Book Column: A book is a great gift

Editor’s note: Suffolk Times staff member Tom DeWolfe is filling in for columnist Poppy Johnson while her broken writing arm heals.

With just a few days to go until Christmas, there’s still a lot of big buying to do, and I’ll bet my library card a lot of it will involve books, including downloads for electronic reading devices. I mean, e-books are books, no matter what they look like. (We still “dial” the phone, though dials are long gone, and when did you last put gloves in the glove compartment?)

Whatever form it takes, a piece of writing, sometimes called literature, can be a wonderful gift, and there are many books that provide visual joys as well. Moreover, it seems clear that only a very few people can afford to buy all the books they want to read, even with continued tax cuts. So books make very good presents, indeed, and gift certificates to book stores may make even better ones when you’re not quite sure.

My people know not to buy me books. I’m retired and, like many of my age group, I’ve been simplifying, which includes jettisoning volume by volume and tome by tome my own hodgepodge accumulation of many years, some have been with me from as far back as college.

I still read a lot. I’m a library-fly, someone who hovers around books the way barflies buzz around puddles of spilt beer. (Not that I would know about that firsthand.) In libraries you can browse, scan, sample and check for particulars, all over a wide range. Otherwise I could never have kept up with my favorite form of escapist lit, detective fiction, which is — let me be clear — not the only stuff I read, but which provides the unique satisfaction of allowing me to indulge my inner Holmes, Spade, Rockford. Mystery stories are satisfying because the whole point of them is that they get solved — unlike the bafflements of our own lives, in which very little ever gets solved.

As a genre, detective fiction has proliferated wildly in recent years. There are almost as many types as there are people who read them, stories whose featured detectives may be chefs, crossword solvers, even cats. I tend to like the police procedurals, and many stylish and engrossing examples come from non-English-speaking cultures. Some are translated and some are written in English by writers with firsthand experience of the culture. Here are some series I’ve come to enjoy, listed in no particular order by author and country, with the regular character of each:

• Henning Mankell, Sweden, Kurt Wallander, dour and honorable
• James Church, North Korea (no kidding), Inspector O, veteran cop in crazyland
• Arnaldur Indridason, Iceland, Erlendur Sveinsson, conscientious and imaginative
• Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Spain, Captain Alatriste, 17th-century swashbuckling
• Bernhard Schlink, Germany, Gerhard Self, elderly lawyer with World War II background
• Martin Walker, French wine country, Chief of Police Bruno, popular civil servant
• John Burdett, Bangkok (wild!), Sonchai Jitpleecheep, young police detective with mystical abilities
• Xiaolong Qiu, China, Shanghai inspector Communist Party member Chen Cao  
• Andrea Camilleri, Sicily, Chief Montalbano, lives to eat great Mediterranean fish dishes
• Most bizarre of all: Colin Coterill, Laos after the Pathet Lao takeover in 1977, Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner
Several are well known for other literary output: Schlink (“The Reader”), Mankell (novels, often about Africa), Walker (nonfiction), Pérez-Riverte, (contemporary fiction, such as “Queen of the South”), Cao (poetry). Although these authors are all men, there are also plenty of women who are outstanding in the international thriller field.

Just for the record, I have recently read up to page 405 of “Ulysses,” all of Conrad’s “Almayer’s Folly” and am just about to go aboard the Pequod for the first time. That’s the great thing about books: You can still read the assignment even when it’s wa-a-a-ay overdue.