We are glad to Welcome the American crime fiction columnist and reviewer Oline H. Cogdill to TheCrimeHouse
About: Oline H. Cogdill has been a journalist for more than 30 years and is a mystery fiction columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, She also reviews mystery fiction for Mystery Scene magazine, Publishers Weekly and McClatchy Features Wire. Her mystery fiction reviews appear in more than 300 newspapers and publication sites worldwide. She also blogs twice a week on the mystery genre at mysteryscenemag.com/msblog. Oline has among other awards received the Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing by the American Crime Writers League. For the past two years, Oline has been a judge for the LA Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category.
When and how did you become a crime fiction reviewer?
I made a promise to myself to do more writing, and writing about something I had a real interest in when I changed jobs at the Sun-Sentinel. I had always read mysteries – since I was about 9 or 10 – so I asked Books Editor Chauncey Mabe if I could try reviewing mysteries. He gave me about 6 paperbacks. I did a roundup; five weeks later he asked me to do another roundup; 4 weeks later, another roundup; then I did a hardcover review; two weeks later, another hardcover review – you can see where this is going. Before we both knew it, I was doing a weekly mystery column – reviewing anywhere from one to 6 novels a week.
Can you shortly tell us your working progress when writing a review.
I read very deeply and concentrate very hard on the book I am reviewing. I take copious notes as I read, making notes of pages, quotes, writing bits of the review as I go along. I am constantly reading books months or weeks before publication date. I read both the advanced readers copies and as a pdf on a Sony reader, which lets me take 50 books on a trip without luggage-weight fees! The Sony reader is new and still an experiment.
I always ask authors (and now you) how it looks like in their workplace – is it messy, do you sit in sofa? in an office?
Messy would not begin to describe it. My office is filled with books and papers and, I am afraid, the books have spilled over into our living room. I can’t seem to work in a neat environment. I clean my desk and then 10 minutes later it is covered with junk. But, I also am organized in that clutter. I use the office to organize and write. I read all over the place – on our patio, on the sofa, at lunch, standing in line, on a plane, and, yes, in bed. I used to read only when I was in bed, staying up until 1 a.m….well, I still do that. But now I also have options. Since my job is now as a freelancer, I read more and try to take at least one day a week to just read.
Since you must be reading a lot of books. How long does it take for you to read a book (average length and quality)
On average, I read three novels a week – from 300 to 500 pages. I am not a speed reader, but I am a fast reader. Sometimes I have just read one book a week, which is just too slow. I have – and often do – read two books in one day. And yes, I read the entire book. Every word. I like to read both hard-cover and paperback originals. But it doesn’t take me longer to do a hardcover as opposed to a paperback original. The reading time is about the same.
What kind of crime fiction do you prefer?
I like all crime fiction – a term I prefer to mysteries. Hardboiled, soft, light, amateur, p.i., international, etc. The writing and the story and the characters are more important than the “type” of crime fiction. That said, I prefer a harder approach to crime fiction, and those are really my favorite style. I appreciate the lighter and amateur sleuths and have found some excellent work in that milieu.
What was your most memorable review and what book/review did you receive most comments about?
Most memorable wouldn’t be about one book, but what the review brought. I do an annual top 20 mysteries of the year and this is picked up by more places than I can count. About 400 papers and sites supposedly ran my Best of 2009.
I got an e-mail from “a reader in San Antonio” who had seen the list and, because my name is so unusual, thought she might have known my parents. She did – she was originally from the same small hometown. She knew my Mom before she got married and had some wonderful stories I had never heard. We met and had a lovely lunch and talk. I teared up many times hearing stories about my parents before they were married. Since then, I’ve gotten letters from other people from my past. But nothing has been as poignant or as emotional as the one from “a reader in San Antonio.”
List the 5 best crime novels you’ve ever read and want to recommend
Only five? It’s hard for me to recommend only 10 a year, which is why I do the top 20 each year. So many books But here goes:
A Place of Execution by Val McDermid. I can recommend this novel to those who like hard boiled as well as those who eschew violence. Author Val McDermid expertly melds the old-fashioned English village mystery with the British police procedural for a thoughtful look at crime, punishment and retribution. But A Place of Execution is much more than a novel about one crime — the disappearance of a teenager. It is equally about the tragedy of a family, the violation of a village and the loss of innocence of an entire country.
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. Connelly is probably the most consistently top American mystery writer. He’s written many a fine novel, many of which have been at the top of my year’s picks. Still, I would start with this, the first in his Harry Bosch series, and then work my way through each of his novels.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. An emotional story that elegantly traces the dissolution of a family whose hidden fragility breaks under the weight of the destructive event of two girls who go missing from a shopping mall in Baltimore.
Hell to Pay. George Pelecanos. Pelecanos is a true social historian. Pulling together a cohesive, taut story that echoes Richard Price’s Clockers, Hell to Pay is a look at an inner-city society driven by characters who are under siege from the drugs and violence that have infiltrated their world.
Aftermath by Peter Robinson. A look at the never-ending circle of cause and effect after a domestic call leads to a serial killer and his grisly legacy in Robinson’s 12th novel. Victims become predators, predators become victims and each person, even on the periphery of the action, is deeply affected.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I have become a little obsessed with this Swedish author’s trilogy and had to put it in
Can you name a country (besides the US and UK) and crime writers from that country that you think we should try out?
I believe that the world has gotten smaller in the past two decades. It is so much easier now for us to know what goes on outside of our little world. Mysteries have added to that. And in the past decade or so, the international mystery has become so much more important to give us that window to other worlds.
Right now, I think African and Scandinavian crime fiction are forces to be reckoned with in the genre. I think more people read international mysteries now than ever before and we can thank two authors – Alexander McCall Smith and Stieg Larsson. Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency gave us a view of Botswana through the eyes of Precious Ramotswe that few of us could have imagined.
Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo started a mini revolution as it finally brought Scandinavian mysteries to the world. He died in 2004 and it took awhile for his books to get to America but they have just captured even those who don’t read crime fiction. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is quite possibly one of the best characters in crime fiction. Larsson made people pay attention but he wasn’t the first. Henning Mankell has been writing Swedish mysteries for decades, but Larsson’s brought in a completely new set of readers.
I think Camilla Läckberg (Sweden) will become quite popular in America when her first book The Ice Princess comes out in the U.S. this summer. James Thompson also tackled Finland with Snow Angels. Jo Nesbo gives a view of Norway that was off the beaten path, showing the country and Oslo in particular and is finally getting the attention in the U.S. that he deserves. The Icelandic authors Amaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir show two different views of their country.
I gave four Donna Leon novels to a friend who was going to Venice. There also have been some intriguing novels set in Bangkok, too, such as those by John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan and Christopher G. Moore.
I also am seeing a rise in Irish mysteries such as authors John Connolly, although he writes about America, Declan Hughes, Ken Bruen, Declan Burke. I think you’ll be hearing a lot about Irishman Stuart Neville whose debut The Ghosts of Belfast is just wonderful (It was published as The Twelve in Europe).
The publisher Soho Crime does an excellent job of bringing international writers to readers.
Does it happen that you get tired of reading books and what do you do about it?
Never…. Reading is still relaxing to me. I’ve always sworn that if this work became a chore then that would be the time to stop. Whether I actually do a review or not, everything I read is with the mind of a critic. Yet reading is still relaxing and enjoyable. Keep in mind, I do other things! I write author profiles, a TV column and blog for Mystery Scene magazine; I review for Publishers Weekly; and I am the managing editor for Horizons, a magazine for Nova Southeastern University (a freelance job). My husband and I also have two dogs, many friends, love to travel and attend live theater and opera just about every week.
Does it happen sometimes that authors respond to your reviews, perhaps even contact you and are upset if you have given them a bad review? And how to you act then?
Often an author will e-mail me thanking me for a positive review; they often do it tentatively and usually add that they don’t know if they should thank me but they are going to. I think it is fine. It doesn’t influence me one way or the other. I have also gotten some nasty comments from authors upset with my reviews; one called the editor asking me to be fired and then called his publisher demanding I never be sent any novel again. I don’t think that person has written a second novel.
While I may write back to the ones thanking me, I usually just say best of luck and thank you for writing a good book. The nasty ones, I don’t respond to. The thing about a positive review is fleeting; the next book may get a negative review; or visa versa.
I know that some reviewers want no contact with any author for fear they would be influenced. I think that is old-fashioned and not realistic. We live in a vastly different world than what it was even a decade ago. This is the age of social media, instant messages, twitter. To avoid contact with an author seems so archaic and pretends that the critic is on a loftier plane. If I was covering city council, I would have to meet the people and still remain objective.
How do you look at your role as an influential person that business (Publishing companies for example) and authors are dependent on.
This question intrigues me as it is one I often ask. I honestly don’t know but I like to think that a favorable review can help an author gain readers, get noticed and hopefully have a long career. When I am on panels with publishers, agents and editors, they tell me that positive reviews can help and negative ones can hurt. That an author who received several positive reviews but whose sales were not what they had hoped might still be renewed. Of course, that doesn’t always work.
I know that locally, bookstore owners tell me people will show up at a signing or just at the store with my latest review in hand and that my end of the year list is constantly brought to stores and libraries as readers try to find those books.
But before critics get an inflated opinion of what they do, we also have to realize that some authors are review proof. It doesn’t matter what we say about some authors such as James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell; they will still land on the best-sellers list.
What ingredients do you think a really good crime novel should have?
When I start a book, I actually am hoping I will be giving a good review. Each time I pick up a mystery, I want to fall in love again – with the plot, the characters and the setting. Surprise and twists I don’t see coming are important. But sometimes when I know where the story is going, the author can still wow me with the storytelling. Interesting characters; I don’t have to like them but I have to want to know what’s going on with them. Plot is actually second to character to me. Crime novels have a crime, that’s a given, but the crime is a way of reaching out to illustrate the identity crisis of the characters, or even the scenery. Who did it isn’t as important as why. The crime novel is the social novel of today – pointing out all the trials and tribulations; showing us who we are, where we are going; and our identity as a people. To look at a country’s crime fiction is to see that country as it truly is.
What are your favorite crime series on TV and can you give us 3 crime movies we should see?
The Wire, still one of the best,
Burn Notice, a nifty spin on the spy thriller/private detective genre plus great view of South Florida.
Law & Order – any of them but Criminal Intent is my favorite.
Double Indemnity and Body Heat: I lump these together as they are virtually the same movie. Double Indemnity has the added bonus of being directed by Billy Wilder, based on a James M. Cain novella and Raymond Chandler was one of the adapters.
Sunset Boulevard: A crime story, a story about faded glory and the superficiality of Hollywood.
Laura: Has there ever been a more perfect film noir about obsession? The scenes in which detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) falls in love with the portrait of the murdered Laura (Gene Tierney) are so well conceived. And Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker is priceless.
But I also have to add The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I just saw. This may be the most faithful filmed version of a wonderful novel; leaving out the novel’s extra flab. The movie gets right to the heart of the story.
What do you read right now?
Right now, I am reading books that are coming out in July and August. Let me answer with some of the best books I have read this year. Now whether they will make it to my end of the year is another matter; and my favorites could change with the next book. But right now, The City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley; Infamous by Ace Atkins; The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron are ranking pretty high. Also, Harlan Coben’s Caught and Lindwood Barclay’s Never Look Away.
Thank you Oline for this interview!