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What to Read Next (No. 272): Thrilling Mysteries
Louise Penny and a new biography of Poe.
Happy Friday, readers!
This week, let’s dive into mysteries. It’s a genre I tend to turn to when the weather warms up, for reasons you might not expect.
Come spring and summer, the kids are outside in the backyard quite a bit, riding bikes on our cement pad, inventing new sports, collecting bugs, etc. They’re approaching the age of little-to-no supervision required, but we’re not quite there. Ergo, you’ll often find me (or Jane) sitting on the covered deck with a book in hand, officiating the activities as needed. Reading tends to happen in fits and starts, much more so than in the winter when everyone is stuck inside on a screen or doing some sort of craft that doesn’t require our attention nearly as much. So rather than dig into dense prose and long paragraphs, mysteries — which lean heavily on dialogue and quick-reading plot — tend to be a better fit for the circumstances.
This week I’m excited to write about Louise Penny and the real-life mystery of Edgar Allan Poe, two of my favorite authors in the genre.
Let’s jump in, and please let me know your favorite mysteries!
If you missed it, The Big Read (my online book club) is starting Betty Smith’s classic “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” this week. Here’s the announcement post. For $5/month, you get access to weekly recaps, group discussion, and more:
State of Terror by Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton
My love for the work of Louise Penny grows every time I read another book in the Armand Gamache series. After reading How the Light Gets In back in January, I’m now halfway through. (There are 18 books and counting.) I can’t recommend these books highly enough, so look no further if you need a summertime series.
State of Terror, Penny’s first standalone novel, was worthwhile as a thriller, but not up to the level of the Gamache books.
The story: An inexperienced Secretary of State, Ellen Adams, is tasked with responding to a series of terrorist attacks at home and aboard. She has to investigate the attacks, prevent future mayhem, and deal with complex political maneuvering.
Honestly, it’s sort of a standard plot for a political thriller.
Penny’s unique charms come through a little bit, but there’s less human-ness in these characters than we find in the Gamache series. My guess is that Clinton formed the outlines of Ellen Adams and then provided insider info about the machinations of the State Department.
The problem is that Adams just doesn’t have as much depth as I’ve come to expect from Penny’s characters. I read State of Terror while on vacation last December and though I initially gave it 4 stars, it hasn’t stuck with me very well. I think 3 or 3.5 stars is more appropriate, only because I’m so enamored with the world she’s created in her other books.
All that said, State of Terror is still a high-octane, plot-first read that certainly got the job done as a vacation book. If political thrillers are your jam, you’ll enjoy this one.
A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Dawidziak
I love the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe and have long been on the hunt for a readable biography that goes beyond the author’s gloomy exterior.
Luckily, a new and highly enjoyable look at his life and mysterious death was published back in February.
Biographer Mark Dawidziak does a few things in A Mystery of Mysteries that I really enjoyed:
First, he plays with format a bit, which I always appreciate. Biography is such a staid genre that I enjoy the risk and creativity of not following the usual rules. We get a bit of standard biography, but also a deep and unique look into the beguiling puzzle of Poe’s death.
Second, about that death — which is one of the great real-life mysteries in bookish history: Dawidziak presents a few valid theories, and leans convincingly into one of them, but rightly concludes — not a spoiler, I promise — that we’ll simply never be able to say for certain why Poe died at the age of 40 on the streets of Baltimore. I really appreciated the thought and care that went into these sections.
Third, Dawidziak includes a number of ideas about Poe’s lasting influence in literature and culture. Too many biographers refuse to go beyond their subject’s lifespan, which drives me crazy. In this book, we get to hear about how Poe influenced Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and other masters of gothic and speculative fiction.
If you’re a fan of Poe and literary biographies, A Mystery of Mysteries is not to be missed.
That’s it for me this week. Thanks so much for the time and attention — I deeply appreciate it.