When you talk guilty pleasures, reading doesn't seem to qualify. After all, reading is an intellectual pursuit, the noble exchange of ideas on the page, shared from author to reader.
Alas, history -- and the best-seller list -- tells us otherwise. Long before anyone thought to scratch symbols onto a sheaf of papyrus, our ancestors told each other stories. Some carried instructions or information -- say, it's best to stay out of sight when the saber-tooth tiger is on the prowl -- but the stories often served purely as entertainment, an outlet for relaxation and enjoyment before the next stress-filled day.
The world may have changed in the intervening millennia, but our need for entertaining tales hasn't diminished. After I've slogged through piles of high-minded literature, nothing spells relief better than a solid, fast-paced mystery, where the heroes are pure of heart, the bad guys are clearly devious and good always triumphs over evil in the end. (Sounds like the kind of story our president would like, eh?)
Many successful mystery authors return to the same cast of characters in each book, making it even less difficult to determine who's who. After all, no one should have to work hard for a little guilty pleasure.
My favorite mysteries star clever sleuths who stumble onto the solution while narrowly averting victimhood. Contemporary stories with women in the lead top my list, although I'll confess a soft spot for Dashiell Hammett and his traditionally hard-boiled, film-noir detectives.
When I'm looking to dive into a mystery, my first choice is the endearing small-town setting of Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series. Brown brings her literary skills to the genre but also taps into the animal lovers market by sharing authorship credits with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. And Mrs. Murphy, the true sleuth of these books, is a middle-aged tabby cat with a distinct resemblance to the co-author. As writers of definite opinions, the Browns put diatribes into their characters' mouths that might better belong on the op-ed pages, but the plots are always clever. The killers are nearly impossible to guess, although after nine books it's easy to rule out the regular cast.
Setting is nearly as important to a good mystery as character. The coast of Maine attracts a fair number of mystery writers, leading to a profusion of stories set in downeast seaside villages. Maybe it's the Stephen King influence or all those episodes of Murder, She Wrote -- despite Tom Bosley's pitiful attempt at a Maine accent -- but the rocky cliffs, abandoned lighthouses and isolated communities seem custom-tailored for hair-raising tales of murder and mayhem.
Two authors plying these roiling waters are J. S. Borthwick and Sarah Graves. Borthwick's heroine, Sarah Deane, is a newly minted Ph.D. who teaches English at a small private school while sniffing out crimes with her doctor boyfriend (and later husband) Alex. Graves sets her stories in the far downeast villages around Eastport, the most easterly city in the country. She has an annoying tendency to break up her characters' statements at awkward and unnecessary places, but the stories are a good read, and she accurately captures the insider-outsider dynamics of the place.
All this talk about mysteries makes me want to sit back and read something right now. I know I'm supposed to be working, but that's just one more reason to call it a guilty pleasure.
GUILTY PLEASURE RECIPE
1 lb. hot dogs, thinly sliced
1 can chopped black olives
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
1 can cut green beans, drained
1 cup diced cheddar cheese
2 cups ketchup
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon garlic salt
1 small onion, finely chopped
Mix ingredients together and turn into a lightly greased 2 1/2 quart casserole. Cover and bake at 350 degrees F for one hour. Makes six to eight servings.
-- from The Sunset Casserole Book, 1965
Publication date: 02/20/03