Monday, June 22, 2009

The troubling state of the mystery novel

I used to read mysteries all the time. For many years, in fact, I read almost nothing but mysteries. Some of my favorite authors were Joan Hess, Susan Conant, Robert Bernard, Marian Babson, C.L. Grace, and of course Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. But I also read crappy mysteries by less-than-great writers, mostly because I discovered the genre in my early 20s (rather than growing up steeped in it like fantasy) and for a while couldn't get enough of it.

Now every time I pick up a mystery, I find it hard to get through even a few chapters. I can't tell you how sick I am of the gimmick every mystery now has to have: this one's about a sleuth who QUILTS, this one's a sleuth who LOVES FERRETS, this one owns a COFFEE SHOP, this one has her own RADIO SHOW. Whatever happened to letting the characters be intrinsically interesting without a gimmick to hook in the yoga enthusiasts or cooks or doll collectors?

And those hooks don't work anyway, because the mysteries are as paint-by-numbered as any Harlequin. I like cozy mysteries, the kind with an amateur sleuth who stumbles across a murder by accident and feels compelled to investigate. Lately, every mystery I've picked up has followed this precise plot:

The main character is a spunky 30-ish woman, independent and single and quirky (see the gimmick, usually splashed all over the cover: 'A Ferret Fancier Mystery' or whatever). During the course of a normal day at the quilting bee/ferret fancier club/coffee shop/radio station, the MC discovers a body in an unlikely place, killed in an unlikely way. The police are called in, and MC is questioned by an antagonistic police detective. MC and Cop instantly hate each other, but MC is forced to admit that she finds Cop ruggedly handsome, but she would rather die than let him know. He is a world-weary man who has seen too much of the bad things people do, and he's sworn off women because of his horrible ex-wife. MC is incensed when she realizes Cop suspects she is the murderer, and she decides to prove him wrong by finding the real killer (and/or the murderer was a fellow quilting enthusiast, ferret fancier, etc. or a rival in some way relating to the gimmick and MC suspects her insider knowledge of quilting/ferrets/whatever will help her find the killer after Cop refuses to acknowledge that she could help him). During most of the book, MC pokes her nose into ludicrously dangerous/improbable/socially awkward situations and manages to extract information the police can't get through ordinary methods. Cop is furious at her meddling and threatens to arrest her if she doesn't stop, but of course she is made of sterner stuff than that and just goes right on meddling (in sequels, Cop will occasionally make good on his threat to arrest her, but he lets her go again once he thinks she's learned her lesson--and at that point, I always quit reading the series if MC doesn't dump him right then and there). Using an obscure piece of trivia only known to quilters/ferret fanciers/etc., MC guesses who the murderer is but not why he/she committed the murder ("It has to be Jane--she's the only one who would know that silver-tipped Montana ferrets are deathly allergic to peanuts"). MC eventually discovers the Awful Truth behind the murder, and is at that point in such danger that Cop insists on becoming her personal bodyguard until the killer is caught. MC and Cop soon discover that they are madly attracted to each other, although they do not usually have sex until the sequel (and even then they're probably interrupted by another murder before they get very far). Against Cop's orders, MC plans a trap for the killer that takes place at the quilt judging at the state fair/the ferret show/etc. While MC is in terrible danger, she outwits the killer and is saved at the last second by Cop, who only pretended he wasn't going to help her out and was secretly moving in with his men all along.

Good writing and fun characters can make this plot work, but there's precious little of both around these days. Setting takes the place of good writing, and gimmicks take the place of fun characters. If anyone knows of any good cozy mysteries being published now that don't follow the guidelines above, please please please let me know!

11 comments:

Danielle Ferries said...

I hear ya. They're the ones I pick up in the bookstore read a few lines of the blurb and put them down again because they all sound the same. A new angle would be great.

Jeremy Kelly said...

Ferret Fancier mysteries. LOL!
I blew coffee out of my nose on that one.

K.C. Shaw said...

Danielle--It's disappointing. I don't even go into the mystery section at the bookstore anymore except to look for a few authors.

Jeremy--For all I know there really is a Ferret Fancier series.

Catherine J Gardner said...

LOL! I used to read Victoria Holt's books (in my youth) and they were all the same story retold with different character names and a different house - I must have read about 30 of those things.

K.C. Shaw said...

A lot of authors seem to do that (although not usually with so many books). I guess if you find a story you're good at that people want to buy, it's tempting to just keep writing it over and over. Isn't Dean Koontz like that? I've never read his books but I keep hearing that about him.

Alan W. Davidson said...

Yeah, what's up with the "Harlequin" type formulation (as you noted). Are the publishers pushing for this? Has society got lazier? Now, written in the proper way, a ferret story could be interesting...

Jamie Eyberg said...

I like to read mysteries, but not the cozies. I like the more hardboiled ones and again some of them follow a pretty predictable pattern. It is the ones that don't follow that pattern and give us a character, flawed as they may be and not a situation that I really enjoy.

Carrie Harris said...

I for one would love to read a Ferret Fancier mystery.

I'm not a big cozy mystery person myself. I tend to hit up the greats like Sayers or the campy sorts like Hiaasen. Sorry I can't help.

K.C. Shaw said...

Alan--I don't write mysteries so I don't know what publishers are asking for, but it's getting so formulaic that I wonder if there's really a guideline some publishers are pushing. Which is creepy.

Jamie--I don't read too many hardboiled mysteries so I don't know the cliches. But yeah, any book with flawed and interesting characters will rise above its plot level (if that makes sense).

Carrie--Sayers is the best ever. And speaking of Hiassen, have you read the thrillers/mysteries Dave Barry wrote? They're actually quite good, and of course pretty funny.

BT said...

Funny - I was watching a 30-something y.o. book store owner series the other night where this pretty much happened (but without ferrets, or quilting).

The only different bits were the friend who has an inside line to a lawyer/DA's office/ or actually is a lawyer who the MC confides something to that the audience doesn't get to figure out until later.

And lastly - the confessional of the bad guy. Why is it that a really hard case is always cracked by the criminal confessing when they would have gotten away with it if they'd just kept their mouth shut.

I'd love to be able to write a good mystery novel but the genre keeps repelling me :c(

K.C. Shaw said...

Ooh, and don't forget the "God's justice" move, where the bad guy (after confessing) dies before he can be arrested. In the book I finished reading the other night, the bad guy got struck by lightning and died. *rolls eyes* Quite often the bad guy just commits suicide.

I'd like to write mysteries too, but I don't think I'm good enough of a plotster.