I have been a fan of mysteries since Nancy Drew found that old clock and the Hardy Boys uncovered that treasure in the tower. Nancy, Ned, Frank, and Joe led to Beverly Gray, The Dana Girls, Ginny Gordon, and my favorite – Judy Bolton. I collected the books at garage sales, flea markets, and the like, and many of the editions were from the early 1930s (and smelled like it too), with beautiful old dust jackets and the original story-lines. I don’t think there were any murders, but many of the stories were dark and a little edgy.
In later years the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were revised and brought up to date a bit. Nancy’s roadster morphed in to a sports car, she traded in her suit and hat for trousers, and the racial stereotypes in the Hardy Boys books were addressed. Sadly, vocabulary words such as “ostensible” and “presaged” were also eliminated, as was slang and about 5 chapters from each book.
When I moved on to the ‘grown-up’ section in the local library, there were the romantic mysteries of Elizabeth Cadell, Phyllis Whitney, and Mary Stewart, not to mention my favorite, M. M. Kaye with her “Death in . . .” series – Kashmir, Zanzibar, Kenya, Cyprus, the Andamans – I visited them all (except Berlin – that one still creeps me out). Unlike the early mysteries that I cut my reading teeth on, so to speak, these definitely featured dead bodies along with a nefarious villain or two. I haven’t re-read any of them in decades, afraid perhaps that they won’t pass the test of time. I’d rather remember them fondly than take the chance of being disappointed.
Fortunately, there is a whole wide world of mystery stories out there – old, new, cozy, suspenseful, contemporary, historic, and everything in between.
Courtesy of recommendations over on Argh Inc’s Good Book Thursday posts, I was introduced to stories by Margery Allingham, Carola Dunn, Dashiell Hammett, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey.
Courtesy of my shiny new library card, I’ve recently raced through Judith Flanders’ Sam Clair series, book seven in Jenn McKinlay’s Library Lover’s Mystery series, Louise Penny’s Still Life, and – picked by its title – The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by James Anderson.
Courtesy of writer conferences, Goodreads giveaways, and Bookbub freebies, I have enough other assorted mysteries – mainly cozies with clever titles – to distract myself all the way to the 2020 elections. And, when I’m in need of a “comfort read”, I have a whole shelf full of Georgette Heyer mysteries and Amanda Quick stories to revisit.
After the last batch of mysteries that I read, I had some Thoughts.
I liked some stories I hadn’t initially thought I would and, conversely, was a bit ambivalent about some that came highly recommended. Analytical me went looking for a reason, and I came up with a few things:
- One of the stories was just Too Much – too many characters, too many tangled plot lines, too many false clues and misdirections – there just wasn’t a big enough payoff at the end to compensate for the effort it took to slog through the story.
- One of the stories failed to stick the landing – the solution felt forced and the more deeply I thought about it, the more it unraveled, which was a real shame since first 75% of the story really worked for me.
- One of the stories held back information so there was no way I could have figured out the solution. Part of the fun of reading mysteries (at least for me) is trying to uncover the murderer before the big reveal at the end. When there’s no way to do that, I feel a little cheated.
On a more positive note, I now know some things I really like in a mystery:
- A delightful policeman / detective / inspector teamed up with “Our Girl”. Both Judith Flander’s Sam Clair series and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series hit this note. I especially like the way Flanders manages to make the interaction work so well without the heroine coming across like a brainless, interfering, busybody.
- A side of wit and humor with my murder. I think Heyer hits this note better than anyone, especially in stories like No Wind of Blame (one of my favorites).
- A balance between the mystery and the characters, without an over-abundance of foreign intrigue (many of the mysteries I’ve read set in the 40s and 50s seem to be smitten with foreign intrigue).
From a craft perspective, I’ve learned a lot in recent months about how to seed clues in the story, hiding things in plain sight, and the value of misdirection. Even when I was paying attention, I got caught by stories that had specific timing, where the detective’s laser focus on the timing was really a red herring, or when “it couldn’t have been Person X because he had an air tight alibi” (of course it was Person X).
All of this is important for me to think about since one of the manuscripts I’m polishing up for submission to the upcoming Golden Heart contest is my mystery/romance. Figuring out what does and doesn’t work for me feels like a good first step in the development process.
So, are you a fan of mysteries? If so, what works / doesn’t work for you?