The Mystery of Choice

I’m a very streaky reader.

Some of this is due to external circumstances. For example, I’ll be spending the latter half of the year reading anthologies for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. Some of this is also due to the power of marketing. Just because I’m a professional nudge-crafter doesn’t mean I’m immune to them myself: Kindle’s ‘buy the next book’ pop-up is particularly effective, and means I tend to read my regency romances in series-long marathons.

Some of my streakiness is also by design.

I hate the ‘what do I read now?’ panic: the paralysis that comes from being surrounded by unread books but having none of them feel, you know, absolutely right. This may come as a surprise, but we have a lot of books (a lot of books). Late in the evening, when the Iguanodon has dozed off, or very early in the morning, when I’m dashing to the Tube - the one thing I don’t want to do is make a choice.

By deciding in advance that I’m only reading female fantasy authors, or books recommended by Dorothy Parker, or whatever, it makes the daily grind that tiny bit easier. Like all the Silicon Valley goofballs that famously wear the same expensive t-shirt every day. Except less annoying.

I don’t hold with the belief that we have a finite amount of decisions within us, but I do think choice can be stressful. That’s not only important when choosing something deathly important (a mortgage, a house, a ring), but also when we’re choosing how to relax. That’s why we still rely on the (terrible) suggestions that Netflix pushes on us, or the (intrusive) suggestions from Amazon, or the (oddly inaccurate) top picks on Just-Eat. Even relaxing can seem like work if we have to think too much about it.

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My latest streak is a particularly odd one: Edgar Winners for Best First Novel.

I’m not even entirely sure how I wound up here. I had a vague awareness of the Edgars, which somehow(?) wound up looking at the Wikipedia list. I was surprised by how many of these debuts went on to become absolutely massive commercial successes: Jonathan Kellerman, James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Tana French, and Patricia Cornwell among them.

But, lest we crown the Edgars as kingmakers, the list also includes some total obscurities. 12 of the winners have less than 10 Goodreads ratings, including 3 with zero. And, in between, the list is punctuated with titles that have meandered along as, at best, cult reads.

As you can imagine, this strange inconsistency makes for an appealing reading challenge. Why did some of the books ‘make it’ and others disappear? Is there a secret formula?

I’m about a 1/4th of the way through the list (18/74), and no closer to an answer, but, hey, some opinions:

In the Woods by Tana French (2007) - What struck me most was how Secret History this was: unlikeable, chilly characters; classical references galore; themes of memory, belonging, and false identity. The same fragmented, poetic sense of storytelling, with long lucid descriptions of the deeply personal (and totally irrelevant) while the core mystery goes largely ignored. Whenever Anne asked me if I was enjoying In the Woods, I’d say ‘meh’. Yet, at the same time, my commute mysteriously got a lot shorter. One night I got home after a 45 minute delay and hadn’t even noticed. I’m still not sure if I liked this book, but, you know what? Behaviourally, I was super into it.

Don’t Cry for Me by William Gault (1952) - A ‘loser’ little brother of a society figure, at a loss on how and where he fits in, but too proud to trade on his family name. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit! Forced to play detective! Caught up between society (shockingly corrupt) and the mob (surprisingly honourable)! There’s a dame involved! It is fun to compare Don’t Cry with In the Woods, however spuriously. The two books play with many of the same themes (including a stylistic devotion to literary references). But Don’t Cry does the trick at 1/6th the length, and with a certain pleasing directness. I’m also proud of myself for guessing the whodunnit early on. Go me.

Go Lovely Rose by Jean Potts (1955) - I did not catch the whodunnit on this one - although the introduction on my edition did its very best to give it away (urgh). A young woman returns to her childhood home after the death of an elderly (and truly vile) family retainer. She’s soon caught up in small town intrigue: a crush of loves and losses. Like most of the older books on the list (and, in fact, many of the not-so-old), Rose showcases some pretty outdated, and thoroughly reprehensible, social norms as to race, gender, and disability.

Dorothy Uhnak’s The Bait (1968) is similarly problematic/intriguing. These are both books that are trying to push the boundaries of female protagonists, and, in many ways, are bold enough to address social and gender roles directly. But neither are able to move too far from the entrenched views of the time. Which is a shame. Incidentally, The Bait, on Amazon, is actually a totally different book (THE IRONY). The copy I picked up was actually Codes of Betrayal - Uhnak’s last novel. I got really into it before realising it was the wrong book. I went back and got The Bait as well, and, in conclusion: Codes is better.

When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman (1985) - Speaking of reprehensible social norms, man, the 1980s weren’t that much better, were they? Alex Delaware is a young, sexy, vastly successful, preternaturally jaded burnout, who is avoiding the rat race with his sexy, awesome house and sexy, cool car. Also he plays guitar, because of course he does. Chicks dig him, and he totally loathes himself for how he uses women, except, you know, that doesn’t really stop him, and the book always gives him a free pass, and yeah, psychology, man.

I am a huge fan of John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee, but that doesn’t mean I give a free pass to every ultra-macho-but-secretly-sensitive detective with a penchant for introspective monologues. Delaware is simply ridiculous. There’s an awkward ‘try hard’-ness around progressive issues (he’s got a GAY FRIEND who he teases in an accepting way! He is totally happy to manipulate women of ALL RACES into sex) which somehow comes across as even more distasteful than the straight up misogyny and homophobia of earlier books. Plus, there’s peak 1980s plot that combines evil politics and evil business and evil do-gooders and child abuse - because, of course, every thriller for a fifteen year period was basically about child abuse. Kellerman’s debut is as much a historical artefact as the Gault at this point, and with much less upside.

The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1990) - Billable is a procedural thriller set within the confines of a law firm - and predates The Firm by a year, so comparisons are inevitable. I think Billable is a sweeter, more enjoyable book. The mystery itself isn’t great, and the rushed resolution doesn’t have a lot of tension to it (contrast, again, with The Firm, which, despite its many flaws, somehow even makes photocopying dramatic). The more interesting contrast, I suppose, is Billable vs its 1980s counterparts: Howard Rickover - squidgy and lost, with a penchant for cooking shows is the polar opposite of the lean and hungry men of Kellerman.

Squaw Point by Ruth Shimer (1973) - A meandering novel set in the islands off of the Alaskan territory. A large cast of protagonists steal pelts, dodge storms, save relics, press flowers, and occasionally murder one another. It feels like an Elmore Leonard, although with less overt humour. Almost a Western in tone, Squaw Point captures the spinning moral compass of its unique setting, and how people juggle faith, law, morality and instinct in a search for what’s right. The ebook edition is cheap, but unfortunately produced. All the text is bold which makes for a very disjointed reading experience. It deserves better.

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Given I’ve mentioned ebook production twice, here’s an interesting technical note.

Of the 74 books:

  • 44 are available as ebooks on Amazon.co.uk

  • 5 are available as audiobooks, but not ebooks

  • 25 are not available in any (digital) format

Of the 44:

  • The cheapest is 90p - Fredric Brown’s The Fabulous Clip Joint (1948)

  • The most expensive is £14.39 - Peter Blauner’s Slow Motion Riot (1992)

  • The mean price is £5.18; median £4.68.

  • 19 are at set at a ‘charm price’ - that is, something that ends in .49 or .99. The 25 others are priced messily at numbers like “£2.38” or “£6.43”.

Draw your own conclusions - and please share them - but a few I leapt to:

  • In an industry utterly devoid of NPD, audio has caused a gold rush for rights. A lot of books, especially older ones, will be out of contract - or on contracts that never even contemplated the existence of audio rights. Audible swoops in - and whammo, that’s five audiobooks on the market. We had the same rush a decade ago with ebooks, and, as shown above, there are still plenty of books/rights available. And as evidenced by this list, the inconsistency of production quality can be particularly maddening. Meanwhile, audio production is even more time- and resource-intensive, so… is this sustainable? Who knows?

  • The 25 books set at weird prices (£6.43? I mean, really?) will be books where the world digital rights are held by an American publisher. Which means the prices are all set in dollars by someone (or some database) in America, and not finessed to fit the local market. I find this oddly upsetting: even if it makes the smallest of incremental differences on sales, it simply looks better, and shows respect for the local market.

  • All of the ‘brand’ authors and series books are cleverly set at low prices to make them an entry point to the greater body of work. Quite a few of the older titles have been tidily converted, packaged with modern intros, and slapped with cheap, but not totally hideous, covers. And then sold at a low, commodity-type price. Because why not?

This is a better-than-random sample of books. As award winners (no matter how niche), these are, in many ways, books that have been pre-vetted for quality and potential readership. But there’s a bonkers amount of variance in:

  • how (or if) they are available

  • how they’re priced

  • how they’re formatted

  • even how they look (this is not ok, y’all)

Contrast all that with the relative uniformity and structure of a physical bookshop. Retailers are curators in a broader sense than simply selecting which products to carry. They choose how to present the content as well - price, display, context - the works. Amazon’s laissez faire approach is one extreme; perhaps something like an airport W.H. Smith would be the other, with every inch of shelf-space rigidly controlled.

All in all, I’m not sure what patterns I’ve picked out about the last half-century of popular mystery fiction, but I’m learning a lot about the digital market in 2019.

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Quick links:

The Best of British Fantasy 2018 is now available (and so lovely, thanks Matty!)

The companion website is ticking on with recent articles about Andrew Lang, Terry Pratchett, and W.E. Bowman.

You can find me at the Bradford Literature Festival at the end of the month.

And an oral history of Veronica Mars.

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