Elizabeth: Death by the Book

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?

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Death by the Book

  1. In general, I don’t like mysteries, because I’m not a fan of murders, and the whole justice thing can be oversimplified and used as a blunt weapon on the poor reader.

    That said, there are several mystery series that I love! I’m really a sucker for mysteries that include herbs; I used to read a lot of Brother Cadfael, and I really liked Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries. I liked Dorothy Sayers a lot, and enjoyed Agatha Christie. I think both of those were contemporaries when they were written, but now they read like really stylish historicals. (Can you believe it? In just a little more than 10 years, they’ll be 100 years old!)

    I love characters, and I love settings. I’m willing to put up with a crappy personality if s/he is super-smart and solves interesting puzzles. And put me in a monastery? (-: I love being able to visit book-world monasteries.

    I’m not sure I’d ever have the ability to write mysteries, though. So twisty; not my kind of brain, really.

    • I’m definitely not a fan of mysteries that preach or use justice as a weapon. I like the puzzle aspect, as long as I don’t wind up feeling stupid at the end because I couldn’t figure it out, or frustrated by an author who tried to hard to be clever.

      I think mostly I like intelligent, amusing, Scotland Yard inspectors 🙂

  2. My favorites, and about the only ones I read, were Lawrence Sanders mysteries starring that suave Florida socialite Archy McNally (all the McNally books are “McNally [something]).” They were a hoot, the characters were memorable, and I drank those books up (while Archy drank his gimlet).

    Aside from that, mysteries remain a mystery to me. I did read one written by an RWA chapter-mate, but I didn’t care for it. The guilty person came out of nowhere. He wasn’t even a fly on the wall anywhere throughout the book and that felt like a cheat to me. That’s probably my biggest pet peeve with mysteries and why I don’t read them. I’m afraid of that happening again (which is completely stupid, I know).

    • I totally understand not liking the “guilty person coming out of nowhere”. Besides being annoying, it feels like the author couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to plant clues in the story.

      Of course sometimes, the guilty person comes out of nowhere because I’ve totally missed what should have been obvious, but that’s a whole different story 🙂

  3. I read mysteries almost exclusively from around 1990 until 2012 (when I started the McDaniel program and was wooed back into the world of romance). I loved Agatha Christie and Phyllis Whitney and Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt and Helen MacInnes (who was another Cold War writer). Among the newer writers–Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Josephine Tey, Elizabeth Peters, Donald Westlake, Tony Hillerman and Janet Evanovich (though more for her fabulous slapstick than her mysteries).

    In the up-and-coming generation, Arlene MacFarlane’s Murder, Curlers and etc. series are really fun, with Evanovich-like slapstick..I totally didn’t see who the murderer was in the first one, even though the clues were plain as day when I looked back.

    Over in the romantic suspense genre, Sarah Andre’s Damaged Heroes series is great, as is Brynn Kelly’s stuff. She won the Rita for Romance Novella this year with Forbidden River..

    • Ah- some more authors to add to my list there. Thanks. I did pick up the “A” and “B” stories by Sue Grafton last time I was at the local big box store. I had forgotten about them and will have to go dig them out.

      Looks like I won’t be finishing my reading list any time soon.

  4. I like mysteries a lot, and I probably read more of those than romance. I like police procedurals rather than the cozy, amateur-detective plot lines that Agatha Christie made so popular. I’m also fine with a murder or two, but a serial killer story with lots of gore is not my cup of tea. Last year, Jilly introduced me to a bunch of terrific British mystery authors I wasn’t familiar with, including Peter May, Ann Cleeves, Stuart McBride, and Peter Temple. So much fun finding somebody new!

    • I like police procedurals, but only in moderation, and no stories with crimes I won’t be able to “un-see” after the story is over (no psycho killers or worse). I’ve read a lot of cozy mysteries lately (mostly because they were free), but I think I spend more time mentally re-writing them than enjoying the stories. A reasonable person would probably stop reading them, but . .. .

      Can’t wait to check out the British mystery authors you mentioned – I’m not familiar with any of them.

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