When I spoke with the legendary Marilyn Stasio, she planned to spend her afternoon working on a review of Femi Kayode’s debut novel Lightseekers. Her editor wanted to know why she chose that particular book. “Well,” she said, “I’ve never been to Nigeria.” At eighty-one, Stasio still wants to be surprised, though getting one over on someone who reads more than 150 books a year is no easy feat.
Stasio began her reviewing career as a theater critic for the now defunct Cue magazine and eventually wrote a syndicated column, Mystery Alley, for newspapers throughout the country. In the 1980s, she became the designated Crime Columnist for The New York Times, soon emerging as the authoritative voice on newly published mysteries. A rave or pan from Stasio could float or sink a novel. She admits to being conscious of that power, preferring to praise books whenever possible. “I want people to enjoy what I love. It’s not about me, you know.”
Even after being unceremoniously fired from her position (a move falsely announced as a retirement) in February, she remains buoyant when discussing books and writers she loves. Her knowledge of noir is encyclopedic, and it’s no wonder than her interest in crime began with her family’s set of encyclopedias. In our conversation, she was frank about how reviewing has changed, when to find beauty in the ugly, and why Agatha Christie is still the greatest.
(photograph: James Estrin/The New York Times)
Erica Wright: You grew up outside of Boston, a city with its fair share of crime novelists. Were you drawn to this genre at an early age?
Marilyn Stasio: I was always a morbid kid. That’s the best way I can put it. I don’t think I was interested in real-life murders, but I remember the first thing that stuck with me. My family had a whole stack of encyclopedias. There was a painting of the two little princes in the tower. They were cherubic boys, holding hands. They both had silken, golden blonde hair and these black velvet outfits. I absolutely fell in love with that, especially because the entry said that their uncle Richard the Third had them murdered. From the time I was very young and could barely read, I decided that beauty and murder were connected. I don’t remember being taken with any true crimes. I was always reading.
EW: Connecting beauty and murder is a poetic approach to life, the idea of impermanence.
MS: I grew up reading Shakespeare. He made death and murder as beautiful as they could be. It took me a while to realize that they were ugly and brutal, but that was kind of fun, too.
EW: I read that you were a dramaturg, so I’m curious about your interest in theater. Is that what brought you to New York City?
MS: I was involved with theater long before I did anything with books. My first job was as one of these lowly editors who used to work in New York. I worked for a weekly magazine called Cue magazine. It was like New York Magazine. They sort of ripped us off. Anyway, the editor would ask me once in a while to cover a show. When the magazine sold, the new editor decided I could be the theater critic.
EW: You don’t get theater like you get in New York anywhere else. Maybe Chicago, I guess.
MS: Chicago’s good. Thank you for saying that because people say, “oh, we have some theater in Dallas.” No, you don’t. It’s changed a lot because they used to try out shows in Boston all the time. When I was young, I was always going into Boston, and I had a lot of freedom. I didn’t know any better, and I often did outrageous things. But I mostly walked, and I went to all the theater I could get. The Charles Playhouse was the most marvelous little off-off-off-off-Broadway place. Olympia Dukakis was their star, and I saw a lot of things with Olympia. Lots of Tennessee Williams.
I liked the theater. I don’t know where I got it. Nobody in my immediate family had any interest in the arts. I don’t think we even had a book in the house outside the encyclopedias. There were people in my extended family who had painterly talents. One of my uncles was pretty well known as a carver. He used to design and carve these magnificent boats. Up and down the North Shore, restaurants would have his ships out front. That’s the closest I have in the family. What I really have is good taste. My mother taught me about that, and she had very good taste. I’m infinitely grateful.
EW: It sounds like you started reviewing plays before books.
MS: I started reviewing plays long before I started reviewing books. My late husband and I were friendly with [theater critic] John Lahr. He and his wife were visiting our little cottage. I was out on the porch, and everybody else was talking in force. I had my head in a book. After they asked me three times to contribute to the conversation, John said, “you’ve always got your head in mysteries. Do you read anything else?” I said, “no, not really. What else is there?” He told me that I should review them. And I thought, what a good idea. So I started my own syndicate. This was so long ago that a person could do that. I wrote to all of the book editors I could think of. The Philadelphia Inquiry, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. How would you like to have a monthly column called “Mystery Alley,” and I would review nothing but mysteries?
Back then mysteries were really not considered artsy. They were like comic books. The editors all said yes, though. I was cheap, and I established relationships with enough papers to make it worthwhile. I kept them supplied, and I really enjoyed it. Those were the days when we had to type everything out, xerox, and send copies off by mail, but I’d get a kick out of seeing my column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
I was talking to the book editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer one day, finding out what she wanted me to review, and she said, “well, I won’t be here anymore, Marilyn, because I’m the new book editor of The New York Times.” I said, “how wonderful, but I’ll miss you.” And she said, “you’re coming with me.” The columns started appearing shortly after she got there.
EW: You bring up an interesting point about how the reputation of mysteries has changed.
MS: Oh, absolutely. You’re quite right about. I wonder who did it? I haven’t really given it any thought, I mean if a particular person did it. Was it someone who suddenly broke? Like Joyce Carol Oates, but she’s always been writing creepy stories. It wasn’t Stephen King because he still writes horror. I’m wondering if it might have something to do with the larger culture. Maybe it was some television show or movie or character.
EW: I remember reading a Raymond Chandler short story as an English major.
MS: Raymond Chandler and those guys came in during wartime. It was the boys in the Second World War who are responsible for more action-oriented detective stories because that’s what people sent them when they were abroad. They all got bars of soap and packs of cigarettes, and they would also get these paperbacks. That’s when paperbacks started, so that these soldiers could have something to read.
Mysteries really started in England with Agatha Christie. And then Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. Those were the three great women mystery writers who started it all. But the American version was quite different. It wasn’t a puzzle. It was action, adventure, and the male hero. Men and women were both detectives in the British vein. I read it all. I didn’t care where it came from.
EW: A lot of readers tend to prefer cozies or they like hard-boiled. It’s somewhat rare to find someone who’s reading the whole spectrum. Do you find it more challenging to review a particular genre?
MS: The one genre I find hard is romantic suspense. I really like everything. I love historical mysteries. I love the gruesome ones. Serial killers, the lone wolf, smart little old ladies. I like them all. The only ones I can’t stand are romantic suspense. I still reviewed them, but I don’t read them now because I don’t have to. And it was always a challenge. The challenge was to find something that was good in a sub-genre I did not like personally. But I’m a critic. I can separate my own feelings by analyzing the work itself. Now I only read what I like.
EW: You still only read mysteries or mostly mysteries?
MS: Nothing but mysteries. And I read The New Yorker and The New York Times.
EW: You said that you enjoy the gruesome murders. Does the violence ever get to you?
MS: No. I must say some people are extremely original in what they come up with, but that’s not why I read them. If I run across a good writer in that genre, I am happy to read them. I don’t look for them. I do tend to like puzzle mysteries. And I like mysteries that take me somewhere I’ve never been. I love Louise Penny’s Canadian mysteries. Martin Walker who writes a lovely series about a guy named Bruno set in France. And everyone likes, and why shouldn’t they, Donna Leon who’s in Venice. I’m appreciative of background. I always like the international mysteries because I like going places. I’m reading one set in Nigeria for The Times. They fired my ass, but they still want me to write for them. So I mentioned this book, and they said, “why do you want to write about that one?” Well, you know, I’ve never been to Nigeria.
EW: Do you have a particular reviewing philosophy?
MS: I tried to be omnivorous, universal, catholic. I think it worked because when I was following my impulses in the very beginning, all I was reading was English detective stories from the 1930s and 40s. I loved all those old guys. Agatha Christie was the greatest as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care what people say about her lousy characters. She’s a brilliant strategist. I’ll never forget a book, I won’t say which one because I don’t want to spoil it, but it was a mystery, and there was a murder. Right away, it seemed that the two killers were having an illicit affair. So I’m reading along, and one of her characters says, “that’s so obvious. You’re blaming those people because they’re having an affair, and you’re subjecting them to a moral judgment. You’re limiting them to the role of villains.” And I said to myself, oh my God, she’s right. I did that very thing. And then it turns out to be true after all, which I think is so clever. Christie worked on our values. She was really good at that. People say she wrote flat characters, and that’s sort of true. She was all plot, but once in awhile, she pulled off something like that, which I thought was pretty damn smart.
EW: I’m sure you’re overrun with books.
MS: I feel bad because I don’t have anywhere for my reviews. I know The Times said I retired, but I did not retire. I was surprised. I thought, maybe I’m losing it, so I went back and read a whole bunch of recent columns. No, I’m not losing it. So I don’t know. Them’s the breaks. But it would be nice if there were a million other newspapers or magazines around, and I could slip over to somebody else, but I can’t do that.
EW: Book coverage does seem to be shrinking. The idea that you pitched a column and it was picked up across the country is wild to me.
MS: When I pitched the column, there was no one reviewing crime novels because they were considered trash. Gradually they became acceptable. Women came along in the 70s. They made it more respectable maybe. There were more sub-genres, and people started writing regional mysteries, which are my favorite. I do like settings. They have to be good, though. They have to be true. I like the middle of the country. I like Appalachia. I like the South. I want to know what the crimes are because that is what’s going on in the country. Writers write about what they see and what they know. Someone from the Adirondacks writing about meth labs, I believe him. The same way that I get all my history from plays, everything I know about regional parts of the country, I get from mysteries. They better be writing honestly because I have such impressions of Florida, for example.
EW: Do you prefer series?
MS: Personally, I prefer series. But a standalone can be wonderful. One of my favorite books of all time is Rosemary’s Baby. I don’t think it would qualify as a mystery. That’s the only story I ever read that I genuinely envied. People say, “don’t you feel like writing?” And I say, “no, I’m a reviewer.” But if there were ever a story I wish I’d written, that’s it. Absolute genius. I can see out my window The Dakota, so I’m familiar with what inspired [Ira Levin]. You know I like regions, and The Dakota is kind of a region. It’s also very New York-y.
EW: It seems like there was a time when most mysteries in the U.S. were very city-centric.
MS: They really were. I think that had something to do with the post-war era. I don’t want this to sound as if I consort with mystery writers because I don’t, but very early in my career, I was invited to some writers conferences. I became friendly with Donald Westlake and Ed McBain. Ed McBain wrote these wonderful police procedures. I like the play-by-play of police procedurals. You know when they get up there in front of a whiteboard, and they start scratching? I like that. I have to come clean. I really don’t like romantic suspense. It doesn’t move me at all. I don’t like romance. I like murdering.
EW: The New York Times has always been the preeminent place for book reviews, but now it has an outsized influence. I don’t know how to even word this, but were you ever aware of that? Did you ever feel extra pressure reviewing for The Times, particularly with debut novels?
MS: You’re really asking if I was aware of who I was and the power I had. It’s actually yes. I did respect, still do respect, the power of The Times. And I know that everything in The Washington Post is emphatically important. But for the most part, it’s awful to write when there’s no place to publish, and there’s nobody to review them. Everything has to be online, and I hate it. Yes, I was conscious of it. I could be modest and say, “oh no, I never thought of that.” But I did think of it, and I was particularly conscious of it with debut authors. When I opened the mail, I was always careful to set aside the debut novels. And I would always read, maybe, 50 pages.
EW: That’s generous.
MS: Sometimes if the writing was absolutely egregious, I’d get rid of the book after the first chapter. But I tried to give them a fighting chance. There’s nothing like The Times for exposure, so you have to be conscious of that when you’re choosing a book. That’s why sometimes I would be criticized because I rarely wrote bad reviews. That’s because I’m careful. I want people to read. I want people to enjoy what I love. It’s not about me, you know. You can be clever. It’s easier to be clever if you’re being negative. But I feel that there’s a responsibility with being a reviewer, especially because there are so few places where you can review. And of course, The Times being preeminent, I was doubly aware. Yes, I was conscious of the power. I really was. And I didn’t want to abuse it ever.
EW: I’m surprised that you haven’t been interviewed more often.
MS: I’m a good talker. I used to get paid for talking. I was on the lecture circuit at one point. I love talking to people who read books. My favorite groups were librarians, and librarians passed me on from one library to the next all up and down Long Island. I was working my way through Westchester. One librarian would say, “she really talks well, answers your questions, and then she’ll stick around and have some coffee.” I like readers. I’m a reader, so I understand them. And I love librarians. They know more than I do.
EW: During non-pandemic times, do you go to any readings?
MS: The last time I spoke was at a place called Book Culture. There were so many people there. They were all crammed in. I had talked to the bookseller in advance, and I told him some of the authors and the titles I’d be talking about. I thought if he had some of the books out, he might sell a few copies. After the event, a woman came up to me and started talking to me about one particular book that I mentioned. I said, “it’s right over there on the table.” And she said, “no, I’ll go on Amazon.” I was offering my free time for the sake of the bookstore owner. I wanted him to make a few bucks. I didn’t say anything because I was so shocked at the notion that people shouldn’t be paid for their work. I shouldn’t really get into it, it’s not my business, but sometimes I wonder how writers make it for heaven’s sake.
EW: In a 2017 interview with Daniel Fromson, you said, “if there’s no voice in the first couple of pages, you’re out.” Do you have any advice for beginning writers on that score? Or advice in general?
MS: A good first chapter. A brilliant first chapter. Also, I know this sounds cruel, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I look at every first chapter, I really do. That’s no bullshit. And sometimes I say to myself, get a job. Go sell insurance or something. In the first chapter, you can get a sense of love of language, how the language comes slipping off the tongue. The voice is everything. How do I explain taste? It’s more than style. I want to read something beautiful. Even if it’s ugly, even if it starts with some grisly murder. I think that’s what I mean, you have to be a good writer. I’m having such a good time with this novel set in Nigeria. It’s called Lightseekers by Femi Kayode. So I’m going to write that review right now.