Friday, November 26, 2010

Are You Sitting Comfortably?*

One of the best things about the crime fiction genre is that there are so many kinds of crime fiction. That means that readers can find a crime fiction book that suits just about any taste and most moods. An interesting post by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading got me thinking about how often we’re stressed, busy, worried or for some other reason in need of comfort. When that happens, it’s only natural to want to escape for a while. For the book lover, there’s nothing like “disappearing” into a good book to comfort oneself. For the crime fiction lover, solving the crime along with the sleuth, and catching the “bad guy” can be a welcome balm. And since there are so many different kinds of crime fiction, it’s nice to know that crime fiction lovers can nearly always find something to comfort them. Now, since I’m a doctor (OK, not the medical kind, but still! ;-) ), I thought it might nice to offer some suggestions for the next time you feel a need for criminally comforting reading.

Cosy Mysteries

These novels can be a warm and welcome antidote to life’s stresses, and they are often what people think of first when they think of “comfort reading.” The good thing about cosies is that there’s a large variety, even within the sub-genre. For instance, there are themed mysteries such as Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series or Isis Crawford’s Libby and Bertie Simms series. Both of those have baking as the main theme. And then there’s Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Memphis Barbecue series. There are dozens of other themes, too, from soap-making to antiques to gift-basket creation and far too many more for me to mention.

Interested in a cosy, but not necessarily with a theme? Some cosies focus on a small town or village, and we follow along with the sleuth and residents of that town. Many people find these cosies a welcome respite from real life stresses. For instance, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran series is based mostly in fictional Pickax, which is located in Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere.” Rhys Bowen’s Evan Evans is the constable of the Welsh town of Llanfair. M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is the reluctant constable of the Scottish town of Lochdubh. Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby is the Inspector for the town of Causton. In all of these series, the characters in the town can be just as interesting as the mystery, and certainly can help readers escape.

There are many other kinds of cosy mysteries, too, and they can be the perfect remedy for a stressful time.

The Classics

Suppose cosies aren’t your choice? They aren’t for everyone. If you have an adverse reaction to cosies, you may want to try a dose of the classic mysteries. Those mysteries have been around for quite a while and have proven curative powers. For instance, the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh are remedies that I personally find most restorative. Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories are renowned for their ability to help the reader escape. The nice thing about the classics is that they are time-tested. Whichever classics you’ve discovered, they can be comforting reminders that no matter what’s happening in one’s own life, they’re always there when you need them and don’t lose their “edge.”

Books That Make You Laugh

Let’s face it, sometimes the best cure for stress is a good laugh. Well, if that’s more your line, there’s lots of funny crime fiction out there. I’ll just mention two examples. Carl Hiaasen has made crime fiction hilarious, and I would prescribe a dose of Hiaasen for anyone with too much stress. The same’s true of Donna Moore’s novels. Both authors tell a good crime fiction story while showing us the ridiculous and absurd side of life.

It’s not easy to tell a crime story that’s also very funny, because to be honest, in real life, crime is not funny. But talented writers like Hiaasen and Moore do it well.

Historical Mysteries

Sometimes, the cure for stress is to be completely swept away to another time and place. So for those who like to escape into the past, there’s nothing like a good historical mystery. Dr. Margot ;-) recommends authors such as Lindsey Davis, Peter Tremayne, Ellis Peters or Shona MacLean. Of course, these authors write about long-ago history, and you might not be interested in events that happened in the ancient or near-ancient past. In that case, Rebecca Cantrell’s World War II-era novels may be just the cure for what ails you. There are many, many other examples of fine historical mysteries; these are just a few.

The good thing about historical crime fiction is that it really shows you an entirely different world from the one that’s probably the source of your stress.

“Old Favourites”

Not everyone is a history buff, of course. Sometimes the crime fiction reader is in need of comfort, but doesn’t want to go to the effort of learning about another time in history. In that case, relief can come in the form of one’s own “old favourites.” Of course, someone new to crime fiction may not have a whole host of these authors, yet. But even with a small amount of exposure, most of us soon have a list of favourite authors whose books we’ve read and loved. Just like a comfortable old chair, a book one hasn’t read in a long time by a favourite author can comfort like little else.

Of course, everyone has different favourite authors, so mine may not be exactly the same as yours. But you know who those authors are. The ones whose novels make you smile, even years after you’ve read them. The books on your shelves with the most dog-ears and the most battered covers. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn/Chee series, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series are just a few examples. Wondering which series counts as an “old favourite” for you? Fill in this blank and you’ll know: You can’t go wrong with a ______ (name of author).

Stress happens to everyone. But you don’t have to let it take over. Choose one of these remedies, and I’m sure you’ll feel much better very soon.

What about you? Anything you’d like to add to this set of prescriptions? What do you choose for “comfort reading?”

OK, the Doctor has now left the office ;-)…

On Another Note…..

Want to share the healing properties of a good crime novel? There are lots of ways to do it. The obvious is, of course, to give crime novels as gifts. I’m not going to make a whole list of suggestions, because people are individuals, and I think gifts should be chosen that way. But if you would like a suggestion, just Email me (click the “Email Me” button on my sidebar) and I’ll be happy to try to help.

The other way to share the love of books is to donate them. Many libraries, thrift shops and charitable groups are always happy to get your donated books. I’d like to also suggest school libraries. Some crime fiction is appropriate for teens, and school libraries appreciate donations.

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Moody Blues song.


  1. I chose an author over a type - like an old friend they always deliver! So if I'm blue or maybe green (from jealousy) or even just a bit grey or beige (uninspired) I will read Reginald Hill or the new Kate Atkinson or Elizabeth George. If I'm full of beans I'll try someone that I haven't read before - but still usually recommended. I love to read Louise Penney and I guess she has moved from experimental to tried and true! I don't like ones that have too much graphic scary detail especially if I'm a little down hearted....

  2. Jan - I know exactly what you mean! Mood has a lot to do with the kinds of books we choose. And a good Hill or Atkinson or [fill in blank with favourite author] can do a lot for a negative mood. Like you, I tend to stretch myself more, reading-wise, when I'm feeling positive and have some energy; that's when I go to that ol' TBR list and dive in.

    It's funny, too, isn't it, how an author can move from experimental to favourite. I can see why you feel that way about Penny - she's quite talented.

  3. I like all the sub-genres you´ve mentioned, but police procedurals are some of the very best. Like Jan, I don´t want them to be too graphic, so hard-boiled and noir are not my favourites. Once in a while I find good stuff outside my comfort zone, but most of the time I pick authors I know. When I try something new, it is nearly always because bloggers recommend it.

  4. I'm going to have to hunt out some Carl Hiaasen and Donna Moore. Quite enjoying historic crime fiction for a good bit of escapism at the moment.

    I've always felt my knowledge of classic crime fiction was pretty poor. has anyone produced a list of Crime Fiction 101 - the best crime fiction books everyone should read?

  5. Margot you have mentioned most of my old favourites. When Dr Margot prescribed Carl Hiaasen it certainly cured any depression, but the side effects were persistent giggling.
    I have read four of Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren series and his combination of police procedural and low key humour is very satisfying.

  6. Good job,Dr. Margot!I concur with you on the diagnosis and the line of treatment. Though I'm not familiar with some of the medications that you've prescribed. [ Being a doctor of the medical kind :( ]

    A few of my own observations. :)

    1.Cosy Mysteries---
    -Excellent results if used for mild depression.
    -Moderate to heavy depression+ Cosy M.---Bipolar mood reaction! ;)

    2.The Classics----
    -Empirical treatment for depression, anxiety, lethargy, and everything else under the sun!
    -Maximum efficacy if your favourite detective is the main active ingredient. :)
    -Warning! A few 'schedule H drugs' like "And then there were none" do not qualify! Use with caution.

    3.Books That Make You Laugh
    -Repeat the dose till improvement! Very high safety margin. Overdose toxicity is almost non existent for this drug.
    -You will "Shake (with laughter) well after the use"! :)

    4.Historical Mysteries---
    -Usually a second line drug reserved for the resistant cases! Take the decision on case to case basis.
    -A newly approved drug from David Liss Corp. called "benjamin weaver mysteries" is showing some promising results!

    5.“Old Favourites”---
    -They should follow the empirical treatment with classics.
    -Sensitivity and specificity profile of the patient is mandatory before the prescription!
    -In this author's opinion, "You can’t go wrong with a ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE"!:)

  7. My mysteries choices in order of enjoyment:

    1) Old Favourites (the best)
    2) The Classics
    3) The Cosy Mysteries
    4) Books That Make You Laugh
    5) Historical Mysteries

    “Old Favourites”
    You can’t go wrong with a Val McDermid/Agatha Christie novel.

    Great idea about sharing. When I go back to Canada, I'm bringing a tote-full of books but I'm not giving them to a library, I'm giving them to my sister. She's the most avid reader but since her daughter got cancer, she can't afford to buy books like she used to so I'm bringing her my read copies.

    Have a great weekend.


  8. Dorte - Oh, I like police procedurals, too. I find that they do have a soothing effect, especially if they focus on the investigation and not, as you say, on gore and graphic descriptions. You know, I hadn't thought too much about it before, but I actually tend to avoid noir, too, when I need comfort. There is some wonderful noir out there, but I reserve it for when I want to life dangerously ;-).

    Norman - See? One doctor to another, Hiaasan is wonderful comic therapy, and the side effect is certainly manageable unless one happens to be taken with a giggling fit in the middle of a religious service or a business meeting or something like that ;-). You know, I didn't "meet" Van Veeteren until more recently, but I agree that Nesser's got a very effective blend of solid police procedural elements and low-key humour. Definitely a palliative for THOSE DAYS.

    Amey - So glad that you concur with my line of reasoning on these questions. It's always good to have a second opinion, especially with such high inter-rater reliability.

    You bring up some important points, though, that it's as well to be aware of. Some users may, indeed, show symptoms of bipolar behaviour if they use a good cosy as a treatment for stress. I would say that preparing users for the inevitable euphoria would be a good consultation strategy. It's interesting, too, that you bring up that very unusual "Schedule H" And Then There Were None. It is a highly effective treatment, but not at all your "typical" "Classic Mystery" treatment. I agree with you, too, that books that make you laugh is one of the widest-spectrum anti-stress suggestions available. It's also got one of the lowest toxicity and sensitivity rates. I tend to be quite liberal in recommending it.

    Oh, and thanks for passing on that new information on the Benjamin Weaver mysteries. I'm glad it's so promising, and I shall have to look into that course of treatment.

    And finally, case-by-case or not, I have say you've got a solid idea for treating the "You Can't Go Wrong With..." case. Definitely one of the most efficacious treatments I'm aware of. Thanks for your input.

    Clarissa - How wonderful that you're able to share some great reads with your sister and, of course, I'm terribly sorry to hear about your niece. I hope she's hanging in there and getting stronger....

    I think a lot of people have a similar order of books they use as "comfort reading." I know I have several "Old Favourites" that give me much solace when I need it. And I like the way you've completed that "You Can't Go Wrong With___" sentence, too. Both are excellent choices.

  9. Thanks for the shout out Dr Margot.

    I'm definitely finding that escaping into historical worlds is very appealing to me just now when my modern one is annoying me more than usual. I generally find that reading something historical makes me grateful for the advances we have made and I stop grizzling about my petty problems.

  10. Bernadette - Oh, my pleasure :-); that was a really interesting post, and besides, I love your blog.

    You're right, I think, about historical mysteries. They certainly do put our present gripes and complaints into perspective. We have come quite a long ways in a lot of things, and living today is, in many ways, much easier than it's ever been. I'm thankful, too, to be living now and not during the times of some of the historical fiction I've read.

  11. Dr. Margot you have definitely found the perfect cure for me. I really can't say I have one favorite author because it depends on my mood. Sometimes I enjoy the cozy or funny murder mysteries and other times I like to escape into a serious murder where I know that right will win. It's fun to see how crime fiction can be broken down into so many sub-topics. A wonderful thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - Thank you :-). One of the things I like the very best about crime fiction is that there are so many sub-genres. There really is something for just about everyone to like, and something for just about every mood. Like you, my choice of "comfort reading" depends as much on my mood as on anything. I sometimes enjoy a light, "frothy" cosy if it's well-written. Sometimes, though, I want something that challenges my brain - an intellectual puzzle. I have to say, though, I'm never much of a one for the really gory horror stories...

  13. Thank you so much for the suggestions, Dr. Margot.
    As for me, the books I pick up really depend on how I am feeling. There are books I read to fill a particular mood, and less often, when reading a book, I am possessed by a mood which I eventually trace to how I was feeling when I first read the book.
    I was going through a Cosy phase, but after reading Black Ice, I find them rather juvenile. But again, Harry Borche does reflect my current state of mind too (not the angst, but the seeking of justice).

  14. Rayna - It is interesting, isn't it, how our mood influences what we think of one or another type of book or one or another author? I think a lot of readers do as you do and enjoy a sub-genre or author for a long time, and then switch to something else.

    It's also fascinating how particular sub-genres can affect the way we think. We may feel attracted to one kind of book. Then, we read a new book, especially if it's by an author we don't know, and all of a sudden, our thinking changes. I know that's happened to me...

    And I'm glad you've met Harry Bosch; he's a good friend of mine, and I'm glad you like him, too :-).

  15. Thanks so much for the mention, Margot! And you're right--mysteries make a great cure for what ails me. :) I love going back to old favorites like Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, and M.C. Beaton as well as discovering new crime writers that hook me quickly.

  16. Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure :-); you've created some wonderful "cures," and I am very eager to find out what happens next at Aunt Pat's Barbecue :-)....

    I love to go back to my old favourites, too; somehow, it's like relaxing with a friend. It never fails to de-stress me. Discovering a great new author can be a great "energy tonic," but I have to admit I'm a bit less daring when I'm in need of de-stressing...

  17. Oddly enough, if I'm stressed or down in the dumps, I prefer a fast-paced, chilling thriller, or a heart-pounding novel of suspense. They totally take my mind off my ugly mood.

  18. Patricia - You know, I don't know if that's odd at all. Certainly getting caught up in one of those really well-written edge-of-your-seat novels is enough to distract a person from "regular" things that depress one...