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?

17 comments:

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!

Coach Factory said...

polo ralph lauren outlet, gucci handbags, polo ralph lauren, prada handbags, kate spade handbags, christian louboutin shoes, prada outlet, coach purses, oakley sunglasses, ray ban outlet, michael kors outlet store, longchamp handbags, louis vuitton outlet, louis vuitton handbags, oakley vault, michael kors outlet, michael kors outlet online, louis vuitton outlet online, red bottom shoes, true religion, coach outlet, christian louboutin outlet, coach outlet store online, nike air max, ray ban sunglasses, michael kors outlet online, longchamp outlet online, chanel handbags, tiffany and co jewelry, kate spade outlet online, cheap oakley sunglasses, nike air max, burberry outlet online, jordan shoes, michael kors outlet online, louis vuitton, nike shoes, louboutin shoes, michael kors outlet online, nike free, tory burch outlet, coach outlet, burberry outlet online, louis vuitton outlet, longchamp outlet

Coach Factory said...

hollister, longchamp, mulberry, longchamp pas cher, nike free, scarpe hogan, guess pas cher, hollister, oakley pas cher, burberry pas cher, timberland, air max pas cher, hermes pas cher, air jordan, nike air max, michael kors uk, abercrombie and fitch, sac vanessa bruno, nike roshe run, nike free pas cher, north face, sac michael kors, nike trainers, chaussure louboutin, true religion outlet, ray ban uk, louis vuitton, converse pas cher, louis vuitton uk, ralph lauren, nike air max, new balance pas cher, michael kors canada, lacoste pas cher, sac louis vuitton, true religion outlet, air max, nike blazer pas cher, nike air force, louis vuitton pas cher, tn pas cher, longchamp, nike huarache, barbour, ralph lauren pas cher, lululemon, ray ban pas cher, vans pas cher, north face pas cher, nike roshe

Coach Factory said...

ugg soldes, canada goose outlet, mcm handbags, moncler outlet, valentino shoes, ugg boots, marc jacobs outlet, soccer jerseys, nfl jerseys, herve leger, ugg outlet, chi flat iron, moncler, mont blanc pens, birkin bag, canada goose pas cher, canada goose outlet, north face outlet, moncler, insanity workout, bottega veneta, ferragamo shoes, vans outlet, mac cosmetics, north face jackets, soccer shoes, lululemon outlet, ghd, babyliss pro, beats headphones, jimmy choo shoes, canada goose uk, uggs outlet, canada goose outlet, hollister, moncler, p90x workout, giuseppe zanotti, canada goose, uggs on sale, abercrombie and fitch, wedding dresses, celine handbags, ugg, new balance outlet, asics shoes, roshe run, rolex watches, reebok outlet, instyler ionic styler

jun luo said...

kids jordans
coach sale
cheap jordans
hermes outlet online
dior handbags
kate spade handbags
burberry outlet online
michael kors outlet 75% off
air jordan shoes
mbt shoes clearance outlet
kevin durant shoes
tods
jordan retro 6
abercrombie and fitch outlet
jordan retro 3
coach factory outlet
lebron james shoes
north face jackets clearance
reebok shoes outlet
cheap coach handbags
nike nfl jerseys 2015
kobe bryant shoes 2015
juicy couture handbags
new jordan
ralph lauren outlet
oakley sunglasses
coach outlet store online
air max 2015
new jordans
new balance outlet
tods outlet
louis vuitton belt
salvatore ferragamo outlet
nike outlet store
gucci handbags
new balance
fitflop sale
nike outlet store online
gucci sunglasses
louboutin shoes
michael kors cheap
abercrombie and fitch coupons
converse outlet
hollister outlet
christian louboutin outlet
2015-9-28-YN

ninest123 said...

ninest123 16.03
oakley sunglasses, longchamp outlet, tory burch outlet, oakley sunglasses, michael kors outlet, louis vuitton, prada outlet, nike air max, ray ban sunglasses, gucci outlet, longchamp outlet, louboutin shoes, michael kors outlet, ray ban sunglasses, oakley sunglasses, michael kors outlet, michael kors, prada handbags, ugg boots, burberry outlet online, ugg boots, tiffany jewelry, louis vuitton, polo ralph lauren outlet, nike outlet, chanel handbags, nike free, louis vuitton outlet, replica watches, ugg boots, oakley sunglasses, louboutin outlet, louis vuitton outlet, nike air max, ray ban sunglasses, ugg boots, michael kors outlet, cheap oakley sunglasses, louboutin, polo ralph lauren outlet, christian louboutin outlet, louis vuitton, tiffany and co, uggs on sale, burberry, replica watches, michael kors outlet, longchamp, jordan shoes

ninest123 said...

tn pas cher, ray ban uk, hollister pas cher, hogan, michael kors, north face, lacoste pas cher, new balance pas cher, air jordan pas cher, converse pas cher, nike huarache, burberry, sac longchamp, nike trainers, nike free, vans pas cher, nike air max, coach outlet, longchamp pas cher, timberland, air max, air force, michael kors, true religion jeans, coach purses, vanessa bruno, nike free run uk, oakley pas cher, true religion jeans, sac guess, mulberry, hollister, nike air max, louboutin pas cher, replica handbags, hermes, nike air max, michael kors, abercrombie and fitch, true religion outlet, ralph lauren uk, north face, nike roshe run, ralph lauren pas cher, lululemon, nike roshe, true religion jeans, michael kors, coach outlet, nike blazer, ray ban pas cher

ninest123 said...

louboutin, gucci, hollister, insanity workout, mcm handbags, north face outlet, lululemon, iphone 6s plus cases, jimmy choo shoes, herve leger, iphone 6s cases, instyler, wedding dresses, p90x workout, iphone 5s cases, nike air max, baseball bats, reebok shoes, asics running shoes, ralph lauren, nike roshe, vans shoes, birkin bag, mac cosmetics, oakley, abercrombie and fitch, ipad cases, beats by dre, soccer shoes, iphone cases, converse, bottega veneta, iphone 6 plus cases, chi flat iron, ghd, new balance, babyliss, celine handbags, s5 cases, valentino shoes, soccer jerseys, giuseppe zanotti, nfl jerseys, ferragamo shoes, nike air max, hollister, hollister, north face outlet, mont blanc, iphone 6 cases, vans, timberland boots

ninest123 said...

louis vuitton, pandora jewelry, barbour jackets, moncler, canada goose uk, swarovski, pandora charms, pandora charms, supra shoes, ugg,uggs,uggs canada, louis vuitton, wedding dresses, canada goose, juicy couture outlet, juicy couture outlet, canada goose outlet, moncler, toms shoes, ugg pas cher, links of london, canada goose, barbour, ugg,ugg australia,ugg italia, montre pas cher, swarovski crystal, lancel, sac louis vuitton pas cher, moncler, doudoune canada goose, canada goose, thomas sabo, moncler, moncler, canada goose outlet, louis vuitton, canada goose, moncler, karen millen, ugg boots uk, coach outlet, hollister, marc jacobs, converse outlet, moncler outlet, louis vuitton, ray ban, bottes ugg, replica watches, pandora jewelry, moncler
ninest123 16.03