Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters series

The Mainly Mysteries Book Club met again last night to discuss the Toby Peters mystery series by Stuart Kaminsky, (newsflash: won the MWA's 2006 Grand Master Award) writes Jeannine. The series is a mild spoof of hard-boiled detective fiction, and follows the adventures of private detective Toby Peters in 1940s Hollywood. Unlike your average Los Angeles resident, Toby actually comes in contact fairly often with the glitzy and glamorous stars of screen and newsreel, coming to the (paid) assistance of celebrities from John Wayne (The man who shot Lewis Vance), Charlie Chaplin (A few minutes past midnight) and Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierced) to Salvador Dali (The melting clock), Albert Einstein (Smart moves) and Douglas MacArthur (Buried Caesars – I thought he was kind of busy in 1942 to be hiring Toby, but hey, what do I know?). Aiding him in his pursuit of justice and the next paycheck is a cast of quirky regulars and inept criminals.

Unfortunately some of the books work better than others, and some don’t work at all. Quite a few members didn’t make it past the 2nd chapter, some finished a title but were less than thrilled, and some read several, liking one but not the other. And a few liked all the ones they had read (so far). Among those read by the participants, The melting clock was the most enjoyed (and considered quite funny), To catch a spy was recommended, and Poor Butterfly and Mildred Pierced were both considered busts.

This seemed to be one of those cases where taste was as much in play as writing quality, as the very qualities most enjoyed by some (the quirky, oddball characters; the hard-boiled tough-guy spoof; the real Hollywood meeting the warped Peters world…) were the very qualities that really annoyed others. Some members thought there were simply too many characters, too much extraneous detail, not enough plot, too much plot, poorly arranged plot (hmm, we seem to have plot issues) or just plain boring. Others thought they were a quick, enjoyable read

Several members were unable to find any available copies of the Toby Peters series, so tried out some of his other titles. Kaminsky has several other series and standalones that are completely different from the Peters series, and might be worth a try.

In the spirit of the War effort on the homefront, we kept decorations minimal (well, that’s my excuse). We had photos and postcards from 1940s Los Angeles, and lots of books on Hollywood in that time period (We seem to have no books on Los Angeles. The appropriate authorities have been informed). Another member (who must have the most splendid attic) brought a great number of games played in the time period, from Victory cards to Chinese checkers to the Japanese game “Go,” (a postwar edition, don’t panic), as well as some FDR memorabilia. She also brought bags and bags of veggies to share from her “Victory Garden.” Last month chocolate cake, this month fresh cantaloupe, squash, tomatoes and peppers! I also brought “G.I. fruit bars” to munch on, especially formulated to keep from going to crumbs when shipped to the boys overseas. Recipe attached.

Near the end of our meeting we shared titles recently read and enjoyed – any genre:
  • Bellwether by Connie Willis was read by a member who hadn’t had a chance to read a Kaminsky title (sometimes we just have to read whatever we can get our hands on, book club or not) , which she heartily recommended. According to Amazon:
“A sociologist who studies fads and a chaos theorist are brought together by a strange misdelivered package. This book has all the wit and clever writing that characterized Willis' earlier Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Doomsday Book (which I heartily recommend – a science fiction/medieval historical/time-travel mix).
  • The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon quite impressed another member. This is a very unusual story that has received raves from both critics and readers. Once again from Amazon:
"Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.”This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.”
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • , another critic and reader favorite, was recommended by another member (and then another one, and another one). This time from Publisher’s Weekly:
“Hosseini's stunning debut novel starts as an eloquent Afghan version of the American immigrant experience in the late 20th century, but betrayal and redemption come to the forefront when the narrator, a writer, returns to his ravaged homeland to rescue the son of his childhood friend after the boy's parents are shot during the Taliban takeover in the mid '90s.”
All the members who read this said it was easy to read, but not an easy read, and that it was very emotional and powerful, as well as eye-opening.
  • the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith which takes place in neighboring Botswana was praised and recommended by one of our new members, a charming gentleman from South Africa. He says it truly reflects the spirit of Africa and Botswana, even if it is just a tiny, tiny bit over-complimentary to Botswana.
Upcoming discussions:
  • October 13, 2005: mysteries with famous people as sleuths. Many historical figures and celebrities now grace the pages of their very own mysteries, from Alexander the Great to Elvis Presley! I’m attaching a list of possibilities, but feel free to search on your own and amaze the other members of the book club.
  • November 10, 2005: the London of Jack the Ripper. Some people are quite fascinated by forensic detail, while others tend to lose their appetites. We’re hoping this subject will be broad enough for everyone. Those fascinated by true crime approached in either fiction or non-fiction may choose to concentrate on Jack the Ripper as presented in literature (a list of fiction is attached). Those with more delicate sensibilities can turn to any mystery or fiction set in that same late Victorian London of the 1880-90s. Any of the many variations of Sherlock Holmes will fit the criteria, as well as the mysteries of Anne Perry.

  • December, 2005: our 3rd annual Potluck and Book Club Bash. The first year we discussed culinary mysteries, then last year we discussed any food-related books, and munched and crunched throughout. This year we will open it still further to any book at all. And with your book, bring some vaguely related food-stuff. A book on Native Americans, bring something with corn in it. Finally read your Jack the Ripper title, bring scones. But for heaven’s sake, someone please tie in some chocolate somewhere, or I will get cranky.