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A Clubbable Woman, by Reginald Hill

February 26, 2014

Reading Mystery Series

There’s an old joke based on the realization, by a Chinese guy, that the Jews had been around, as a civilization, for centuries longer than his own. Well gollies, says the Chinese fellow (or words to that effect), “What were you people eating for a thousand years?”

I have something of the same reaction when I realize that I didn’t start reading mysteries until I was about to graduate from college. Just what was I reading for all that time? The answer is “pretty much anything I could get my hands on.” I grew up in a very bookish household, so I devoured all of Dickens, Jane Austen, P.G. Wodehouse, Fitzgerald, and Philip Roth by the time I was about 14. Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room was a major book for me: I remember finishing it, in a coffee shop in Harvard Square, and immediately starting again from the beginning. The Golden Notebook made a big impression, as did – in rather a different way – the collected oeuvre of Jackie Collins. Basically, I liked whate’re I looked on, and my looks went everywhere.

This happy lack of discrimination continued, may even have strengthened, when I started working in bookstores. In 1982, at the late Reading International on Brattle Street, I sold roughly a gajillion copies each of A is for Alibi and The Skull Beneath the Skin, but I didn’t read either of them (at the time). After all, I didn’t much read mysteries.

Well, that changed. It was the spring of my senior year, and I was due to turn in my honors thesis. You know, the one I had spent all year writing, only I hadn’t. So I bought a clutch of blue pills from a dubious-looking fellow named Errol, stayed up for about six days straight, and wrote the damn thing in a blur of pharmaceuticals, inaccurate quotes, and fuzzy political-artistic convictions, few of which I could today remotely defend. I turned it in, crawled home, and found my housemate sitting at the kitchen table, reading a book called Mortal Stakes. “What is that?” I croaked, and he said “It’s a murder mystery,” stuttering a little at the sight of my maddened red eyes. I grinned in a terrifying fashion, my lips curling over a week’s unbrushed eye-teeth. “Does it have any social theory in it?” He shook his head. “Then give it to me!!!!” I hissed, and he fled, leaving the book crack-spined on the kitchen table. Grunting a little, I carried it off to my foul lair, and fell immediately and forever in love with Spenser.

Shortly thereafter, I graduated, and moved in with my father, who had copies of every single one of the books that Robert B. Parker had written to date. Oh boy, bingeing doesn’t begin to describe my behavior. And then I stumbled on the smart-assed pleasures of Fletch, who made Spenser look like a vicar. And then, of course I discovered vicars, and the related joys of English mystery novels, and my dear, it’s a wonder I managed to get anything else done at all.

What all these books had in common, aside from the occasional dead body and killingly intelligent prose, was that they came in bunches: They were series. Reading them was not unlike being given a box of assorted chocolates: You munch one, and it’s delicious, and then there’s another one that’s like the first but subtly different – marzipan rather than orange cream. And then there’s toasted almond and caramel and if you’re lucky – and it’s Robert Barker we’re talking about, since he wrote a lot of Spenser novels – coffee fondant and rum-raisin and you take it from here, as this metaphor’s outlived its usefulness. The point is, a series rather magically allows you to enjoy the same thing over and over again without getting bored.

For many years, mystery series were my greatest reading pleasure. Reginald Hill, P.D. James, Sue Grafton, Edmund Crispin, Marcia Muller, Roger Simon, Sara Paretsky, Caroline Graham…the list of authors who delighted me could fill a phone book. And then I opened a mystery bookstore and largely stopped reading series, because my customers needed me to help them find new authors; they already knew about P.D. James and Sara Paretsky. Focusing on first novels, or on one-offs, made me very happy in a different way: There is something so wonderful about discovering a new voice, a new storyteller. It becomes this yummy secret to which you alone hold the key. I have terrific memories of stumbling across Anthony Bourdain, for example (my bookstore launched his first novel, and all his subsequent novels), Charlie Huston, Janet Evanovich, Minette Walters.

With the bookstore closed, there are many things I miss about being a bookseller. But it recently occurred to me that one of the upsides is that I can again, at long last, read series. I’ve been out of that particular game, you know, for a long time – we had the bookstore for nearly 20 years. So what are your favorite series? Tell me what to read.



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