Susie Wilde: Curling up with my guilty pleasures

May. 11, 2013 @ 03:00 PM

When I was young I had two guilty pleasures: cinnamon toast and reading. I was a fat kid, so the first was supposed to be off limits. But when I got home from school and found my family out on errands I’d eye the gleaming silver toaster and the soft golden butter beside it.
Quickly, I would toast two slices of Arnold Brick Oven White Bread until they were a perfect brown. When they popped up, I stuck in another two slices. I’d cover all four pieces right up to their very crusts with butter. Next I’d sprinkle on cinnamon sugar, mixing it into the melted butter so that it almost made a paste. Then I’d gobble the toast down and head up to my bedroom where I’d curl up with a favorite book, an indulgence which was not forbidden. Both took me to another world, a kinder place.
My first volunteer job was at the town’s small local public library. I adored the head librarian who increased my love of books and librarians. She must have liked me too because she let me be the first to examine and check out new titles.
I was reminded of my youthful guilty pleasures recently as reports from Boston raged, and I found relief in two gripping mysteries. The first was Jacqueline Winspear’s 10th Maisie Dobbs’ mystery, “Leaving Everything Most Loved” (HarperCollins, approximately 10 hours). When I heard Orlagh Cassidy’s curious combination of crisp and lulling tones, I entered the pre-WWII era of young woman who’s as thoughtful in sleuthing as she is in examining her own life, values and social issues of her day. Most reflect the struggles we face today—the haunting specter of war and violence, classism and prejudice. This focused on “otherness,” a theme that dominated the Boston search, but somehow the historical distance and Maisie’s struggles with her own feelings provided comfort.
Winspear’s detailing and imagery also aided my literary escape. In the opening scene, Maisie visits Dame Constance, the “beyond age” abbess of a convent with “ancient grains.” Maisie confesses her inner torment—she feels drawn to expanding herself with foreign travel, but worries about leaving all those for whom she feels responsible. The wise abbess asks Maisie if she “seeks to leave on a quest to find” or wishes to run “from some element of life that is uncomfortable.” Of course both are true and the plot and self-discovery continue throughout the story. It’s not long before Maisie is on the trail of detecting the murder of two well-educated, caring East Indian women. The case’s intricacies are as confusing as her own emotions about her life specifically and the world in general.
My second escape into a guilty pleasure listen came in the second Frieda Klein mystery, “Tuesday’s Gone” (PenguinAudio, approximately 13 hours) written by Nicci French (which is actually a pen name for mystery writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French). Like the Winspear, this audio was read by the same narrator who’d dramatized the first in this series, Beth Chalmers who I am quickly associating with the voice of Frieda. This series is modern in era and more chilling in tone than Winspear’s, but the heroine has the same compassion and curiosity. Frieda is a psychologist who aids the police, protesting loudly until she’s captured by her own desire to understand and the crime victims and, to an extent, the perpetrators. Frieda thinks and acts outside the box, infuriating and amazing her law enforcement colleagues. Listeners are kept as busy as she for Frieda thrives on concurrent mysteries which cleverly converge at book’s end.  The sleuthing begins with an unidentified bloated, decomposing corpse I discovered in the apartment of a woman who is caring for it. Frieda (and listeners) will see her as mad, but the police would love to arrest her and make an easy arrest. Complexities arise as it becomes clearer that the woman is not a murder, but mentally ill. The victim’s name is discovered, but he’s stolen someone else’s identity. He’s loved by a number of different people, all of whom seem to know a different side of his chameleon-like personality. And as if there weren’t enough plates spinning, surprisingly a chilling character from the first book creeps into the second. Beth Chalmers keeps the fast-moving, intricate plot understandable. She also captures the complex mind and emotions of Frieda and creates effective portraits of minor characters who are dimensional enough to make listeners wonder as Frieda does.
Much of my adolescence seemed beyond my ken, so it made sense that in the midst of senseless acts of violence, I found comfort by entering the worlds of strong and caring heroines whom I know will puzzle out solutions.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,