Everyone approaches vacation reading differently. Some people like to tackle long, complex books they don’t have time for during the rest of the year; some read about places they’re visiting; others want to sink into a bit of well-written fluff. I do all of those things and have happy memories of reading The Golden Notebook while backpacking around Europe and spending a summer day in a hammock reading Elinor Lipman’s delightful The Ladies’ Man.
But about 15 years ago I fell into a tradition that’s stuck, of reading a mystery or two to start off my vacation. A friend recommended Sarah Caudwell, an English barrister and law professor, who wrote erudite stories—including The Shortest Way to Hades and The Sirens Sang of Murder—about an English law professor of indeterminate gender named Hilary Tamar. The plots involve the intricacies of British tax law (which is way more entertaining than it sounds), and for the tone of the first-person narrative, imagine Lemony Snicket for grown-ups:
Some of my readers, it is true, have been kind enough to say that they would like to know more about me—what I look like, how I dress, how I spend my leisure hours and other details of a personal and sometimes even intimate nature. I do not doubt, however, that these enquiries are made purely as a matter of courtesy and that to take them as au pied de la lettre would be as grave a solecism as to answer a polite “How do you do, Professor Tamar?” with a full account of the state of my digestion.
Caudwell only wrote four books before her death in 2000, and after a couple of vacations, I was despondent to have finished them all. I moved on to Donna Leon and her Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, which spend as much time on the pleasures of walking through Venice and drinking coffee as on the moral ambiguities of police work in a corrupt city. By the time I started reading her, Leon had built up a large backlist, which kept me happy for quite a few years, but now I’ve read them all and am reduced to waiting all year for a new book, which I no longer have the patience to save for vacation. So I’m looking for a new series to embrace. If you have any suggestions, please send them to me on Twitter, where I’m @lauriemuchnick. – L.M.Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor at Kirkus Reviews.