July 10, 2016 by Jean
It is possible that I have spent most of the waking hours of my life reading. I started reading early: My older sister’s first grade teacher told my mother that I was exhibiting “reading readiness” just a few weeks after my second birthday, and I began my love affair with libraries at age four when I learned to write my name and got my first library card. I lost myself in the world of books easily and often. During one period of my childhood, my mother found that the only way to keep me focused on my Saturday morning chores was to forbid access to my books until the chores were completed.
In choosing an academic career, I chose work that was also focused on reading. In my early forties, I went to the eye doctor for the first time in many years because I was starting to have trouble reading fine print. One of the questions on the ophthalmologist’s intake form was “How much time do you spend reading each day?” My conservatively estimated answer was “10 hours.” When the doctor read this, his eyes widened and he asked, “What kind of work do you do?!” I explained that I spent most of my waking hours reading – reading to prepare for class, reading my notes in class, reading student papers, and reading scholarly books and articles as part of my research. Oh, and when I had some time to relax, my favorite form of recreation was reading!
My reading tastes are broad and include social science, science, history, biography, memoirs, politics and policy, garden reference and gardening narratives, travel writing, and fiction. But my preferred form of relaxation is reading novels, and especially murder mysteries. During my working years, I indulged in these primarily during the more relaxed summer months; and, in retirement, mysteries have continued to dominate my summer reading.
It’s not murder and mayhem I love. I avoid the more violent “hard-boiled” detective novels in favor of the more orderly category called police procedurals. What draws me to murder mysteries is not the intricate puzzles of the plots, but the development of characters. A week or two after finishing a book, I may not remember “who done it” or even who was done in – but I will remember the latest events in or revelations about the lives of my favorite characters. Because most murder mysteries are serials, with the events of one book following on those that went before, authors can develop complex characters with complicated lives.
Two of my favorite mystery series are the Inspector Lynley series by Elizabeth George and the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny, and I read one book by each of these authors in the past week. I have been reading Elizabeth George’s novels since she first began publishing them in the 1990s. These books are an event for me, because after I finish one, I have to wait for her to write another, which can take a couple of years. When a new book comes out, I regard it as a special treat and wait for the right moment to savor it. George is exceptionally good at characterization, and even her minor characters are given complex lives and personalities. My favorite of her characters is not the Scotland Yard inspector of noble birth, Tommy Lynley, but his working-class partner, the definitely-not-dressed-for-success Sergeant Barbara Havers. The most recent book, A Banquet of Consequences (Viking 2015), like the one before it, puts Havers at the center of the action. I love the way she has grown and changed throughout the series as she deals with personal problems, professional setbacks, and her own ambivalence about social class mobility.
Louise Penny’s series about Quebec Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is of more recent origin (the first book was published in 2005); and I was only introduced to them two years ago, so I’m still catching up on the books. The one I just finished, The Beautiful Mystery (Minotaur Books, 2012) is the eighth in the series. Penny focuses her character-development energies on her main characters, and each book adds new layers of complexity to their back stories, personalities, personal demons, and relationships. Because three of my four grandparents were Quebecois immigrants to the United States, I am especially drawn to the Quebec setting and Penny’s exploration of Francophone-Anglophone relations in Quebec. Penny likes to play with contrast, and her books are often set in light-filled places with very dark shadows. She pushes the envelope of the mystery genre and doesn’t always tie up all the loose ends at the end of each book. It’s tempting to go straight on to the next book to get some resolution, but I’m resisting. Each book is set in a different season, and I have been trying to read them at the seasonally appropriate time. Since I hurried this last one, which is actually set in autumn, I’m going to try to wait until winter is close to read the next one. (Winter scenes can lose some of their power when I’m reading them during a heat wave!) Another reason to wait is that there are only three books left that I haven’t read, and then I will have to wait for Penny to write more.
Meanwhile, I will have to turn to other mystery writers for my summer fix of sitting out on the porch or deck in a comfortable chair, with my feet propped up and tea (hot or iced) at hand, as I enjoy the beauties of the garden and the pleasures of summer reading.