I read a lot in March. Much of it was student manuscripts. Some of it was out-of-date or research material. A lot were pretty mediocre novels that I couldn’t finish. So while I racked up the pages, I didn’t finish much. Most of what I did finish isn’t worth recommending.
What is worth recommending from March? Some magazine articles and two books. After my stellar January, March really was a disappointment. (Although the student manuscripts were all better than expected—so no disappointments there.)
Blum, Deborah, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, The Penguin Press, 2010. First the title caught me. Then the subtitle: I adore the history of science, the history of criminology, and anything about Jazz Age New York. And of course the word murder. I made a mental note: get this book. But it wasn’t until I started seeing reviews that I realized I wanted this book now.
Reviewers have said this reads like a good thriller, which is a bit of an overstatement—thrillers have plot after all—but the book is immensely readable and fascinating. Readers who lack strong stomachs might want to avoid reading this over meals. (I read it mostly during lunch; clearly, I have a strong stomach and high gag threshold.) Poisons are nasty killers and poisoners are nastier than most. The stories in here—the killings, the methodology, and the forensic solutions are wonderful. One even (sadly) made me laugh out loud—the story of Mike the Durable, whose “pals” at a local bar decided to kill him for the insurance money, seemed like something out of a farce instead of an actual case.
Good stuff here, memorable stuff, and great writing. The Poisoner’s Handbook is worth all of those weird looks you’re going to get if you read it over lunch.
Deaver, Jeffrey, Roadside Crosses, Pocket Books, 2010. Normally, I buy Deaver’s novels in hardcover the moment they appear, but I didn’t buy this one right away. I’m not a big fan of Kathryn Dance, the main character in these novels. I love Deaver’s writing, but I knew there was a chance that this novel wouldn’t measure up to his other novels, and I didn’t want to risk my $25 on being disappointed.
It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Roadside Crosses is a marvelous Jeffrey Deaver novel, not just a marvelous Kathryn Dance story. It measures up to his other works and kept me reading. Also, had I known beforehand what the subject matter—blogs, cyberbullies, online gaming—I would have been a lot more interested. But the hardcover edition didn’t emphasize that, instead emphasizing the crosses left on the side of the road before someone died.
Good characters, stellar plotting (as usual), an interesting exploration of a world I’m passingly familiar with from an outside perspective, and some fun additions. Head out and buy this one; it’s absolutely worth your time (and your money).
Gladwell, Malcolm, “The Sure Thing,” The New Yorker, January 18, 2010. Those of you who also read my freelancer’s guide might want to read this article as well. Gladwell examines some high profile entrepreneurs and discusses how they really succeeded. He blows the myth out of the water that entrepreneurs are gamblers and risk-takers, using example after example to show that high-level entrepreneurs are risk-averse.
These high-level entrepreneurs are also predators, willing to take advantage of weaknesses that they might perceive within the world around them, and willing to use those weaknesses to their advantage. Fascinating stuff, which corralates with some of the things I have been writing. He just said it better, clearer, and with a few high end examples.
Grape, Jan, “Interview with Tony Hillerman,” Speaking of Murder, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, Berkley Prime Crime, 1998. I can’t in good conscience recommend the entire book Speaking of Murder. Some of the interviews are more than fifteen years old, and talk about the mystery market as if it’s fixed. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now.
But for pure enjoyment, as well as the proper attitude toward a writing career, read Jan Grape’s interview with Tony Hillerman. I had known a lot about his history, and I hadn’t known most of this. If you want to read the rest of the volume, remember that the book is out of date—although the interviews that deal with the craft of writing are not.
Packer, George, “Letters from Dresden: Embers,” The New Yorker, February 1, 2010. Fascinating article about a city I only know of in conjunction with the phrase “the bombing of” out of World War II. Packer has spent time there, and contemplates the city’s history here—and whether or not the city can confront that history. I think that question can be asked of all of us, cities or human beings. But the question is particularly dramatic here, and the analysis, as well as the city itself, is thought-provoking.