Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Whole New World, A New Fantastic Point of View*

Why do you love to read? There are as many different answers to that question as there are book lovers. Books offer entertainment, escape, wisdom and information, among lots of other things. They also provide ideas and new perspectives. They spark creativity, they make readers laugh, they hold up a mirror to the world, and they challenge readers to think. Books and words are such powerful tools that it’s no wonder we see so much of books in crime fiction.

In fact, “Books” is the first word of Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, the final adventure featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. In that novel, the Beresfords have moved to the village of Holllowquay with the idea of settling down and retiring. When they take possession of their new house, they discover a large collection of books left behind by previous owners. They’re going through the collection when Tuppence notices that some words in a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow have been underlined. She soon figures out that the words are actually a coded message:

“Mary Jordan did not die naturally.”

It turns out that that message was written by Alexander Parkinson, a young boy who lived in the house many years ago and died not very long after he left that code. That cryptic message arouses Tuppence’s curiosity and before long, she and Tommy are searching for the truth behind Alexander’s death and the death of Mary Jordan, a German-born maid who lived in Hollowquay at the time that the Parkinsons did. In the process of solving the mystery, the Beresfords also unearth several local secrets, including international espionage.

Several other Christie novels also weave in books, writers and literature, including Shakespeare. For instance, in Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of Mrs. Boynton, a tyrannical matriarch who’s dominated her family for years. One of her children, Ginevra “Jinny” Boynton, is driven to the brink of serious mental illness by her mother’s tyranny. Once Mrs. Boynton’s murder has been solved, the members of the family are able to move on and make lives for themselves. Jinny becomes a well-known actress whose specialty is Shakespeare, and Christie refers to a few of Shakespeare’s plays in this novel, including Cymbaline and Hamlet.

Some of Christie’s titles are also inspired by books and literature. For instance, Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) is part of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser. Other titles (e.g. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, A Pocketful of Rye and Hickory Dickory Dock) are references to nursery rhymes. Christie also makes brief references to other authors in several of her novels. Some examples are Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and an oblique reference to one of her contemporaries, Ngaio Marsh.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is an avid bibliophile and collector of rare books. He knows his literature quite well, and in fact, that knowledge helps him more than once. For instance, in Clouds of Witness, Wimsey’s older brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, is arrested for the murder of their sister Mary’s fiancĂ©, Denis Cathcart. The Duke admits that he and Cathcart quarreled, but he maintains his innocence, so Lord Peter and his friend, Inspector Charles Parker, investigate the case. There is a lot of evidence (e.g. a gun, a letter, footprints) that seems to lead in different directions, so the case is not an easy one to solve. It’s not until Lord Peter makes a connection to a book in Cathcart’s collection that caught his fancy that he’s able to get on the trail of the real killer.

Bibliophiles also feature in Terrie Curran’s All Booked Up, in which Professors Basil and Hortense Killingsly get mixed up in a series of murders and rare book thefts at New England's Smedley Library. The Killingsleys are “regulars” at the library, and are shocked when a very rare book, a 15th-century edition of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, goes missing from the library. A copy of Tottle's Songs and Sonnets is found in its place. Other rare books, too, disappear and are replaced by copies of the Tottle book. Then, the library’s director, Glen Moraise, is found dead. Now these two book lovers and some of the Smedley’s other denizens band together to find out the truth behind the thefts and murder.

Books are also at the forefront of Martin Edwards' The Serpent Pool. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. As they slowly put the pieces together, the team discovers the connection between that murder and the recent murders of rare book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg. We also discover how the three murders are connected to Oxford historian Daniel Kind’s interest in 19th Century British author Thomas de Quincey

There are also many books and series that take place in libraries and bookstores and feature librarians and book dealers and sellers as sleuths. Just one example is Lorna Barrett’s Book Town series, which features her sleuth, mystery bookstore owner Tricia Miles. And then there are sleuths such as Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran, a former investigative journalist and now columnist. He collects all sorts of books and they frequently provide clues to the mysteries he solves.

So why am I taking the time to talk about books and reading today? In part, it’s because books and words are powerful. Those who can read and love reading have access to that power that those who cannot read do not. So I would like to take a moment to salute those of you who pass the power of literacy on to others. All of you who blog about books and writing are important in keeping literacy alive, but I’m especially thanking you today because I’ve been honoured to receive this

Literacy Builder Blog Award

My deep thanks to Clarissa Draper for passing this award to me. I consider literacy building to be such an important calling that I am especially flattered that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… was chosen for this award.

Here are the rules for this award:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award.
2. Display the award logo on your blog site.
3. Tell us five of your favorite words and why you like them, (add as many as you like).
4. Pass the award on to three bloggers you feel are excellent literacy builders, and link to their sites.
5. Contact the bloggers you’ve chosen and let them know about the award.

Of course…rules were made to be – er – bent, so I will vary those rules just a bit. There are so many, many bloggers that I know whose blogs promote, support and develop literacy that choosing just three would be completely unfair to the rest. I’m “cheating” and choosing five blogs whose focus on reading, writing and literacy are helpful to all of us. I’m not even completely comfortable doing this, because it leaves out so many superb book blogs that have expanded my reading horizons. But here goes:

Crystal at Crystal Clear Proofing

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise

Michele at Southern City Mysteries

Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere

Elizabeth at Mystery Writing is Murder

I’ve also been asked to tell five of my favourite words (another hard task, as I love words). I found it very difficult to narrow my list down, but here goes:

Scintillating – I love this word because of what it means: sparkling – brilliantly clever

Onomatopoeia – This word has a lovely sound to it, and I like its meaning, too. It’s got zip ;-)

Wallaby – This word is a perfect example of how indigenous languages have changed other languages permanently. I love the power that language has to affect other languages.

Hoosegow – This word is such a terrific example of language mixing. It comes from the Spanish juzgado (court or court room), was anglicized and is now a slang term for “jail.”

Delicious – This word has a smooth and rich “feel,” and I like its meaning. I also like that many things (not just food) can be described with this word. It’s flexible

On a Related Note…

To the rest of you who share your passion for books – thank you! You light that proverbial “candle in the darkness,” and that makes a real difference.

I don’t often step on a soapbox; I’m too firm a believer in critical thinking for that. However on one issue, I do: literacy. Whether you choose to read with a child to help create a lifelong love of books, donate your books, help an adult to learn to read, or do something else to share the love of books, you are giving someone access to knowledge. Any small step you take to give someone the power of words is liberating.

And why am I going on about books during this particular week? Because it is Banned Books Week. It’s one thing to recommend that someone read or not read a particular book. It’s quite another to prevent that someone from reading what he or she chooses to read…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Rice and Alan Menken’s Whole New World.


  1. What a great post! And literacy is such an important subject...as is being able to read what we choose. I think reading is sometimes something that we Uber readers take for granted--and we shouldn't. Not everyone can read, and not everyone can read the materials they *want* to.

    And thanks for the award! What an honor...thanks so much, Margot!

  2. Elizabeth - Oh, it's my pleasure:-). You more than deserve it. You're so right, too. We book-types really do take for granted the gift that is words. We also so easily take for granted the freedom to choose what to read. That's one reason I get on the soapbox, so to speak, about literacy.

  3. I'm glad you liked the award and you gave it to some worthy recipients. I love your words. Some I'm going to look up and do more research on.

    I disagree with banning books, if you don't like a book don't read it but don't judge a book for everyone.

    Great post.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, I was quite proud to receive the award, and I did, indeed, choose wonderful bloggers for passing it on. The trouble is, of course, that there are so many fabulous blogs out there....

    And you put that quite well: If you don't like a book, don't read it. But don't judge what everyone else should read. Succinct and well-made point.

  5. Many thanks for the award Margot. I'll have to think about my response :-) Thanks you for all your encouragement to me

  6. Kerrie - Oh, my pleasure :-). You and your fabulous blog more than deserve it.

  7. Congratulations on the award, Margot, and also to your nominees. You all keep the torch burning for literacy. Some good word choices, too.

  8. John - Thanks very much for the kind words :-). That means a lot. And yeah, I think those are great words.

  9. Blogger ate my rather long comment :-(

    So true, Margot. Those of us who love books, often don't even realise what a gift reading is. But equally sad are the people who can read, but don't read books. Can anything else come even remotely close to the pleasure books can give you, and the part they play in making you who you are?

    And thank you so much for the Award- I will treasure it even more because of who it came from. Can you believe I lurked for months before gathering enough courage to leave my first comment- I was just too scared to do so. Only now do I realise what I missed. You are a brilliant brain, but an even nicer heart.

  10. Ryana - What a very nice thing to say :-) :-). And I am so glad you decided to start commenting. I have learned so much from your thoughtful remarks, and your own blog is such a rich treasure, too. I learn a lot about life in Bombay from your blog and your gorgeous 'photos, and your perspective also teaches me. You richly deserved the award and I'm glad you like it.

    You really do make a very well-taken point. Books are unique in their ability to teach, inspire, entertain and challenge. If they were not powerful, why would anyone feel threatened by them? Gandhi said something very like your point of view once:You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

  11. What a well deserved award for you and your blog Margot with all that it does to get us thinking about books in different ways.

    I like your list of favourite words - hoosegaw was a new one to me so I shall have to work in to a sentence at some point soon. That's a habit I learned as a kid from my mother and still try to do it whenever I hear a new word.

    I have quite a few favourite words but one of my all time superstar words is vexed. I think I probably first read it in a Jane Austen novel and there's something about it that seems to convey its meaning more than any of the synonyms in more popular use these days. I use it quite often at work (imagine) and now all my staff say it too. I like the idea of bringing great words back into vogue :)

  12. Great soap boxing, Margot.

    My favourite gal Ngaio Marsh makes constant reference to her favourite guy William Shakespeare in her works; from themes, to having characters performing his plays, to having Roderick Alleyn reading Shakespeare for pleasure. His mark is everywhere. She even shared her birthday with the Bard.

  13. Bernadette - You're very kind :-). Thank you. I'm glad you like hoosegow; I've always thought it a very distinct kind of example of the way language mixing makes language evolve. And I like the sound of it, too!

    I like the word vexed, too. I can't remember whether I first read it in Jane Austen or somewhere else, but I've always liked the way that it conveys its meaning, too. It is a fine word, and I wonder how it went out of fashion. But I cannot imagine why you would need to use it at work...

    Jose Ignacio - Thank you :-); that's awfully kind of you.

    Vanda - Thank you :-). And you are so absolutely right about Ngaio Marsh's references to Shakespeare. They really do come up all throughout her writing, don't they? I wonder if it was her background in the theatre that made her especially interested in his work. Shakespeare's woven through the plays that Marsh's characters do, Alleyn's reading taste, and yes, themes, too. I hadn't known she had the same birthday as Shakespeare - Maybe April was just a very auspicious month :-).

  14. Congratulations on the award. It is so well deserved. You inspire so much with your post and I learn so much from them. Great words to share too.

    Thoughts in Progress

  15. Mason - Why, thank you :-). I really appreciate your kind words. And I'm glad you like those words. They just...resonate with me.

  16. I have a book with suggested words authors can incorporate into their writings. I use it and splatter a few words here and there in my books. It helps when I'm stumped or trying to paint a picture and having trouble thinking of an adjective.

    Stephen Tremp

  17. Margot, wow.

    I read because I love stories and ideas and learning and escaping and meeting new people and relaxing and becoming enthralled and...I could go on.

    I read to my children because I love the excitement in their bodies as THEY become enthralled and discover new adventures.

    I write because I have stories inside me and want to share them. I blog for the same reason.

    This is the first award I've received in a while, and I was enjoying the silence from them. But this one is special--this one I am honored to accept and display. Thank you, Margot!

    Congratulations to you on the award, as you are decidely MOST deserving. Your posts are scintillating and most delicious...and I'd never throw you in the hoosegow! (I'm seriously laughing at my ridiculous self right now.)

    Thank you.


  18. Stephen - Oh, that sounds like a useful book! I know what you mean, too, about being stumped for a word that really paints the picture one wants to paint. Sometimes it is really helpful to have a resource like that.

  19. Michele - Your passion for books, words, reading and writing is so obvious; I truly admire that. You are more than richly deserving of this award. I was proud to send it your way. And you expressed yourself so eloquently, too!! I'll bet your children will always love books because you share your love of them. I think it's that joy that we find in stories that keeps us writing them; I know I have so many stories inside me, too....

    Also, thank you so much for the kind words. That really means a lot to me, and I just love your sentences using those words :-). I was going to try to think of one myself, but you did a better job than I would have :-).

  20. An EXCELLENT post, Margot! Loving words the way we do, literacy hold more meaning than simply being able to read. I volunteer at our local literacy council and it is so rewarding!

    And...thank you SO very much for the award. It's always fun and rewarding to receive one; this however holds even more meaning to me, and I truly appreciate you thinking of me to pass it on to.

  21. Crystal - Oh, my great pleasure - you truly deserve it :-). And thank you for the kind words! I agree with you that reading and literacy really means so much to those of us who love words. I think that's why it's so fulfilling to us to share reading, books, words with others. It's a wonderful feeling, isn't it??

  22. What a wonderful post, Margot (as usual) and perfectly timed as today (up here in Canada) is Raise a Reader Day. This involves local celebrities and politicians out on the street in the morning selling city newspapers for donations to literacy organizations.

    I love your choice of words - onomatopoeia has always been one of my favourites. I also adore 'akimbo'.

  23. Elspeth - You're very kind - thank you :-)!! *blush*. And it's lovely to have you back among us, although you certainly deserved a break :-).

    I didn't know about Raise a Reader Day - what a terrific idea for a national day. Very very cool!

    Oh, and I like the word akimbo a lot, myself!

  24. Congratulations on your very well-deserved award!

    Why do I read? Because I can. Because it expands my world. Because good books are more true than real life.

    My favourite words? Well, I think you´ll be able to find most of them in Advanced Learners´ Dictionary. I remember when I heard the word ´peculiar´ for the first time - almost 30 years ago. It sounded so wonderful that I had to check it in the dictionary immediately. Well, scintillating and delicious are also - delicious. Like ´circumnavigate.

  25. Dorte - Thank you so much :-)! That means an awful to me. I love your reasons for reading, too; good books really are more true than real life in a lot of ways. You've got some fantastic favourite words, too. I like circumnavigate very much, and I also like peculiar. People don't use those words as often as they used to, but I like them!!