On Reviewing

Like most writers, I read widely and not only in my favorite mystery genres, and post reviews of most of what I read. I read lots of nonfiction as well as fiction, but I only hesitate when it comes to reviewing crime fiction. For many years I happily reviewed for the Drood Review of Mystery, edited by Jim Huang, as well as for Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene. I thought a lot about what to say and how to say it, what to omit and what to emphasize.

An editor I did freelance work for back in the 1980s explained how she approached each manuscript. In general, she said, it takes a lot of work to complete a book that is worthy of publication. No matter how many readers may dislike it after it’s published, that level of quality is still there. She remembered that when she ushered it through the publication process and sent it out for review. Her perspective held very good advice.

I think of her often now when I read a mystery novel that doesn’t work for me. For whatever reason I dislike it, I try to temper my view with the broader understanding that an editor and others in the publishing house saw something worthwhile in it, and were willing to back it financially. This doesn’t mean that I overlook anything that is offensive or stupid or very poorly done. It does mean that I think twice before I eviscerate a book.

Some readers reading this will rise up from their chairs in outrage, to tell me I’m failing as a reviewer because I’m not giving the reader my honest opinion. There is some—only some—truth in that. My honest opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s, but the person who has a blog or a newspaper or magazine column has far more influence than the ordinary reader, and I take that into consideration. This does not mean that I withhold an opinion on the tropes that I’m sick of—young female assaulted and murdered by demented male—or that I give a rating of five to a book that will never have enough substance in it to rate a five only because I know the writer. I know I’m in the minority on this one.

I’m thinking about all this now because I’m increasingly aware that some forms of crime fiction are susceptible to ideas and behaviors that are offensive to most women. The genre is by definition conservative, designed to depict the breakdown of social norms that are restored in some measure by a significant figure, male or female. This isn’t always the happy ending but it is a restoration of some form of stability. When a writer explores this limitation, I find a lot to praise. This is what I look for in my reading—something that challenges both the form and the reader, something for my mind to grapple with, and a story told in a way that will broaden the reader. These are the stories that will get the highest rating, the ones I’ll remember and tell others about. 

What do you look for in a mystery?