Town, and Claire Hart finds that both cases are rooted in a society that looks the other way as women are sexually exploited. The climax uses the local geography to cinematic effect. In many ways, Clare inherits the driven competence and compassion of the 1990s feminist detectives in contemporary and very interesting setting. I’m glad this series is finally being published in the U.S.

An exceptionally good novel about a journalist uncovering the story behind the assassinations of men working on Wall Street, a father ruined by the crash who is trying to find ouw why his daughter is missing, and the devious history of a secretive financial baron. I’m not sure why irish writers are so good at this stuff, but Glynn is among the best.

Timothy Hallinan FOR THE DEAD
Books in this series set in Thailand are regulars on my top ten lists. Poke Rafferty has created a family in Bangkok with Rose, who runs a cleaning business, hiring women who, like her, are refugees from the sex trade and Miaow, who spent her early years as one of the many street children in the beautiful and terrible city. When Miaow helps her nerdy boyfriend, who is terrified of his strict father, replace a lost iPhone by buying one on the black market, they discover some photos have not been thoroughly deleted. Soon the pair realize someone wants them and anyone who knows about the photos deleted permanently. That’s when the buried memories she has of the alleys and hidden passageways of Bangkok and the survival instincts she left behind resurface, along with the visceral knowledge of what it’s like to be hungry, frightened, and alone. Full review.

Dan Fesperman UNMANNED
Dan Fesperman burst on the crime fiction scene with riveting stories from the front lines and underground tunnels of Sarajevo. His latest book tackles a new kind of war – remote precision killing conducted by drone pilots who see their targets close up from thousands of miles away. A burned-out drone pilot, haunted by an image of children who weren’t supposed to be at a target as the bomb he placed falls on their house, pairs up with a trio of journalists tracking the coverup of a botched raid and the contractor who is trying to cover it up. Timely and unnerving. Full review.

Another repeat visitor to my top ten list. This (overlong yet exhileratingly written) novel brings two detectives to a posh boarding school for girls when a boy at a neighboring school is found murdered on the grounds. The narrative is in layers, with the 24-hour period of the invesitgation ticking away in one strand and in the other, everything that led up to the murder. It’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play. Full review.

Non-fiction tops
I avoid true crime, which makes me feel like a ghoulish voyeur, but this book was mentioned on a radio program (probably On the Media, my favorite) and I was intrigued. This is a compelling and thorough investigation of a case in which a man was falsely convicted of murder – three times! – before a committed advocat took on the case. It’s so well written that you are anxious by the end to know whether she finally succeeded in getting the man justice. It’s also a good dissection of how racism influences the criminal justice system and seems particularly relevant in the year of #Ferguson and the national debate about race and police practices.

image courtesy of Daniel Go

what’s the matter with Men of Mystery? or why we still need Sisters in Crime

November 4, 2014

A controversy has erupted over a decision a long-running mystery fan convention, Bouchercon, has made to host another  long-running mystery fan event, Men of Mystery. Though Bouchercon often sponsors panels that focus on gender or ethnicity, setting aside a two-hour block of time to focus on men not because they write about men but simply because they are men pushed some buttons. Both the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime have made official statements. (Edited to add: the Sisters in Crime site now includes the SinC statement and a response from the chair of Bouchercon 2014.) Now we’re hearing the inevitable backlash. I thought I’d put together some of my personal thoughts. I currently coordinate the monitoring project for Sisters in Crime, and that makes me a board member of the organization, but I am not speaking for the organization or as a board member, just as a person who finds these questions interesting and important. For some reason, it came out in the form of dialogue.

What do you have against men?

Nothing. I know many of the writers featured at this event. I like them, and I like the books they write. That’s not the issue.

Then what is the issue?

Male privilege.

Privilege? What in the name of political correctness are you talking about?

Chances are you have it but can’t see it. A weird property of privilege it’s often invisible – unless you don’t have it. There’s a good explanation of how this works at Feminism 101. I also recommend  A Male Privilege Checklist, Peggy McIntosh’s classic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and, while I’m at it, Square 8’s Checklist of Neurotypical Privilege. The short version is that it’s a set of advantages individuals have because they are in a group on which society confers certain benefits. For people in that group, these benefits seem to be the norm, so it’s puzzling or upsetting when someone points out they are not equally available to everyone. When I grew up in Wisconsin I was convinced everybody who came from another state had an accent, but I didn’t because the way I said things was normal. I didn’t know I had an accent until I moved to a southern state and suddenly I was the one who talked funny.

You do talk funny.

Thank you. I moved to Minnesota and now talk even funnier.

Look, fine, but I worked hard to get where I am.

I know. I’m not saying you had it easy. I am saying that men as a class have benefits that women don’t have. Whites as a class have benefits people of color don’t have. And so forth. We live in a society that would prefer to keep things simple by saying what we get is what we deserve: if we do well, it’s because we worked hard and are good at our work. If we fail, we must have done something wrong or didn’t work hard enough. That’s not the whole story. One things writers do is see the world through other people’s eyes, and that’s why reading fiction promotes empathy. We can take into account all the strands that go into how someone got from Chapter One to The End. We get how complicated it is.

Okay, fine. But if we can’t have panels for men of mystery, then how can you justify having panels for women writers?  Or Latino writers or . . .

Or how male writers represent masculinity in crime fiction? I would totally go to that panel, especially if George Pelecanos was on it. His writing seems to be all about how young disenfranchised men are seeking their male identity in a culture where so much of what defines masculinity is either off-limits for socio-economic-reasons or criminalized for a large part of our male population. Where is that panel? I want to go to that panel!

Oh, wait. We were talking about Men of Mystery. This isn’t a panel about men in crime fiction. It’s a well-intentioned celebration of writers that just happens to exclude half of the population simply because they aren’t men. I’m sure there was no malice intended. The plan wasn’t “let’s put women in their place – in the audience or at the margins.” But that’s why it’s so important to recognize and understand privilege. If you don’t, it will be invisible to you and you will  normalize discrimination without even noticing.

I understand that the plan has been changed, that Men of Mystery has been shortened to an hour-long session to be followed by Women of Mystery. I appreciate that the statements of concern sent by the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime were received and that people are scrambling to fix it. I’m just not sure at this point what message was received other than that Some People Are Upset and there are bound to be hurt feelings all around.

Bouchercon is a volunteer-led event that takes a lot of work and every year fields complaints from every quarter and it’s horrible when you work so hard on something for love and have so much unanticipated drama erupt. For everyone who has put untold hours into making this event that has so many moving parts happen, thank you. And I’m sorry that something you are doing for love has become so controversial. The patch is going to be awkward and while I hope it will afford an opportunity for productive conversation I’m sure it might also produce a certain polarization. For those who anticipate engaging in difficult discussions, may I also recommend Derailing for Dummies? It does a great job of outlining a variety of ways that a conversation can go wrong. Snark included at no extra charge.

Crime fiction is a genre we love in part because it engages difficult issues of right and wrong, of the choices we make and their consequences, of problems in society and how they affect people’s lives. But it also gives us a sense that we can be brave enough to approach these issues for a closer look. In the end, these stories about broken things can make us whole by giving us greater empathy, some kind of narrative coherence to the anxieties we feel, and a sense that justice might sometimes prevail. Okay, in the case of noir justice might not prevail, but it’s going to be a beautiful ride. And that’s resolution enough.

What I hope to see come of this issue is not just hurt feelings but a greater understanding of why privilege matters even when – especially when – it’s invisible.

From time to time I hear people ask why we still need an organization like Sisters in crime. This is why. We have work to do.


Edited to add – at Femmes Fatales Dana Cameron has written a recap and an update on the situtation. It looks as if people are coming together to make something very postiive happen at Bouchercon. It’s a smart analysis and a very encouraging report on how people are coming together to address it. As she writes in “This is How Things Change”:

Good people make mistakes without intending to. Good people can respond to those mistakes while still valuing the effort that went into the process. Working together, they can address concerns and find solutions. That’s what’s happening now.

We Can Do It

poster by J. Howard Miller, 1943, courtesy of Wikimedia

the mystery of it all: why we enjoy crime fiction

October 25, 2014

I gave this talk at the Iowa Library Association annual conference a couple of days ago. Not sure people were ready for quite this much jibber-jabber at the end of a long day, but I promised to put it online and decided to put it up both as a PDF and here with some of my slides.


It’s great to be able to be here today to talk with you all about something I love. I won’t call it a guilty pleasure because I refuse to feel guilty about it. I just love to read crime fiction. I love it so much I’ve written a few mysteries myself. Tonight, I’m going to try to explain why this genre appeals so much to me  and to countless others and make some claims for its value as well as explore what it tells us about ourselves. Though I am an academic librarian, one of my interests is the ways that popular fiction can contribute to this thing all academic librarians want to believe we are doing: that when we help students learn, it will contributes to our students’ capacity for lifelong learning.  Our students like to read for pleasure but don’t do much of it during the academic year because they have so much assigned reading and busy social lives, but we do what we can to encourage reading for pleasure and to help them develop their own personal reading tastes.

lifelong reading

I learned a long time ago that you could learn a lot from mysteries. My mother was a walking encyclopedia. She knew everything. If we needed to know when a battle was fought or what a Latin phrase meant or what exactly happened to Charles the second, anyway, she knew the answer (though as part of her own educational mission she often told us to look it up in the encyclopedia). She had a terrific general education that was largely through reading. She was a child of the depression and had to leave school when she was sixteen to go to work. She never finished high school but was educated through books – and mysteries were her genre of choice.

This impression I formed early on, that we must absorb a great deal of knowledge through pleasure reading, was borne out by the research Catherine Sheldrick Ross and her graduate students did on the lived experience of avid readers. After interviewing over 200 readers, they found that reading popular fiction could be affirming (“there are other people in the world like me”), a way of learning about the world that’s inaccessible in real life, and that it contributed to their capacity for creativity and problem-solving. This led Ross to urge librarians to explore not just information seeking behavior, but the importance of information encountering, which I think is a profoundly important insight.

Psychologists have also had interesting things to say about the effects of reading for pleasure. Victor Nell studied the trance-like state of mind when lost in a book. His neurological studies suggest that the brain is extremely busy when we appear to be passively consuming a story. Our brains are busy constructing with the author a fictional world.  Keith Oatley and others have conducted experiments that found that those who read narrative stories score better on tests for empathy than those who don’t He hypothesizes that fiction exercises empathy by serving as a simulator for experiences, which develops our capacity for understanding. All of this is a good reminder to pay attention to diversity in our collections and make sure we have books that reflect the experiences of people of color and different gender identities and social statuses. As someone recently reminded me on Twitter, this is not just so that white readers’ horizons will be expanded, though that’s all good, but also so that non-white readers aren’t always simulating the experiences of people whose lives are not theirs – practicing empathy for those who have privilege. We need both empathy with others and the ability to find ourselves in our reading experiences.


Another psychologist of reading, Richard Gerrig, found that readers’ brains don’t shelve fiction separately from non-fiction. What we encounter in fiction becomes part of our knowledgebase unless we know better. That is, a biblical scholar might enjoy The Da Vinci Code, but it won’t alter her understanding of church history. A less informed reader is more likely to take it as fact. Now, this is slightly alarming to me. This all supports the claim that fiction matters, that it forms an important part of our knowledgebase – but it also puts a burden on writers to get things right:  emotionally, factually, and socially.

That brings us to crime fiction,  a broad category that embraces mysteries from cozy to hardboiled, thrillers, crime capers, and noir – any stories involving crime. It’s an enduringly popular choice for readers. Though steamy potboilers about the lives of the rich and famous were more likely to be on the bestseller list until the 1990s, when crime fiction took over, we’ve enjoyed crime since the days when Elizabethan pamphlets about notorious crimes were sold on the street.

elizabethan pamphlets

Though steamy is definitely back on the bestseller list, mysteries and thrillers continue to be popular. Why are stories about crime still so fascinating when our violent rate has been halved since the 1990s? Why do so many mysteries focus on young white women as victims of violence when in reality the murder rate for young black women is four times that of young white women and 78 percent of homicide victims are male?


Of course the women-in-danger theme is hardly new. It was popular in the pulps of the 1930s.) But since the 1990s In fiction we’ve seen an epidemic of serial homicide  and stranger abductions, but in reality both crimes are rare. Why are we entertained by fear that is exaggerated? Why do we focus on threats that are so unlikely?

It’s probably in part the same impulse that puts grotesque crimes on the front page of the newspaper: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories that are unsettling are also compelling so long as the threat itself is more imaginary than real, when we can identify with the victim, yet feel the violence they experience is an aberration that won’t likely happen to us. In narrative form, crime can be contained. It poses problems that we trust will be solved, and that fictional resolution reassures us about anxiety that is otherwise uncomfortable. Readers frequently say that they like mysteries because it conveys the sense that justice is restored. According to critic Catherine Nickerson, the genre is both stimulating and soothing. It deals with explosive materials within a safe space where there are formulas to follow, where we know what to expect (including a certain measure of surprise).  It’s a genre that allows us “to draw close to the flame of our culture’s evils without actually getting burned.”

draw close without burned

One of the reasons why this genre is so popular is that it offers such a wide range of choices. There’s a spectrum  from very light to gruesomely dark; there’s also a lot to choose from in terms of focus, from the sociological (taking a Dickensian wide-angle view of violence), to the psychological (seeking explanations for deviance within people’s inner lives) to the mythological (framing the story as a Manichean battle between the forces of good and evil). I myself am wary of the latter, particularly in its willingness to attribute crime to monstrous others. This framing too often makes crime a matter of personal moral choice or some kind of genetic aberration that lets us off the hook because we then feel no responsibility for situations that in real life contribute to crime and violence. People don’t kill people, monsters do.

The suspense in the crime genre draws on things that frighten us as a society, which is interesting, because anxiety is a potent factor in the formation of social issues. Our fears are often manipulated by various groups to amplify their cause. For example, the media, which needs exciting stories to recruit and retain their audience. But we often fail to focus on what’s really important. Last year, two trials concluded in the same week. In one, a woman in Arizona was found guilty of killing a man. In the other, a man in Guatemala was found guilty of killing 200,000 people.


Only one of these trials got significant news media attention in the US even though the Rios Montt trial for genocide was live-streamed, available to anyone who wanted to listen in. Why didn’t we cover it? It was messy. Our government had been involved in the coup that led to the genocide, and that would be hard to explain. It involved too many victims, mostly indigenous people, so the story would be both upsetting and hard to wrap our heads around. And it wouldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. A higher court overturned the conviction ten days later. Though Rios Montt still faces charges, he won’t be back in a courtroom until next year. While one narrative was dramatic, the other was simply complex, upsetting, and presumably less likely to recruit and retain the attention of American audience and generate ad revenue.

The state also uses anxiety to gain support for the regulation of behavior. We can take the serial killer threat as an example. At the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Department of Justice wanted to repair the reputation of law enforcement, frayed after Watergate and the Church Committee investigation into decades of illegal surveillance of dissidents. The FBI made a startling announcement: the rate of serial homicides had jumped alarmingly to 25 percent of all murders. Later they retracted the statement. They had accidentally classified all homicides for which the victim-perpetrator relationship was unknown as the work of serial killers. Oops! But the highly-inflated figures and the sense of growing threat helped restore trust and budgets. It also aligned with the kinds of stimulating yet soothing narratives people craved at the time, which made Hannibal Lector such a hit and enabled James Patterson to mass produce serial killers to such popular effect. (Philip Jenkins, Using Murder.) Now, of course, we have to sustain an endless war on terror, which requires being afraid. Very afraid.

All three of my mysteries have been about the way fear is manipulated to produce a common social response to threat.   In On Edge, residents of a small town, once coaxed into a frenzy of accusation over satanic abuse charges, are being whipped up again when three children are murdered. In the Wind plays off the parallels between the civil liberties abuses of the Vietnam War era and the Bush era, fear of Communism converted to fear of Muslim extremists nurtured to excuse unconstitutional practices. Though the Cracks deals with a fear that strikes closer to home, the fear every woman is raised to feel in her bones, a fear that constricts our freedom and blames us for our sexuality. Fear of sexual assault.

The idea for Through the Cracks first came to me years ago when I read an investigative series in the Chicago Tribune on the shocking number of exonerations of Illinois death row prisoners. Many of them involved confessions obtained by detectives working under a Chicago police commander who valued convictions more than truth. I was, of course, appalled that innocent men had been falsely imprisoned, but I was mostly outraged for the victims of those crimes. Grabbing some guy off the street at random to make a conviction instead of pursuing the case with integrity seemed the ultimate way of saying to the African American community of Chicago “you don’t matter.” I also wondered what it was like for victims to learn the men they thought responsible were possibly innocent, and the person who had knocked their life off-kilter wasn’t locked up after all.

As I started working on the story, I faced a challenge. Threats to women – the threats that constrict our lives on a daily basis – are frequently the subject of crime fiction, used to provide that pleasurable thrill that we all crave. But I didn’t want to sexualize violence against women. I wanted to treat it as it really is: violence in the service of oppression.

Thousands of books use scores of women as throwaway props for a clever killer who is engaged in a duel of wits with a heroic detective. We are often promised a glimpse of pure evil as we are invited to step into the mind of serial killer. This is an entertaining way to reassure ourselves that we are not monsters, that when bad things happen to good people, we know who to blame, and it’s not us.

I don’t mind reading or writing about violence, but I want it to be honest. To me, the reality-free serial killer story is less honest that the fluffiest of cozies. Real crime involves real causes: inequality, poverty, racism, hopelessness, greed, jealousy, the indifference of a culture that devours news stories of stranger abductions but is bored by the fact that one in five of our children live in poverty, that enjoys stories about the serial slaughter of young women but is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of rape culture. Admittedly, real life is relatively dull and big problems are harder than dramatic ones. Like others, I read crime fiction for fun, not to be educated or to hear earnest lectures. But I’m bothered by the way women are trivialized by fantasy crimes, and for that reason I’m thrilled that so many people have taken Lisbeth Salander to heart. Who would have thought that a book that, in the original, had the title Men Who Hate Women and starts chapters with social statistics about misogyny could possibly be a bestseller in this country?  Not to mention generate perhaps my favorite title in our lit crit section.


Stieg Larsson won readers over by giving them the sense that justice is possible through the actions of heroic characters who refuse to put up with injustice. Rather than be a traumatized victim who lives in fear, Salander stands up for herself when society won’t, and it’s that stance, not the threats against her, that is exhilarating. The Millennium Trilogy distinguishes itself, too, in situating violence in social systems that tolerate inequality and are easily manipulated by powerful men. Larsson remixes a variety of genre conventions to expose social structures in which evil isn’t a monstrous Other, but the actions of powerful individuals who routinely make self-serving choices, capturing our sympathy with a compelling heroine whose task is to expose and confront our assumptions.

Larsson chose to make a political argument fun by remixing every kind of crime fiction narrative: the nutty serial killer with a Nazi past, the locked room mystery, the dysfunctional family saga, the spy thriller, the financial thriller, the police procedural, the political thriller, and the courtroom drama, creating a remix of popular culture motifs that becomes an imaginative landscape within which he can work through the issues of inequality and racism that he dealt with in his journalism.

But that boundary between engaging serious issues and entertainment can be a fraught place. South African journalist and novelist Margie Orford has written about why she turned to writing crime fiction. She writes:

The nature of crime and its effects seemed to elude me in many articles I wrote on the subject. I could list the shocking facts, but in the limited space of a one- or two-thousand word piece, I felt that I could never get to the truth about crime, about social dislocation, modernity and violence, and what this says about South Africa and those of us who live here. It is only in fiction that I could begin to find the voices of the brutalised and the dead . . . The crime novel, if done well, is a way of interpreting the society upon which it focuses its lens.

That said, Orford is troubled by the fact that there is a lot of misogyny in the genre and it’s difficult to avoid the erotic charge of the damaged female body given how woven into the genre it is. She also found herself troubled by the risk of oversimplifying the silencing power of violence:

I am at a loss as to how to engage fictionally, in an ethical manner, with the incomprehensible complexity of violence of South Africa. I may have erred profoundly in imagining that fiction might be a means of finding a way back, after the obliterating effects of violence, to some semblance of a language: a different language, an empathic language, a language that speaks of resilience and survival.

I actually think she’s done rather a good job of helping readers like me think about violence in her country and all of the complexity that has gone into it, but I sympathize with the challenge this kind of fictional honesty poses. The restoration of justice that we crave in our fiction is sometimes too easy an out. I think she’s put her finger on a defining ethical issue for both writers and readers of the genre.

Finally, what I’d like to talk about briefly is the subject of my current research: how reading is both deeply solitary and at the same time social.  Francis Spufford, author of The Child that Books Built, described reading as a child as a form of separation from the world. “As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away . . . there was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” For him, reading books was a very personal journey and an escape. Students who have taken a course I have taught on books and culture have said similar things about the way their personal identities are entwined with the books they read.  As one put it, “My bookshelf is not just a bookshelf. It’s a time warp.“ Each book returned her to a particular time in her past. Yet as Elizabeth Long pointed out in her 2003 study of book groups, reading is also a social practice. That social connection often begins with childhood reading experiences.  As another student put it, “It was an ordinary place in our house growing up, but it became magical every night when my mom would sink into the soft cushions with a book in her hands. My younger sister and I would sit on either side of her resting our heads against her arms, peering at the illustrations that transformed our living room. My mom’s voice would decode the squiggles on the page into words, into a story. My first memory of books comes from this spot in our living room.”


Today, that social life of books and readers is inscribing social media with an almost limitless conversation about books.  Millions of readers around the world participate in online communities focused on sharing their reading experiences. They formed early in the history of the Internet – Dorothy-L was founded in 1990. Rec.alt.mysteries (also known as RAM) was a Usenet group that was founded in the early 90s. Compuserve had active mystery discussion groups. Yahoo Groups has hosted thousands of book-related groups over the years. I studied one of those reading communities back in 2005 and found that the combination of sharing a love of the mystery genre and having a sense of community with like-minded readers scattered across the globe was highly valued by its members. Since then, sites like Goodreads (with 30 million members), LibraryThing (1.8 million members) as well as book discussions held on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblrs and blogs have all flourished.

I always find it puzzling when pundits say “nobody reads these days” or “reading is on the decline” given the evidence that millions of readers thrive on sharing their experiences with reading for pleasure. It’s also clear from observing these social interactions that they feel their reading experiences benefit from social interactions, that readers form interpretive communities that transcend national boundaries and other differences, and that these informal critical communities play a critical role in the the formation of popular literary tastes which, in turn, are shaped by and shape our understanding of the world we live in. Wattpad is an interesting place where storytelling and sharing come together. On this site, people serially share stories for free, collecting reading communities that comment on the stories as they evolve. If you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, you probably have a sense of why 35 million people participate. Last week a 25-year-old member sold film rights to a series of romances she posted there which, over the course of time, have collected a billion views. This is an perhaps an extreme version of reading and writing as a social act, but is an illustration that storytelling and reading are popular when shared.


Libraries, of course, may be the original place where reading was seen as a social act. Libraries contribute enormously to this communal sense that reading is not simply a solitary pleasure (one characterized as a guilty one indulged in by indolent women in the early 20th century when it was called “the fiction problem”). Nor is it an act of individual consumerism indulged in for free. It’s a communal experience, one that libraries encourage and support, an ongoing conversation with readers that enables what Wayne Wiegand has described as democracies of culture (“The Politics of Cultural Authority.” American Libraries (1998): 80-82). These are spaces where we let our communities decide what matters and experience the identification and the expanded world view that reading imaginative literature enables. The only gates we keep are open ones. We defend the commons, and in supporting the common reader whose tastes likely run to crime fiction, we are helping our communities experience the mystery of it all.

image credits

Background texture – Glassholic
Reader with a train – Mo Reza
Burning books – Patrick Correla
Brain –  Saad Faruque
Elizabethan pamphlets – Early English Books  Online (subscription required)
Spicy detective – Will Hart
Private detective – Will Hart
Speed detective – Will Hart
Dime mystery  – Rene Walter
Biblioburro by Diana Arias

results from the Book Blogger’s Survey

September 22, 2014

Last month, I concocted a survey for crime fiction book bloggers (which is still open – if you blog about crime fiction and want to contribute your thoughts, feel free). Thanks to the twenty bloggers who took the time to reflect on their experiences. Note, this survey relied on a convenience sample drawn from my Twitter connections, the Crime and Mystery Fiction room at Friendfeed, and bloggers who I follow and contacted personally, inviting them to participate, so it is not a comprehensive analysis by any means.

By the numbers

First, the demographics: twelve of the respondents were women, eight were men. The largest number (11) were from Europe, followed by North America and Australia/New Zealand. As for their ages, none were younger than 25. Six were between 25 and 45, 11 were between 46 and 65, and three were over 65.

Nearly all had blogs focused primarily on crime fiction, with half mixing book reviews with other mystery-related materials and seven who focused on book reviews. All of the bloggers enabled comments, and just slightly over half moderated them. (Of those who didn’t, at least one mentioned removing comments that were obviously spam.) They all found blogging a positive experience, with half selecting “mostly positive” and half choosing “extremely positive.” (I suppose that’s hardly surprising, since if they didn’t enjoy it, they’d stop!)

I asked bloggers to choose the top three ways they obtained books. Getting review copies from publishers and purchasing books were the most commonly chosen options. The third most common source of books was the library, with review copies from authors following close behind. Though these were the bloggers’ most common sources, they weren’t necessarily equally distributed. One blogger added in a comment “I buy nearly all of my books (95%+).” While two in comments mentioned that getting free books from publishers was a plus, another pointed out that it could be a mixed blessing: “once your address is sent to one company, lots of other people seem to have access to it,” resulting in lots of unsolicited books.

I asked about venues in which bloggers frequently discuss crime fiction with other readers. Other blogs topped the list with 18 respondents checking that option, followed by friends, family, or coworkers (14) then (in descending order) online discussion forums or email lists focused on crime fiction (14), Twitter (12), Facebook (11), crime-fiction-focused face-to-face events (10), Friendfeed (9), a face-to-face book group (8), and Goodreads (7). All of the respondents reported participating in at least three of these venues.

Exploring their motivation

I asked bloggers why they maintain a book blog. Several themes emerged from their answers. The two most-often cited reasons were that they found it helpful to track what they read and it provided a sense of community. As one blogger put it, “It 4889471879_ce34dcbd0a_zstarted out as a place to keep track of what I was reading myself in a way that was a little more accountable than personal notes. But it’s turned into a way of being connected to other people with a similar interest. I only know a couple of people in my real world who share my reading interests and none of them want to talk about the books in any in-depth way.” Related to community was a sense of reciprocity. Bloggers were able to promote books and authors who they thought deserved greater notice; in turn, they discovered books that other bloggers recommended. Bloggers also mentioned that it coincided with a professional interest in books (as writers, booksellers, or librarians) and that writing about the books they’d read helped them gain a deeper understanding of them. Finally, many respondents said it was fun: “it brings me joy to discuss books and introduce readers to books and authors they might not have discovered.”

I asked bloggers whether they encouraged interaction with their blogs. One out of four respondents were not particularly interested one way or another in whether their posts were getting responses. Others invited involvement through issuing challenges or posing questions to readers, and many posted links to new blog posts on other social media. One respondent suggested that comment strings were preferable to Twitter interactions, with its 140 character limit leading to less in-depth discussion; another found that readers preferred to take conversation to email or to the blog’s Facebook page. Bloggers often were pleased with interactions they had. One reported that after a conversation online, a reader wrote, “Thank you! This is very, very helpful. I always feel like I can ask you questions. I normally feel like I should know the answer and don’t ask, but you are so understanding and interested in sharing what you know I don’t hesitate.”

“Sharing a Passion”

Many respondents reported that making connections with other passionate readers, being able to influence other readers and being able to discover new authors to try were positive aspects of being a book blogger. There is a curatorial pleasure in finding and writing about what one blogger characterized as “hidden gems.” “Bloggers often discovered affinities with other readers who could help them discover worthwhile books. As one wrote, “I’ve found a group of other bloggers and crime fiction fans who comment whose recommendations I can rely on. That’s invaluable.” An Australian blogger was happy to “promote8314929977_28fd740070_z Australian crime fiction to the wider world – I’m proud of our local authors and it’s great to see them being reviewed/discussed elsewhere.” For another, “supreme satisfaction lies in receiving emails from readers who ecstatically tell me that they liked one of my reviews, got the book, read the book, fell in love, and immediately went out to purchase all that author’s books.” As another put it, satisfaction comes from the “chance to turn on a reader to a great book they might have missed and to introduce them to an author they haven’t read.” One mentioned “the contact it gives me with contemporary writers” was particularly satisfying, and another wrote “because of the blog, I’ve been able to set up several face-to-face interviews with authors who I would otherwise never have met. I use things like Bouchercon to set some of these up to meet several in person at one event. I also will interview via email questions, also interesting.” That said, fellow crime fiction readers seemed the dominant audience bloggers had in mind and community-building was primarily around sharing reading interests..

Occasional Aggravations

I asked if anything was aggravating, if anything, about blogging. Some bloggers reported no particular aggravations. Others mentioned that it was a significant time commitment, including meeting self-imposed expectations of frequency. One regretted that all available time went into writing posts, leaving too little to interact with other bloggers “which makes me feel a bit of an ingrate.” Commenting created some stresses. Getting few comments or posting comments on others’ blogs that met with no response was a disappointment to some respondents. Interestingly, one blogger who also reviews books professionally, found that there was much less negative commenting on her personal blog than on other media websites.

This points to an interesting tension between developing community through blogging and maintaining a certain amount of critical distance. Several respondents noted that some book blogs provide overenthusiastic promotion of new books rather than thoughtful, honest, informed criticism, noting a proliferation of blogs whose authors substituted enthusiasm for knowledge about the genre or even strong writing and analytical skills. That said, only one respondent mentioned facing a quandary about whether to review a book that wasn’t enjoyable or was simply not very good. There seemed to be an ethos of being scrupulously civil yet honest among the bloggers. A couple of respondents mentioned that authors who take issue with a review, expecting nothing but a five-star rave, and self-published authors pleading for reviews could be tiresome.

I thought I’d close this round-up of responses with a few quotes volunteered by participants:

  • I never went into blogging to make money or build an audience to enormous numbers. I continue to enjoy it because it gives me an opportunity to talk about books.
  • I just do it for fun and hope anyone who reads it enjoys and finds it interesting.
  • I do occasionally feel overwhelmed by the amount that here available to read.
  • Maxine Clarke’s early comments on my blog an invitation to FriendFeed played a crucial role in my blogging: she introduced me to lots of bloggers and lots of books I hadn’t read.

This last comment and a related one (“book blogging can be a sad experience”) resonated with me. As many people in the crime fiction community know, Maxine Clarke was both an expert at emerging social media platforms (something that benefitted the innovative online presence of the premier science journal, Nature, where she was a renowned editor) and a fine and prolific reviewer of crime fiction for Euro Crime and at her own blog, Petrona. She did a great deal to promote high quality book conversations online and almost single-handedly knitted together a vast network of crime fiction readers, so we felt her loss terribly. She is still missed, but a Scandinavian crime fiction prize is awarded in her name annually and many bloggers have contributed to Petrona Remembered to carry on her work discovering and sharing good mysteries.

I want to thank the participants in this survey and mention those who gave me permission to acknowledge them here.

photos courtesy of  Abhi Sharma  and Jain Basil Allyas


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