The Mystery of Mystery Novels

I don’t think I have the proper attitude for reading today’s novels. (Or yesterday’s novels, either – I tried to read Nicholas Nickleby and by the time I paged through the list of illustrations, a biography of Dickens, the introduction, the acknowledgements, a note on the text, suggested reading, the first preface, the second preface, the table of contents, and the first sentence which was so long it was also the first paragraph, I had to take a break.)

I used to like reading mysteries, especially the old style of mystery where a crime was committed before the story began, and we followed along with the detective as he or she tried to figure out whodunit. It was a puzzle, an intellectual game, and if the characters were flat and the guy detectives had a new dame every book, well, that was the formula and rather fun. Who could take it seriously? It seems as if we are supposed to take the current crop of sleuths seriously even if they are sassy and glib and don’t take themselves seriously. We’re supposed to care about their relationship problems, their obnoxious children, their annoying families. Which is fine, but where, in all that, is the mystery? Unless the mystery is why the writers are so popular.

I just finished reading a non-mystery mystery. Half the story was told from the point of view of the sleuths, who were so poorly drawn the only thing I know about them is that they were on a honeymoon; I have absolutely no feel for them as people. The other half of the story was told from the point of view of the jewel thieves the sleuths were after, so I knew whodunnit, I knew why they dunnit, I knew how they dunnit. Where was the mystery? And where was the suspense? The book had only two outcomes: either the sleuths caught the thieves or they didn’t. So what? Perhaps if the characters were well drawn I could root for one or the other, but as it was, I simply did not care.

I used to think mysteries were easy to write. You conceived of a mystery, created an intriguing detective to solve it, hid clues in obvious and not so obvious places, drew dried herring across the path to confuse the scent, and when the mystery was solved, the book ended. But apparently I was wrong. If it was easy, we’d have great mysteries with great characters and I wouldn’t be writing this.

3 Responses to “The Mystery of Mystery Novels”

  1. K.S. Clay Says:

    I don’t know much about mysteries but I know mystery/suspense/thriller novels are often clumped together but can be very different. Mystery is supposed to be about solving the crime. Suspense and thrillers are supposed to be more about getting away from the bad guys or stopping a further crime. So maybe the book you read wasn’t really a mystery. Maybe it was a suspense/thriller novel (despite whatever label was placed on it). I know it doesn’t make the book good, but that might explain one thing. I actually had the same kind of experience recently. I read a book that was supposed to be a thriller and at the end I was sitting there going “wait, I thought that was supposed to be thrilling.” I think it’s difficult to write a good book, no matter what the genre. I think that’s why the great authors are so special, because they can also be so rare and hard to find.

  2. Bertram Says:

    I think you’re right about it being difficult to write a good book. I just read a book about screenwriting, and the author explained that the reason more good films aren’t being made is that good scripts are hard to find. I scoffed at that, but I suppose it’s true.

    Maybe, in the end, quality will out because it’s so rare. If we keep perfecting the craft, perhaps you or I will get there.

  3. The Bookshelf Says:

    Yeah, I guess they try to break the mold. I understand your nostalgia.


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