I'm just about ready - at last! - to get going with Lake District Mystery number seven. And as part of my planning process, I've been weighing up what I can learn from past reviews, and especially reviews of The Frozen Shroud. One of the great merits of well thought-out reviews from an author's perspective is that they help to highlight what works and what does not. A single review in isolation may not make much difference, but I've now looked at about twenty reviews and I think I've picked up some helpful messages.
First, and I suppose most important in terms of morale and motivation, there's no sign that reviewers who have followed the series for several books are becoming weary of it. (A big relief, to be honest.) Some people have said that The Frozen Shroud is the strongest book in the series, and although that's a matter of subjective judgment, I'm pleased that there's enough freshness about the series after six books to keep most readers happy. Plot, setting and characterisation are the key elements, so I was very happy with this review from Steve Steinbock in the Jury Box of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, one of the most important publications in the genre.
Was the whodunit plot strong enough? I did wonder about this, and one or two reviewers indicated that they were able to figure out what was going on sooner than usual. On the whole, however, the reaction expressed in Long and Short Reviews was more typical, and I found this encouraging, as the cast of suspects in this book was slightly smaller than in some of the others. This was a deliberate decision, but it did pose a challenge in terms of keeping the reader guessing. I went about it in a very specific way, though I can't say more than that here, for fear of spoilers!
One of the most satisfying reviews of all appeared in a blog I've never encountered before, Thiking About Books. It's not so much that this very detailed review heaps more praise on the story than various others. What really struck me was that the reviewer "got" very clearly what I was trying to do with this book. Of course, I'm glad the book found favour, but I'm even more gratified that some of the things going on below the surface of the story were identified. This is truly rewarding for any novelist, especially in a genre that tends to be assessed in a rather superficial way..
So much for the nice things, what about the criticisms? A couple of reviewers didn't love the characters, but they were very much in a minority. More significant is that the gradual way the suspense builds up appealed to some more than to others. Inevitably it's a question of personal taste. Some want instant gratification, some like the pleasure of suspense and uncertainty. But I am conscious that my Lakes books tend to build slowly, as do the books of a number of the authors whom I most admire. All this is, however, prompting me to contemplate a variation of approach in the new book. Not a crash-bang-wallop opening, so much as a different way of starting the story. How will that work? Well, that's the big question for the coming weeks!