Sunday, April 1, 2012

In Which We Pretend it is Still March

Because I didn't quite get this post up in time to complete our "March is Genre Month" theme. Big surprise :)

So one last shot for me to share a genre that I love, a genre I read the most in, a genre I've tried to write in but am stilling trying to get just right.


Want a definition? Ha! Any attempt to define mystery soon descends into squabbling about sub-genres and overlaps and whether terms such as cosy are pejorative and should be dispensed with entirely. So dispense immediately with the notion that I will be giving you the definitive post on mysteries--what I give you will be, like all my posts, only my own opinions heavily dependent on whatever mood I'm in at the moment.

As a senior in college, I took a seminar for my English major requirements called "The Mystery Novel." It is there that I gained the closest things to a lasting definition of mystery: that a crime, usually but not always murder, takes place in a community (be it country house or English village or police district), that the crime damages said community, and that justice acknowledges that truth is important in its own right and also to heal the community.

That is why I love mysteries: because they recognize that truth matters and so do individuals. No one's death is unimportant. Every death diminishes a community and until some sort of justice occurs the community cannot go forward.

Below are my own, incredibly biased and personal definitions of a handful of sub genres (with examples of writers I love).

COSY/TRADITIONAL: Is there anyone in the world who hasn't at least heard of Agatha Christie? She is the quintessential writer of this form, where the murder is usually bloodless and often completely off-stage and is investigated by amateurs (sure, Hercule Poirot was once a detective, but that was in Belgium and he is long-retired). Country houses, locked room puzzles,  and the gathering of suspects while the investigator recounts how the crime was committed are stereotypical aspects. Today's cosy mysteries often include crafts or recipes or some other theme (think Diane Mott Davidson or Carolyn Hart).

RECOMMENDATIONS: Agatha Christie herself (my favorites are AND THEN THERE WERE NONE  and the two that bookended Hercule Poirot's career, MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES & CURTAIN); Josephine Tey (BRAT FARRAR is a great case about identity); and my personal favorite of this era of Golden Age writers, Dorothy L. Sayers (GAUDY NIGHT is my favorite mystery novel ever--and there's not a single murder)

PRIVATE DETECTIVE: a professional who's not with the police. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are often the first writers to come to mind when thinking of the hardboiled detective on the mean streets of a big city. But there are plenty of writers today continuing this American tradition.

RECOMMENDATIONS: take a look at the first female writers to break into the male-dominated private eye world--Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. Also Laura Lippman is a fabulous writer whose Tess Monaghan novels follow a Baltimore private detective.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: perhaps the most popular current sub genre, in which readers follow the members of the police in the investigation of a specific crime. The majority of my favorite current authors fall into this category and the best of these novels combine a good portrait of contemporary policing with great characterizations.

RECOMENDATIONS: Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe; Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley; Louise Penny's Armand Gamache; Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid; Susan Hill's Simon Serailler.

HISTORICAL: after my last post, you knew that was coming, didn't you? My introduction to historical mysteries was in the afore-mentioned Mystery Novels seminar, when we were assigned ONE CORPSE TOO MANY by Ellis Peters. Set in 12th-century England, the detective in this medieval series is Brother Cadfael, a former Crusader who has settled into a Benedictine monastery. When I read that book, I thought, "I didn't know you could do this!" It was a revelation.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael; Ariana Franklin's MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH; C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels; Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels; Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen-as-investigator books; Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs.

I have been asked more than once "What do you see in books about death and misery?" (Okay, maybe it's not phrased quite that way, but that's usually what I hear--along with, "What is wrong with your messed-up mind?") Beyond all the psychological reasons that may or may not explain my penchant for darkness, I think the true reason is this: I believe in redemption. I believe every individual counts. I believe every act of violence diminishes the world as a whole and that striving to understand the motivations behind murder is a worthy goal.

Mystery novels tell me that murder is the aberration, that truth and justice count, and that some things are always worth standing against.


  1. It's interesting how genres overlap.

    I don't generally read straight mysteries, but I definately like an element of mystery--and the idea that truth and justice count are high on the list of things which draw me into a story.

  2. I'm not a big mystery novel reader, but I do once in a while love a good mystery. Thanks for the explanations and recommendations.