Monthly Archives: February 2012

Dear Elizabeth George,

This Body of Death

his Body of Death

This Body of Death is just one of your many absorbing mysteries, but it’s the one I happened to be reading this past December when Colton Harris-Moore, the “barefoot bandit,” was first sentenced. Because you and I both live in western Washington, I know you’re familiar with the exploits of the Camano Island teen who stole cars, airplanes, and boats and burgled numerous homes and shops in several states and the Caribbean. Like the young boys in This Body of Death, Harris-Moore suffered neglect and abuse and by adolescence was a criminal. But he was a thief, not a sadistic killer of smaller children like the British boys whose tragic story, supposedly based on a real case, you weave into your own gripping tale.

Ten-Year-Old Killer

You go beyond the horrifying headlines by forcing the reader to consider what happens to youthful predators after they have served their sentences, grown into men, assumed new identities.  Already claiming remorse, Colin Harris-Moore plans to repay the people he robbed with earnings from a film based on his life story. But how do you repay the parents of a

Taking Medicine

two-year-old you have tortured and killed? How do you come to terms with what you’ve done? Will/can you ever know love? Peace of mind? These are the questions you ask your readers to consider in This Body of Death even while you have us solving a seemingly unconnected murder along with intrepid investigators, Sir Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers. Thus you force us to confront the deadly results of the neglect and abuse of children by their parents and of our failure to recognize and help those children before they become capable of doing harm. We, your readers, are not blameless in your eyes. It takes a superb writer to sweeten this bitter dose of moral censure with intrigue, suspense, and credible characters so that we greedily gulp it down. Dickens and Brontë did it. You do it.

And, like those British writers, you, an American, set your miracles of mystery and morality in England. When I’m engrossed in one of your books, I’m back

Changing of the Guard

in Britain where I’ve visited as a tourist, a student, and a teacher. But I haven’t crossed the pond in well over a decade, so when I need to feed my Anglophilia, I turn to your books. Your Inspector Lynley and his cohort Barbara Havers represent both ends of the still extant British class system, and their colleagues, clients, and suspects fill in the rest. Their England is a place I recognize, diverse and ever changing yet familiar. Your novels feature iconic country cottages and manor houses on one page and urban rooming houses and offices a few chapters later. The details you provide make my armchair tourism possible and the horrific events you recount credible.

Your characters, especially Barbara Havers, are also credible. After watching far too many TV crime shows, I’m used to female detectives like Bones, Beckett, and Benson, beautiful, brilliant women haunted by their dead mothers. So it’s refreshing to meet Barbara who’s neither a knockout nor a neurotic. Instead she’s bright, bedraggled, and brave. She’s loyal but her loyalty doesn’t prevent her from following up on a clue instead of following orders. If chasing down that clue means going without backup, she’s on her way. I’m a committed coward, so I have a lot of respect for Barbara’s guts. And I love her work ethic. She doesn’t give up. Nor does she let her feelings for Lynley, her longtime boss, prevent her from working effectively with him. And when her new female boss, an alcoholic, orders Barbara to improve her fashion statement so she looks “professional,” Barbara reluctantly complies. In the Seventies I had a boss who wasn’t into jeans and peasant blouses and told me and my colleagues to revamp our teaching  wardrobes. No wonder I like reading about a “dowdy” female detective who doesn’t show up at a crime scene sporting stilettoes and mascara.

Believing the Lie

Your first mystery was published just a few years before I retired and while I was writing humorous cozies featuring a menopausal sleuth. Your novels enriched my retirement and served as models when I decided to attempt writing the serious historical mystery that became The Bones and the Book. And now I can’t wait to read Believing the Lie.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Zadie Smith,

White Teeth

I read White Teeth first at a lovely lakeside resort in Maine where my husband and I used to vacation for a week every summer. There we retreated from the many stresses of our workaday urban lives. There one afternoon I lay prone on a glider on our porch beside the same loon-friendly lake Steven King views from his home. Digesting a fabulous lunch I didn’t make or microwave, I started your novel. I was transported back to 1975 to a heavily trafficked intersection in London similar to countless intersections in the New York metropolitan area we’d just fled. Not exactly my idea of vacation reading. But then I found sluggish post prandial me laughing my head off while bearing witness to the aborted suicide attempt of one Alfred Archibald Jones.  Not only did you make Archie’s failure to self-destruct amusing at the exact same time that it was pathetic, but you also definitively answered a question I’ve often pondered: What Makes Shit Happen?

As I read on, you answered another question for me too. Or maybe I should say you validated my sense of the role of a novelist in our diverse society. I always thought

From Cuban Santeria Museum

it was our job to reflect our vision of the world, not to tailor that vision to what we imagine readers might like. (That’s why I’ve never even been tempted to write about a menopausal vampire!) But that summer I was still writing The Bel Barrett Mystery Series and had submitted a proposal to my editor for what would become Hot and Bothered. The plot depended on the practice of Santeria, the mix of Catholicism and African religion that many immigrants from the Caribbean bring to America and practice. At that time there were still many practitioners in Hudson County, New Jersey where my

East London Anti mosque Protesters

series takes place. I was fascinated by their rituals and beliefs. Alas, my editor found Santeria “too exotic,” and I conceived another plot for the novel. But in White Teeth you reflect the beliefs, rituals, and histories of several immigrant groups and social classes as well as the particular patois of their members. Nothing is ‘too exotic” for you to mirror or skewer, and as a longtime urban community college prof, I recognized the fluid world your Bengali-Brits inhabit. Those characters themselves are plausible rather than exotic. Reassured, I kept your example in mind as I wrote Hot and Bothered and Hot Wired in which Bel ventures into the worlds of strippers and rappers respectively.

Years later when I began The Bones and the Book, I again found inspiration in White Teeth.For in that novel you roam freely throughout world history as

Geneology Book

one must when peopling a novel with descendants of colonials and crusaders. I marveled anew at your knowledge and appreciation of how memory distorts history and affects how the past influences the present. In The Bones and the Book I include characters representing three different generations of Jewish immigrants to Seattle and move backwards and forwards in time as they maintain and/or shed rituals and beliefs some editors would no doubt deem “too exotic.”

Present-racial America

I also enjoyed your next novel, On Beauty. Again, I marvel at your ability to capture the zeitgeist around you, in this case, the “post racial” world of American-Anglo academics in a New England college town. Even more, I marvel at your sense of humor. Jon Stewart aside, it’s not easy to be funny about serious issues like racism, elitism, betrayal, sexism, ageism, and the decline of the liberal arts but, as in White Teeth, you manage it. Thank you.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story