Reviewer, PJ Coldren
PJ reviews for many sites including; Meanderingsand Musings.com, ReviewingtheEvidence.com and Mystericale.com
1. What really gets you interested in a mystery?
Character(s). Followed by good writing, followed by
competent plotting. I like reading about people I’d
(usually) like to know, people with a sense of their
own self, a sense of what’s right, an ethos they
adhere to. Having said that, there are many
fictional characters I’d be pretty uncomfortable
around (Vachss’s Burke, three out of four of
Charlaine Harris’s leading ladies, Sherlock Holmes,
etc.) and quite a few that I suspect would not be at
all interested in me (Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin,
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, any of the Dick
Francis menfolk, etc.). I don’t mind reading about
unpleasant people, as long as they come across as
real, not caricatures or cardboard.
Mysteries provide some certainty in a very uncertain
world, at least for me. Knowing that some form of
justice will prevail has kept me reading a book that
is viscerally unpleasant, although that kind of book
really requires the “good writing” component to be
strong. James Lee Burke comes to mind; Robicheaux
and friends can get very violent, but the words just
keep sucking me in. It’s easier for me to read Burke
than to hear him; I don’t know what about the human
voice makes the violence so much more real, but I
can’t listen to it. Perhaps it’s because I
subconsciously skim when I’m reading and I can’t do
that when I’m listening. Chelsea Cain’s first book
was like Burke in terms of the great writing keeping
me going in spite of the graphic violence. I’d be
disgusted by what I was reading, but I had to know
more, had to see what happened, had to learn more
about those characters.
I like a good puzzle, although I don’t read with the
intentional goal of solving the puzzle. That’s
usually a bonus for me.
2. What bores the hell out of you?
Data dumping. Long chunks of description. A
blatant, poorly disguised, political agenda (although
this tends to irritate me far more than bore me).
Reading the fourth book in a row with the same basic
motive for the crime. There was a time when lots of
people were killing other people to cover up the fact
that the killer was homosexual; got really tired of
that. Right now, coming out of England, I just read
two back-to-back involving Islamic/Muslim males who
are thought to be terrorists. I hope this isn’t the
beginning of another trend. Characters that are TSTL
(too stupid to live), and unfortunately these tend to
be female way more than male. The unfortunate but
obligatory and necessary telling of back story in any
3. What clichés would you really like to see go
away? Alcoholic detectives. Police procedurals in
which the main character has done something stupid
and/or is the wrong gender and therefore spends the
whole book trying to redeem him/herself. TSTL
characters. Grown women who have romantic
relationships the same way they presumably did when
they were in high school. Grown men who treat women
as disposable and/or interchangeable. Any small
business owner having enough free time to solve more
than one murder. Ditto for any parent of a small
child or children. Totally unbelievable
techno-skills in thrillers. There was a Bourne book
in which a guy’s eye was transplanted so that the
corneal scan (or whatever) could be circumvented —
after a week the guy who received the transplant is
up and walking around as if nothing ever happened??
Puhlease. I know that there is much in the
techno-world that would boggle my mind, and I can be
convinced to buy into a lot of things, but there IS a
limit to that envelope.
4. What topics, themes, etc. would you like to see
more of in mysteries?
I can’t begin to imagine there is something out there
that isn’t being written about by someone. I’m
enjoying the growth of fiction that recognizes that
people, interesting and vital people, exist after the
age of 25. Who knew that “geezer lit” would have a
market? I’m learning a lot about all kinds of things
because of the growth of the “craft” mystery,
although I must say that I do sometimes wonder at the
sustainability of any particular craft as the focus
of a long series. Monica Ferris seems to be doing
this well, and there must be others. I like some
woo-woo, so this upsurge in vampire books has been
fun. Christopher Farnsworth’s BLOOD OATH combines
espionage with vampires in a very good way; I’m
hoping this is the start of a series. I am also
enjoying what I consider the broadening of the
historical mystery field. There have always been
historicals about famous people, or famous events.
Peg Herring’s HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER, for
example, is about Queen Elizabeth the First, when
Henry VIII is on his last wife. It’s fun to read
historicals that focus more on the non-famous and
their daily lives; Jeanne Dams had a wonderful series
that did this, until she lost her publisher (a
problem far too many mid-list authors have run into).
It is a trifle disconcerting to discover that
events that took place in my living memory are now
the subject of historicals.
5. What mistakes do you think authors make?
See #2 and #3. Other than that, I’m not sure I’m the
one to ask. As a reader of manuscripts (for a major
contest and for two publishing houses, as well as for
some anthologies), I find it incredible that authors
will send out a manuscript that needs to be seriously
proofread, that needs more than minimal editing. If
a writer doesn’t care enough to send their baby out
looking its absolute best, why should anyone spend
time reading it? Very counterproductive.
6. Do you write? Would you like to?
Yes, I write. What the heck do you think reviews
are? Cartoons? Do I want to write fiction, mystery
fiction? No. I don’t have the stamina, for one
thing. I don’t have the technical skills necessary
(plotting, dialogue, etc.). If I were to devote the
kind of time required to gain those skills, I would
seriously cut into my reading time, and that is
limited enough as it is. The trade-off is so not
worth it. I seem to have no trouble getting my
reviews in front of the public; the chance I’d ever
get a book published? Again, the odds aren’t with me.
7. Who are your favorites?
Authors? Oh Lord. This is such a tough question. I
read so many books, know so many people, and my mind
is like a steel sieve. Right now? I just read a guy
named Frank Tallis, writing about Vienna and Freud at
the turn of the century; I’m thinking of tracking
down the first three in that series. I like Alan
Bradley’s Flavia. I reread Virginia Lanier, Susan
Rogers Cooper. I am always amazed by Michael Allen
Dymmoch’s books and wish she‘d have a break-through
novel. Ditto for Nancy Pickard. I like Eric Stone,
William Kent Kreuger, Steve Hamilton, P.J. Parrish
(and not just because of the name thing), Charlaine
Harris (mostly the Shakespeare ones and the seeing
dead people ones). I think Monica Ferris is good. I
still reread Rex Stout, although my feminist nature
can get in a huff sometimes. I like Dick Francis in
spite of the formulaic nature of his work; I always
learn something from him, and his guys are just so
nice and still “guys“. I like Laurie King, although
I think she’s really taking Holmes and Russell pretty
far from anything Doyle ever did. I think Lonnie
Cruse is underrated. I wish Stieg Larsson had an
undiscovered backlist of at least six or seven books.
I wish there were more Tanya Huff mysteries. I’d
like some more Kathleen Taylor. I’d like to see more
Lee Martin, before she got religious. I wish Sharyn
McCrumb would go back to writing excellent mysteries.
I like some Grafton, but not all. I like Kit
Ehrman, Judy Clemens. I could go on, and on, and on.
8. Why did you start reviewing? It you really hate
a book will you still review it?
I’m honest enough to say that I got into it for the
free books. I don’t think there is a book budget big
enough to feed my habit; my current TBRead shelf is
six feet long and double-stacked the entire length on
one bookcase, and at least that many again in two
other bookcases. I can’t die because I still have
books left to read. I also thought it was a great
way to read authors I might not otherwise read,
either because I wouldn’t ever hear of them or
because my initial reaction to the title/cover/etc.
was not strong enough to get me to buy it. Reviewing
has forced me to read books outside my comfort zone,
thereby expanding that zone, to read for something
beyond pure enjoyment. This is a mixed blessing.
Now, I have to decide what it is about a book that
I’m not enjoying. Is it bad writing? Bad plotting?
Poor characterization? Is it a technical problem or
a personal reaction? I need to know the answer to
this so I can write an honest review. I have
reviewed books that I’ve really hated. What makes it
possible for me to do that with a clear conscience is
knowing WHY I hated it, and being able to express
that clearly, so that a person reading my review can
decide if that reason is meaningful to them. If I
can say that a book was well written, but the plot
was unbelievable – a reader who values good writing
much higher than believability might enjoy that book.
If I can say that the book was billed as “a laugh
riot” and I didn’t get the joke – a reader who has
been following my reviews (on RTE, for example) will
know whether or not their sense of humor has some
relationship to mine. If my reaction to a book is to
say that the characters are stiff and speak in a
manner not readily comfortable to read, and the plot
bore some relationship to a shot-gun apartment, with
the villain clearly written with a neon arrow above
his head – I probably won’t review it. That’s a
technical issue, at least for me, and I’m reluctant
to give publicity to something that’s really
dreadful. I can hate a book, and it can still be
well written. To not review it just because it isn’t
to my personal taste? That doesn’t seem fair, to the
author or to the reader. My taste isn’t universal,
and I shouldn’t presume that mine is the best.
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