So yesterday I was talking about how mystery novels have ever so slightly taken over my personal reading life. I know I am not the only literary writer who reads mysteries, but I will note that every time I admit it among other writers, a faint glaze of pity and stillness overtakes their faces. Well, I don't care. Plenty of would-be literary writers could learn from the plot and drive of a mystery, or detective novel, or thriller (all different genres and all laid out in Carolyn Wheat's very useful How to Write Killer Fiction). Susanna Moore and Jane Smiley even wrote their own mystery novels (In the Cut and Duplicate Keys, respectively), and you know they did it well because when the killer was revealed in each I felt a genuine chill up my spine.
I have a number of go-to writers whose new books I jump on and backlist I wallow in (including recent Powell's blogger Laura Lippman), and I will get to them. But first, some bitchery.
Maybe because even a poorly written mystery can be so lucrative, this genre seems to allow writing that ranges from the creepily revealing to genuinely bad. After six or eight hundred books or so, a few patterns and peeves stood out to me. For instance, the male writer who fetishizes the diet of his heroine or his hero's girlfriend. Once I began to notice this, it drove me nuts. Back when everyone was reading John Grisham, I gave him a shot too. Which led me to this (paraphrased from memory) line in The Pelican Brief: "Darby Shaw was five foot eight and weighed 106 pounds and she intended to keep it that way." And she does, through the steely refusal of a debauched glass of red wine with dinner. While it's swell that Grisham regards Darby's commitment to the skeletal as evidence of her firm resolve, I keep getting stuck on those measurements — Darby is essentially bones and hair, but it's clear we're meant to find her hot and brilliant. Similarly, Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels are forever proudly noting that Spenser's girlfriend Susan lives on the occasional skinless chicken wing and eight unbuttered peas at a time — every meal they eat, Spenser's devouring a three-pound porterhouse and Susan's priggishly wiping her mouth after her second cherry tomato.
Then, of course, there's the amateurish writing some mystery editors seem to keep on letting through: the hot tears and journeys into pain, the knee-jerk habit of lending depth to our hero not through nuanced characterization but by killing a woman in his past, the endless clunky socio-economic descriptions: "I checked my platinum Tag Heuer watch — I was late for court! There was definitely no time to have Arturo touch up the creamy golden highlights in my shoulder-length blonde hair."
But all of that either drives you crazy or you sail right over it for the plot or what have you, which is fine. Yet where I find myself with a real hang up is when I'm reading a novel that is so gruesome, I'm not sure if it says more about me or the writer. I'm talking about those novels that come up with such incredibly sadistic crimes that I cannot get them out of my head and often put the book down unfinished, feeling rather filthy not just for reading it — but because I am usually reading for entertainment. It's probably not fair to blame the writers for going what feels too far to me, because it's also true that in order for a mystery to feel high-stakes and urgent, the transgression has to be high enough that it's absolutely necessary to right the wrong. It's hard to feel the pull if the great crime is wondering which maid stained the duvet.
My personal litmus test for this is a totally subjective one, but I can often live with the hideous act if the writing is genuinely good, if it's clear to me that the writer is not presenting the crime as just another interesting way to cook someone alive beneath a steampipe, or just another reason for our burly hero to kick the wall and holler at the night, but as something that truly horrifies and upsets the protagonist as well. I'm thinking of work by writers like Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch is one of the great flawed and real detectives, or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, whose affronts tend to be along economic, political, or corporate lines.
I see I've spent all my space complaining and not enough talking about the good stuff. There's probably a personal lesson in there. More importantly, I think I still have space to talk about the good stuff, so here is a whirlwind tour of fine mystery/detective/thriller writers if I haven't already mentioned them:
Donna Leon's excellent, gentle Inspector Brunetti series, set in Venice, Italy, provides a knowing look at the ins and outs of the Venetian political and civil structure, and a wonderful family life for Brunetti, who conducts most of his work over food and is forever stopping off for "brief" lunches of three tramezzini and a couple glasses of wine.
Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan series, featuring a novice PI steeped in love for Baltimore and sculling.
Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series. Perry's big thing is people who disappear, leaving one identity completely and how they set up and survive in the next. Jane is the guide who helps them do it, and the research and the detail are much of the fun here. I'm pretty sure I know how to create a new identity if the need ever arises.
I'm not a big fan of Ruth Rendell's standalones, in which the characters often feel like a somewhat bloodless collection of traits designed to bring them to a conclusion, but I do like her Inspector Wexford novels.
When I say I'm quite fond of Peter Robinson's Alan Banks series, people often tell me Reginald Hill is better. I haven't found the Hill book that really grabbed me yet, but I've read most of Robinson's and liked them all.
In Cynthia Harrod-Eagles's Bill Slider novels, every single character in the police station feels real and well-developed, and like Donna Leon, the author's light touch is a lovely change of pace from what can be a heavy handed genre.
Kris Nelscott's Civil Rights-era Chicago novels about black PI Smokey Dalton are always weighty and engrossing.
I used to love Ian Rankin's Rebus novels more than I do now — recently Rebus's colleague, Siobhan, has been much more interesting to me than Rebus himself, who spends most of his time listening to Let It Bleed and drinking his twelfth pint of ale. Maybe we'll get a Siobhan book soon.
I know there are more I'm forgetting right now, but for those of you looking for some new names, go where I go: Sarah Weinman's fantastic blog for mystery buffs at www.sarahweinman.com.
Tomorrow: Sex and food!
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long