Tag: julia spencer-fleming

Sisyphus’s reading list

With apologies to my parents and the various governmental and charitable bodies that funded my higher education, I have to confess that I remember almost nothing from my undergraduate courses. One obscure factoid, however, stands out with surprising clarity: the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza read every book in print during this lifetime.

The Gutenberg press was invented around 1500, and for the first few decades almost all books were printed in Latin. Despite the obvious improvements from the days of hand copying, books were still relatively rare and expensive commodities. Only tomes of great importance, written by men of means, were deemed worthy of publication. To possess a vast library, or even a single book, was a mark of distinction. Throughout the sixteenth century, though, printed books became more and more commonplace, and the array of printed matter increased exponentially with each passing decade. By the seventeenth century, when Spinoza lived, there were hundreds of presses across Europe and the entire canon of classical Greek texts (Plato, Aristotle, and various other toga-ed toffs) was in print. During Spinoza’s lifetime and after his death, this proliferation only increased as books and pamphlets in vernacular languages flew off the presses. By 1800, a new kind of press could churn out almost 500 pages every hour.

Walk into even the shabbiest small-town library and you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of printed paper arrayed before you. I despair of ever finding time to finish Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s wonderful Clare Fergusson mystery series, much less read every book in print. Getting through my reading list can feel like a never-ending task, a “to do” that will never, ever be done.

Spinoza had a couple of advantages over you and me. First, he didn’t have kids or a spouse or a regular job, and, though I can’t prove it, I suspect he also didn’t have a demanding miniature schnauzer. Most importantly, though, he lived during the sweet-spot era of knowledge creation and dissemination when there were thousands, but not yet millions, of books in circulation.

Northwestern University, my alma mater, is organized around approximately 10-week “trimesters” rather than semesters. This gives students the opportunity to cram in more courses during the academic year than is typical. I must’ve taken close to 40 different courses during my time there, and this anecdote about Spinoza is what has stuck with me. If you love reading as much as I do, the idea of being able to read every book inspires awe and envy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have time to really read each word that passes in front of your eyeballs? And to savor your favorite passages?

As you glance at that pile of unread books on your bedside table or file yet another friendly suggestion of a “must read” book into your mental Rolodex, maybe you, like me, will give a jealous thought to Spinoza. We live in an ever-expanding universe of words that continually stretches further from the Big Bang origin of the invention of the printing press. Quit your job and spend every waking minute with your nose stuck in a book, and you’ll barely have begun. But take heart. Though you didn’t live at Spinoza’s perfect moment in publishing history, you can take some comfort that you live in the era of indoor plumbing, Oreo cookies, and Dr. Who.

Solving a bunch of murders would probably ruin my life.

I’m a pretty normal gal. I have a part-time job running the clinical research center at the Virginia Tech vet school. I’m a mom who shops at Kroger, walks the dog, and makes pasta salad. I do yoga, volunteer, and have Friday-night drinks with the neighbors. One thing I don’t do is solve murders.

Readers of the traditional or “cozy” mystery genres will know that one of the criterion often used for defining these books is that the protagonist should be an amateur sleuth. (There are notable exceptions to this, but it generally holds true). In other words, the person who solves the mystery is just a regular Joe or Josephine. Hence, my Reverend Lindsay Harding Mysteries fit the bill. Lindsay is a hospital chaplain. She’s not a police officer, a member of the armed forces, or even a private investigator. She’s a normal person, thrown into murder investigations by chance (actually by me, but don’t tell her that!).

I’ve been working on the third book in the series, and I find myself wondering — what would it mean for Lindsay, as a normal person, to be confronted frequently by the horror that accompanies the sudden, violent taking of a life? How might it change her as a person? Some mystery writers have addressed these questions with considerable skill. My religious-based mystery-writing hero, Julia Spencer-Fleming, is one of these. As personal tragedies pile on top of repeated exposures to the darker shades of human nature, Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson character grows, changes, and becomes more complex. And, crucially, Rev. Clare buys a new car. You read that right. She begins the series owning an impractical sports car, but at some point she realizes that she needs something that handles better in the snow. So she gets a Suburu. I know this may seem an odd thing to fixate on, but this exemplifies what’s right about Spencer-Fleming and wrong with so many other mystery series.

Way too many books, especially in the cozy genre, fail to recognize the deep wounds that would accumulate if a person were constantly confronting life-threatening (and life-ending) situations. Experiences, especially traumatic ones, change people. But some authors seem to take their characters and plots in the opposite direction — as their series progresses, they write about murders with all the the gravity and emotional depth of a game of Uno. Their characters’ quirks become like the pun-heavy jokes your weird old uncle trots out every Christmas — they may have been amusing the first few times, but now they make you want to stab yourself in the neck with a shrimp fork. By way of example, I’ll pick on two of the most successful series is the genre (the writers of which are both conveniently deceased, and therefore unable to argue with me): Lilian Jackson-Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. In these books, bodies stack up, but the equilibrium of the main character is totally undisturbed. Miss Marple might give a little frown or an exclamation of surprise as she steps over yet another corpse, but then she calmly returns to sipping her Earl Grey. In the last few installments of “The Cat Who…” murders roll in and out of the pages like buses out of a Greyhound station. They might occasion a quick-witted quip, but they don’t “stick” to the characters.

What’s a writer to do? Part of the charm of traditional mysteries, and cozies in particular, is that they provide an easy, often funny, read, free of the kind of gruesome violence that so many of us find overly disturbing. I love the humorous elements of these books, as they remind us that there is light to be found in even the darkest of places. But I personally can’t stand to read a character who remains static while the world around her repeatedly throws dead bodies at her feet.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that the Lindsay Harding series is suddenly going to change from being fun beach reads to being a meditation on the hopelessness of existence. But it does mean that, if I achieve what I set out to do, that Lindsay will evolve.