P is for Problematic: A Critical Review of of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mystery Series—From a Fan!

You may be familiar with the extremely popular alphabet mystery series by Sue Grafton, which starts with A is for Alibi and ends at Y is for Yesterday, when the series ended with Sue Grafton’s death. I read the series this year and I enjoyed it. The main character, Kinsey Millhone, is a no-nonsense, witty, assertive, peanut-butter-and-pickle-sandwich-eating badass and private investigator. 

And while I did enjoy the series, there is much to be critiqued. There are problems. You could say it is

p r o b l e m a t i c. 

Because the term “problematic” can become partisan or dismissed as simply meaning “offensive,” let’s get clear on what it means. As simply as possible, problematic means presenting a problem. Olly Thorn adds that problematic means presenting a “social or political problem to do with some issue of fairness or social justice.”

It’s even more important to discuss the problematic nature of something that we like, or put another way, to critique our “problematic faves.” And Grafton’s series, especially the Kinsey character, and even larger—the genre of mystery—are many people’s favorites, including mine. I’m not saying don’t read these books; I’m saying when you read them, do so critically, aware of what injustices it may be reproducing. I hope this is a call that we do better moving forward in the genre. 

There are many problems in Grafton’s series, including racism, copaganda, victim-blaming, and more, but I will discuss here: sexism, fatphobia, and classism (with a sprinkling of ableism and xenophobia). I write of these problems separately, but please know that they are inherently more complex and interconnected. The intersectional relationships between fatphobia and sexism or between fatphobia and classism, for examples, are extremely complicated. 


S is for Sexist. How could a series that stars a hardboiled female private eye be sexist? And it’s true that when A for Alibi was published in 1982, it was groundbreaking: a lady private investigator? And written by a lady? The character Kinsey defied previous stereotypical and limited female roles in the mystery genre: either “femme fatale or corpse.” Throughout the series, because of her professional identity and career, other characters often assume Kinsey is a man, which she always sassily and satisfyingly rebuts. “Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.”  

But still, there are problems. In Y is for Yesterday, Kinsey believes, “The odd but unremarkable truth about women is we’ve had the aggression bred right out of us. Many of us are constitutionally unable to handle any kind of confrontation without bursting into tears.” This kind of generalizing about women as a whole is problematic in and of itself without regarding the intersections of gender, racism, disability, class, etc. It’s also problematic in regards to considering women as biologically weaker and that a “feminine” quality of expressing emotion during conflict is negative. Female characters in Grafton’s books, especially beloved Kinsey, regularly judge or comment on other women’s bodies or refer to other women as “bitchy.” Internalized sexism is readily seen when women habitually disparage themselves or other women, especially in regards to body-shaming them. It’s also seen in references to women as the “weaker sex,” which is, unfortunately, a surprisingly common theme in a series featuring a strong female main character!

And let’s talk about the trope of the strong female character, because that is harmful as well. Strong female characters might superficially seem feminist and anti-sexist, but it’s more complicated than that. What makes a female character “strong?” For a female character to be strong, it usually means she expresses masculine traits and eschews feminine ones. The problem is not masculinity, but rather that we associate strength with masculinity. Like other strong female characters such as Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, Kinsey reasserts masculine traits like having a willingness to commit gun violence; being tough and physically fit; needing to assert dominance in most situations; detesting stereotypically feminine interests like fashion, cooking, and make up—just to name a few. The work here is to change the way we see strength, to see strength in typically feminine traits or feminine expression. The response to the damsel in distress trope of the past isn’t to create harm as an overcorrection to the strong female character trope. 


F is for Fatphobic. [content warning: fat-shaming, weight] As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image, Grafton’s series was often difficult to read. Diet culture and fat-shaming feature as main characters of the series in their own right, unfortunately. Kinsey is constantly exercising to “stay slim,” analyzing the calories of every food, skipping meals or bingeing on junk food, and making harmful judgments and evaluations of other characters’ bodies. If you share the same struggles with diet, weight, and shame as I do, I might recommend skipping this series entirely.

Personally upsetting to me was Grafton’s descriptions of Kinsey’s friend Vera Lipton’s body. From books B through J, Vera is described with words like “big” and “bulky.” In J is for Judgment (how fitting), Kinsey says, “She’s a big gal to begin with: maybe five feet ten, 140 pounds on a good size frame. She’d never been apologetic about her generous proportions.” As a woman who is exactly five feet ten myself, 140 pounds is not remotely “big.” 

Especially concerning and harmful is how Grafton writes about a fat and lonely hotel clerk named Arlette who tries to argue for body acceptance:

“Fat is beautiful, Kinsey,” she said to me confidentially as I filled out the registration card. “Looka here.”

I looked. She was holding out her arm so that I could admire the hefty downing of excess flesh.

“I don’t know, Arlette,” I said dubiously. “I keep trying to avoid it myself.”

“And look at all the time and energy it takes,” she said. “The problem is that our society shuns tubbos. Fat people are heavily discriminated against. Worse than the handicapped. Why, they got it easy compared to us. Everywhere you go now, there are signs out for them. Handicapped parking. Handicapped johns. You’ve seen those little stick figures in wheelchairs. Show me in the international sign for the grossly overweight. We got rights.”

Her face was moon-shaped, surrounded by a girlish cap of wispy blonde hair. Her cheeks were permanently flushed as though vital supply lines were being dangerously squeezed.

“But it’s so unhealthy, Arlette,” I said. “I mean, don’t you have to worry about high blood pressure, heart attacks…”

“Well there’s hazards to everything. All the more reason we should be treated decently.”

What’s frustrating to see in this excerpt is Arlette arguing for fat acceptance and an end to fat-shaming, which I wholly support. However, Grafton presents it embedded in disgusted and judgmental descriptions about her body, which makes Arlette’s claims seem foolish and absurd. Not only is there fatphobia is this short quotation, but also sexism and ableism.

We know that fat-shaming, especially embedded in concerns about “health,” like Kinsey claims in the above excerpt, only do more harm than good. Shaming people for being fat by claiming you do so for their health not only doesn’t reduce their weight but actually leads to unhealthy outcomes: both increased disordered eating in response to public shaming, and rejection and the significant mental health tolls the shaming takes on our bodies. 

Sure, A is for Alibi was published in 1982, at the height of diet culture, the low-fat movement, and a time where fat-shaming was common (and unfortunately still is today). The book does reflect the culturally acceptable beliefs and behaviors of the day. However, there are 26 books in the series written over three decades, with the final book being published in 2017. Yet, diet culture and fat-shaming is a huge ongoing theme that never gets corrected or addressed. It doesn’t matter if Grafton shares these fat-shaming beliefs with Kinsey or if she is writing them as solely belonging to Kinsey—the harmful consequences are the same. 


C is for Classist. Kinsey (and arguably by proxy, Grafton) really hate poor and homeless people. Grafton’s series is rife with classism, which is the “systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.” Not only does Grafton write Kinsey into being in awe of rich characters’ homes and fashion, but she writes about homeless and poor characters and their associated negative qualities in extremely harmful ways.

A theme of the books places the responsibility on individuals instead of systems and structures: “bad apples” in the police force instead of structural problems with policing, criminals who “choose” crime instead of structural problems that leave them desperate, fat people who “choose” to be fat instead of the stronghold of food engineering and advertising. Likewise with classism. However, homelessness is not an individual’s failure—it is a structural failure of the society. Yet, Grafton continually writes that being poor or homeless is a personal lifestyle choice rather than being a victim of mental illness, poverty, and capitalist structures designed to keep people in poverty and out of homes. Even though homeless characters in W is for Wasted work heroically and without pay for Kinsey to solve that book’s case, she continually assesses them as smelly, unhygienic, and morally weak for living in poverty and having substance addictions.

In an intersectional medley of oppression in Y is for Yesterday, fat and homeless woman Pearl comes to live with Kinsey’s kind neighbor. Kinsey tells Pearl she is both taking advantage of the neighbor and illegitimately receiving disability support. Though Pearl’s hip is broken, Kinsey saw her hanging clothes on a clothes line and therefore believes Pearl is faking it, which is extremely offensive and harmful. Kinsey says, “Little sympathy I had for moochers and human parasites.” It should go without saying that no oppressed human deserves to be called a “parasite.”

Grafton writes a scene in V is for Vengeance that is an interesting and disturbing intertwining of classism and ethnocentrism, which entails the evaluation of other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Throughout the series, Kinsey disparages Rosie’s homemade Hungarian dishes as “repulsive” and focusing on animal parts typically considered “disgusting” in xenophobic perspectives. “By the time she finished telling me how tender the feet should be… my eyes were beginning to cross.” Kinsey more than once through the series spits out Rosie’s lovingly prepared meals. Such an ongoing “joke” throughout the series made me cringe every time. We get it: “foreign” food is gross and weird—ha ha. Pearl and another of her homeless friend are the only characters in the series to genuinely enjoy Rosie’s cooking, relating their subordinated social class with the unimaginable enjoyment of “gross” foods and lack of taste.


Grafton’s series itself won’t change as the years go on, but our reading of it will change, because we change with times. A 2020 reading of the series shows some of the problems and perpetuated harm still present in the series. So, read the series with a critical eye.

Better yet—if you’re a fan of mystery, crime fiction, and thrillers and are willing to join me, let’s read some incredible books from LGBT+ and mystery writers of color. Both of these groups have largely been historically excluded from the mystery genre. A classic psychological thriller written by lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley is gripping, suspenseful, and existential. New publications by black women mystery writers like My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole are fun and creative tales that seek to disrupt the status quo rather than perpetuate it.

And if you can’t get enough of a series featuring a hardboiled protagonist, check out Michael Nava’s series featuring a gay and Latino defense lawyer named Henry Rios. Nava’s queer framing of the mystery and crime genres challenge what we expect.

Maybe it’s time to get some new favorites.

6 Best Sherlock Holmes Stories

Few works are quite as timelessly transcendent as the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and as such, the pipe-smoking sleuth needs little introduction. The legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works is made obvious through the many adaptations that have been created throughout the years, as well as the reshaping of the mystery genre as a whole. The last Sherlock Holmes story was published in April of 1927, and to celebrate the 93rd anniversary of our favorite detective, I have compiled a list of my personal favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. Don’t worry, I won’t give away any endings! So, without further ado, let’s dive in!


The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot. This story has a title that’s as unique as its plot. Holmes and Watson find themselves vacationing in a cottage in Cornwall, as Holmes has been urged to take a break from consulting for his health. Their holiday is soon interrupted, however, by the news that a local’s house was struck by a terrible tragedy. Mortimer Tregennis explains that he had visited his sibling’s house one night, then returned the next morning to find his sister dead and his brothers sitting at the table maniacally laughing and singing. Judging from the grotesquely horrified faces of the three victims, the death and insanity was presumably caused by fear. At once baffling and eerie, I especially love this story for the way it shows Holmes and Watson’s unyielding dedication to unveil the truth, at times with no regard for their personal safety.


The Yellow Face. Initially appearing to be somewhat mundane compared to some of Doyle’s other works, this story shows itself to contain a great deal of depth upon its conclusion. Mysteries tend to highlight the darker side of human nature, and this story is a uplifting exception. A visitor arrives at Baker Street one morning seeking the detective’s help to discover a secret his wife is keeping from him. Mr. Munro swears by a happy and trusting relationship with his wife, Effie, until her peculiar behavior beginning a few months earlier. Without preface or reason, she asked her husband for one thousand pounds, then began secretly sneaking off to a nearby cottage in Norbury. Despite his wife’s insistence that he not speculate about her actions, Munro surveyed the house and saw a mysterious figure with a yellow face, and promptly decided to consult Sherlock to discover the truth. This story is singular in that it highlights a rare folly on Holmes’ part, and strikes a strong contrast to the typical nefarious acts carried out in Doyle’s other mysteries.


The Reigate Squires. This story begins, yet again, with Holmes and Watson taking a vacation from their investigative work, as Holmes has fallen ill after a particularly strenuous case. Rest continues to evade him, however, as a string of robberies in the area is brought to his attention. The first burglary was puzzling in that the thieves stole a number of items, but none of them were of any value. The second, however, resulted in the murder of the estate’s coachman, who was found with a torn note in his hand. Amidst the mystery, Holmes finds opportunities to use his illness to his advantage in order to discover the truth. This story in singular in that it highlights Sherlock’s cunning, and sometimes duplicitous, methods. The reader is reminded that the detective has a keen understanding of both crime and deceit.


The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. Charles Augustus Milverton is a notorious blackmailer, and regarded by Sherlock as the most repulsive type of criminal. Presently, he and Watson are forced to meet with Milverton on behalf of a client currently at his mercy. The client, Lady Eva Blackwell, is hoping to buy compromising letters from Milverton that, if released, would scandalize and end her engagement to the Earl of Dovercourt. Upon meeting with Charles to negotiate a price for his silence, the duo finds Milverton to be uncooperative, and must result to alternative means to protect their client. As an independent consultant, Holmes is ruled more by his own morals than any legal obligations. As such, this story highlights the moral gray areas that exist in the detective’s business and provides an interesting glimpse into the sometimes criminal acts of the two men.


The Speckled Band. This story is widely-acclaimed, with Doyle himself claiming it to be his best work. It begins with Helen Stoner consulting Holmes and Watson because she fears that her stepfather is trying to kill her. Helen explains that Dr. Roylott was the widowed husband of her mother, and was known to be a violent man, having already served time for murder. Two years earlier, shortly before being married, Helen’s twin sister died, her last words being, “The speckled band!” Now, Helen has been the observer of many strange occurrences within her home, and has recently been relocated into the room where her sister died under the pretense of construction. This work is a classic locked room mystery and provides perhaps the best example of the way in which Doyle’s works forever altered the genre as a whole.



The Red-Headed League. Last, but certainly not least, is the baffling and entertaining mystery of the red-headed league. As the title suggests, the detective meets a client with shocking red hair and a perplexing story. The client, Wilson, explains that his assistant had previously urged him to respond to a newspaper ad offering high wages for employees with bright red hair. Taking this advice, Wilson attends an interview and is hired on the spot, as the other applicants had hair that was either too light or too dark, according to the interviewers. His “job” with the league entailed going to their office during the week and copying pages of the encyclopedia, a menial task which Wilson happily completed for high wages. A few weeks later, however, Wilson arrived to find a note announcing the disbanding of the league, and was unable to learn more. This story is amusing and singular in its plot, but the conclusion reveals itself to be far more sinister than it seems at a glance.

4 Books to Help you Spring into the New Season

As the weather gets warmer and the flowers start to bloom, it’s the perfect time to pick up a new book. Whether you’re taking a break from spring cleaning or looking for an excuse to sit on the porch and relax, I’ve compiled a list of books sure to keep you occupied on a nice, spring afternoon.


Safe HavenNicholas Sparks. This is a great novel to begin with, but it is especially great for spring, a season of fresh starts. It follows Katie Feldman as she flees to the coast of North Carolina to start over. She attempts to lay low and keep to herself, but is won over by a local named Alex, who was recently widowed. As Katie grows closer to him and his two kids, she finally starts to feel a sense of belonging—until one day, when her past comes back to haunt her. Eventually, she has to decide between facing it or running away for the rest of her life. Throughout the novel, the reader is given small hints at what Katie’s past entails, which heightens some of the drama. This novel perfectly blends mystery and suspense with a heartfelt romance. It is sure to keep you on your toes and warm your heart at the same time.


The Spectacular NowTim Tharp. What kind of spring book list would it be without a blossoming romance? This novel is exactly that, and it is fantastic. The Spectacular Now follows the story of Sutter and Aimee, polar opposites with seemingly nothing in common. One morning, Sutter wakes up on someone’s front lawn and Aimee finds him. After learning a bit about her and her lifestyle, Sutter takes it upon himself to show her the “fun” side of life. But, what he doesn’t realize is how harmful his way of life is, as he drags her down with him. This novel takes place during a transitional time in life, making it perfect as we transition into spring. It is a bit on the heavier side, but will definitely keep you occupied—it’s a page turner! So, clear your afternoon and get ready for the roller coaster that is The Spectacular Now.


Always Never Yours Emily Wibberley & Austin Siegemund-Broka. This novel is great for fans of YA fiction. It’s lighthearted and a bit corny—but in the best way. And, let’s be honest, we all could use a bit of that sometimes. It follows the story of Megan Harper, who dates someone until she finds them falling in love—with someone else. She doesn’t let this get her down though, and focuses on the next fling as well as getting into her dream school. To do so, she has to fulfill an acting requirement, which consequently lands her the lead in her school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Through this, she expects to find her next “thing” but ends up making an unlikely friend, who may end up being the one for her and not someone else. This novel is refreshing and sweet, making it the perfect light read for a nice spring day.


Dear Evan Hansen Val Emmich. Winter can be a tough season mentally, so as we transition out of it, a book around mental health can be a great addition to the process. Adapted from the musical, the novel follows Evan Hansen as he attempts to navigate the world. He starts his senior year of high school with a broken arm after falling out of a tree. On that same day, Connor Murphy, his classmate, commits suicide. Evan gets tied into the situation when Connor’s parents find what they believe is a suicide letter from their son addressed to Evan Hansen, leading the Murphy parents to believe Evan was their son’s only friend. In reality, the two were never friends—and the letter wasn’t actually Connor’s. It was a letter Evan wrote as an assignment from his therapist that Connor had stolen earlier that day. Afraid to upset Connor’s parents further, Evan goes with it and the lie spirals from there. He is forced to face the truth of the situation and about himself. This novel is definitely on the heavier side but a great staple for the transition of seasons. It is sure to keep you busy for the whole day and hopefully bring you some warmth as spring approaches.

Book Review

Flying on the Ground by Richie Billing

Publisher: Self Published 
Genre: Short Fiction Collection Ranging in Genre
Pages: 374
Format: E-book
My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

Flying on the Ground, is a collection of the previously published short fiction of Richie Billing. The stories that make up the collection range in genre from fantasy, historical fiction, general fiction, horror, and crime. Thematically they explore notions of poverty, gentrification, addiction, hunger, survival, and much more. In all, it is an impressive collection that shows the author’s range, ability to build a compelling world, and his skill at placing characters who are just as compelling into that world.

Thoughts

As I was reading Flying on the Ground, schools were closing statewide as my community braced for whatever the coronavirus was going to bring our way. The circumstances were changing hour by hour, and while I did not witness any panicking, the tension and stress of uncertainty was palpable. This collection was the perfect distraction from all of that. Full of useful tropes and colorful characters, these stories don’t reinvent the wheel, but that is because they do not need to—this collection is entertaining, fun and well worth the read! 

I most enjoyed the fantasy section of the collection and was drawn in by the way Billing seamlessly builds the world around his characters. Some of these stories take place in a shared world, and the overflow of the stories into one another was delightfully done and contributed to a larger arch. I thought that it was interesting how each story can stand on its own as an enjoyable tale, but was also a piece of a larger picture. 

If you are looking for a quick read that will distract you from all of the things unfolding that we currently need distraction from, this collection is for you!  


I would like to thank the author for this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Sisters in crime: A visit with the Daring Dames of High Desert Intrigue

The moon cut the night sky, a razor-sharp glint casting only enough light to throw all into shadow. Pools of light cut feebly into the night, outlining the figures that moved swiftly through them, in and out of darkness. The figures hastened towards a brightly lit building in the distance as if pulled there by some unseen force. There was a metallic taste to the air, and the girl breathed in deeply, sucking the hint of electrical current deep into her lungs.

Tonight was the night of the gathering. Her pulse quickened as she took her first step through the maze of shadows. Perhaps she would be met by only whispers and furtive glances, huddled figures gathered closely in dim corners. The fabrics of their elegant clothes swishing softly, the deep folds capable of hiding any number of perilous items. Instruments edged with the same precision as the neatly honed words of the authors of mystery and suspense who collected inside. Fear mingled with excitement, and her curiosity drove her onward towards the distant glow which broke the darkness.

My Night at Croak & Dagger

Though this may be a highly romanticized version of the night I visited with the New Mexico chapter of the Sisters in Crime organization, neatly titled Croak & Dagger, my excitement was no less palpable. I was elated at the idea of a network of women writers who share my love of characters that cannot be trusted, moonless nights whispering the promise of death and betrayal, and the thrill of the hunt. I knew upon learning of this society that here I would find kindred spirits, here I would find women laced together in ink and blood.

The Sisters in Crime is a world-wide network of writers and bibliophiles boasting more than 60 chapters with over 4000 members. Self-described on their website as “authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the genre and our support of women crime writers.” With more than 50 chapters existing in the United States, the syndicate’s wide-spread reach is indicative of the enthusiasm which permeates its meetings.

I arrived with notebook hand, armed with the name Charlene Dietz, president of the local chapter with whom I had corresponded. The room itself was in stark contrast with my gloomy musings, brightly lit and inviting, packed with chairs in neat rows. There was a colorful array of scarves, jewelry and cozy sweaters to stave off the chill of the late winter air outside. A buzz filled the room, people happily chatting, leaning close in to each other in their excitement. I was greeted at once by a warm smile by a woman who introduced herself as Ann, and gently pulled me into the fold. We were greeted, in turn, by a tall woman with perfectly bobbed, silvery hair and an equally gentle look. As she introduced herself, this was Madame President, she welcomed me with a hug and I felt immediately at ease.

I took my place in the front row as the meeting commenced with a jovial feeling. There was light banter back and forth between the speakers and crowd. A change in future meeting venue was being discussed, and as one speaker stated, “I cannot stress to you how hard it is to find a parking spot,” she was answered with a mischievous “How hard is it?”, the company bubbling with laughter. This was the business portion of the evening, and topics ranged from upcoming meetings to community events were discussed. The line-up of speakers for the next few months included a court reporter, a fellow author, and a neurologist. Each of these presenters selected for the knowledge they could impart which was relevant to the crime genre. The members discussed an upcoming “speed dating” event which would consist of a conversation between one writer and one reader for three minute increments in several rounds.

The members enthusiastically planned for events such as a library tour in Albuquerque and the surrounding area, as well as celebrating each other’s publishing and writing successes. One author was scheduled as a panelist for a literary conference in California, another had just gotten his 600th Amazon review. Yes, there were also a few men sprinkled throughout the meeting, illustrating the inclusivity which I had already felt. Perhaps the greatest excitement in the room came when the premiere event of 2020 was reviewed. Having a submitted a request to the national syndicate, Croak & Dagger was proud to announce that it had been given permission to have an event with best-selling mystery author Rhys Bowen. With discussion of sister chapters and the appearance of a nationally known writer, it was apparent that while this chapter was local, the interest and the network itself was ubiquitous. I got the feeling that no matter where a person might visit the Sisters in Crime, they would be greeted with as much warmth and literary fervor as I had been.

The latter half of the meeting consisted of a panel discussion, consisting of the voices of readers, the subject of which was “What Do Readers Want Authors to Know?”. Introductions of the panelists were made by Charlene, prefaced with the statement “this may or may not be true.” Some of the biographical information she shared was fictional, and everyone present was delighted by the creative energy. After being asked what they looked for in covers when choosing a book, ideas such as “interesting details” and “what other authors have blurbed about the book” on the back cover were mentioned. One panelist looked for an interesting font on the spine of a book when choosing. The members of the crowd paid close attention, each visibly storing away the information for future perusal. Some plot dos and don’ts were also brought up, such as not killing off an important character, or not allowing for a character to betray the reader by acting against their nature.

The final question of the night was, “What happens when you close a book?” A panelist replied simply, “If you’ve created a world that I can inhabit, I will remember.” This heady idea was agreed on by all the panelists and the discussion closed with all present reminded of the reason that we all love the written word. The panelists were each given an engraved silver-toned letter opener, marked S in C (Sisters in Crime) Croak & Dagger to mark the occasion.

As the meeting ended, the chatter crested throughout the room once again, this time filled excitement for the future and abuzz with fresh ideas. Members dwindled out, heading to the nearby coffee shop to continue the lively exchange. I hung back taking it all in. Several members spoke to me and expressed their pleasure at my presence and encouragement to me as a writer. Ann even shared with me some of her own story, telling me about her days writing as a both a student and teacher. I left with a feeling of deep satisfaction. I had not only found a meeting of like minds, I had found a sisterhood (ahem, and brotherhood) of kind and creative souls.


The Sisters in Crime is a world-wide network of authors and book enthusiasts open to any new members with a passion for finely crafted words and crime. For information on how to join, please visit https://www.sistersincrime.org/. Pages for Croak & Dagger, as well as the Arizona chapters Desert Sleuths (Phoenix metro), and the Tucson Sisters in Crime can be found both here and on the website.


Top 4 Best Crime Novels

Crime-suspense is one of my favorite genres—I find that there is nothing better and more satisfying than solving a good mystery. So, whether you are just getting into the genre, or you’ve watched all the crime documentaries on Netflix and need more mystery, I’ve got just the thing for you: a list of my top 4 crime novels, written in various styles, so you can find the one that is right for you!


The WoodsHarlan Coben. This is one of my all time favorite novels. It follows the story of Paul Copeland, who lost his sister 20 years ago when she went missing from the summer camp they attended. Now, he is a prosecutor in New Jersey and goes by Cope. However, just as he begins to move forward from his sister’s death, a homicide victim comes forward that could be linked to his sister. As he works again to solve the mystery from 20 years ago, shocking new discoveries about the case are made. This novel is full of suspense and it is a true page-turner. With a plot twist that is absolutely mind blowing, I always recommend it to people who want to read a crime novel. Netflix even adapted it into a series (with only minor changes!). To this day, it is one of the best and most creative novels I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend everyone to pick up a copy!


OutfoxSandra Brown. This is a splendid novel for someone interested in a crime story mixed with a little bit of romance. It follows Drex Easton, an FBI agent who has been on the hunt for the same man for 30 years. This man, formerly known as Weston Graham, becomes close with wealthy women, and then murders them in ways that appear to be accidents, taking their money after. Each time, he changes his appearance and name completely, leaving no trace. Drex finally gets a lead on a him, but, in the process begins to fall in love with his wife. This novel perfectly intertwines a suspenseful chase with a heartwarming love story. As with any crime novel, it also includes an unanticipated plot twist. It is a definite read for anyone looking to enter the world of crime/mystery novels.


The Girl on the TrainPaula Hawkins. This novel is a little bit more well known, and also an excellent read. It follows the story of Rachel Watson, an alcoholic who grieves the end of her marriage with her husband Tom after he has an affair and marries the woman he cheated with. Rachel rides the train every morning and observes a seemingly perfect couple who lives on the street she used to live on. She becomes enchanted by the couple, reminiscing on the life she used to live. One day, she sees the wife kissing another man and days later, the woman has disappeared. Rachel remembers snippets of a night where she interacted with the missing woman, but has blacked out on most of the rest. The story progresses as she tries to piece together the true story of what happened, with a twist I did not see coming. This is a great crime/mystery novel for anyone who already loves the genre, or, for people starting to get into it. It was also made into a motion picture, but I recommend reading the book first to really get into the story!


Something in the WaterCatherine Steadman. This novel is another favorite of mine, however, it has a slightly different setup than the above novels. It primarily follows Erin Locke and her husband, Mark, after they find a mysterious bag floating in the water on their honeymoon filled with a bundle of cash, a gun, a flash drive, a bag of diamonds and a phone. They try to return the bag to the front desk, but it continues to appear in their room. Eventually, they decide to do some investigating themselves to see if they can maneuver their way into keeping the prizes. The interesting thing about this novel is that it starts months after they find the bag, at the height of the story and then goes back in time from there. This plot line gave some foreshadowing to the story and made my desire to unfold the mystery even stronger. This novel kept me flipping the pages and airs more on the side of suspense than true crime. I definitely recommend giving it a read.

Sharp Objects: Book-to-Miniseries

Book

Author: Gillian Flynn
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Pages: 272
Buy Local

Like any lover of books and cinema, I’m always excited to watch a film adaptation of a book I’ve finished reading. Most recently, I’ve been interested in the literary miniseries trend, where producers transform a book into several television episodes, often adding complexity to the story with additional characters and storylines. The HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, based on the book by Gillian Flynn, does exactly this.

Both the book and miniseries follow Camille Preaker, a mediocre reporter who is sent on an assignment to cover the murders of two preteen girls in her tiny hometown, Wind Gap. Camille’s editor, Curry, senses a compelling story is waiting to be uncovered in the southern town, but he also believes sending Camille to her hometown could be healing for her since she recently had a brief stay at a psych hospital after self-harming. Once in Wind Gap, Camille receives a chilling, unwelcoming greeting from her mother, meets her half-sister for the first time, and struggles to find any information on the case from townsfolk, the police, or the dapper detective from out of town. Amidst her own troublesome memory and trauma, Camille feels she must unravel the story of her town and her own past to make sense of this mystery.

While I think the miniseries was excellently cast, I think actress Patricia Clarkson (as Adora, Camille’s mother) was particularly accurate. From her appearance, to her mannerisms, costume, voice, and acting, Clarkson’s portrayal of Adora felt spot on. Clarkson captured the Adora I had imagined while reading the book, and it was amazing to see her acting on screen in this series.

While there were several changes made in the miniseries—including an additional storyline about Camille’s rehab roommate, a scene about Calhoun Day that created a toxic Southern Gothic atmosphere, and more town drama in general—I think the most substantial change between book and television was the removal of the first person narrator.

In Gillian Flynn’s novel, we receive all of our information through the mouth of Camille Preaker. On the other hand, in the HBO series, we lack this narration and are not limited to one perspective. I think this cinematic choice made Camille’s alcohol abuse much more apparent in the story. While there were certainly murmurs of alcoholism in the novel, the first person narration did not emphasize this self-medication issue as seriously as the miniseries did.

The choice to remove the first person narrator also makes it harder for the viewer to access Camille’s complex mental states. In the book, the reader gets to see Camille’s thoughts and trauma unveiled—or, at least, as unveiled as Camille is willing to let her thoughts be. In the miniseries, the viewer must rely on fairly chaotic flashbacks to Camille’s haunting memories to understand her mind instead. This reliance on flashbacks to explain Camille’s mind seems to downplay Camille’s sexual trauma, which was more apparent in the book. It also makes Camille’s mental illness more mysterious since the viewer is left to fill in his or her own conclusions.

Of course, most obviously, the miniseries’ removal of the first person narrator also allows the viewer more information to which Camille is not privy. For example, the miniseries provides much more insight into the out-of-town detective and Camille’s editor, making them both more likable characters.

Another (albeit less significant but still interesting) change was the miniseries’ inclusion of music. The soundtrack is entirely diegetic, so whenever a song is featured, it’s because a character turned on a radio, pulled out an old iPod, or started a record. In order to accomplish this feat and avoid creating a dull soundscape, the miniseries gave Alan (Adora’s husband and Camille’s stepfather) a strange obsession with music. In much of the series, the viewer finds Alan tinkering with his stereo system, turning a blind eye—and ear—to the more sinister things happening around him. The miniseries also gave Camille a cracked iPod, which belonged to her old roommate from her stay in the psychiatric hospital. These two additional items provide most of the soundtrack for the series.

In large part, I think the television series and original novel both use their literary and cinematic advantages to highlight the dangers of denial. Throughout this suspenseful story, we see both young and grown characters deny traumatic memories of rape, abuse, and bullying. We see Camille struggling to accept herself and denying vulnerability, pain, love, healing, and truth. We see a townswoman named Jackie who denies a horrible truth she has uncovered about a lifelong friend that she refuses to reveal. And we see the town denying the reality of the two murders as they place more importance on maintaining their own social reputation and standing.

I usually say the book is better than the film adaptation, but I think this HBO miniseries gave Sharp Objects a run for its money. All the same, I recommend starting with the book so you have the opportunity to see dreary, ominous Wind Gap through Camille’s own eyes first.

Miniseries

Network: HBO
No. of episodes: 8
Rating: TV–MA
Main actors: Amy Adams (as Camille Preaker), Patricia Clarkson (as Adora Crellin), Eliza Scanlen (as Amma Crellin)

Literary Event: Hank Early signs “Echoes of the Fall”

Do you nurse a weakness for gripping mystery novels? In the latest of The Earl Marcus Mysteries, follow the titular protagonist of the series down a long, tortuous road of unraveling a mystery revolving around a gruesome murder and a cryptic message.

Join the author, Hank Early, for a signing of Echoes of the Fall at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore this Sunday. For more information, click here.


Location:  The Poisoned Pen, 4014 N. Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale

Date: Sunday, November 17

Time:  2–3 p.m.

Price of the book: $26.99

Book Review

“The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe
from Edgar Allan Poe: Collected Works,
introduction by A.J. Odasso

Publisher: Canterbury Classics
Genre: Horror Fiction Classics
Publication Date: November 2011
Pages: 724
Format: Leather-Bound Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

The third in Poe’s series of detective stories, “The Purloined Letter” follows the work of amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin. The detective is presented with a case that has otherwise stumped the Parisian police, the theft of an incendiary letter. After hearing the story of the theft, and the methods applied to find it, Dupin makes short work of recovering the letter himself.

The actual recovery takes up only a little of the story. What is important is the extraordinary means by which Dupin was able to solve the mystery: the key being the use of a singular kind of logic. Dupin’s success was achieved in immersing himself in the psychosis of the criminal in order to better understand him. By these means he is able to predict his opponent’s actions. So successful is this line of reasoning, that a deep empathy is unveiled between criminal and detective, an empathy which reveals not only the location of a letter, but also exposes the foundations of that which makes up C. Auguste Dupin.

Thoughts

As we move into spooky season, with the cold hands of fall brushing the backs of our necks, our thoughts turn inwards. The time for reflection and consideration has come. We will explore the landscapes of our own inner selves, shedding and releasing those things which no longer serve us in order to make space for new growth. I can think of no better representative of this somewhat macabre period of personal death and rebirth, than master of morbid himself, Edgar Allan Poe. I would like to focus on what I consider to be the perfect opener to the season of self-reflection, Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

“The Purloined Letter” presents a compelling case for the duality of the human soul. Empathy of the variety used by Dupin comes from an understanding born of personal experience. The experience, in this case, does not mean that the detective has engaged in illicit activity. Instead, it implies that his psychological make-up is such that he has subversive impulses. By allowing himself to experience the emotional current of another, recognizing and understanding this person completely, Dupin is also recognizing these qualities within himself. Any allegiance to lawful life is therefore a choice, born out of social and moral awareness, rather than inherent feeling. Dupin could as easily be a notorious criminal as he is a celebrated sleuth.

In this story, Poe’s detective is representative of the duality inherent in all people. A polarity which those of great imagination can access and utilize to transform their own perceptions. This theme feels very relevant to fall’s pensive mood. It speaks to the ideas which we might be examining within ourselves. Who have we been in the past, and who will be in the future?

So, curl up under a warm blanket with a mug of your favorite steamy beverage and submerge yourself into the world of Edgar Allan Poe. A world where nothing is as it seems. Stare into the glass of the double-sided mirror of C. Auguste Dupin. Walk hand in hand with Poe down the shadowed and winding road of an existence somewhere between the light and the dark.   

Book Review

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 296
Format: Paperback
Series: Minnesota Trilogy
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The first of Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, The Land of Dreams takes place along Minnesota’s northern shore of Lake Superior. When local policeman and genealogist Lance Hansen encounters a brutal murder of a Norwegian tourist, Georg Loftus, the surrounding towns are equally horrified and in awe—as they believe it to be the first murder ever recorded on the North Shore.

However, as Hansen begins to unearth more about the North Shore’s past, he begins to wonder if it is in fact the first murder. Regardless, he soon discovers an unbreakable tie that links him to Georg Loftus’s murder, leaving Lance to question everything he once knew to be moral—and more importantly, how the ties of loyalty shape his morality.

Thoughts

As luck would have it, I came upon this book while wandering through an old used-bookstore along the North Shore of Minnesota. Having lived in Duluth for almost two years, and in that time explored much of the North Shore, I had the privilege of knowing exactly where Sundstøl set his story—right down to the beloved pizza shop in Grand Marais called “Sven and Ole’s.”

For me, it was so fun and very special to be able to read a book and be able to follow along with the characters so acutely, bringing my own personal experiences with the Shore into the reading.

I thought Sundstøl did an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of small North Shore towns like Grand Marais, Grand Portage, and Tofte. But that is just the beginning of his wonderful work. I thoroughly enjoyed the story Sundstøl wove. Complicated as it was, I never once found myself confused or muddled in the stories or characters. It made to be a riveting read, and I cannot wait to pick up the second book in the trilogy.

Sundstøl lived on the North Shore, so he is very knowledgeable of the area, and, at times, his book can feel a bit academic. His ability to explain the history is incredible and interesting. That being said, there were a few paragraphs I simply scanned because I wanted to move on with the story. Send me off to literary jail!

Nevertheless, the history Sundstøl provides is not only interesting, but very important to the story, and I am so grateful he included it in the work. I only suggest that readers have a bit of patience when it comes to a dense part in the novel, as the outcome is extremely worth it.

Due to some graphic descriptions and delicate subject matter, I would suggest this book be read at a high school level or above.

If you’re looking for a great mystery that will also teach you more about one of America’s most beautiful regions, I cannot recommend Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams highly enough.