Monday, May 10, 2010

The Three Faces of Mystery


I’m reading James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, and I found it interesting that he divides mysteries into three types: genre mysteries, mainstream mysteries, and literary mysteries.

In genre or category mysteries, the focus is entirely on the mystery. A colorful, quirky main character searches for clues and talks to witnesses against a backdrop of varying degrees of suspense or menace. Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell are classic examples of genre mystery writers.

In mainstream mysteries, we meet with the same elements as in a genre mystery—clues, suspects, suspense, menace, etc. The main difference is in the characters, which are more textured and faceted, more like real people with real problems. In addition to the mystery, such novels often include a subplot involving an ex-wife, a problem child, or other personal or family crises. More than just a gruesome murder or clever alibi or new way of killing, says Frey, “mainstream mysteries are stories about characters involved in the solving of a murder.” (emphasis mine)

Literary mysteries have, again, the same familiar elements, the dead bodies and clues, the suspects and witnesses, the suspense and menace. But they are written in a “somber, brooding tone.” They are “darkly poetic,” with tough, brutal, lawless heroes on the edge of society. Girl with a Dragon Tattoo obviously falls here; so do John Connolly’s novels.

I personally like to read literary mysteries, but I don’t write them. I’m not poetic enough, and I don’t have that somber, brooding tone. I suspect my Sebastian mysteries fall into the second category (a fact I’d like to explain to a certain reviewer who recently complained that the series has too much “personal stuff” about Sebastian and found the explanation in the fact that I used to write romances).

I suspect the same breakdown could be made of thrillers. Most thrillers today fall into the first category, their characters little fleshed out, the emphasis all on action. The thrillers of old—which I personally liked—were more mainstream or even literary, but those days are gone. The Tobie and Jax thriller series obviously falls into the first category.

Like all attempts to pigeonhole reality, this breakdown has its flaws. But I do think it’s an interesting and useful construct. What do you think?


Steve Malley said...

Lee CHild spoke in Christchurch recently, and one remark he made was that 'in the modern mystery, the murder is almost beside the point.'

I can see that. About the closest thing to a straightforward puzzle-mystery I can think of is the 'cozy', and even that's mostly about the subculture of the setting, be it sewing circles, movie theaters, whatever.

To get published these days, a mystery writer needs to have all three: a suspenseful mystery, compelling characters with interesting problems and tonal imagery that, while not necessarily dark and brooding, does need to be vivid and memorable.

But if you're going to have a weak spot, the place to have it is the mystery.

ANd for what it's worth Candy, St. Cyr totally hits on all cylinders.

Misti said...

I prefer the genre and mainstrem mysteries, I guess. Personally, I like the character stuff. I like feeling involved in the characters' lives along with involvement in the mystery. I also think a little bit of romance can make almost any story better. :)

orannia said...

I think I prefer mainstream mysteries, but I don't want the personal stuff to overwhelm the mystery itself - there needs to be a fine balance. There's nothing worse that reading about a personal moment when the character is in a life or death situation. Ah, no time for introspection *grin*

Charles Gramlich said...

Is this the same Frey who wrote "A million little pieces?" I enjoyed our discussion of this last night. Very intersting take.

cs harris said...

Steve, Child has an interesting take on the subject, although I suspect that's more true of some mysteries than others. Especially in a thriller, the death at the beginning frequently acts as a window into an unseen "something" that is happening out of sight.

Misti, I think that's why I like historicals rather than the more modern forensic-based mysteries. After away, the forensic stuff seems old hat, but people are endlessly fascinating.

Orannia, I agree, it's a delicate balance. I get particularly irritated when couples start flirting over dead bodies.

Charles, different James Frey. I'd hate to be a writer with the same name as that guy!

orannia said...

I get particularly irritated when couples start flirting over dead bodies.

Yes! Or...'get busy' when they are being chased/stalked, etc.

Pax Deux said...

I get particularly irritated when couples start flirting over dead bodies.

After seeing David Cronenberg's movie "Crash" (not to be confused with the Oscar winning one), I cannot ever read one of those scenes without cringing a little.

cs harris said...

pax deux, missed that one--and it sounds like it's for the best.

Keira Soleore said...

Candy, I would've put your books with one foot in the Literary bucket and one in the Mainstream.

As far as that reviewer who claimed your prev incarnation as romance writer: POOH!

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