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.