Crime: All the Time or Some of the Time

The ever-popular category of crime fiction — which can include detective novels, mysteries, thrillers, etc. — has different categories of authors.

There are those writers — such as Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lisa Scottoline — known mostly for their crime fiction, even as they occasionally roam/roamed outside that genre. Then there are authors known more for their non-crime-fiction work, even as they produce/produced some strong offerings in the detective/mystery/thriller realm. This blog post will be about the latter group — which includes people like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, J.K. Rowling, and Mark Twain.

I’ll first discuss Rowling, who, as “Robert Galbraith,” writes the series starring fascinating private investigator Cormoran Strike. I read the debut installment, The Cuckoo’s Calling, this week — and was bowled over by how smoothly Rowling moved into crime fiction after conquering the young-adult/magical-fiction world with her iconic Harry Potter series and then writing the compelling general-adult-fiction book The Casual Vacancy. Rowling will always be associated more with Harry Potter than anything else, but her versatility is off-the-charts.

Collins is best known for The Woman in White, an ultra-suspenseful mystery; and The Moonstone, an early example of detective fiction. But most of his novels were in the realm of general fiction.

Poe is of course almost synonymous with horror fiction, but he wrote several earlier-than-The Moonstone detective stories starring C. Auguste Dupin — the most famous of which were “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”

Twain’s late-career novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, with its important plot-solving element of fingerprint analysis, placed that author somewhat in the crime-solving genre. Two years later, Twain came out with Tom Sawyer, Detective — one of his lesser novels.

Dickens turned to the mystery genre with his last, unfinished book — The Mystery of Edwin Drood — after more than 30 years of penning more general literary works.

Obviously, authors who write crime fiction most of the time can really master that genre, but the potential drawback can be a certain sameness in some of their work. Those pros and cons can of course flip for writers who turn to crime fiction only occasionally.

Any thoughts on the two categories of crime-fiction authors discussed in this blog post? Your favorite works in each category?

(BTW, one reason Jim Grant took the name Lee Child was because that alias alphabetically placed his Jack Reacher novels in libraries and bookstores between the works of crime-fiction greats Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie — just like Child ended up between Chandler and Christie in this blog post’s second paragraph.)

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about overdevelopment run amok in my town — is here.

72 thoughts on “Crime: All the Time or Some of the Time

  1. For me Edgar Allen Poe defines the genre crime and horror, his stories and even poem revolves around the nature of crime and grotesque. It wouldnโ€™t be wrong to suggest that the genre of gothic began with him and then got further sub categories as mystery and detective.
    As I am discussing this I canโ€™t ignore Marry Shelleyโ€™s Frankenstein… with shades of gothic and crime
    Dickens do have shades of grey in his novels set in Victorian England.
    I guess all three of them were forefathers of what later would further categorize in thriller, mystery and detective!!

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    • Thank you, Tanya, for the comment! I agree — Poe’s crime, horror, and other fiction are indeed incredible, influential, and pioneering!

      You’re also right about Mary Shelley. Definitely one of the earliest Gothic authors (a little after writers such as Ann Radcliffe). And Shelley was among the first to tackle science fiction (which “Frankenstein” is to some extent) and dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction (the amazing “The Last Man”).

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      • Yes I guess it began all from the genre of gothic and then got diverged into different sub categories of crime, science, mystery, detective and now dystopian fiction. I guess quinstessential writers of a typical genre sometimes become repititive while some loyal readers like it and for others like me it can get boring!

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  2. Pingback: Criminal offense: All the Time or A few of the Time - SCAM Channel

  3. I like both types– the crime writers who stick to their lasts and the writers who occasionally dip into the genre, and I like a mash-up of genres from time to time– there is a series by a Canadian geologist turned fictioneer named Janes, who wrote a series of crime novels featuring a French policeman and his German counterpart and partner, who team up in Paris to thwart Nazi officialdom in all its grotesque and awful manifestations, while barely managing to steer clear of execution of sudden retirement. I’ve read two, my favorite titled “Gypsy”. There are a few visual images in that one that have stuck with me now for a few years, besides its being an exciting read.

    An aside: writing a series featuring the same character has its own challenges, and consistency, besides being a hobgoblin, is hard to come by. Child’s “Killing Floor” features a Reacher who is so consumed by old-timey blues music that his first move after discharge from military service is to visit the town where Blind Blake, ragtime guitarist extraordinaire, was last seen, or died. As a fellow who is quite fond himself of such stuff, I note with sadness (a little) that it’s been quite a few books since Reacher has listened to anything much, much less 90-year-old blues.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! I like both types, too!

      Interesting point about consistency. The blues have indeed not been mentioned as much in the later Reacher books — though I suppose that given that Jack is getting older in the series, maybe his musical tastes changed somewhat.

      Lee Child is virtually the only modern-day author of crime fiction for which I’ve read most of the books, so I wouldn’t know about inconsistencies in the novels of other series writers in that genre.

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  4. I must admit that crime fiction isn’t one of my preferred genres, but that being said, I do very much enjoy Edgar Allan Poe’s crime works among his many other pieces. He is a very intriguing figure to me both as a person and a writer – how he could write such beautiful poems like AnnaBell Lee, but then write such CREEP FEST stories like his horror works, is beyond me. I don’t know if I could ever be that versatile as a writer!

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    • Thank you, M.B.! You’re so right about Poe’s versatility — scary short stories and lovely poems (as you noted), plus sea fiction, a time-travel work (“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”), nonfiction, etc. All in a life that ended at age 40.

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      • Poe was also an able and insightful critic, though not one to shy from controversy, and published a great many reviews, as well as literary theory.

        I had the chance to pick up some of his critical contributions, as they appeared in (bound) magazine form, but the cash was not with me at that moment, and I had to forego. It was interesting to see him in contemporary context– JF Cooper (The Pioneers??) was serialized throughout that annual edition…the magazine was evidently purchasable in soft cover per quarter or month (I don’t recall) as well as in hard cover by year…

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        • Very true about Poe also being a reviewer, jhNY!

          Sorry you weren’t able to make that interesting purchase.

          I really enjoyed James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels when I read them a few years ago. “The Pioneers” was far from the best of the five, but still pretty good.

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  5. I didn’t know J. K. Rowling was in the crime writing business! Sounds like a winner from your description, Dave. Very interesting and smart for Jim Grant to change his name to Lee Child. I wonder how much that influenced his success? I think book shelf placement is rather important. I have read a lot of P.D. James and Janet Evanovich – two ends of a spectrum in crime writing. I also read another terrific British mystery writer Ruth Rendell. She writes under another name, Barbara Vine, and those novels are darker and more psychological thrillers. Lisa Scottoline and Lee Childs are on my TBR list.

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    • Thank you, Molly!

      J.K. Rowling’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling” was so good I’m chomping at the bit to read the next installment. But first a novel you recommended: Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls.” I’m just on page 35 of a 483-page edition, but I’m totally hooked already.

      The Lee Child pen name couldn’t have hurt! I guess it’s no punchier than Jim Grant, but it’s more unusual-sounding. And there’s that alphabetical placement. Still, Grant could have been shelved between (Sue) Grafton and (John) Grisham. ๐Ÿ™‚ Actually, Child’s Reacher novels are so riveting that he could have named himself Bob Jrbl…

      Lisa Scottoline is an excellent writer, at least from my experience reading just one of her novels: “The Vendetta Defense.” She spoke at the NSNC’s 2007 conference in Philadelphia!

      Yes, crime writers such as Janet Evanovich and P.D. James are SO different. Partly an American vs. British thing, among other reasons.

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        • Molly, it’s my second Russo novel after “Straight Man,” which I liked but I’m pretty sure I’m going to like “Empire Falls” a lot more. Not exactly upbeat, but so absorbing and…human.

          Lisa Scottoline is a versatile writer! And a VERY productive one — churning out book after book.

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  6. Oh my, Dave, where do I even begin to mention all of the crime fiction I’ve read? I’ll skip over the Nancy Drew or like series that I read as a pre-teen, but I definitely remember “And Then There Were None,” by Agatha Christie when I was in college and looking for a diversion from all the heavy reading I was doing. I’m sure I’ve said that I’ve read all of the Christie novels, most of them twice. I’ll pass on finding the exact book I read years ago, “The Historian as Detective,” by Robin Winks (I think), because it appealed to my sense of there being something more compelling than just another mystery series (History was my major), although that’s OK too! I’ve been through many phases of crime fiction, from the classic British authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, GK Chesterson, P.D. James, and many others. As for American classic authors, there’s Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Dashiel Hammet, Raymond Chandler, John D. McDonald, Ross MacDonald, Rex Stout, and again, many others. Other more modern authors are Louise Penny (Canadian), and the Scandinavians such as Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larrson, Camilla Lackberg, Henning Mankell, etc.

    I’ve read most of these in series form (and there oh so many more), and am wondering how I ever found the time to read so many books, and re-reading a good portion of them! I’ve said before that I’m a very fast reader, so that must be true. All the time I was reading crime fiction, I was also reading science fiction, classics and contemporary fiction. and non-fiction books, such as memoirs or animal books. But my retention ability is not as good as I’d like it to be (the main reason I can re-read so many books)

    P.S., many of the authors I’ve mentioned were also mentioned by others, such as Lulabelle and Becky Ross. Thanks!

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! I know you know more about crime fiction than almost anyone, and your above comment once again proves that. ๐Ÿ™‚ You named SO many authors in the genre, and I’m impressed that you’ve read and reread a huge number of their novels while also reading in various other genres. Of the authors you named, I’ve read at least one book by only a little under half of them.

      “And Then There Were None” is my favorite Agatha Christie novel, and obviously I’m not alone: As you know, it’s her biggest seller — and one of the best-selling of all books, mystery or otherwise.

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      • Yes. I did know that, and l think that it was the one book that cemented my love of crime fiction. It was also the same time and books that made me love all of Jane Austen’s novels, while reading “Sense & Sensibility.” Which is why I often say that I graduated from the University of Texas at Austen rather than Austin. I’ve pretty much caught myself from writing that, but I always have to check that I’ve written it correctly.” ๐Ÿ™‚

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          • I think that my favorite authors in my high school years were what was probably known as romantic suspense, e.g. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters). In 10th grade my English teacher had a bookmobile come one day and we were browsing around it. Of course I bought a book by one of these authors and my teacher was appalled. I thought he was going to rip it out of my hands and throw it in the trash. Fortunately he didn’t, but I did lose my status of being one of the “teacher’s pets.” ๐Ÿ™‚

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            • Enjoyably written comment, Kat Lib! That teacher should have just been glad you were an avid reader. Many people read some “lighter” stuff when they’re teens, and then move on to reading a larger percentage of more literary fiction.

              Heck, when I was a teen, I supplemented the classic novels assigned in high school (“Jane Eyre,” “The Scarlet Letter,” etc.) with baseball biographies, comic books, and other such “lowbrow” reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

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              • I’m not sure of the English teacher involved, but I do remember one of them saying that she didn’t care what we read, but just read something, even if it’s comic books. For some reason I thought that well put. I was reminded of that when I had problems eating years ago, and my doctor said that he didn’t care what I ate, even Sugar Pops, but just eat something! I think both of them were right in their own ways and I’ve kept both of those things as mantras in my mind. Oops, I think that I’ve entered into the realm of TMI, so I’ll sign off here, though I’m sure I’ll be back again. ๐Ÿ™‚

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                  • I think we’ve talked about comic books before, but I was addicted to certain comics, such as Peanuts, Foxtrot, but my favorites were Pogo and especially Calvin and Hobbes, which I think you were also fond of. Of course, I also had very strong feelings about comics, such as Archie, Betty & Veronica, Millie the Model, Superman and other sci-fi comics as well as many others. It sounds as if I no other activities other than comics, which is not true at all, but I had so many other interests, which means I’ve been eclectic in most things, which I’ve seen as both a blessing and a curse!

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                    • Seek out Krazy Kat! I read a passel of the daily strips while I was sojourning in Nashvegas last month, and boy o boy they are wonderful– Herriman was a master of American idiom, compared to anybody! Also, an incomparable draftsman, especially on Sundays.

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                    • “Krazy Kat” is SO great, jhNY! Yes, the drawing — and the situations, and that weird triangle of characters. As you know, George Herriman’s 1913-1944 comic strip was never a huge commercial success. Probably too original and quirky to have a truly mass audience.

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                    • Thread’s maxed below, so:

                      Nope, that clock is not, beyond also being catlike, a Krazy Kat. I have almost owned one from time to time, as it does have a certain wack appeal, but a friend did me the favor of hanging one in his kitchen, enabling me to consider what living close at hand to that mechanism might be like. Drinking coffee, lots of it,, especially after a night on the tiles, and trying to bear up under the roving eye of that cat, looked like too much to face in the morning to me.

                      Also, Krazy Kat is not Felix, a cat for whom I also harbor some affection, as well as a jointed wooden representation which has a patent date of 1924 on its foot.

                      Krazy Kat is an enduring monument to the wisdom and good taste of William Randolph Hearst, possibly the only one, beside which San Simeon is, metaphorically, a tarpaper shack of no long standing.

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                    • Yes, jhNY, William Randolph Hearst LOVED “Krazy Kat,” and kept it going even though it was not much of a money-maker for King Features Syndicate. As you allude to, perhaps the only admirable thing he did in his life.

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                  • Kat Lib, it’s totally possible to be interested in comic strips, comic books, serious literature, and various other things at the same time or consecutively! Eclectic is good. ๐Ÿ™‚

                    I like/liked most of the comics you mentioned, and also ones such as “The Far Side,” “Doonesbury,” and “For Better or For Worse,” among others.

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                    • Is Krazy Kat the one they used to make clocks from, such as the one that have the tail and the eyes going in opposite directions? I used to see this every time I went into my friends’ powder room hanging inside and it actually gave me the creeps

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                    • Well, I found what I was looking for (I think) which isn’t Krazy Kat, but Kit-Cat Klock. So I’ll have to go and look to see if I can find the comics.

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                    • “Kit-Cat Klock”! Gotta love the alliteration! ๐Ÿ™‚ (I guess they made sure not to use “Kat,” or they would have had the initials “KKK”… ๐Ÿ˜ฆ )

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      • ON PBS, in a four-part series ending only last week I think, was a new version of this Christie stalwart, and a most bleak and moody bit of drama it was– but well-done.

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          • Well, I’ve been trying to figure out how I missed an episode of Agatha Christie, but I’m wondering if were perhaps one of the “new” Hercule Poirot novels put out by the writer Sophie Hannah, who I loved many of her crime novels, but I was just disappointed in them. This goes for all writers or should who have done the same, e.g. Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Dick Francis, Robert B. Joseph, James Patterson, or even my fave Jane Austen. Not that the authors themselves are responsible, but I’d assume their estates or whatever approved this.

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            • Kat Lib, I also dislike it when living authors are assigned to “appropriate” the work of famous deceased authors to create something “new.” To paraphrase Melania Trump’s dumb “Be Best” slogan, “Be Original”!

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            • Oops, I mentioned the American Robert B. Joseph rather than his name as Parker. He wrote novels as Robert B. Parker, whose books featured Spenser as his detective, which I gave up when he died.

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            • If you’re referring to And Then There Were None, this time it’s soldiers’ and not ‘Indians’, and not ‘n——‘ (that last, as originally titled), and is set on an island off Devon in the period immediately preceding the Second World War. Gone from this dramatization is any of the trivializing humor that ran through the old movie version of the thing, replaced by fear and loathing and treachery– all in all, a good thing, given all the death. It was produced by the BBC in 2015.

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              • Yes, you’re right about that mini-series being “And Then There Were None,” from 2015 that I found on google. I will have to check that out. I did also find a book by Herriman on his Krazy Kat comics and ordered it for use on my Nook (and only cost me 2,99 — I’m currently on an austerity budget). Perhaps I should change my screen name from Kat Lib to Krazy Kat! ๐Ÿ™‚

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                  • So,I’ve been playing around with different screen names all afternoon since I got home from shopping and lunch. It’s somewhere between KitKat or Kit-Cat — or the one that is most applicable to me, Krazy Kat, which sounds a trifle ominous even to me. Any thoughts? I’m not sure why I’m even going through this, but I’ve got a very common first and last name. When I moved into my condo in 2001, at the end of my hall, there were 3 of us who owned a unit there, all our last names were Jones, Johnson, and Smith. I asked everyone if we were all a part of the witness protection plan, esp. since even our first names were common as well, but I assumed not, since I thought even, the fed. govt. could come up with better aliases than we had.

                    After a nice lunch out, as well as doing a little bit of shopping, we came back home, and I found a half-eaten box of Cheerios on the floor, which Lilyan opened herself. I keep calling her a scavenger, and she acts as though we don’t feed her enough;! I even upped the amount after another episode last week, but I don’t want to do too much I think she needs a visit to the vet!

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                    • “I asked everyone if we were all a part of the witness protection plan” — ha ha! That’s VERY funny. ๐Ÿ™‚

                      I don’t feel I should be offering my opinion about screen names to anyone, but I look forward to what you end up with, if you decide to change your alias. If you don’t, “Kat Lib” will continue to sound fine to me!

                      Clearly, pets will scavenge for food even if they’re well fed by their people. Part of it is the thrill of slashing their way into a box or bag…

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                • Hope you enjoy KK also! It may interest you to know that Herriman was a native of New Orleans, a Creole who passed for white after he and his family moved west.

                  In particular, I hope you enjoy Herriman’s fun with American English. Having read quite a few strips lately, I came to the conclusion that Herriman was as avid an experimenter with language as Gertrude Stein, and certainly, he was more widely read. To say nothing of Herriman’s drawing abilities, which are superb, and to my eye, as good as anybody’s who worked from panel to panel in the comics.

                  I’m thinking Krazy Kat Lib might be workable, if a bit compromising as a means of making a first impression…..

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                  • Thanks jhNY, it’s seems like a rather big deal, but with such a common full name as I have, I used to spend lots of time when in Jr. High School trying to come up with something better. I don’t know who I thought was going to change this for me. The only thing memorable about my first name was that it’s a nickname rather than something more interesting like Katherine or Kathleen. I can’t tell you how often I’ve explained to people that my legal name is Kathy, but they still look at me suspiciously. My mom named me that because all of my 5 older siblings had 5 letters in their first name, so I had to as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

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                    • LOL, Kat Lib! Perhaps we’re all a bit “Krazy,” but you sound sane to me. ๐Ÿ™‚

                      I like the idea of you and your siblings all having five-letter first names! My older daughter’s name — Maggie — is not short for anything (such as Margaret), either!

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  7. Of course, you know that I adore the Jack Reacher series! You didn’t mention Robert Ludlum, and I don’t recall you ever mentioning him. Have you read Ludlum? I read his Jason Bourne series years ago. Another mystery/crime series that I really liked was written by Dick Francis, a former jockey. All of his novels had a backdrop of horse racing and they were extremely enjoyable. And Dorothy Gilman wrote the delightful Mrs. Pollifax series! Year ago I read and loved the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle! What a hodgepodge comment, but that’s the best I can do! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! I definitely remember your high regard for the Reacher series, and I share it!

      Unfortunately, I’ve never read Robert Ludlum or Dick Francis, and my local library hasn’t had Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series when I looked for it a couple of times after you and Kat Lib recommended it. I’ll keep looking.

      I consider your comment “wide-ranging” more than “hodgepodge.” You covered a lot of interesting ground!

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  8. In crime fiction, my favorites include Sue Grafton (I have a few left to read), Marcia Muller, and Louise Penny. For the second group of writers, I read Poe years ago, but don’t think that I would still enjoy his writing. I liked “Cuckoo’s Calling” very much, but still have pursued others in the series. A mystery writer who is gaining quite a following is English author, Elly Griffiths. She has several series, with my favorite being the Ruth Galloway Mysteries. In addition, she has a new standalone novel out, called “Stranger Diaries.” Interestingly, Ms. Griffiths began as a contemporary women’s author and wrote under her real name, Domenica de Rosa. I tried one, and it was fine. Nothing like her wonderful mysteries, though!

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    • Thank you, Becky!

      The mysteries of Elly Griffiths, who I hadn’t heard of until seeing your comment, sound intriguing. Will put her on my to-read list. So many pen names around… ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’m eager to read J.K. Rowling’s other Cormoran Strike novels. I guess there are four in all, so far.

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  9. Wow Dave, I have read several books by Lee Child and didnโ€™t even know the history of his name, I always assumed his name is Lee Child.
    This is October and just thought time for another of his new Reacher book.
    That reality star of potus is consuming my mind, just saw the 60 mins interview.
    Anyways, I was reading Amorosa book, Unhinged, almost done with interesting tidbits. Soon I should be getting Fear by Bob Woodward, his latest .

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    • Thank you, bebe! I used to think Lee Child was his real name, too. I love the (partial) story behind his alias.

      You’re right — like clockwork each year, a new Reacher book is coming soon. Can’t wait!

      What was that “60 Minutes” segment about?

      Those two books you mentioned about the awfulness of Trump must be VERY interesting reads!

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    • Glad you liked it! The whole series is excellent, in my opinion. And I have every intention of reading Lee Child one of these days, just as soon as my TBR pile grows a little thinner (hahaha!).

      As a side note, โ€œCrime and Punishmentโ€ is often considered a crime novel, and Dostoevsky a crime writer, but of an unusual sort. โ€œThe Brothers Karamazovโ€ also has a murder mystery, complete with investigation and trial, at its heart.

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      • Thank you, Elena! It seems J.K. Rowling can’t write anything less than a terrific novel each time she tries. (I did find the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — which I read, didn’t see — to be good not great. But while that play was partly based on a Rowling idea, she apparently didn’t write it.)

        If you get to a Jack Reacher novel, let me know what you think! The first one, “Killing Floor,” is of course a logical place to start — and it’s riveting. Of the 20-plus books after that, “61 Hours” (set in snowy South Dakota) might be the one that sticks most in my mind.

        You’re right — the two Dostoevsky classics you mentioned are crime novels in a way. Of course, “C&P” is not a whodunnit — we know who done it — but some crime novels are obviously like that!

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