f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 8 of Genre – Mystery

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Day 8 of Genre – Mystery

Encyclopedia Brown started me off in this genre when I was a youngster. Written with the clues right in the story, the books literally dared you to figure out what was going on by withholding the “reveal” until a separate epilogue at the end of the book. Time after time, I would sit puzzled for what seemed like hours but was more likely minutes trying to sort out the damning evidence before giving up and letting the book explain for me. I still remember the first one I figured out by myself and that it had something to do with the hinges of a door.

Twenty-three years later, I’m disturbingly the same at heart, only this time it’s with television shows like Monk and I’m annoying my wife by pausing it to shout out the answer. Because it doesn’t count as “solving” it unless you give the answer before too much is revealed.

It’s a hard task to give all the clues and still be able to surprise readers (or viewers). Most books hedge their bets greatly by keeping crucial facts hidden. Sherlock Holmes, of which I read every story one summer, was notorious for this. Lots of the major writers working today follow this formula to some degree. These “procedurals” put us in the shoes of the detective and so we’re often not privy to information we’ll need to crack the case. You have my undying respect, though, if you can unmask your criminal at the end and have it be both genuinely surprising and head-smackingly obvious in the same moment.

Mysteries have about as wide a spectrum as any genre out there. There’s hard boiled, cozy, locked room, historical, romantic, procedural, ones with cats. Book collectors can solve mysteries. Old ladies can. Monks and priests for us religious types. There’s the obvious mysteries that involve police, FBI, or private investigators. And/or their international counterparts. Lawyers and reporters get brought into the mix. Writers often too. (I set my writer, Ian Merchant, into a little mystery.)

Everybody has their favorites. I read almost all of Hammett, lots of Chandler, and have, for whatever reason, picked up Michael Connelly. Lots of times you recognize mysteries by their characters: Harry Bausch, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Spencer, Fletch, V.I. Warchowski, Kay Scarpetta, whatever the woman’s name is in the Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Dorothy Sayers reused Lord Wimsey. G.K. Chesterton: Father Brown.

There’s lots of scattered mystery writers in CBA, including yours truly I guess, but it doesn’t seem like any series, detective, or author has really claimed a lot of spotlight. Either that or they always but up against suspense/thriller. Tim Downs was mentioned previously. Rene Gutteridge is working on a new series, but it may be closer to suspense. Brandilyn Collins. Terri Blackstock does mystery/suspense I believe. Athol Dickson recently got some good press for They Shall See God.

Downs will be an interesting name to watch. After two novels with Howard he has signed with Westbow and, from all indications, they are trying to launch him as the next big thing. His hook, for the moment, is forensic entomology. Yummm. We’ll see in upcoming years if anyone can find a detective who captures enough imaginations to sustain a long-running series.
BTW: the biggest downfalls to bad mysteries and/or unpublishable work I see here—poor research. The authenticity needs to be in place in terms of procedures for us to buy into what we’re reading. You can’t watch CSI or Law&Order and think you know how the police work.