I’m not a fast reader. I don’t get through several books a day, as a friend of mine does when she is in the mood.
I read for the pleasure of occupying another world for a while — and because I read slowly, a book and I get together for stretches of a few days or even a week.
You won’t find me poring over those political books which come out like African dung beetles after cattle have passed by. I read lots of mysteries. I like these to be “destination” books that give you a geographical and cultural lesson while spinning toward the denouement and the apprehension of the perpetrator or perpetrators.
For example, American writer Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti books are set in Venice. These give you a guided tour of the city, practically tell you which vaporetto to catch.
Why mystery books? Because, as Elizabeth George, an American writer who sets her Inspector Linley books in England, told an interviewer, with those there is a beginning and an end. Things start with a crime and end when it is solved. Within that construct, you can spin a psychological story, a love story, a commentary on contemporary events, or whatever you want to say.
So many novelists write a wonderful book, but three-quarters of the way through, you feel the writer is struggling to end it: How to get the protagonists walking off into the sunset or handing off to the next generation?
No such problem for the mystery writer: Just solve the crime and send everyone home. You may have scaled heights of creative fiction on the way, but there is an end.
The characters in novels become my friends and I am sad to say farewell, but I would rather an orderly farewell than one that is unsatisfactory, drawn-out, and unconvincing.
Even the Australian novelist Liane Moriarty uses the mystery technique in her newest novel, “Apples Never Fall.”
I would like to turn mystery readers on to a master of the art of writing crime while commenting on many aspects of the human condition, like love and isolation, along the way.
She is J.L Doucette, a psychologist who uses her knowledge of the mind to inform her stories. She also uses Wyoming, where she used to live and practice psychology, to inform about the state — in my parlance, the destination.
Doucette’s protagonists, Dr. Pepper Hunt, a police psychologist, and Detective Beau Antelope live in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. They team up to solve some baffling cases. The author, who now is based in Rhode Island, has written three Dr. Pepper Hunt mysteries.
The depictions of Wyoming in her mystery series are very real and palpable: You feel you know this high desert and the White and Native American people who live there. You not only get the twists and turns of a good mystery, but you also get insight into the state.
I ask a lot of my mystery novels: I want a damn good yarn, nothing else will do. I want believable characters in believable situations, including believable crises. And I want to learn something.
In her Shetland series, British writer Ann Cleeves tells you a lot about Scotland, and even more about how the islands keep alive their Viking heritage with festivals and celebrations.
British writer Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries, set in Oxford, are great on music, the university city, and the isolation of a man always alone and at war with the system.
Doucette’s main characters have the one thing that is important but not essential for a good mystery: unencumbered protagonists. Most mystery main characters are divorced, widowed, or by choice, like Beau Antelope, single. That hints at the possibility of romance.
There are great exceptions, like Maigret, Georges Simeon’s iconic French detective. Of course, Leon’s Brunetti is married with two children. I don’t find that convincing but, as I said, you can have anything you want in a mystery so long as the crime gets solved.
Doucette’s newest Dr. Pepper Hunt mystery, “Unknown Assailant,” does that in 297 pages. It is a good read and takes you to an absorbing destination: Wyoming.