Deep breath. My debut blog. Should I be inspiring, confessional, funny or soul-searching? Should I rant? Should I riff? Should I rap? Should I gaze at my navel or at my shoes? (Shoes are infinitely preferable, just check out the cover of Deadly Dues and you will totally know what I mean.
I have made a decision. Let's talk mysteries, the first ones I read and the ones I read now, and how they have influenced me. (If I may be so presumptous as to refer to great writers in the same breath as MOI.....)
I read my very first traditional mystery when I was barely a teenager. The book was a black hardcover, Vamp Till Ready, by Terry Rieman. I think my mother had picked it up on a sales table at the old Eaton's store in downtown Calgary. I loved it. I read it again and again, sometimes three times in one year. As a young artist (really young) I reveled in the world of classical and jazz music which was the setting for this book. I adored the strong, savvy first person heroine, Gerda Leedon, a singer with a big heart and a jaded eye. Our home reverberated with opera music and classical piano, and I was agog, at my young age, that there was actually a mystery set in the world of opera. The characters were vividly written. The dialogue was great. Ms. Rieman knew how to make a restaurant or hotel come alive on the page. I especially liked the clarity of the first person dialogue. Of course, at that age, I didn't know this consciously. I just knew I loved the book and wished I could live in that sophisticated world. I had no idea, that years later, the structure of this book might guide me through my first mystery. When I was into the second or third draft of Deadly Dues, feeling slightly befuddled by what I had taken on, I found Vamp Till Ready in my basement, and re-read it in one sitting. It inspired me to focus.
I put mysteries aside for some years, reading non-fiction and drama in university. Then, for a while, I read serious self-help, spiritual books, which were dull as dishwater but made me think I was becoming a wonderful, evolved person, haha. Then I read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and suddenly, the world opened. After months of the morning pages, I roared into a new life as an author with a vengeance.
Somewhere along the way, I picked up a Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery at a garage sale. It was old, it was yellow, it made me sneeze, but I couldn't put it down. I read it in one sitting. It might have been The Circular Staircase. I enjoyed it so much, as a welcome escape into fiction, that I started looking for more Mary Roberts Rinehart. I then found Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers. I loved them all, especially A Surfeit of Lampreys. Of course, I had read Agatha Christie, and still enjoy every one, but, finding these new (to me!) authors got me hooked on actively looking for mysteries to read.
I found an old Eric Ambler at a flea market, and was entranced. Wit, suspense, character, in one package. Then I revisited some of my favourite films, The Maltese Falcon, Mask of Demetrious, Laura, and realized they had originated with great detective mystery novels. Of course, I had to go back and read them all. I have a battered copy of Laura, which is falling apart, but which I revere.
As I realized that reading mysteries was a therapeutic exercise, I began discovering more authors. On a library clearance rack, I found two books by an author I had never heard of: Four to Score and High Five by Janet Evanovich. When I laughed out loud in the first paragraph of Four to Score, I knew I was hooked. I remember standing in the hushed Shaganappi Library, hooting, while more serious citizens looked at me askance. I now have every book in the Stephanie Plum series, most of them first editions.
Although it sounds as if I buy books exclusively secondhand, this is not the case. Buying on the cheap allows one to discover new authors without risk, and then one can zoom to the retail bookstore and search for their latest. I buy books from independent bookstores, large chains, and Amazon.ca.
Then I expanded my reach. Elizabeth Peters, so witty, so erudite. I love the Vicky Bliss series, more than the Amelia Peabody. Dorothy Gilman, not the Mrs. Polifax series as much as the stand alones, like The Tightrope Walker (a wonderful mystery set in the world of antiques, with compassion and dry humour) The Nun in the Closet (laughs, with spirituality) and Caravan (which may be less of a traditional mystery, but still has a surprise ending). I laughed out loud when I read K.K. Beck. Then I discovered Jeff Cohen, with his hilarious Double Feature mysteries. And Kerry Greenwood. When I read Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series, I was stunned: such depth, character, wit. I had met Louise at Wordfest in 2007 (I was at Wordfest with my humour/entertaining book, The Rebel Cook: Entertaining Advice for the Clueless, while she was one of the big stars with her latest mystery. Meeting her was an inspiration.) A playwright friend recommended M.C. Beaton and I was delighted. Sometimes I wanted to box Agatha Raisin on the ears. Other times, I wanted to snort with laughter at such an unreasonably crabby protagonist. My editor, Frances Thorsen, of Chronicles of Crime (a wonderful bookstore in Victoria, B.C.) sent me a copy of Anthony Bidulka's Aloha Candy Hearts, and I became a fan of yet another mystery author: an offbeat hero who is gay, funny, tough, compassionate and who gets the job done. Sharon Wildwind has written a great series about a nurse returning from a tour of Viet Nam. I was sorry to hear she is ending the Pepperhawk series, because I was hooked, there, too. I enjoyed Garry Ryan's The Lucky Elephant Restaurant, and am just about to start another of his mysteries. I recently discovered Lou Allin's mysteries set on Vancouver Island and look forward to finding more. Last week, I read Jeri Westerson's Veil of Lies, and was mesmerized. Love the whole medieval noir concept. Nash Black has a great short story collection, Haints, which was a different genre for me to explore.
How does reading mysteries inform one's creative process? I don't have a definitive answer. I don't know how much I have been influenced by the multitudinous mysteries I have read, except for perhaps having my mind permeated by plot. And this is a good thing, as in my conscious mind, I do not see plotting as one of my strengths. But I am guessing that osmosis has helped me plot, even though I don't always know what I am doing. Strangely, it seems as if the most significant influence was that long ago book, Vamp Til Ready, which affected me so much.
I am pleased (flattered, even) that you might think my words useful. Thanks so much for asking me to contribute. A year ago, I never dreamed that I would have a Lulu Malone mystery series on the go, my very own website and a YouTube book trailer, and be asked to share my thoughts on mystery writing. Go figure.
Perhaps, I might add - that to read and then, to write, is a wondrous gift.
Deadly Dues (TouchWood Editions, 2010)