Sunday, January 25, 2009

BOOKS: Reviewing the Reviewer

I have a book wishlist that is ever-evolving. I read reviews fairly regularly so that I can update the list, which is then given to my extended family two months before my birthday and then two months before Christmas. THEY provide me with most of my reading books these days. It's quite a good arrangement, easing their issues with giving me gifts and me getting a plethora of books to bide away the time not spent in front of a computer monitor or a TV tube/monitor.

Most of the reviews are of science fiction books, my greatest area of interest. But I read a lot of mystery reviews too, grateful for each one that turns me on to a new author. For practical reasons (I read the paper daily), one mystery reviewer I read regularly is Jack Batten of the Toronto Star.

Batten is also a writer of various genres, including sports-writing. If you ever get the chance, his book on Tom Longboat, the long-distance runner, is a great read. He's written plenty about hockey and even did a book on the first year of the Toronto Raptors. He's an easy read and I wish he'd write more where I could find him, on sports. He's also a good reviewer ... with a flaw.

He dotes on writers who write about depressed detectives in his bi-weekly Whodunnit column. Batten seems fascinated by European mystery novelists, especially Scandinavian ones. And an intolerable number of the puzzle-solvers feature detectives who are, frankly, a downer to spend a few hours with. Sure, it can be uplifting to find the downtrodden detectives overcoming their ennui and just plain disinterest in happier things. But the consistent championing of such books gets to me.

His Scandinavian obsession is revelatory. Scandinavians, the sunny blondes of the North, also happen to have a dark side. While generally bruited about to be one of the happiest groups on the planet, the Scandinavians who aren't happy, are really, really unhappy. The area boasts(?) one of the highest suicide rates in the world. And where there is suicide, there is also murder. And where there is murder, there is somebody out to catch them. Ergo, a burgeoning literary detective industry. With so much to pick from, there's merit to bringing it to light, over here on this side of the pond.

Which Batten does. To the almost exclusion of North American-created work. And when he does deign to write about local and American stuff, it's oft times re-issues of old works or obscure mysteries that share a too-familiar depressive approach to the mystery. He stays mostly away from 'popular' fare, save for Michael Connelly, who's works need no reviewing to prompt me adding the title to my wishlist. I 'think' Batten reviewed a Stephanie Plum book by Janet Evanovich once, but it probably prompted him to go into happiness shock for a month.

To me, it's depressing to read about depression. Sorry, but I like to consign THAT part of me to the 'let us not talk about it' portion of my life. Certainly, I hesitate to read about it. Connelly's Harry Bosch books COULD qualify as a downer. Afterall, the ususally single detective can't keep a good (and occasionally bad) woman around for long. But he's hardly the downer that his European counterparts seem to be, given my occasional forays into Batten recommendations. So I read each Batten review with the hope that his 'discovery' will be the kind of discovery that I can enjoy.

And it does happen. And it's a wonderful thing when it does. It was a review of Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files that turned me onto that wonderful detective series. The second in that series was recently nominated for the mystery industry's seminal Edgar Awards for best myster published in 2008. And I don't think that one was as good as the first.

So, every two weeks, I read Jack Batten, looking, literally, for the happy occasion of a good mystery about a happy detective. Well, if not happy, at least not completely depressed.

No comments: