Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Mystery Appears in Your Future

Fate is my friend. She likes to help when I have trouble making a decision. Go out with Joe or stay home and work on my taxes? I toss a coin. If it's heads (Joe), and I'm chagrined it's not tails (taxes), I stay home and work on my taxes. If I'm thrilled it's heads, I go out with Joe. See, fate is my friend!

Fate also helps with my reading, but this time she doesn't appear in the guise of a coin. She appears as a fortune cookie fortune. I save my fortunes in a zip-lock bag and keep the bag in a drawer of my desk. This makes it very handy for those times when I'm restless with the desire, no, the need to read, but unable to settle on a particular book. Out comes the bag. I close my eyes and pick a fortune at random. Indecision evaporates; I'm ruled by fate. The book must match my fortune.

I'd like to tell you about some books fate found for me.

Fortune: "You could prosper in the field of wacky inventions"

I saw "wacky," and my mind was all over Florida. Tim Dorsey. Carl Hiaasen. Craig Rice wrote a fantastic screwball series with John J. Malone, the "little lawyer," set in Chicago, and an even more farcical series with photographers Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum gets wild. Joan Hess's Maggody series takes a few loops on its way around the block. But before I started thinking about single books or had a chance to leave the U.S., I saw the word "inventions," and that meant William Marshall's Sci Fi, a book in his Yellowthread Street series set in the fictional Hong Bay district of Hong Kong.

If Yellowthread isn't the most unusual police procedural series in mysterydom, I'd like to hear what is. Marshall is a one-man band of off-the-wall humor; writing full of italics, capitalizations, and word repetitions; and plots you won't believe. As The Washington Post Book World says, "Marshall has the rare gift of juggling scary suspense with wild humor and making them both work." We'll explore this series later, but for now, look at Sci Fi. Here's how it begins:
"The Martians had landed.
"And, with them, the Venusians, the Saturnians, the Moon-People, Gill-Man, the entire complement of Star Wars extra-terrestrials, Chest-burster, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, The Hulk, The Alien, The Contagion, and, for the joy of antique and nostalgic older souls, several variations of Oriental Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and--particularly popular among the more diminutive--Peter Lorre and The incredible Shrinking Man.
"The second day of the All-Asia Science Fiction and Horror Movie Congress was in full swing in Hong Bay and so far there had been so many outside invasions of the place by sea and by land that if Paul Revere had been resurrected to take on the task of announcing them to the Colonials he would have retired from the scene with terminal laryngitis after the first fifteen aircraft-fuls."
This is not great literature, but it is great fun. I never miss the chance fate hands me to visit Marshall's exotic world. If you have an appreciation for the off-beat and the wild, I invite you to join me there. This series is not for everyone, but it is for me. And maybe for you, too.

The fortune: "Don't let unexpected situations 'throw' you"

My eyes raced to that word "throw," and my heart did a cha cha cha. I deeply love baseball, and now I had an excuse to indulge a passion. Up to bat came Harvey Blissberg, narrator of Richard Rosen's Strike Three, You're Dead. Blissberg's lead-off words: "It's when you're going good that they throw at your head." He was center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, but now he's been traded to a not-so-stellar expansion team, the Providence Jewels. Blissberg is not a happy man, but he's a good man and a team player, so when his closest friend on the Jewels, star reliever Rudy Furth, is found murdered in the locker room whirlpool, Blissberg wants to know why. With the help of his beautiful TV sportscaster girlfriend and his brother, he fields an investigation.

Vikram Chandra's
928-page Sacred Games
You don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate Strike Three, You're Dead, although that makes the read more special and gives you an edge in the detection. Rosen is a skilled writer, and his tale moves with the effortlessness of an All Star third baseman. Artful plotting, good characterization, and knowledgeable sports writing.  The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association selected it as one of their 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century. You can go into extra innings with the rest of the Harvey Blissberg series, in which he's retired from baseball to become a private eye. All in all, this series is a solid hit.

Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone
Fortune: "Life is a game of complex strategies"

I gazed at the books on my shelf. I'm saving a book recommended by a friend, The Shadow of the Shadow by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, for a vacation. It's a book involving four friends who meet nightly in 1922 at a Mexico City hotel bar to play dominos. Have you read it?

Another game, chess, has plenty of complex strategies, but I'd already read Joanne Harris's Gentlemen and Players and Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Flanders Panel, and I didn't want to read them again.

Cameron McCabe's The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
I eventually picked two books to match this fortune. The first is Ignacio Padilla's Shadow Without a Name, a complicated and compelling book involving identity and Nazi history. A 1916 chess game on a train traveling to the Austro-Hungarian Empire's Eastern Front determines the fate of two men. The winner will assume the identity of Viktor Kretzschmar, a railway pointsman on the Munich-Salzburg line; the loser, Thadeus Dreyer, a newly conscripted soldier bound for the Front. Life will become an extremely complex game for these men. I want to talk more about this interesting book at another time.

The second is an old friend whom I hadn't seen in years, Michael Gilbert's Mr. Calder & Mr. Behrens, a 1982 collection of short stories told in an inimitable clipped yet dramatic way. Calder and Behrens are top British espionage agents who have been working together so long they can anticipate each other's moves. They are now working undercover for the Joint Services Standing Committee, ready to be whisked anywhere their special skills are needed. When they're not putting England's enemies in check, they are merely old friends and neighbors who play chess in Calder's study with the Persian wolfhound Rasselas at their feet. (Gilbert was famous for his love of dogs, and Rasselas, a skilled operative himself, is a terrific character.)

Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones
I could go on, telling you about the books I matched to my fortunes, but I'm going to stop now because I'm curious. I'd love to hear which book you'd choose, if fate handed you a fortune. (I've listed some fortunes below.) I bet you'd like to hear what your fellow blog readers would choose, too. You can answer either here with a comment, or better yet, let's take this discussion to our 3rd Degree page.

Remember, the idea is to choose a book you haven't read, but might like to read, to match the fortune. That's the purpose of this fortune cookie quotation procedure, to help you select a book when you can't decide what to read. Make your book match the fortune based on any book criteria you want: title, topic, characters, cover, page length, what you know about the author, what you've heard about the book. You can pick a book you've read to match the fortune only if you love the book and would actually like to read it again.

Here are some fortunes that need a matching book:

Agatha Christie's Death Comes at the End
"Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise."
"A cheerful greeting is on its way."
"Don't look back, always look ahead."
"Your most memorable dream will come true."
"In youth and beauty, wisdom is rare."
"You will take a pleasant journey to a faraway place."
"Enjoy the spotlight."
"Many opportunities are open to you, seek them out."

Okay. What fortune did fate hand you, what book did you select, and why?

One more question.

If you don't use fortunes to help you when you can't decide what to read, how do you finally decide?


  1. There is no method to my book picking madness. For the most part, I spend way too much time staring at my bookshelves trying to decide what I might be in the mood for, and usually end up picking something randomly out of desperation! Fortunes sound like just as good a method as any.

    I had a few of ideas from the ones listed above:

    "Don't look back, always look ahead." -- Nicci French's The Other Side of the Door -- this one's been in my TBR stack for a while. The inspiration with this quote is quite literal (and my cover has a person peeking around an open door).

    "You will take a pleasant journey to a faraway place." -- Kelli Stanley's City of Secrets -- though I know Stanley's 1940's San Francisco is filled with murder and mayhem, it is a faraway place

    "A cheerful greeting is on its way." -- Tracy Kiely's Murder on the Bride's Side -- since each book in this series is based on Jane Austen, I'd consider that cheerful at least at the outset.

  2. Georgette, you said we could make the book match one of the fortunes by any criteria we want. I've been wanting to start Vasily Grossman's LIFE AND FATE for awhile. It's a brick of a novel "interweaving a transfixing account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia." Sounds like a journey to a faraway place, even though "pleasant" is probably the last adjective the author would have applied.

    I need to pick a new mystery off the shelf too. If I choose based on "A cheerful greeting is on its way," then I think it would have to be Colin Watson's A BUMP IN THE NIGHT, second book in the delightful Flaxborough mysteries. In this one, Detective Inspector Purbright must investigate the eccentric locals of neighboring Chalmsbury to try to find out who is responsible for blowing up the town's monuments—and a resident.

    Becky, I'm not familiar with Tracy Kiely's series based on Jane Austen. Have you read any of them? Recommended?

  3. Becky, there are many Jane Austen fans here so please do tell us more about Kiely's series.

    I took Georgette's invitation to involve fate in a book selection literally so I closed my eyes and stabbed a finger at the computer screen. "A cheerful greeting is on its way" came to me via the finger of fate. I posted about this on our Third Degree page.

    Sister Mary, I agree, the Battle of Stalingrad and the dispersal of the Shaposhnikov family from Germany to Siberia doesn't sound like those characters' fortune is "You will take a pleasant journey to a faraway place."

    That fortune could apply either to the reader or to a character. For me as a reader, I'd like to take a pleasant journey to the faraway place of Africa. I could go to South Africa by reading Malla Nunn's LET THE DEAD LIE (her first, A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, is wonderful). I could go to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency because there are few things more comforting than sitting down with Mma Precious Ramotswe. Another good series set in Botswana is Michael Stanley's series featuring David Bengu. First in the series is A CARRION DEATH.

    A pleasant journey by a character? How about a honeymoon? Aaron Elkins's Gideon Oliver goes to England for his honeymoon and, of course, bones are waiting for him in THE QUEEN'S ARMES. Or, a mystery tour? Elizabeth McPherson goes on a murder tour of England with the rascally tour guide Rowan Rover in Sharyn McCrumb's MISSING SUSAN. One of the tour participants is so unpleasant everyone wants to be rid of her. That one is definitely a pleasant journey for the reader.

  4. I've read just the first in Kiely's series so far, Murder at Longbourn. There are two subsequent installments (so far), Murder on the Bride's Side and Murder Most Persuasive.

    I found Longbourn to be something of a cozy and based in the traditional British vein, but with a contemporary twist. I also really enjoyed the main character.

    Around the same time I read Longbourn, I read another debut by Joanna Challis called Murder on the Cliffs, a mystery featuring Daphne du Maurier. I really enjoyed that one and have discovered there's another in that series as well and a third due out in December. So many mysteries!

  5. Ah, interesting! Yesterday I bought two books, the latest Lippman, and then one by an author unknown to me: LOVE LIES BLEEDING by jess McConkey. Which to read first?

    My fortune would be "Your most memorable dream will come true." Some of my most memorable dreams are horrid, so I'll pass this fate on to McConkey's progagonist, who begins the novel within a nightmare. LOVE LIES BLEEDING first, then.

    I often decide what to read by browsing bookstores for the latest and greatest, and then putting the books on hold at the library. Talk about fate: what comes in is what I read!

  6. I like everybody's ideas for books based on fortunes.

    When I first read about a mystery series featuring Jane Austen, sleuth, coffee went up my nose. Oh man, I just can't see her with her nose to the ground, snuffling away on the trail of a murderer. I guess I can picture her in her bedroom, lowering a basket out the window to a waiting policeman below. In the basket are her thoughts in the form of snippets of poetry about the suspects and the murder.

    "Many opportunities are open to you, seek them out."

    This sounds like the invitation to go on an adventure; for a new college grad, job hunter, or reader of personal ads; for a con man to fleece some targets; for a hired murderer; for murder involving a businessman; a crime involving blackmail; murder for gain.

    Here are some suggestions:

    Adventure: George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series for people who like historical fiction and enjoy bawdy books. Stephen Becker's THE CHINESE BANDIT and THE BLUE-EYED SHAUN, set on the Silk Route through Asia.

    Matrimonial bureau AND con game: Colin Watson's LONELYHEART 4122, a traditional English mystery involving Inspector Purbright and Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, which means that it is not to be missed. Watson is SLY.

    A con game: FREAKY DEAKY and SWAG by Elmore Leonard. Any number of books by Ross Thomas or Donald E. Westlake, such as Westlake's PUT A LID ON IT, in which a jailed man is offered a chance to get out of jail if he steals something for a politician; and Thomas's CHINAMAN'S CHANCE, the first in the Durant/Wu series, in which they extract revenge on an old CIA friend. I'll be blogging about these three authors in the future.

    A businessman is murdered: E. C. Bentley's classic TRENT'S LAST CASE; Christopher Brookmyre's COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, a Jack Parlabane series book set in Edinburgh, Scotland

    Blackmail: BOGMAIL by Patrick McGinley, set in a small Irish village, and involving the story of a pub owner who murders his daughter's lover. We know who the murderer is, but, like the murderer, we don't know who the blackmailer is. A great portrayal of how guilt eats away at a murderer's soul.