It's a Mystery

is the name of the mystery review column I write for the Contra Costa Times, in Walnut Creek, CA.

The column was born almost on a whim in 1995, when I was an editor at the paper. As a lifelong mystery fan, I noticed that the reviews the paper ran hardly ever resonated with me, or reflected my own book choices. Almost all the wire service reviews the Times ran-13 out of the 15 I counted-were of books written by men. Yet many of the mysteries I enjoyed were written by women. 

When I pointed this out, the book editor showed me a drawer full of mysteries sent by publishers. "Here," she said. "Pick some and write a column."

We agreed I would focus on books by female authors and San Francisco Bay Area authors. I later added newbies to my list. It's really hard to break in to publishing, so I thought I could point readers to some new and interesting writers. And, of course, I review books by men, too.

It turned out I was doing something unique among reviewers, for I also reviewed paperback books. The industry standard was that only hardback books were reviewed. But I bought paperbacks for myself and thought plenty of my readers did the same. If I was interested in the book, I reviewed it no matter what kind of cover it had.

Over the years I've read hundreds of books, and rejected thousands more. I learned to sort through and discard books on a regular basis or the piles would overwhelm me.

I try to approach each book on its own terms but I do have my prejudices: I take exception to talking animals. Yes, I know some readers love them, but I will not read or review a book in which the clever cat or dog solves the crime for its human. (Although I did break my own rule once to review a book in which practically all the characters were sheep.)

I decided early not to waste my limited print space (which has, in fact, become more limited over the years) on books I didn't like. Instead, I developed the "three chapter rule." If by the third chapter I wasn't engaged in the story, or I was already annoyed by errors or mannerisms (there was one book in which the protagonist tossed her long blond hair at least a dozen times in the first two chapters), I quit reading.

When I took a job in San Francisco, I commuted on BART. That's when I started to abandon books on the train. Perhaps whoever picked them up would enjoy them. Even bad books deserved a chance to find a home.

Limited space for my column has forced me to be concise, maybe even terse in print. Sometimes I can say everything I want in 50 brilliant words, but often I am frustrated by the need to cut. Here I need not be so constrained.