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January 2006
 

I Had a Little List

In one of my favorite novels, The Group, the eight Vassar roommates of the title are fond of a game called "Truth." Of course it involves questions that no one should ever have to answer, such as "Who is your favorite?" One girl, slyer than the rest, finds a way around being candid:
"Helena cannily said she couldn't decide and instead drew a big colored cartoon which she called 'The Judgment of Paris' showing them all in the nude, like goddesses, and herself very small in a jerkin with a dunce's cap on her head and a wormy apple in her hand."

At the end of 2004, I pulled a Helena when asked by Crimespree Magazine to pick my favorite crime novels of the year. Instead, I submitted a list of ten books I was anticipating in 2005. But try pulling that dodge two years in a row. When asked for my 2005 list, I decided to jot down titles very quickly, believing that the books that came immediately to mind must have made the most profound impression.

Mark Billingham's Lifeless
Jan Burke's Bloodlines
John Connolly's The Black Angel
Simon Kernick's A Good Day to Die
George Pelecanos's Drama City

I also gave honorable mention to two books published in different years: Kate Atkinson's Case Histories (a 2004 title that I now realize I read in 2004, not 2005) and Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, which will be released in 2006.

To my delight, my top five hewed closely to my predictions for 2005, and critics that I respected shared many of my choices. Bloodlines was Oline Cogdill's pick for best novel of 2005 (tying with Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer). Stephen King mentioned Drama City in his annual list for Entertainment Weekly. Other Crimespree voters also cited Billingham, Connolly and Kernick, placing them in the top twenty.

On second glance, however, my list troubled me. Too many good books had been omitted because of my from-the-hip system -- The Wheelman, for example, by Duane Swierczynski, Julie Smith's PI on a Hot Tin Roof, Ken Bruen's Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice, Kevin Wignall's Among Friends.

And my reading list was far from comprehensive. I tucked away Laurie King's Locked Rooms and Lee Child's One Shot into my When-I'm-Finished-Touring pile, and still haven't found them again. (I hide things from myself with great success and frequency.) Other sure-to-be-favorites remained in my TBR pile for no sin greater than being fall titles, arriving while I was under the crush of my annual deadline. (Karen Olson, Margaret Maron, James Sallis, Walter Mosley.) I adored Sujata Massey's The Typhoon Lover, but our long friendship made such a choice seem a bit incestuous.

But the thing that really disturbed me was that my top five included only one female writer. Granted, the Pelecanos novel (my favorite of the year) was anchored by an interesting, well-drawn female character. Other rationalizations occurred to me: S.J. Rozan didn't publish this year, I'm behind in my Val McDermid and Denise Mina reading, Mo Hayder's The Devil of Nanking is in that special subgenre of my TBR pile reserved for challenging, painful subjects, along with Iris Chang's nonfiction book, The Rape of Nanking. Still there it was, in black and white, by my own hand: five names, one woman, and not a single non-Causcasian.

Suddenly, I became obsessed with quantifying. The Best American Mystery Stories? Edited by Joyce Carol Oates, it has twenty stories, two by women. The Adventure of the Missing Detective, another best-of anthology, has six stories by women -- 30 percent of the fiction contributors, although Sarah Weinman has two of the five pieces on the state of the genre.

In that same volume, Jon L. Breen, choosing his favorite fifteen novels of 2004, notes that he has a decided bias for historicals, adding: "[A]s any reference librarian will tell you, bias is not a necessarily a dirty word." It's not clear to me whether Breen realizes that a list of thirteen men and two women constitutes another kind of bias.

I saw a similar pattern in my favorite best-of lists: Seattle Times, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Toronto Globe and Mail and, yes, CrimeSpree, where there were only two women among the top ten vote-getters. The contributor lists for the forthcoming D.C. Noir, Dublin Noir, even my own Baltimore Noir -- not a single volume is more than one-third female.

Yet, as editor of Baltimore Noir, I also learned first-hand in 2005 how hard it is to balance an anthology demographically. The far graver lapse in my collection is the absence of African-American voices: there's only one writer in sixteen, Lisa Respers' France, making her fiction debut. However, if all those I queried had contributed, there would have been ... two.

Interestingly, the one list where women actually exceeded the fifty percent mark this year was the EdgarŽ shortlist for best novel. Not only were three out of five were women writers, but two of those -- Rhys Bowen and Julia Spencer-Fleming -- work in the so-called traditional mode. To be fair, the Agatha continues to be dominated by female writers, but it's the only award in mystery where this holds true.

Breen is right. Bias is not a dirty word. Nor are year-end lists definitive judgments, carved in stone. Their purpose is to provoke and stimulate - to make others reconsider books they might have skipped, or draw attention to gems that got lost in the shuffle. But they also give us a chance to check ourselves, to evaluate our biases and see where they may be holding us back. (Give Ray Banks credit: he used his blog to do just that, when challenged on the lack of women on his list.)

What are my biases? I'm clearly drawn to urban stories, although Bloodlines, Case Histories and Winter's Bone don't fit that description. Sense of place matters to me. I tend to read very few historical mysteries, although I don't know why. My 2005 list would seem to indicate a bias toward series, but I think that's an anomaly. Only two of my top writers are from the U.S., which reflects my tendency to read non-American voices during certain points in my own writing process. My top five are written by people I consider good friends, but I don't think I cut them slack in my critical judgments. I am, however, inclined to move friends up in the TBR pile whenever possible.

To me, my clearest bias is for terrific writing, memorable characters, and smart story-telling that finds a way to honor genre convention without being enslaved to it. Drama City resolves its main character's moral dilemma with a brilliant yet credible twist; Bloodlines is the kind of sweeping narrative that only a seasoned pro can deliver; Lifeless is poignant and empathetic in its depiction of "hard sleepers"; The Black Angel balances an exciting globe-trotting tale with true gravitas; A Good Day to Die brings back Dennis Milne, one of the best anti-heroes of the decade.

So, another year, another list -- and another dodge. For in writing about my top five books of 2005, I've managed to mention almost thirty writers, more than half of them women. Meanwhile, I'll throw two more names in the pool - Cornelia Read's A Field of Darkness, to be published in spring, will probably be as buzzed-about as Louise Ure's Forcing Amaryllis, one of the stand-out debuts of 2004.

New Year, New Fun

I like to buy books and I love to give them away - it's good karma to pass along a book that one liked, and it means space to buy more books! In 2006, I'll be giving away a novel for the e-mail of the month. It doesn't have to involve praise, either, although that never hurts. Anyway, if your e-mail is chosen, I'll give you a choice of books from my discard pile. My favorite correspondent of January 2006 may choose between Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Lisa Grunwald's Whatever Makes You Happy. (Grunwald was one of my favorite discoveries of 2005, a writer who fills the void left by Laurie Colwin's death in 1992.)


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