Magazines, newspapers, even television are urging me to get to a beach and to read mysteries. Actually, I don't go to the beach much; and I can't say I read more when I'm there.
But I do read mysteries. This has been a year when I've had difficulty putting them aside.
It's the politics of the times that have driven me to the mystery section of the bookstore. It's a magic larder of easy escapism where the shelves are never bare.
One reaches a point where the White House's assertion that green energy jobs are going to refloat the economy and cut unemployment is certifiably fiction. Or the tea party's belief that if you cut economic activity by slashing the budget, you will, yes, create jobs as far as the eye can see. Or, the Ayn Rand-derived idea that greed is akin to godliness; that markets alone will cure all the ills of the human condition, from broken hearts to stillborn children.
But what to read? Robert Ludlum, Michael Connelly and James Patterson, the most successful mystery writers of the moment, don't really do it for me — although I like the idea of The Lincoln Lawyer, a Connelly creation.
My real escape this year has been to Europe — but Europe through the eyes of three skilled, American mystery concocters. I want adventure, sheer escape, but I also want a little more: As with journalism, I want to know a little something that I didn't know before.
First among equals is Alan Furst, whose mysteries, set largely in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1944 (Spies of the Balkans, The Spies of Warsaw and The Foreign Correspondent, among others) are on a level with John le Carre. He gives us history in a time of foreboding, with sinister forces at play.
If your passion is for a gutsy, sexy private eye carrying on in her father's tradition as a Paris flic, and you also desire a little French slang (Did you know that "mec" is slang for "guy"?) and a lot of French bistro life, pick up any one of a slew of novels by Cara Black. She's the most prolific of my three authors — all of whom were teachers before they succeeded as novelists.
My favorite at the moment is Donna Leon, whose protagonist, Commissaro Guido Brunetti, is with the police in Venice. Like Black, she shares the local architecture, food and a soupcon of ancient Roman literature, as Brunetti humors his ghastly boss, spars with his well-born wife and, through dogged police work, unearths evil and corruption. He doesn't do big violence or acts of derring-do. He does solid questioning, local travel and is sustained by grappa and coffee.
Black gives us Aimee Leduc, the very sights and smells of Paris, and plots that are almost believable. You know she's going to do things against big odds; and you so want her to come out unscathed, which she does.
Leon does for Venice what Black does for Paris: complete immersion. Of course you learn things about Venetian cuisine and the climate. But you also learn about the diversity of regional speech in Italy; and how the characters from Venice, or Naples, will speak to each other in their dialect and break into "Italian" with people from other regions, or on formal occasions.
If you want your mind to travel far away from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, et al., try reading a good mystery: The characters are so much better formed and more believable. You can even take the book to the beach, if you like that sort of thing.
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