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I’ve been an inveterate reader of mysteries since my Nancy Drew days, and Asakiyume, who follows my mini reviews of mysteries and other books at GoodReads, suggested that I blog about what I think makes a good mystery. Maybe other readers of these books will chime in.

I like a book that is literate by normal fiction standards. There should be at least one likable character, several plausible perps, no cliches, and loose ends tied up in the conclusion. You should be able to look back in the story and see that clues were carefully laid, and not just in the last quarter. But the clues should be puzzling as you read along. The reader’s brain should be engaged at all times, trying to figure out where the plot is headed.

I like the bad guys or gals to be caught, not to die a natural death or commit suicide, which always feels like a cop-out.

Some people say that Bleak House was the first detective mystery. Dickens certainly sets a high standard for all the measures I value.

I am often drawn to a mystery because of a locale that’s exotic, at least to me, and I find that many authors, even if they have a weak plot, do research into the setting that I appreciate. Still, I may have to take a long break from this genre as I am getting extremely frustrated with increasing inconsistencies, carelessness about plots, typos, and the hostility to readers that starts to appear when authors feel too much pressure to keep churning out more books.

It’s hard to define what I mean by hostility to readers. I noted it, for example, in Martha Grimes, Walter Mosley, and others I once loved but had to stop reading. It has something to do with throwing favorite characters at the reader in a perfunctory way with no new shades. It has something to do with the bones of the formula being too visible, to the point that you can almost see the writer at her desk with her chart of what has to happen in each chapter. And it has something to do with endings that fail to tie up loose threads. I often feel resentment from an author about the pressure from readers to keep delivering this exact sort of book when perhaps the author would prefer to tackle a completely different genre.

Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

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Over at the Brain Pickings blog, Maria Popova has a review of a book that features photos of famous meals in fiction.

“Food and literature have a long and arduous relationship … But nowhere does that relationship come alive more vividly and enchantingly than in Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals  … an ingenious project by designer and writer Dinah Fried, who cooks, art-directs, and photographs meals from nearly two centuries of famous fiction. Each photograph is accompanied by the particular passage in which the recipe appeared, as well as a few quick and curious factlets about the respective author, novel, or food.

“The project began as a modest design exercise while Fried was attending the Rhode Island School of Design a couple of years ago, but the concept quickly gripped her with greater allure that transcended her original short-term deadline.

“As she continued to read and cook, a different sort of self-transcendence took place. [Although] a near-vegetarian, she found herself wrestling with pig kidney for Ulysses and cooking bananas eleven ways for Gravity’s Rainbow. …

“All of Fried’s photographs are immensely thoughtful (Ishmael’s austere dinner from Moby-Dick is not only a nautically appropriate serving of clam chowder, but also appears lit by candlelight), and some bear a distinct undertone of cultural meta-satire (representing A Confederacy of Dunces is the ultimate edible Americana, a hot dog on a classic All-American diner tablecloth).”

Check out Popova’s review here, and revel in photographs that include Sylvia Plath’s avocado and crabmeat salad, Oliver Twist’s request for “More,” Proust’s petite madeleine, Alice’s Mad Tea Party, and Heidi’s toasted cheese.

Photo: Dinah Fried
“On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” — The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

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No, I’m not thinking of the 19th century, of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë), or George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin). Masculine names are taken more seriously than feminine ones nowadays, too.

Here is a woman who put it to the test.

Catherine Nichols writes at the Jezebel blog, “The plan made me feel dishonest and creepy, so it took me a long time to send my novel out under a man’s name. But each time I read a study about unconscious bias, I got a little closer to trying it.

“I set up a new e-mail address under a name—let’s say it was George [Suzanne’s Mom asks, ‘What is it about the name George?’] Leyer, though it wasn’t—and left it empty. Weeks went by without word from the agents who had my work. I read another study about how people rate job applicants they believe are female and how much better they like those they believe are male. …

“So, on a dim Saturday morning, I copy-pasted my cover letter and the opening pages of my novel from my regular e-mail into George’s account. I put in the address of one of the agents I’d intended to query under my own name. I didn’t expect to hear back for a few weeks, if at all. It would only be a few queries and then I’d close out my experiment. I began preparing another query, checking the submission requirements on the agency web site. When I clicked back, there was already a new message, the first one in the empty inbox. Mr. Leyer. Delighted. Excited. Please send the manuscript.

“Almost all publishers only accept submissions through agents, so they are essential gatekeepers for anyone trying to sell a book in the traditional market rather than self-publishing. …

“I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses — three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. …

“I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times.

He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.

“Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25. …

“Most of the agents only heard from one or the other of us, but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior agent. Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was ‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’ No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty. …

“I quit sending out queries entirely, and used the critiques that George got to improve the book — a book I would have put away in frustration long ago if I hadn’t tried my experiment. The edited draft went to the agent who now represents me, after she got in touch about a nonfiction piece I had written under my own name. Patience, faith, playing by the rules—the conventional wisdom would never have brought me here.” More at Jezebel.

Whew. Now I’m wondering if the fantastic (male) nonfiction writer ML Elrick got some rejection letters because recipients thought he was a female masquerading as a male.  Like JK Rowling. Who now writes mysteries as Robert Galbraith.

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As an icebreaker at lunch Monday, a colleague asked us all to go around the table and name a New Year’s resolution. I said I was going to emulate the phone-reading guy in the comic who tells his friend, “Yes, I just got a text, but I think there’s also a subtext.”

I meant that I want to go beneath the surface of things, to listen to what people are really saying. You know how you can sharpen your skills in that department? Read fiction.

That’s according to an Emory University study written up at MicGabe Bergado has the story. “It’s not news that reading has countless benefits: Poetry stimulates parts of the brain linked to memory and sparks self-reflection … But readers of fiction? They’re a special breed.

“The study: A 2013 Emory University study looked at the brains of fiction readers. [Neuroscientist Gregory Berns and coauthors] compared the brains of people after they read to the brains of people who didn’t read. The brains of the readers — they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii over a nine-day period at night — showed more activity in certain areas than those who didn’t read.

“Specifically, researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The researchers also found increased connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory region, which helps the brain visualize movement. When you visualize yourself scoring a touchdown while playing football, you can actually somewhat feel yourself in the action. A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book: You can take on the emotions they are feeling. …

“Need more proof? Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research focused on the effect of literary fiction, rather than popular fiction, on readers.  For the experiment, participants either read a piece of literary fiction or popular fiction, followed by identifying facial emotions solely through the eyes. Those who read literary fiction scored consistently higher, by about 10%.

” ‘We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple,’ Castano wrote to Mic.” More here.

Thank you, Claire, for sending this. You know what I like.

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My friend Ronnie is a former broadcaster, a poet, and a food maven, who lived in France for years and later wrote a book called Eat Smart in France. Recently Ronnie interviewed the mystery writer Cara Black for a blog called My French Life. Black writes about Paris. Her latest novel is Murder in Pigalle.

Ronnie asks, “What drew you to this part of town?

Black: “There are two worlds in Pigalle. The world of the day with families and people who work in the shops, and the world of the night, where people work in the clubs. …

“I really like Pigalle. I discovered so much I didn’t know. [But] I get intrigued by different districts, their flavor and feeling. If I ever figure them out, I’ll probably stop writing about them.” More of the interview here, including a observations on the German occupation of Paris during WW II.

For a wonderful, unusual book with the occupation of Paris as a setting, I recommend Léon and Louise. It’s an odd love story taking place over many decades in France, written by a Swiss and translated into English. I haven’t read many books by Cara Black, but if you like novels that teach you something about a different part of the world in a rather fanciful way, I recommend Léon and Louise, by Alex Capus.

Photo of Ronnie Hess

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Thank you, Gwarlingo, for tweeting this. Looks like there’s hope for us all.

“All your excuses are invalid,” says Dustin Kurtz in an article at the Melville House site about “the seventy-five year old winner of a prize for emerging writers.

“The semiannual Akutagawa prize was awarded in Japan this past Wednesday, and this season’s winner was Natsuko Kuroda. The Akutagawa prize, begun in 1935, is awarded for stories published in newspapers or magazines by new or emerging authors. Kuroda is seventy-five years old.

“Her story, ‘ab Sango’ (it can be previewed and purchased here) is unusual in that it uses no pronouns for its young principle characters, and is written horizontally across the page from left to right, rather than the standard top to bottom. The result is strange and beautiful, and hints at a genealogy of Popper-esque fairy tale formulae, of mathematics or of sociology, and all of which is given subtle cultural freight by Kuroda’s horizontal lines. But again — because it bears repeating — this intriguing emerging writer is seventy-five years old.

“Kuroda is in fact the oldest writer ever to be given the Akutagawa prize, and she is nearly as old as the prize itself. Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the award’s namesake and perhaps Japan’s most celebrated story writer, famously killed himself when he was less than half her current age.

“Upon receiving the prize, Kuroda said, ‘Thank you for discovering me while I am still alive.’ ” More.

Photograph: Melville House, an independent book publisher in Brooklyn, NY.

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It took me a while to get into twitter, but I’m hooked now. In fact, some readers  of this blog follow me by way of @LunaStellaBlog1 instead of signing up for e-mails. (Luna & Stella is Suzanne’s company.)

The abortive revolution in Iran showed me the power of twitter and was a turning point for me. I still know the date by heart, June 20, 2009. If you searched on #Iran, the tweets came so fast with offers of new servers when sites were blocked in Iran, with up-to-the-minute photos and recordings, with citizens getting the word out that I got hundreds of tweets per minute and the U.S. president had to ask twitter not to do maintenance one night because it was a critical time of day in Iran.

Now I learn a completely different thing about twitter. It seems that people have been writing fiction in 140-character bites and that the practice has matured to the extent that twitter fiction is ready for a festival.

Writes Jennifer Schuessler at the NY Times, “The participants, some two dozen published and neophyte authors from five continents chosen by a panel of American publishing insiders, are posting in five different languages, often with input solicited from readers. The Iowa-based writer Jennifer Wilson is posting photographs of gravestones and then writing ‘flash fiction’ in response to epitaphs submitted by followers. The South African author Lauren Beukes is writing mashups, gathered under the hashtag #LitMash, based on ‘incongruous suggestions (the weirder the better!),’ according to the festival’s showcase page.

“The French fantasy novelist Fabrice Colin is writing a serialized story of five strangers trapped on a bus. And an anonymous Chinese author is contributing ‘Censortive,’ a story exploring the limits of free speech in the People’s Republic, tweeted out in a series of late-night installments.” Read more here.

It’s not War and Peace, of course.

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