Marilyn Stasio on the Books and Writers She Loves

From a post on by Erica Wright headlined “On Good Taste: Marilyn Stasio on a Lifetime of Book Reviews”:

Marilyn Stasio began her reviewing career as a theater critic for the now defunct Cue magazine and eventually wrote a syndicated column, Mystery Alley, for newspapers throughout the country. In the 1980s, she became the designated Crime Columnist for The New York Times, soon emerging as the authoritative voice on newly published mysteries. A rave or pan from Stasio could float or sink a novel. She admits to being conscious of that power, preferring to praise books whenever possible. “I want people to enjoy what I love. It’s not about me, you know.”

Even after being unceremoniously fired from her position (a move announced as a retirement) in February, she remains buoyant when discussing books and writers she loves….In our conversation, she was frank about how reviewing has changed, when to find beauty in the ugly, and why Agatha Christie is still the greatest.

Erica Wright: You grew up outside of Boston, a city with its fair share of crime novelists. Were you drawn to this genre at an early age?

Marilyn Stasio: I was always a morbid kid. That’s the best way I can put it. I don’t think I was interested in real-life murders, but I remember the first thing that stuck with me. My family had a whole stack of encyclopedias. There was a painting of the two little princes in the tower. They were cherubic boys, holding hands. They both had silken, golden blonde hair and these black velvet outfits. I absolutely fell in love with that, especially because the entry said that their uncle Richard the Third had them murdered. From the time I was very young and could barely read, I decided that beauty and murder were connected….

EW: Connecting beauty and murder is a poetic approach to life, the idea of impermanence.

MS: I grew up reading Shakespeare. He made death and murder as beautiful as they could be. It took me a while to realize that they were ugly and brutal, but that was kind of fun, too….

EW: It sounds like you started reviewing plays before books.

MS: I started reviewing plays long before I started reviewing books. My late husband and I were friendly with [theater critic] John Lahr. He and his wife were visiting our little cottage. I was out on the porch, and everybody else was talking in force. I had my head in a book. After they asked me three times to contribute to the conversation, John said, “you’ve always got your head in mysteries. Do you read anything else?” I said, “no, not really. What else is there?” He told me that I should review them. And I thought, what a good idea….I wrote to all of the book editors I could think of. The Philadelphia Inquiry, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. How would you like to have a monthly column called “Mystery Alley,” and I would review nothing but mysteries?

Back then mysteries were really not considered artsy. They were like comic books. The editors all said yes, though. I was cheap, and I established relationships with enough papers to make it worthwhile….

I was talking to the book editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer one day, finding out what she wanted me to review, and she said, “well, I won’t be here anymore, Marilyn, because I’m the new book editor of The New York Times.” I said, “how wonderful, but I’ll miss you.” And she said, “You’re coming with me.” The columns started appearing shortly after she got there….

EW: I remember reading a Raymond Chandler short story as an English major.

MS: Raymond Chandler and those guys came in during wartime. It was the boys in the Second World War who are responsible for more action-oriented detective stories because that’s what people sent them when they were abroad. They all got bars of soap and packs of cigarettes, and they would also get these paperbacks. That’s when paperbacks started, so that these soldiers could have something to read.

Mysteries really started in England with Agatha Christie. And then Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. Those were the three great women mystery writers who started it all. But the American version was quite different. It wasn’t a puzzle. It was action, adventure, and the male hero. Men and women were both detectives in the British vein….

EW: A lot of readers tend to prefer cozies or they like hard-boiled. It’s somewhat rare to find someone who’s reading the whole spectrum. Do you find it more challenging to review a particular genre?

MS: The one genre I find hard is romantic suspense. I really like everything. I love historical mysteries. I love the gruesome ones. Serial killers, the lone wolf, smart little old ladies. I like them all. The only ones I can’t stand are romantic suspense….

EW: You still only read mysteries or mostly mysteries?

MS: Nothing but mysteries. And I read The New Yorker and The New York Times.

EW: You said that you enjoy the gruesome murders. Does the violence ever get to you?

MS: No. I must say some people are extremely original in what they come up with, but that’s not why I read them. If I run across a good writer in that genre, I am happy to read them….I do tend to like puzzle mysteries. And I like mysteries that take me somewhere I’ve never been. I love Louise Penny’s Canadian mysteries. Martin Walker who writes a lovely series about a guy named Bruno set in France. And everyone likes, and why shouldn’t they, Donna Leon who’s in Venice. I’m appreciative of background. I always like the international mysteries because I like going places. I’m reading one set in Nigeria for The Times. They fired my ass, but they still want me to write for them. So I mentioned this book, and they said, “why do you want to write about that one?” Well, you know, I’ve never been to Nigeria.

EW: Do you have a particular reviewing philosophy?

MS: I tried to be omnivorous, universal, catholic. I think it worked because when I was following my impulses in the very beginning, all I was reading was English detective stories from the 1930s and 40s. I loved all those old guys. Agatha Christie was the greatest as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care what people say about her lousy characters. She’s a brilliant strategist. I’ll never forget a book, I won’t say which one because I don’t want to spoil it, but it was a mystery, and there was a murder. Right away, it seemed that the two killers were having an illicit affair. So I’m reading along, and one of her characters says, “that’s so obvious. You’re blaming those people because they’re having an affair, and you’re subjecting them to a moral judgment. You’re limiting them to the role of villains.” And I said to myself, oh my God, she’s right. I did that very thing. And then it turns out to be true after all, which I think is so clever. Christie worked on our values. She was really good at that. People say she wrote flat characters, and that’s sort of true. She was all plot, but once in awhile, she pulled off something like that, which I thought was pretty damn smart….

EW: Book coverage does seem to be shrinking. The idea that you pitched a column and it was picked up across the country is wild to me.

MS: When I pitched the column, there was no one reviewing crime novels because they were considered trash. Gradually they became acceptable. Women came along in the 70s. They made it more respectable maybe. There were more sub-genres, and people started writing regional mysteries, which are my favorite. I do like settings. They have to be good, though. They have to be true. I like the middle of the country. I like Appalachia. I like the South. I want to know what the crimes are because that is what’s going on in the country. Writers write about what they see and what they know. Someone from the Adirondacks writing about meth labs, I believe him….

EW: It seems like there was a time when most mysteries in the U.S. were very city-centric.

MS: They really were….I don’t want this to sound as if I consort with mystery writers because I don’t, but very early in my career, I was invited to some writers conferences. I became friendly with Donald Westlake and Ed McBain. Ed McBain wrote these wonderful police procedures. I like the play-by-play of police procedurals. You know when they get up there in front of a whiteboard, and they start scratching? I like that. I have to come clean. I really don’t like romantic suspense. It doesn’t move me at all. I don’t like romance. I like murdering.

EW: The New York Times has always been the preeminent place for book reviews, but now it has an outsized influence. I don’t know how to even word this, but were you ever aware of that? Did you ever feel extra pressure reviewing for The Times, particularly with debut novels?

MS: You’re really asking if I was aware of who I was and the power I had. It’s actually yes. I did respect, still do respect, the power of The Times. And I know that everything in The Washington Post is emphatically important. But for the most part, it’s awful to write when there’s no place to publish, and there’s nobody to review them. Everything has to be online, and I hate it….

EW: In a 2017 interview with Daniel Fromson, you said, “if there’s no voice in the first couple of pages, you’re out.” Do you have any advice for beginning writers on that score? Or advice in general?

MS: A good first chapter. A brilliant first chapter. Also, I know this sounds cruel, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I look at every first chapter, I really do. That’s no bullshit. And sometimes I say to myself, get a job. Go sell insurance or something. In the first chapter, you can get a sense of love of language, how the language comes slipping off the tongue….I want to read something beautiful. Even if it’s ugly, even if it starts with some grisly murder. I think that’s what I mean, you have to be a good writer. I’m having such a good time with this novel set in Nigeria. It’s called Lightseekers by Femi Kayode. So I’m going to write that review right now.

Erica Wright’s latest novel is Famous in Cedarville. Her poetry collections are All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned and Instructions for Killing the Jackal. She is the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine.

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