So why do I ask a question to which there is an obvious answer? Because sometimes, the answer is not so obvious.
Some writers refrain from reading books, of any genre, when they are actively writing, which, judging from their output, is always. They are afraid they will pick up the pacing, style, cadences of other authors’ books and imitate them in their own. I know when I was in high school and college, my book reports tended to sound as though they were written by the author I was studying. My written explorations of the Bronte sisters tended to be rather long-winded; those of Hemingway quite brief.
And then there is the fear of unwittingly using a theme or murder technique or plot device or McGuffin used by another author. There is no copyright on titles or ideas, but there is the concern of being seen as “derivative.” Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery in some circles, but not when creating a book that you hope will be unique.
It can be eerie to come across something you thought you had created and had never been used before. Recently, I was reading a mystery book in which a suspect was revealed to be a Wiccan, the murder victim to have a heart condition, and the “murder weapon” to be ephedra. All three were features of my first mystery novel Chanukah Guilt, published a year before the book I was reading. All other details in this book – location, characters, motivation – were totally different from mine. But I was so unsettled that I checked the publication dates and was relieved my book had been published before this other one. If anyone had “stolen” my idea, it was she. But I could not imagine that a best-selling, award-winning author living in England would have come across my book early enough to have copied my idea and incorporated it into a book that was published less than a year after mine. I’m sure it was pure coincidence, but it was still reassuring to know I had been first and hadn’t unwittingly copied her idea.For me, there is another factor that can impede my enjoyment of reading mysteries – not that it has ever stopped me. I am often second-guessing the author as to the identity of the perpetrator, thinking it would have been a better book if X had done it, not Y. (I did that with Chanukah Guilt, which is why I appended an “alternate solution” in the second edition, with a different ending.) Sometimes, I do figure out the solution correctly, and early in the book, at which point I metaphorically scream at the characters, “Come on, you guys! It’s obvious!) Other times, I figure out the bad guy, but not the motivation. And, of course, there are the times when I am as baffled as Watson witnessing Sherlock’s incredible mental gymnastics.
But none of these reasons are impediments to my enjoyment of the books. There are always incentives to continue reading. I won’t know if I’ve correctly identified the guilty person until I finish the book, and I don’t like to cheat by turning to the back of the book. And the puzzling motive is often not revealed until close to the end when the detective, channeling Poirot, gathers all the suspects in one room to expostulate on his reasoning. And there are authors who delight in big surprises, revealing someone no one suspected. Unless it involves an “aha” moment when I’m mentally kicking myself for not noticing the solution earlier, those unexpected solutions often leave me unsatisfied and deciding not to read anything else by that author. Until, of course, I forget my resolve, and do.
So, for me, too, the answer to the question in the title is “Absolutely!”
Rabbi Ilene Schneider is the award-winning author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen mysteries, Chanukah Guilt and Unleavened Dead; the 3rd, a work-in-progress, is titled Yom Killer. She also wrote the best-selling nonfiction Talk Dirty Yiddish: Beyond Drek.