Saturday, January 09, 2021

Trial Runs

The year 2020 was isolating, frightening, and discouraging in so many respects. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, racial-justice protests, business shutdowns, escalating unemployment, and the anti-democratic antics of an amateur U.S. president determined to ignore both law and traditions (behavior that led ultimately to his inciting this week’s insurrectionist attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.), Americans were lashed by the twin torments of upheaval and uncertainty. Some people saw in those challenges a rare opportunity to try new things, to redefine their lives or work; others hunkered down amid the comforts of the familiar, hoping thereby to restore a sense of order.

I fell more into the latter category. Confined in varying degrees to my home, I eschewed chances to learn the fine art of bread baking or to binge-watch popular TV series, instead concentrating on my reading and especially my writing. I realize now that, even when it came to my book choices, I tended—amid all of the year’s turmoil—to more often pick up works by authors I’d enjoyed previously than by those with whom I had no acquaintance. This had a deleterious effect on my annual count of new-to-me writer “discoveries.”

As regular Rap Sheet followers know, ever since 2008 I have been keeping track of the writers to whose work I was freshly introduced each year—not just crime-fictionists, but others as well. The high point in this series of assessments was reached in 2015, when the list of books I consumed included 47 by wordsmiths new to me. My tally for 2019 came in at a comparatively paltry 29. Some of that falloff can obviously be traced to the fact that my experience with writers in print grows with each passing year; the more authors I sample over time and the more of those I relish, the greater is the likelihood that I shall purchase their works again, rather than hungering incessantly after different voices. My reading picks for 2020 featured a number of wordsmiths I have “discovered” over the 12 years I’ve been maintaining this inventory, among them John O’Hara (Butterfield 8), Abir Mukherjee (Death in the East), Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood), John Lawton (Hammer to Fall), and William Shaw (Grave’s End). While I am not sorry to have cracked open any of the dozens of books I did in 2020, my tendency during last year’s troubles to favor known writers over others did, sadly, result in my reaching a new low as far as experimenting with unfamiliar scribblers: just 26 fresh finds. (Note: That includes two writers, Brian Thornton and Craig Sisterson, whose work I knew—but who had never before published books.)

I look forward to reading more from several of last year’s new-to-me authors, notably Stuart Turton, Ben Creed (a pseudonym employed by Chris Rickaby and Barney Thompson), TaraShea Nesbit, and C.W. Grafton (father to the late alphabet mystery-maker Sue Grafton), whose 1950 courtroom drama, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, I already have in hand and hope to review on this page sometime soon. However, in the interests of educating myself further in this genre, I’d like to do a better job in 2021 of investigating writers not already represented on my bookshelves. Perhaps as the world settles down a bit in coming months, thanks to a new, more experienced U.S. president and the availability of COVID vaccines, literary experimentation can again be a greater part of my game plan.

Below you will find my catalogue of fictionists whose output I read for the first time in 2020. Debut releases are boldfaced. Only two—marked with asterisks—do not fall within the crime, mystery, and thriller category.

Matthew Carr (Black Sun Rising)
• Ben Creed (City of Ghosts)
• Harald Gilbers (Germania)
• C.W. Grafton (The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope)
Alfred Harris (Baroni)
Jack Iams (What Rhymes with Murder?)
Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories)*
• Nev March (Murder in Old Bombay)
TaraShea Nesbit (Beheld)*
Joel Townsley Rogers (The Red Right Hand)
Catherine Steadman (Mr. Nobody)
• Brian Thornton (Suicide Blonde: Three Novellas)
Stuart Turton (The Devil and the Dark Water)
• David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Winter Counts)

Typically, my reading diet comprises works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Last year, I apparently enjoyed almost as many authors producing books about history, politics, literary criticism, and film entertainment as I did those turning out made-up stories.

Michael Benson (Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece)
David W. Blight (Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom)
Daniel Brook (The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction)
Steve Inskeep (Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause
the Civil War
Steven Johnson (Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt)
Susanna Lee (Detective in the Shadows:
A Hard-Boiled History
Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz (Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House)
Doug Most (The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway)
Evan Osnos (Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now)
• Craig Sisterton (Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of Australia and New Zealand)
Paul Starobin (A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle
of the Gilded Age
Laura Thompson (Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life)
Sam Wasson (The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years
of Hollywood

So those are my new-author encounters for 2020. How do your own compare? I’m sure others would be interested to know. Please tell us about them in the Comments section at the end of this post.

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

My own annotations to best lists this year contain far too much to include here in a comment box. I just want to thank you for your list above, as I am daily on the hunt for new discoveries.

One book I might mention is Stanley Ellin's THE EIGHTH CIRCLE, which won an Edgar Award decades ago, and which you have repeatedly touted here and reviewed elsewhere.

I reread it in tandem with my reading of Nick Basbanes' new biography of Longfellow, who first translated it way back when (Bloom always said that he preferred Longfellow's translation above the current texts), and I enjoined that with a reading of Matthew Pearl's THE DANTE CLUB (heir to Pearl's honor thesis on the subject), and with Charles Williams' classic study of Dante and Beatrice.

Somewhere I think I recall you questioning the protagonist's unconditional devotion to his love, in THE EIGHT CIRCLE, but that can only be understood in the light of Dante's relationship to Beatrice (and then to Longfellow's devotion to Fanny).

That study also led me to Dale E. Basye's novels on the Eight Circles of Heck, which is YA but has wry adult jokes in the style of Terry Prachett's Discworld novels. A laugh or at least a literary chuckle on almost every page.

Anyway, thanks again for your good work.