Tag Archives: Nancy Drew

Four NECESSITIES FOR A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

mysteries

I think by now it is pretty clear that I love a good mystery series.  It probably started back in my Trixie Belden days, although I did read a fair amount of Nancy Drew as well.  When I was in college, I worked at a small bookstore in Geneva, Illinois.  There I got hooked on the Anne Perry mysteries.  I read a lot of different things in college for fun, but Anne Perry’s books truly solidified my love of series mysteries.  I branched out and read other authors, and the rest, as they say is history.

I currently have about fifty mystery series that I follow regularly; over the years, there have been some I have let go for a variety of reasons and I am always on the lookout for a new series.  For me, there are certain details that keep me engaged in a mystery series.  So for my completely biased opinion, these are my necessities of a good mystery series.

Four NECESSITIES OF A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

Interesting, plausible protagonist
Although I have read a lot of true crime novels, a good mystery for me is rooted in the characters.  I think that any good series must maintain strong, consistent characters to stabilize the continuity of the series.  It is what ties each book to the previous one and it is what the reader follows from book to book.  When a new release of a favorite author comes out, it feels like catching up with an old friend and visiting about what has happened since the last time we met.

I am not picky about the gender of my protagonist.  I love the female Lady Darby in Anna Lee Huber’s books and Amory Ames in Ashley Weaver’s series, but I find Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston and C. S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr just as engaging.  The key, and I know I have said it before, is that context in which the protagonist encounters a crime must be believable, it must be consistent, and it must be evolving.  I love a good cozy mystery but after a while, multiple deaths in a small town or at a certain ski resort; well, I don’t think I would put that on a place to visit!

Inquiry agents like Charles Lenox in Charles’ Finch’s series or Derek Stone in Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries, police detectives like Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James in Deborah Crombie Scotland Yard series, or even judges and attorneys like Verlaque and Bonnet in M. L. Longworth’s Provencal mysteries all have realistic reasons to encounter, and more importantly, be involved in, solving crimes.

Cozy mysteries are very entertaining and enjoyable, but they don’t have the same sustainability as something that is more grounded.  A good cozy writer should know when to quit and move on to a new series.

Historical setting
Not everything I read has a historical setting but it is definitely a huge plus in what makes a series my favorite.  Yes, I love the simpler time, the fascinating couture, the social customs and limitations, but honestly, the very best part is the lack of technology, specifically the internet.  Historical crime solvers must rely on their ingenuity and inquiry skills.  Now I am not discrediting modern detectives, but I truly love watching characters fit different pieces together.  I know that much of the detecting work could be completed a lot faster with modern tools, but what’s the point of a 50-page mystery!  I often think “why don’t they just look it up online” when I am reading a historical mystery before I remember that isn’t an option.

With characters spending days traveling by horseback or coach or waiting for letters to arrive, the tension of the story builds.  The reader often is sidetracked by the minutia of daily life and seemingly unimportant details; this adds depth and personality to the story and enables the reader to have a stronger grasp on the setting and characters and how they are woven together.

There is also something exotic and mystical about a historical setting; the grittiness seems darker and more threatening while the society and lifestyle creates a more glamorous and opulent feel.  I’ve always felt I that I was born in the wrong decade; reading historical mysteries helps me to channel my inner dreams.

Fun, quirky secondary characters
Remember, it is all about the characters for me.  Mystery books provide great opportunities for secondary characters to pop up over the course of a series.  These characters provide rich ambiance for the time period or foils for the different personalities of a protagonist.  They have the feel of that “crazy Aunt Edna” or “cousin Steve” that we all have in our families; the topic of holiday table conversations with details of their grand adventures, disasters, or both.  I think these characters add a dimension to the story to remind the readers that crime doesn’t occur in a bubble; life still goes on all around which is often what both helps and interferes with the solving of a crime.

Some of my favorite secondary characters are Bonnie Brock in the Lady Darby series, Sid and Gus in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries, and Oscar in the Witchcraft mysteries by Juliet Blackwell.  Sometimes these characters are integral to the development of the plot, sometimes they create obstacles that interfere with the progression of the inquiry, and sometimes they just add a diversion of spice and humor to a darker theme.

Just a hint of romance
Okay, call me a hopeless romantic but I like a bit of a love story in my mysteries.  I like the tension between two characters when they aren’t sure who they can trust, and then how it builds to when they discover that must trust one another.  Relationships often cloud judgement and perception and this added depth creates more conflict in a story and therefore makes it more suspenseful for the reader.  I don’t ever want a relationship in a mystery book to take away from the mystery itself, but a good author with meld the two with thought and purpose.

I like how some relationships grow over the course of the series, like C.S. Harris’ Sebastian and Hero, Tasha Alexander’s Emily and Colin, or Julie Spencer-Fleming’s Russ and Clare.  In contrast, I enjoy how Ashley Weaver’s Amory and Milo stories jump right into an established marriage.  Then of course there is Brad Parks’ Carter Ross and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; who knows if they will ever settle down!  What does Keanu Reeves’ character say in the movie Speed:  I have to warn you; I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work.  Ah, love . . .

Any other mystery buffs out there?  What are the “must-haves” for your favorite series?

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Queries and Conundrums: The Harry Potter Depression

Harry Potter books

We all remember that feeling . . . we finished the last page of Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows . . . and dual emotions of elation and depression filled our hearts.  After devoting countless hours and for some of us, many years of waiting, the story had finally come to an end.  I remember how I felt and then relived it when my own children finished the series.  Now true fans are well aware of the impending release of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, but there really is nothing like the original.

A few months ago, a friend asked me for suggestions for her own 5th grade daughter who had just completed the series.  She too was feeling a sense of depression and loss as to what she could read next.  I can well relate to that feeling of “what could I possibly read, that might be even half as good, as what I finished.”

I think with the Harry Potter books in particular, it is important to look at what attracts a reader to the story and appeals to the reader’s interest.  So, I started to think about what makes the Harry Potter books so engaging and what other books might appeal to those aspects of the story.

Magic
The first appeal for me was the magic.  J.K. Rowling incorporates magic into her stories with clarity and purpose.  The magic is grounded in reality and she has not just created a world where magic exists, but also where it blends almost seamlessly with the real world that we know.  Magic has specific and unique purposes for communication, transportation, education, and all other facets of the modern world.

One of my favorite books that incorporates magic is the Castle Glower series, starting with Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George.  These books tell the story of a magical castle that rearranges, adapts, moves, and deletes rooms in the castle, depending upon who is visiting and what is needed.  When the castle is ambushed, it, along with the Princess Celie, must protect the royal family and save the kingdom.  The adventures continue in subsequent books: Wednesdays in the Tower and Thursdays with the Crown.

World Building
Very few authors can create a new world as complex and all-encompassing as J.R.R. Tolkien and Rowling doesn’t try to do that.  Her creation of a magic world is one that is believable and yet fits into the universal truths of reality.  She doesn’t contradict what is known but instead melds the two worlds.  Perfect example is the access to Platform 9 ¾ or how a telephone booth is the entrance to the Ministry of Magic.

Another author who I think does a great job at this is Rick Riordan with his blending of the mythological world with the real world.  I am a big fan of the Percy Jackson series, but I almost think that the three books of the Kane Chronicles series about Egyptian mythology do an even better job at this.  The description of the world of the pharaohs and the creation of the House of Life magicians is based on the mythology but Riordan makes it come to life and gives this world a personification of its own.

The Golden Trio
I certainly didn’t coin this word but I think it is a great description of the bond between the three main characters and the story that is told through their growth and development.  Certainly not a new concept in literature, think Scout, Jem, and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird or Nancy, Beth, and George in the Nancy Drew Mysteries, the Golden Trio can manifest itself in a variety of gender and age combinations and take different forms, but the primary story revolves around the friendship, conflicts, and evolution of these characters.

One of my favorite Golden Trios — that isn’t in the Percy Jackson books or the Rangers Apprentice series — is from Michael Spradlin’s Youngest Templar Series.  The characters of Tristan, Robard, and Maryam aren’t initially friends, but learn to rely on and trust one another through the progression of the story.  Another fun Golden Trio is Seymour, the young boy; Mr. Grumply, the cantankerous writer; and Olive, the ghost, from the 43 Old Cemetery Road series by Kate Klise.

A Satisfying Conclusion
Even with the impending release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the multitude of fan fiction that has been written, the last Harry Potter book ends with a sense of closure and completion.  The questions are answered, the conflicts are resolved, and although the reader knows that the characters will go on and do more amazing things in their future, he feels at peace with the end.  I know that I have read many, many books that have left me dissatisfied with the conclusion.  I wanted more questions answered or more loose ends tied up; ultimately, I want to know that the characters are going to “all right.”  J.K. Rowling does this at the end of the series.  I do think that it is notable that she has stated in numerous interviews that she had the last scene written very early on in her writing process.  Many writers allow the characters and stories to take them where they want to go, but don’t always have a clear end in mind.  As a reader, I like a clean finish.

Michael Spradlin’s Youngest Templar Trilogy has a very satisfying and clear ending.  Another trilogy that finishes smoothly is Jennifer Holm’s Boston Jane books; the character arc follows the standard rising action – conflict – falling action pattern, but does so with great description and warmth.  The reader enjoys the character and feels vested in her successful outcome.  One of my favorite books as a child, The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene dubois, also succinctly finishes a multi-dimensional story with a pleasing end.

 

So, what common appeals do you find in the books that you read, and do you look for those in other books that you seek out?