Ode to Mary Frances Wilkens

falling.jpgFalling Off Air by Catherine Sampson

Despite having been trained by the best (Ted Balcom), I make one crucial decision each year regarding my mystery and crime fiction book discussion group.  I do not read the books prior to their selection as titles that the group will share. I love to live on the edge.

I like to make a list of award winning books, books that received critical acclaim and books that have received starred reviews in library review journals including our own beloved Booklist.  Then we make selections from that list build off a theme.  Each book becomes a landmine that could go off at each book discussion. 

We began our new season of mystery and crime fiction book discussions with this title from England:  Falling Off Air by Catherine Sampson.  Back in 2004, a Booklist reviewer who shall remain nameless (Mary Frances Wilkens—now I need to watch my back at the next PLA!) said, “Sampson, a journalist living in Beijing, makes a grand entrance into the mystery genre with this stellar debut novel…Remember Sampson’s name; it’s about to become an important one in crime fiction.” 

Maybe yes, maybe no.

My group was lukewarm to this title as a mystery.  Part of the problem is that the character of Robin Ballantyne, a single mother of infant twins, is so down that she cannot get anything right.  Therein might lie some comedy, but the light touch is not significant enough to stave off a feeling of failure and depression. 

The irony of this is that we spent most of the night talking about what was wrong with Robyn and less about the other aspects of the book.  And, we talked for the full ninety minutes. 

We did touch on the fact that it seems to a number of people that this book was not particularly about London.  We touch on the fact that some loose plot lines (the long lost stalking father figure) are never explained. 

But we kept coming back to Robyn.  Why would she try to get her job back without washing her hair first?  Why does she deliberately make dumb decisions that do nothing to free her from suspicion?

To my great surprise at the end of the night, about one third of my attendees wanted to read the next book to find out what happens to Robyn.  Is that just because she kissed a cop?

Mary Francis Wilkens says, “The story is told in the first person, and Robin’s narrative voice is immediately compelling. She is portrayed with humor, subtlety, and dead-on accuracy, first as a woman seeming to come apart at the seams and then as an inspiring modern heroine drawing on untapped inner strength to overcome both commonplace and extraordinary adversity.”

I think what this says is that even though the book proved to be a mystery that will most likely not stand the test of time, the character is what drew the readers into this book and made them want to talk about her.  Flawed characters may be the best for a book discussion. 

However, please do not quote me on that. 



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

3 Comments on "Ode to Mary Frances Wilkens"

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  1. mwilkens@ala.org' Mary Fran says:

    I have to say that seeing my name in the headline made me think this post would be a glorious tribute to me (as if), but instead it’s more of a study in the subjectivity of reviews–at least, that’s how I choose to read it! I remember when I first recommended that a book I was reviewing be starred–that’s how it’s done at Booklist: the reviewer suggests a star, and the editor approves it or not (no, I’m not trying to share the blame…)–I was so nervous that I would become the laughing stock of the book-reviewing world. I truly agonized over it, and when the book went on to receive further acclaim (it was Scott Turow’s Laws of Our Fathers). I was relieved. These days, while I don’t give stars with reckless abandon, I do give them with confidence, knowing that sometimes I’ll be the only one with such high praise. And besides, as Gary alludes to at the end, give me flawed characters anytime over a seal-tight plot.

  2. gary.niebuhr@mcfls.org' gary warren niebuhr says:

    Ah, Mary Frances–thanks for checking in. In my opinion (and don’t quote me on that), the book appealed to you for the same reason my book club attendees were fascinated–you were intrigued by the character. So, see, you are a great reviewer and thanks for sharing the spot light with me at Book Group Buzz. It must be cool to know that your review lasted the test of time–something many novels do not (but don’t quote me on that!). GWN

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