Different Drum

I am, and have always been, a voracious reader. Mysteries and crime novels of all types have been my favorites, but I also try to read outside the genre every now and again–mainly because I think a constant diet of reading only the genre you write can make your own writing get stale; it’s nice to mix it up every now and again. I’ve never been a snob about reading or what others read and find pleasure in; the fact that so many others are so judgmental about other people’s reading choices has always made me raise my eyebrows and tilt my head slightly to one side in bewilderment (unless it’s, you know, Stephenie Meyer). To me, the most important thing is that people are reading, and I don’t judge anyone for their choices (unless the choice is Stephenie Meyer). Nothing bothers me more than when, upon being asked what they like to read, people squirm with embarrassment and have to be coaxed into revealing what they enjoy. Reading is supposed to be a pleasure, and no one should ever be shamed for what they find pleasure in reading (okay, even if it’s Stephenie Meyer–I would never shame someone to their face for reading her, and really, I am joking when I mock her on this blog. Again, as long as people are reading I don’t care what their choices are)–and once someone opens up and starts talking enthusiastically about books and writers they love, it’s infectious–and I love their excitement.

But reading snobbery also rears its ugly head within the crime fiction genre, which bothers me. I don’t know why it is so difficult for people to simply say, “that *whatever sub-genre* isn’t to my taste”–which is really all it is; reading is subjective and no one person is the authority of what books are worthy and what books aren’t. I like every sub-genre of crime fiction. Like every kind of label you put on books, there are excellent writers, good writers, and bad writers in every section of the library or the bookstore; good writing is good writing, no matter who the author is and what kind of crime novel they’ve written. There are shitty private eye novels and police procedurals–but those kinds of books don’t get the disdain that is reserved specifically for the tradition mystery, i.e. the “cozy.” I’ve often held that this sub-genre of crime fiction gets dismissed because they are the “romance” novels of crime fiction–in other words, not taken seriously because they are mostly written by women for women about women. (There are exceptions, of course; men write in this style and quite well, in fact.) One of the most popular mystery television series of all time is traditional/cozy: Murder She Wrote. I personally enjoy reading them, and don’t read them enough, to be honest. The common denominator in all traditional mysteries is that they are escapist reading–you can escape from the cares and worries of your every day life and world into a world where justice is always done, people are generally kind, and the settings are often places–usually small towns, or a community within a larger one–the reader would love to actually live. There’s often a hook to the series–often built around a business run by the heroine–and there’s a cast of lovable eccentric characters who appear in every book that the reader loves to visit; the books are like the holidays, when you gather with friends and family to celebrate life and love and joy.

My favorite panel I attended at Crime Bake this past weekend was the “Cozy Trends: Home Sweet Home?” moderated ably by Ang Pompano; the panelists were Sarah Osborne, Julia Henry, Barbara Ross, and Tina deBellegarde (Sherry Harris was also listed, but she wasn’t there, alas). They were fantastic, and the discussion was truly terrific. (This is the panel where Julia Henry said something I thought profound and true: “Respect the genre you’re writing.” I want that on a sampler.) I bought books by all the authors, and am really looking forward to reading them. On the flight home from Boston, I finished reading Invisible City by Julia Dahl, and pulled Shucked Apart by Barbara Ross out of my backpack and started reading.

I finished it last night.

“Julia, meet my friend Andie.” My boyfriend Chris, looking tousled and handsome as always, stood in the doorway of my office. He entered the room, confident and casual, and a pleasant-looking woman followed.

“You mean Andie from your poker nights?” I put my hand out to cover my confusion. For two years, I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that “Andy” was a man. “No, we haven’t. I’m Julia.”

She took my hand and shook. “Andie. Greatorex. So glad to finally meet.” Her handshale was firm and strong, which seemed right, given her looks. She was tall, broad-shouldered, and obviously fit. Her sandy-blonde hair, pulled back in a high ponytial, framed a round face with wide set, hazel eyes. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, like Chris and me. Also, like Chris and me, she wore jeans, work boots, a T-shirt, and a plaid, flannel overshirt, as if we were planning on starting our own Grunge band. Andie’s T-shirt was maroon and had the words, GREAT RIVER OYSTERS on it in white block letters. My T-shirt was navy and said, SNOWDEN FAMILY CLAMBAKE. Chris “doesn’t wear advertising”, quote, unquote, so his T-shirt was black.

In other words, we were dressed appropriately for a morning in coastal Maine in mid-May. Outside, pre-season tourists From Away wore jacket and windbreakers, but we natives are hardier folks.

Barbara Ross was an absolute delight on the panel, and I grabbed the last copy of this book the bookseller had and was able to get her to sign it for me–which is something I am not ashamed to say I completely geek about still; I will always be a fanboy.

Shucked Apart is the ninth (!) book in the Maine Clambake mystery series; Ross’ heroine Julia Snowden lives in the fictional Maine coastal village of Busman’s Harbor. She left a career in high finance in New York to take over her family’s clambake business (highly dependent on tourism and seasonal) and make it thrive. It’s very clear that Julia works very hard but has clearly gone back native–she doesn’t miss her old life at all–and the town is filled with likable and interesting characters. Her live-in boyfriend, Chris, has brought his friend Andie, an oyster farmer, to meet Julia to get her help. Andie was attacked and robbed of $35,000 of oyster spat for her farm (spat being the term for baby oysters), and she wants Julia’s help getting to the bottom of the robbery/assault. Not sure she can really help more than the police, Julia takes a liking to Andie and decides to see if there’s anything she can do to help. There are any number of suspects to investigate–including Julia’s own uncle–and then Andie turns up dead and it becomes a murder investigation.

There’s also a personal story going on during the course of the book–as indicated in those opening paragraphs above, Chris has been keeping Julia away from his friends (most of the mystery and investigation are centered in the nearby town of Damariscotta), and over the course of their relationship there have been a lot of secrets he’s kept from her–and this personal issue is really handled deftly by Ross. The juxtaposition of the crime investigation and the personal dilemma is juggled beautifully; Ross really makes the reader care about Julia and her friends, and the pacing is perfect–and it’s not easy to do this without making one story more important than the other.

As I said the other day, I love to learn things when I read, and I learned a lot about oyster farming, the politics of fishermen vs. oyster farmers vs lobstermen, and the ecology concerns with keeping the delicate balance of the ecosystem from being damaged. Ross casually slips in diverse characters and the issue of the warming of the seas without making a big deal out of them–no small feat, and it’s done so effortlessly it’s almost unnoticeable.

This was a fun, charming read, and I look forward to my next visit to Busman’s Harbor.

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