We were just talking about what makes a good mystery. Here’s a mystery that’s rated above my contest entry, if anyone would like to take a gander at it. You don’t have to comment on the entry at the site if you don’t feel like it, but we could discuss some of the tropes used in general if you happen to read it. (I don’t know the author–I was just browsing the ones that have been scored higher than my book.)
My reaction? Well, I had to ignore the punctuation errors (missing and misused commas), because those are in just about every other entry that’s up. (The contest, I feel, is supposed to be for pros, and pros don’t submit copy that isn’t proofed and copyedited . . . how can a contest not be for pros when the prize is a Simon and Schuster contract? I suppose they feel they can send the winner’s manuscript to a developmental editor and then to a copy editor and poof, there’s perfection, even if it didn’t start out clean. Nobody else cares about that any more, anyway.)
However, I couldn’t help thinking how silly the introductory paragraph before the flashback was. It reads like a bad version of a Shell Scott imitator doing a ridiculously bad parody of “The Cheap Detective”-style noir stuff that’s in itself parodic of a Sheldon Leonard take on Hammett. But then, I could be wrong. Are there “humorous” mysteries out there that actually are like this one? I wouldn’t mind getting one out of the library to study, because it could be fun to try this kind of thing.
(I like the Shell Scott books, even though they are pretty silly, because they’re campy and kitschy. They were that in their day. There are no punctuation errors in them, by the way. His turns of phrase are really good. I would not put that mystery-genre contest entry in quite the same category as books by Richard Prather, a true pro. Also, Dash Hammett was a very good prose stylist, and I wouldn’t put that entry in a category with him, either, for the record. Just clarifying this because I made the comparisons, albeit somewhat in jest.)
What do I typically read when I sit down to read a mystery? Well, I’m not much of a fan of the bestsellers that are billed as mysteries (except for _The Secret History_, which was a literary novel for classicists). I like genre cozies that have some humor. The cozy market, according to new agent Caren Johnson, is “saturated,” so that gives me even less hope that there’s room for another series, but I see new ones coming out daily. Some of the authors on my buying list are Donna Andrews, Jerrilyn Farmer, Susan Wittig Albert (another Texas writer), Joan Hess (but not the Maggody series–the Claire Malloy series), Joyce Krieg, and Monica Ferris (who used to write as Mary Monica Pulver.) I used to like Janet Evanovich’s Plum series, but now they’re having her write the same book over and over; I’m sure she’s ready to move on, but she can’t. (She has done some other books, but the demand for Stephanie Plum continues, although she has pretty much used up that situation, IMHO. The longer a series runs, the more danger you are in of running out of freshness and ideas, which is exactly why the great Bill Watterson ended the perfect Calvin and Hobbes” when he did. The endless series with the same hero/heroine is problematic. There’s only so much you can do when you have to return to square one status quo at the end, as in a sitcom.) I miss the books by Carole Berry and Marissa Piesman, because their books used to be very interesting. I especially miss Anne George, who only stopped writing because she crossed over to the Other Side. Fans of her Southern Sisters series might like my Jacquidon books, maybe. I think Kathryn Lasky Knight is doing other genres now, but I liked her Charley mysteries.
is exactly right when she comments that formulaic, 12-chapter mysteries would not sell in today’s market and aren’t the standard by which today’s mystery novels are judged (see comment thread on earlier entry.) I just posted that outline because I thought that if a writer is trying to get a handle on the basic structure of a mystery, it wasn’t such a bad thing to read. Nobody should sit down with that and try to write a mystery using the outline; it’s a tool for analysis.
Mysteries today are one of the few places where you can actually read some digressionary stuff about characters and get some sense of their lives outside the plot-engine scenes. I don’t know how much longer that’ll last, but for now, some mysteries are actually fun to read.
But if you didn’t know anything about the modern mystery, you might get the impression from reading that contest entry that we’re still stuck back in the old pulp detective days. Remember the Stacy Keach television series that was based on Spillane’s Mike Hammer? That’s perhaps what people think when they think “traditional mystery.” Or they think of Dame Agatha and the somewhat formulaic structures that she often used. Maybe they think of the Thin Man movies, which would be OK with me, as I adore them. (They rely so much on dialogue and witty clever repartee, whereas films made after 1980 pretty much don’t.) Or am I wrong? Is that contest entry a brilliant comedic success, and I simply can’t perceive it?
Only time will tell. I suppose it’s as likely to win as any of the others. There are now 500 entries on the site. And they accepted ALL genres. You’ll see YA, horror, mystery, chick lit, mainstream literary stuff, and whatever else you can think of. I’d have expected them to stick to their rule of “commercial fiction that fits the Touchstone imprint,” but they didn’t. The Touchstone imprint is going to get a big surprise, perhaps. *grin*
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The thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’di (c. 1213 ~ 1291) wrote, “Whoever is aware of his own failing will not find fault with the failings of others.”
I think it’s just the opposite. When I see someone with the flaw(s) I hate in myself, THAT’S what drives me bats.