When people find out that I review mysteries, and that I read manuscripts, they almost always ask me a question I really dread, "Who is your favorite mystery writer?" The easy answer is, of course, that I don't have a favorite. There are too many good writers to pick just one. The reply when I'm with people who read mysteries with as much fervor as I do is more complex. It turns into a series of new questions: Male or Female, Living or Dead, Cozy or Hard-boiled, P.I. or Police Procedural, American or European, and so forth. Depending on who's in on the conversation, this kind of discussion can go on for a long time.
Sometimes it's easiest to focus on the authors whose books still have a place in my bookcases. There are very few authors that haven't been purged over the years as space shrinks. But that doesn't necessarily mean that these are my favorite writers. Some books I keep for reasons having much more to do with sentiment than anything else. I still have all my Hugh Holton's, because I miss him. I have almost all the books I've received as a result of being a judge for the Malice Domestic contest, and I'm trying to find the two or three that I foolishly gave away when I moved to much smaller quarters. I keep one Harlan Coben because he used my last name for the family about whom the book is written. I keep books by authors that have become personal friends: Michael Dymmoch, Monica Ferris, and Bill Love. Sometimes I answer that question by discussing the authors I read more than once. That is a very small list. Virginia Lanier's books are ones I reread because I like the main character and I like the plots. Her books are on my shelves. I reread Charlaine Harris's Shakespeare series, again because I like the main character and how she grows.
And there are authors whose books I enjoy but don't keep, reread when I know their books will fit my needs of the moment. Dick Francis is one of those authors. I know I'll learn something, I know that the main character will get the crap beaten out of him at some point, and that at the end justice will prevail. I read Andrew Vachss because I love the family he has created for Burke, I love the outside-the-box methods used to achieve justice when the system fails, and the writing is better than average. I read James Lee Burke, because the writing is wonderful. I can't read a lot of Burke because of the violence, but IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD is one of the best books I've read in a long time.
Who is my favorite mystery writer? That answer changes a lot, depending on my mood, what's going on in my "real" life, who I've read lately. If there's been lots of angst and drama in my life, I tend to want to read light and cozy mysteries. If it's the dead of winter and snow is piling up, that mystery set in Florida seems a trifle more attractive than it did in July. If I'm feeling particularly good, then I know reading something dark and dour won't have as much of an impact as it might when I'm in the dumps. I recently read Susan Hill's THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN, and loved it. Hated the ending but it was a book I had a hard time putting down. Read the second one, and thought it was pretty darn good, too. Having read both of those, I'm not going to pick up a Charles Todd right away. The books aren't the same, really, but in my head the tone is too close. Both authors are people I recommend. But not together. Books are, in many ways, like food. Sometimes I want a big holiday meal, with lots of dishes and complex tastes. Sometimes I just want a light snack, something that won't hang around for days. Sometimes I want comfort food. Sometimes I want to try something totally different. And, as with food, my tastes have changed over time. I never used to like liver, or tomatoes, or tofu. Reading HEARTSICK by Chelsea Cain was a pretty big step outside my comfort zone, and one I probably couldn't have taken five or ten years ago. By the same token, I used to love those lunch-sized heavy-crusted fruit pies, and I can't eat a whole one any more. I can't enjoy Rex Stout the way I used to, either. Something about Archie's attitudes towards women doesn't sit as well with me as it did when I was in my teens.
I read a lot of mysteries, pretty much across the genre. I read lots of other books, although mystery certainly more than anything else. What do you read? Who do you read, and why? Who did you used to read but don't any more? I've got a few of those authors in my past. Who will you not read, and why? Those are the kinds of questions that can keep me going for a long time.