By Lorraine Petty (San Francisco, California)
from Mystery Readers Journal, Spring 1998 issue
If you love mysteries and want to get together with others to share book talk, take heart. It’s easier than you think. It’s lots of fun, and you don’t need to be an expert. The following are some basic principles and tips to give you the confidence to start and sustain a mystery discussion group in your area.
One of the most crucial factors in creating a successful mystery book discussion group is the location of the meeting place. It should be secure, easy for most people to get to, and have plentiful parking. Selecting a meeting place is easy if you’re blessed with a large circle of friends or mystery acquaintances. Then all you need is for one or more friends to volunteer their private home and off you go! But if you’re starting from scratch, gathering together strangers with an interest in mysteries, your local library or community center can provide a good public meeting space. You can then put notices in the newspaper and around town using the library or center’s address. Bookstores make great meeting places too, especially a mystery bookstore near you. But privacy is a very important factor in the nurturing of book groups, so choose a store offering a separate room or off-hours meeting time. Some members can feel inhibited or intimidated if forced to speak in an area where non-group people can wander in or eavesdrop.
After a few months or so, a fledgling group may want to find a more homey, comfortable place to meet. Some groups meet regularly at one member’s house. Other groups rotate each month to the home of a different member. Warm surroundings and refreshments or potlucks can really foster a tight bond among members quickly. Restaurants make fine meeting places, especially if you can secure a room or isolated corner. If you work at a sizeable company you might want to think about getting co-workers together for mystery-oriented brown-bag lunches.
Don’t worry if the size of your group is small, because fewer numbers promote informality and flexibility. Larger numbers are energizing, but of necessity propel groups toward a more formal, structured direction.
How often should you meet? What day of the month? Mystery book groups usually choose to meet once a month, but you can easily work out a consensus at an inaugural meeting, where you can set up all the organizational details. Pick a day of the month that’s most convenient for the majority of the members and stick to it throughout the year.
The most important tip for choosing titles for the group to read is that you can find lots of ideas in many places. You don’t have to be an expert to pick the titles, although it certainly makes things a lot easier. Try what interests the group and you’ll soon get a feel for the types of books that are worth the group’s discussion time. In fact, suggestions from group members are a prime source. You may want to start your group as a chapter of Mystery Readers International. Mystery Readers Journal is thematic and a terrific source of ideas. MRI Director Janet Rudolph (phone 510-845-3600, e-mail email@example.com) is always ready with helpful advice. Seek suggestions from other experts too, like independent booksellers and librarians. Consult friends who read lots of mysteries. Reference works in the field of mysteries are great sources of reading ideas. Take a look at Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure, or The Armchair Detective Book of Lists, or Detecting Women II and Detecting Men.
Check out individual lists, like local authors’ lists from Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America chapters, the MWA Edgars list and MWA Grand Masters list, and other lists from bookstores and libraries. Keep a watch for mystery and crime story PBS tie-ins and movie tie-ins. Peruse book reviews in newspapers and magazines. If cost is a concern for your group, reviews can guide you to an author’s earlier works which might be more readily obtainable. Tempting new first novels may be available at libraries or you can request that your library order the books. Subscribe to major mystery review publications like Mystery News and Deadly Pleasures. Ask everyone you meet for their favorite book suggestions. In these fast-moving electronic times, browsing the Dorothy-L mystery digest or the rec.arts.mystery users group on the Internet can alert you to currently talked-about books.
No matter whether your group chooses one, two, or more titles a month to read, vary the sub-genres, so members can become acquainted with the infinite variety of mystery types (and no one’s taste will be neglected). Variety is the secret to keeping selected mystery books fresh and appealing, especially in a long-running group. Keep the members interested with new discoveries! And don’t be afraid to pick a book some will dislike. Some of the best discussions come out of books that generate strongly divided reactions.
Assign one book per month, or more? Assign all the titles for the year at the beginning? These issues depend on the time, energy and motivation of your members, and how many times a year your group chooses to meet. Some book groups like to pick all the titles for the coming months all at the same time, at the beginning of each season. This approach is very viable, lending constancy and timeless, thematic enjoyment to the experience. But there’s a trade-off in inability to respond to current events, impulses, or new books. Another option could be to allocate time during each meeting for choosing the next month’s titles. Perhaps your members might opt for a combination of approaches.
So what should we discuss? Every new group struggles with this for a bit. The trick is to get beyond the question of just whether members liked the book or not. Try looking at the separate elements that make up the “why” of likes and dislikes. Were the characters well-drawn? Was the period and setting plausible? Was the murderer too easy to figure out? Was the story resolved satisfactorily? What were the themes? Did the readers learn something about a particular subject? Did the author have an agenda? Was the novel emotionally moving? Did the writing flow smoothly? Was the dialogue well-done? Is this a memorable book? Would you read another book by this author? In our group we created a bookmark listing some of these elements and we use it to remind ourselves to devote thought to these elements during the reading experience.
Keep a list of all books suggested by members during the meetings and check for availability before the reading assignments are made. Selected titles could be available at the library, used bookstores, and new bookstores, to suit a variety of budgets. Some groups elect to read new hardcover books only, while others like paperbacks, or used books. Others prefer getting library books. The decisions should be in accord with your members’ enthusiasm and budget. Note that you’ll find that many Golden Age writers and others from the past are difficult to find in sufficient numbers from any source for everyone to have a copy to read. There are some ways to get around this. A few copies could be shared or passed around that month. Maybe discussion can wait until one copy is passed around to everyone over several months. Or each group member could read a different title by the same author, giving a report on plot and personal reaction. This can add a whole new comparative dimension to your discussions.
Every book group needs a new member contact person. A real enthusiast can encourage others and cheerfully provide information about the group to all who inquire. It’s helpful to make notices to hang up at local bookstores and libraries, indicating new members are always welcome. Revisit the notice sites periodically to make sure they are still there and up to date with the name and phone number of the current contact person.
Compose (and faithfully send out) a monthly group newsletter. This is really the glue that keeps the group together and makes it “official.” The format can be anything ranging from a handwritten note all the way up to an elaborately desktop-published newsletter. The important thing is to keep the written line of communication steady and reliable. Just the bare facts are the minimum needed. It would be helpful to include plot descriptions but if all you have is a sentence to make the book appealing, that’s fine. Try to include a sense of what the book is about or which type of mystery it is. In a pinch, you can just give the reason for the choice, such as, “It’s the funniest mystery Mary ever read!” The format for the monthly newsletter can be computerized and placed on disk to make it easier for someone to carry on if your initial newsletter-writer leaves the group. Make sure the “new member contact person” receives extra copies of the newsletter to give to prospective members. If your group chooses titles all at once for the whole year, the monthly newsletter can be a gentle reminder and a newsy source of group doings.
Keep the mailing list of current members up to date and distribute it periodically to each member. Show name, address, work and home phones for all who come fairly consistently. Remove no-shows (for example, those who don’t come for three or so months in a row and never call to express a desire to continue or let you know what’s happening.) Computerize your mailing labels if possible. One of the most important factors in sustaining a group over the years is to keep the mundane chores from either becoming burdensome, or piling up one individual.
Whoever acts as facilitator of the meetings holds the key to balancing enlightenment with fun and maximum participation from each member at his or her own pace.
Neither too rigid nor academic be. Whoever acts as facilitator of the meetings holds the key to balancing enlightenment with fun and maximum participation from each member at his or her own pace. Create a flexible (but definite) agenda each time and keep the discussion relatively on track. Sidetracks and personal anecdotes add spice, humor and warm social connection to the experience. But keep off-topic comments fairly brief so as to not lose sight of the book!
Track local author appearances and book events and inform the group. Once in a while you can propose a “group field trip” to an event at libraries or bookstores, or even a film, tying it in with that month’s reading selection. You can have an interesting discussion if the group views a mystery video together, after having read the book upon which the film was based. Encourage members to sometimes go on their own to book or author events. Author appearances are listed in local newspapers and posted at bookstores and libraries. Some bookstores and authors post their events on the Internet (either at their own web sites or on Dorothy-L or rec.arts.mystery) or contact readers via mailing lists both as e-mail or snail mail. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with one or more authors, once in a while invite a local author to come to a meeting to talk about his or her own book and to join in the discussion about other books. Authors are readers, too! (If you can’t find local authors’ addresses easily, write to them c/o their publishers.)
Re-examine your “rules” once a year. Ask members if they’re happy with the time, day and place of the meeting. Is it time to rotate homes? Switch to a restaurant? Is everyone still enthused and content with the discussion process and the way books are selected?
And finally, keep a list of books the group has read since it was formed. Give a copy of the list to each member every six months or so. This is a great way for all members to track their reading and mark favorites. It gives everyone a fabulous sense of accomplishment. Also, it’s a wonderful way to acquaint brand-new members with the history of the group, encouraging them to jump right in with suggestions for titles the group hasn’t read, or additional favorites by the same authors.