Mysteries: One Book or Many?
Posted by: Neil Hollands
For instance, I just read my first of Craig Johnson’s delightful Longmire mysteries. Junkyard Dogs was a fast moving, clever read with great quirky characters led by the cantankerous first-person voice of Sheriff Walt Longmire. I actually listened to the book on audio, and although he’s not always my favorite, narrator George Guidall was perfect for this part, with a great range of voices for the crusty, sassy, or loopy eccentrics with which Johnson peoples small town Durant, Wyoming. I really enjoyed the book and will read more in the series.
But was this a good choice for a single book discussion? Probably not. We could talk about the mystery puzzle, but it isn’t especially complex here and in my experience, discussions about plot only go so far. We could talk about our favorite characters, but that wouldn’t take up much time. We could probably get a little mileage from Johnson’s troubled deputy or his on-again/off-again relationship with Victoria Moretti or even his relationship with animals. A gifted discussion leader might be able to get some talk out of how well Johnson creates the atmosphere of the place or about the first-person narration, but when all of these topics were used up, it still might be a lean meeting.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean that Johnson’s book is in any way deficient. It’s just that what it’s good at–humor, voice, fast pace–aren’t easy to talk about, and in some ways, the book’s easy likability would work against much back and forth between readers. You could still use the book in your group, but it would probably be more successful to open the discussion up to Johnson’s whole series, or even better, to compare it with other great outdoorsy Western mysteries like those by C. J. Box, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman, or the second series by Robert Parker or James Lee Burke.
For a crime novel that works on its own, look for books that explore the motivation for crime, the sometimes fine edge between good and bad behavior, the psychological aspects of committing or surviving crime, the nature of justice and the justice system, or external forces that complicate the detection process. More secondary characters and suspects equal more discussability. If the crime novel explores secondary issues that’s a bonus.
The bottom line is that when selecting books for your group, careful forethought can prevent many inadequate future meetings. If you’re at all concerned about whether one book can carry the day, add others to the mix. Let your readers pick which title they want to read, mixing snippets of conversation about the individual books with a broader discussion of their shared author or theme.