So, it’s time for my 800th post. What do you mean, you haven’t read them all? Well, there have been 599 book and audiobook reviews so far by my count, 50 TV and film reviews, 45 Puzzlys and a bunch of general ramblings, including many Top Five posts which always seem to be popular – note to self: must update these sometime.
But I try and do something a little different for my anniversary posts (when I notice them, that is). So for this one, I’m going to take some questions – some that have cropped up in comments from time to time and others that I’ve just made up and basically interview myself. Off I go…
What’s the point of the blog?
At the heart of it, it’s a way of keeping me reading. Over the years, my reading has waxed and waned despite the fact that I love reading. Obviously I love reading and mysteries in particular. I’m about to hit 600 reviews in under five years which is a bit ridiculous really, but writing this blog – and the desire to keep writing the blog – keeps me reading in those times when I’ve let it slip in the past. And reading makes me happy but sometimes I’ve needed to remind myself of that. In fact, it was a couple of books – Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith and Geek Tragedy by Nev Fountain that I read in close succession – that got me back on track and my good lady wife suggested a blog was the way to keep me there. It seems to be working…
The title comes from the fact that before reading those two books, I was a bit disillusioned with the mystery genre as, having read most of Christie, Carr and Queen, I was looking for modern writers who still embraced the mystery element of the genre, rather than just the crime element. So I was looking for books that still encouraged the readers to play the Grand Game. And I’ve found plenty…
So, what’s with the spoiler-free bit?
Obviously nobody wants to give away the killer in a mystery review. It happens sometimes – just the use of the phrase “the killer is really obvious” or “Dame Agatha is using her favourite trick again” can be enough to enable analytical readers to deduce solutions. More of a bonus clue than a spoiler, but it can happen. But that’s not what I mean when I say spoiler-free.
You see, I want to read books knowing as little as possible about them. I want to be surprised by the plot developments as much as the killer’s identity. To cite a recent example, a character arrives halfway through who it transpires eventually is the detective, and not the person you’ve been reading about for a while. The blurb of the book mentions it. Other reviews mention it, directly or indirectly. I was fortunate enough not to read the blurb – I’ll come to that in a bit – and was genuinely surprised by that turn of events. So I didn’t mention the character in the review. Of course, in the next book in the series, he is the named sleuth from the start, so you have to read the books in the right order and not read advance blurbs.
Basically, in my mini-summary at the start of my reviews, I’ll say what happens in the first 25% of the book, maximum. And in as vague a way as I can while trying to pique your interest. I know from a discussion post or two on the nature of spoilers that I don’t always get it right. But the intent is there and I think I usually don’t mess up with this. And as a bonus, it means that the reviews tend to be shorter than others out there so you don’t waste too much of your time on my ramblings.
Sorry, you don’t read blurbs?
Not if I can help it, no. The blurb is an advert intended to convince the customer to buy the book (and hopefully read it too) and there are plenty of authors who I will read regardless. So for fear of spoilers, I’ll dive straight into the book regardless. I’m already going to read the book, I don’t need the blurb to convince me. All it can do is harm. To take a recent example (not naming the book): SHE KILLED MY CHILDREN. IT WAS AN ACCIDENT BUT I HAVEN’T FORGIVEN HER. Or something similar. The original tagline was just the first four words with something else after it. The notion that it was an accident (or at least the narrator thinks it was) is revealed as the story progresses. And the book works better that way. It’s a personal quirk but as mystery novels are supposed to contain surprises, I think it’s best to know as little as possible going into it. So generally, no, I don’t read blurbs very often.
What’s with that pseudonym? Why Puzzle Doctor and not your real name?
Very simple. I’m a school teacher and in this digital age, we’re encouraged to keep our online activities separate from our school work. Which would either mean me putting up countless obstacles to people wanting to comment to screen out the “PUZZLE DOCTOR, YOUR LESSON’S SUCK” – yes, schoolkids don’t know how to use apostrophes – or basically writing the blog under a mask of secrecy. Admittedly, it’s not a very good mask of secrecy – enough people know my forename at least – and I’d hope that some of my students are smart enough that if they found the blog and if they knew I wrote a blog then they’d spot it was me. Which is why on top of using the pseudonym, I don’t advertise in school that I write a blog.
As for why Puzzle Doctor, I do a lot of puzzles – I’ve competed at the World Championships for the UK team four times – and I’ve got a doctorate in Maths. It’s not complicated…
How do you pick your reading?
Whatever takes my fancy, really. Certain authors will get prioritised when I get a copy of their new book. I’m too stingy generally to fork out for a new hardback but I’ll keep an eye out for new releases as ebook bargains. Other authors, I’m still working through their back catalogue
as regularly as possible. I try not to repeat an author in a single month unless there’s good reason (as with Annie Haynes and John Dickson Carr last month). And I try and review a variety of styles under the grand umbrella that is “mystery” fiction. And occasionally… just occasionally… I’ll review something so that you don’t have to read it. Cough. Monogram. Cough.
And it depends on what mood I’m in. Sometimes it’s Golden Age, sometimes historical, sometimes it’s something light-hearted. It’s fair to say it’s rarely grim, although even then, if the mood (or more likely the author) is right…
When are you going to review [INSERT BOOK HERE]?
I’ve had this a couple of times – an expectation that I’m going to review something. Clearly I’ll be reviewing, for example, anything new from Paul Doherty as soon as is humanly possible and, out of morbid fascination, I will take a look at Monogram 2 or whatever it’s called. But planning ahead isn’t my strong point. I try and keep an eye on Netgalley for upcoming releases but I tend to default to authors who I already admire – hence there’ll be release day reviews for the new Bryant & May book from Christopher Fowler and the new Death in Paradise novel from Rob Thorogood. But other authors I can be in less of a rush about. Must get round to Sayers again though…
Have you reviewed [INSERT BOOK HERE]?
There’s a search box on the right. Just saying…
Would you like to review my book?
I’ll take a look at anything sent to me. For review requests, if I’m not enjoying the book then I’ll put it down and not review it (and let you know why – in a nice way). Sometimes though, I can tell from the blurb that it’s not my genre. Basically, there needs to be a mystery at the heart of things – so when someone asked for a review of a book that was something like a SENSUAL ROMANTIC NOVEL WITH VOODOO ZOMBIES* it probably meant they’d not really read my blog. Or just the Cadaver In Chief review and missed the point. If you want to send me stuff, I’d recommend you email me first at puzzledoctorATgmailDOTcom to see if I’m interested. And anyway, you probably wouldn’t have my address if you didn’t get in touch first…
*I’m misremembering exactly what the requested book was about but it wasn’t far off this.
Why not give scores?
I’ve had this question a few times and I just don’t see the logic in giving a rating out of five, ten or anything. It’s the mathematician in me – what the hell does 80% satisfaction mean? I’d need a key – 5/5 = Highly Recommended, 3/5 = Worth A Look, etc. So I just use the words instead. I usually end my reviews with a capitalised comment so if you want to skip to that (and miss out my eloquently phrased witticisms – shame on you) then feel free. I’m not knocking scores – they’re very useful on reviews where you might not want to read the details until after you’ve finished the book – but they’re not necessary here.
What’s going on with that Ellery Queen bibliography?
Oh. That. Older readers may recall that I started an Ellery Queen bibliography. The first seventeen books and a few others out of order. But it’s been six months since the last one (and a year’s gap between the antepenultimate and penultimate ones). And the reason is that it’s been a while since I read a good one. I’ll get back to it at some point but the best ones are the early ones and I’ve read all of those. Sorry if you’ve been refreshing my page every day since the last one, but thanks for the site visits anyway.
In the meantime there are many more bibliographies to choose from – just click the tab at the top of the page. Or just click on the “Paul Doherty” one for Paul’s books or the “Michael Jecks” one for… oh, you’ve worked it out.
How come Paul Doherty and Michael Jecks get their own tabs? Why are they so special?
Because they pay me.
No, of course not. It’s my little way of saying thank you to two of my favourite writers who don’t get much of a look in on crime review websites. Because a lot of people overlook the historical mystery – they probably read some Ellis Peterzzz and haven’t woken up since – and it’s my favourite genre. I want more people to sample the joys of Brother Athelstan or Sir Baldwin Furnshill and see that these are strong mystery novels in their own right with the added flavour of being set in a different world. Hence the separate tab. Authors of books set in the modern day get plenty of publicity – I’m just trying to do what I can to say thanks to two of my favourites.
OK, what about the authors you don’t enjoy? Why do you keep going back to them?
I presume that you mean the aforementioned Ellis Peters, Ngaio Marsh and M C Beaton. Other authors that I don’t enjoy I just ignore. But these three hold a fascination for me – they are ridiculously popular. I’ve stated before that I’ve seen bookshops with twice as much Beaton as Christie on their shelves which is, quite frankly, just wrong. This popularity though is what fascinates me, which is why I keep going back with as open a mind as possible. For example, Monk’s Hood is a deathly dull tale with no redeeming features to my eyes, but on Goodreads, it averages (just) over 4/5. I’m determined to work out why, which is why I keep going back to them. It’s not because they’re an easy target. Honest.
Recommend a book to me.
Well, on a meta-level, anything I’ve read, you’ve read. But I would seriously implore my readers to try the following books.
- Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle by J A Lang
- Geek Tragedy by Nev Fountain
- Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith
- A Murder In Thebes or The House Of Crows by Paul Doherty
- The Sticklepath Strangler or Squire Throwleigh’s Heir by Michael Jecks
They’re all a little different than what is often reviewed on mystery blogs but they’re all well worth a look. Try them, you just might get hooked like me.
Any future ambitions?
For the blog or for me? Well, at some point I want to write my own mystery novel (currently postponed due to lack of time, a surplus of vague little ideas and absence of a single coherent idea). Probably an utter lack of writing talent as well, but I’m too nice to point that out to myself. One day… But in the meantime, appearing in those one-line reviews that show up at the front of a book would be deeply cool. Of course, it might have already happened – do let me know if you see one. I’ve spotted it on a couple of official websites, which is a good start… And of course, if anyone wants to murder me in prose, fire away.
From armchairreviewer (at crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com): If you could only save ten books from your collection from a fire, which would it be?
Ten… right, I’ll start listing and stop when I get to ten. I’ve a first edition of Captain Cut-Throat and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, and my copy of Death and the Gilded Man by Carter Dickson is sort of a first edition (as it had a different title in hardback). I’ve also got some nice signed copies as completely unnecessary “thank you”s, so let’s say The Herald Of Hell by Paul Doherty, Chef Maurice and a Spot Of Truffle by J A Lang… struggling now. Let me just check the shelves… I’ve a battered copy of The Black Spectacles (Carr again) that I’m very fond of, Leopold’s Way, a rare collection of Edward D Hoch stories, that is worth a ridiculous amount of money, Death Locked In and The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, two collections compiled by Robert Adey and Mike Ashley respectively and… not a crime novel, but Foundation, Volume One of Peter Ackroyd’s History of England, so I can get some inspiration for one of the many “great” unwritten novels that live inside my head…
Also from armchairreviewer: If you could be any fictional sleuth, which one would you be? She adds that this might be a bit silly…
Yup, that’s pretty silly. But… I’d go for The Great Merlini from the pen of Clayton Rawson. Because I’d love to be able to do magic properly. I have a repertoire of two tricks, which can bamboozle schoolchildren but not anyone else. Although that does remind me of a book evening in Formby a few years ago, where Martin Edwards and Kate Ellis were speaking – I think for the re-issue of All The Lonely People and The Cadaver Game – where the waiting crowd were being entertained close-up magic by an almost-excellent magician. I was on my very best behaviour not to point out the “vanished” foam ball was actually visible in his other hand if you knew where to look – everybody else was impressed though. But Merlini was better than that, so I’d be him.
So what now?
Now I stop doing this and get back to the book I was reading. What a silly question…