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Mysteries and Detective Stories


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#1 Nathaniel

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 06:25 PM

This post is aimed more or less at Nathanael Booth, who's been doing some really fine niche blogging lately.

After reading a couple of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr novels I've decided I'm not a very good reader of mysteries. Unless the book is loaded with atmosphere or tinged with the supernatural I can't seem to concentrate for very long. I think it may have something to do with the traditional emphasis on the reconstruction of the crime (especially the when's and how's and to whom's), which for me is the least interesting part of a book. (I'm far more concerned with the what's and the why's.) I guess I don't have the type of brain that excels at putting together puzzles. I'd never make a good detective, that's for sure.

Are there any mystery readers out there? What makes the genre so attractive to you? Don't you ever get bothered by the cardboard characters and detailed workings out of the plot?

I'm compelled to add that I think Christie and Carr are geniuses of a certain kind. Christie is more than just a master plotter; she is also a philosopher. The conclusion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is devastating and demands that the book be read twice. Carr's The Burning Court also concludes memorably, and has two or three scenes that engender a feeling of claustrophobic horror. I still struggled through both of those books. There's a reason I prefer Chesterton's Father Brown stories above all others in the genre. When you only have ten pages in which to tell your story, there's simply no time to dilly dally.

#2 NBooth

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 07:09 PM

This post is aimed more or less at Nathanael Booth, who's been doing some really fine niche blogging lately.

After reading a couple of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr novels I've decided I'm not a very good reader of mysteries. Unless the book is loaded with atmosphere or tinged with the supernatural I can't seem to concentrate for very long. I think it may have something to do with the traditional emphasis on the reconstruction of the crime (especially the when's and how's and to whom's), which for me is the least interesting part of a book. (I'm far more concerned with the what's and the why's.) I guess I don't have the type of brain that excels at putting together puzzles. I'd never make a good detective, that's for sure.

Are there any mystery readers out there? What makes the genre so attractive to you? Don't you ever get bothered by the cardboard characters and detailed workings out of the plot?


Thanks for the kind words! Since you mention it, I'm gonna go ahead and drop a link to my post on the detective story as a religious exercise. In it, I try to deal with what I, personally, find so compelling about the detective story. Here's a brief clip:

Not only has the mystery-as-religious-novel been done well (Death in Holy Orders, for instance, or Ellery Queen's The Player on the Other Side), but I've come to believe that the genre itself is an innately metaphysical one; that the work of the detective is analogous to the work of the prophet who seeks the hidden things of God.


In saying this, I'm following Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes by Stephen Kendrick (which, despite the title, isn't really about finding Jesus in Arthur Conan Doyle). At its best, the detective story is about slowing down and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details; it's a way of being present in the present, while seeking to move beyond mere appearance to some sort of truthful understanding of the world. That's why the reconstruction is so interesting to me, because it represents an attempt to do just that. Of course, the reconstruction takes many forms; in some stories it's as simple as who-was-where, and it can get pretty boring; Ngaio Marsh can be particularly guilty in this regard (her other crime: creating interesting characters that instantly become boring once the murder occurs). However, at the more surreal end of the spectrum you have The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen, or any of John Dickson Carr's extravaganzas (The Arabian Nights Murder, for instance) where reality itself seems to be broken and it's the task of the detective to restore order and rationality.

Of course, as time has passed the emphasis on complicated plots has shifted, and authors are more interested in creating social dramas with a murder element. P.D. James is especially good in this regard (Death in Holy Orders is a masterpiece). But sometimes, reading a more contemporary novel like Louise Penny's Still Life, I do start wishing that the characters were more cardboard and the incidents more extravagant. It's a quirk of my mind, I guess.

I'm compelled to add that I think Christie and Carr are geniuses of a certain kind. Christie is more than just a master plotter; she is also a philosopher. The conclusion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is devastating and demands that the book be read twice.


Absolutely. See also: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe and Death on the Nile. She didn't devote as much explicit space to her musings as, say, P.D. James does, but there's lots of meat to be found if one cares to look.

Carr's The Burning Court also concludes memorably, and has two or three scenes that engender a feeling of claustrophobic horror. I still struggled through both of those books. There's a reason I prefer Chesterton's Father Brown stories above all others in the genre. When you only have ten pages in which to tell your story, there's simply no time to dilly dally.


Agreed on Carr, though I've not read that particular book; I would add Ellery Queen, though his books tend to be overwritten early on and he never quite reaches the heights Carr does in, for instance, He Who Whispers. Ten Day's Wonder is an early example of a detective novel with a specifically metaphysical interest (I've not read it myself, but the film version by Claude Chabrol isn't bad), and The Player on the Other Side is a personal favorite of mine. Unfortunately, Queen is largely out of print (though some e-book versions recently showed up on Amazon, much to my surprise and delight).

You're not alone in preferring short stories; I'm a novel-length person myself, but many early lovers of the genre insisted that the form was best suited to the shorter format, and some practitioners such as Edward Hoch have worked exclusively in short stories to great effect. The aforementioned Ellery Queen did some of his best work in the format as well (in addition to lending "his" name to the still-existing magazine); of course, one could argue that the finest example of detective fiction is the Sherlock Holmes canon, and it's almost exclusively made up of short adventures.

For what it's worth, there's an excellent guide to classic mystery and detective fiction online that goes into ridiculous depth analyzing the different authors of the so-called Golden Age. I've wasted many a happy hour reading over that site. P.D. James has also written a very nice (and short!) book called Talking about Detective Fiction; she has her limitations, but it's a good general survey.

Edited by NBooth, 14 March 2011 - 07:20 PM.


#3 J. Henry Waugh

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 07:25 PM

Thanks for bringing up this topic.

I don't consider myself a mystery reader, but the type of book I read most often is usually found in the mystery section of the library or bookstore. Crime Fiction doesn't really describe the books entirely either, but I won't argue with moniker. I've gerrymandered the genre enough to include some Faulkner, Daniel Woodrell, Richard Price, James Sallis, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Dan Chaon, George Pelecanos, some Chris Offutt and Larry Brown, Ken Bruen, Thomas Cook, even some Joan Didion and Don Delillo and on and on. Maybe even some Roberto Bolano. There are highs and lows in each author's canon, and certainly a cardboard character or two but no more than the character types that often turn up in the literary fiction I also read.

Of course, books like James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss or Val McDermid's A Place of Execution are, at heart, mysteries and I liked them both enough to re-read them. The detailed workings of plot are stronger in McDermid's book (much like in the books of Michael Connelly), but that's part of the fun from time-to-time.

(Incidentally, I know of many devotees of noir fiction--as it has come to be defined where a narrator's life goes from bad to worse through bad decisions of his own doing--who look at highly plotted crime/mystery novels with disdain).

I am running out of time, but as a placeholder I should mention that much of what I enjoy about a certain strand of crime fiction (Winslow, Pelecanos, T. Jefferson Parker) is the reporting that goes into building the story. The books of Jim Thompson or Thomas H. Cook are entirely different I like them too, but in many ways it is silly to group them together.

All for now. Thanks again for introducing this topic.

p.s. For what it's worth, a while back, after a half dozen years or so of reading any current hardboiled or noir fiction I could find, to do my homework on the subject, my reading list did not include Christie or Carr but Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

#4 NBooth

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 07:45 PM

There's quite a divide, going back to Chandler, between the "Golden Age" style detective story exemplified by Christie, Carr, and Queen, and the hard boiled style of Hammett and Chandler. Chandler, as I understand it, ridicules the puzzle plot in The Simple Art of Murder, but I'm not convinced either school is entirely realistic. I tend to take a very universalist stance toward the genre; the most recent book I read was Occupied City by David Peace--a daring, complex work that would have scared Agatha Christie to death. Interestingly, though, the themes that Peace tackles are not that different from the ones found in Christie, even if Peace has a postmodern distrust for "the real version" that Christie simply doesn't, and cannot, display. But they're both concerned with aspects of the same problem: the problem of disorder, the problem of human evil, the difficulty of seeing the truth behind all the lies. And this gives them a broad kinship that might not be apparent on the surface.

It's interesting, actually (and there's a book on the subject) how mainstream a lot of crime/detective fiction stuff has become. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez is writing a murder mystery, it's hard to claim the genre is sub-literary.

Edited by NBooth, 14 March 2011 - 07:48 PM.


#5 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 08:56 PM

After reading a couple of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr novels I've decided I'm not a very good reader of mysteries. Unless the book is loaded with atmosphere or tinged with the supernatural I can't seem to concentrate for very long.

To be honest, while I love reading mysteries, Carr and Christie's novels can get pretty dull at times. They're enjoyable for when you feel like trying to solve a puzzle, but I can only read about British people sitting around talking at a table for so long. There are some great mysteries out there, however. And no one should give up on the genre because of a couple experiences with the tea table variety. I'll use self-control and recommend only five steps you can take to fix this problem.

Step 1 - Read A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. Not only is it the introduction to the greatest detective in all of literature, but it's light reading, heavy on atmosphere and half of it turns out to be an adventure side story along with the mystery. You get Sherlock Holmes giving the first introduction of his deductive methods to Watson, and you can dive right into the slightly creepy Sign of Four and all the following adventures whenever you like afterwards.
Step 2 - Read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. After sampling the greatest British detective, you might as well try the hard-boiled American version as well. The mysteries investigated by Philip Marlowe are as much about simply enjoying Chandler's prose as solving the mystery. It's emerging yourself into a world with a tough, wise-cracking, funny detective who pauses along the way to smell the roses describe how much he enjoys that drag off his cigarette, or a glass of Scotch on the rocks, the sound of the rain on his car during a stakeout, or simply the different reactions by the murderous gangsters and/or attractive women to his latest joke.
Step 3 - Read The D. Case/The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (and a couple other authors). This book gives you both Dickens' turn at writing a mystery novel along with a bunch of fun asides by different famous detectives in literature together in one book of alternating chapters. Charles Dickens easily has written one of the best mystery novels in literature here, and the rest of the book serves as a diverting introduction to different mystery styles.
Step 4 - Read The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers. Now that you've been given a introduction, it's time to try at least one detective novel that offers something of the beauty that can be involved in a first class mystery. Lord Peter Wimsey may turn out to be a little like Carr's detectives, but his investigations always involve far more than solving a closed puzzle, with some historical depth thrown in. I think you'll find Sayers much more literary than Carr.
Step 5 - Read A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane. While there's a ton of other authors I'd love to introduce you to, I figured I should probably include at least one modern day writer who can actually write good English prose. Lehane is hard-boiled American noir, but set in modern times. His private-eye Patrick Kenzie has all the wise-cracking ability of Marlowe, except he strolls the streets of Boston and loves the Rolling Stones (instead of Marlowe's Los Angeles and love for Rembrandt).

Read those five, even if it takes a year or two, and I promise that you'll like reading mysteries afterwards.

At its best, the detective story is about slowing down and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details; it's a way of being present in the present, while seeking to move beyond mere appearance to some sort of truthful understanding of the world. That's why the reconstruction is so interesting to me, because it represents an attempt to do just that. Of course, the reconstruction takes many forms; in some stories it's as simple as who-was-where, and it can get pretty boring; Ngaio Marsh can be particularly guilty in this regard (her other crime: creating interesting characters that instantly become boring once the murder occurs). However, at the more surreal end of the spectrum you have The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen, or any of John Dickson Carr's extravaganzas (The Arabian Nights Murder, for instance) where reality itself seems to be broken and it's the task of the detective to restore order and rationality.

Of course, as time has passed the emphasis on complicated plots has shifted, and authors are more interested in creating social dramas with a murder element. P.D. James is especially good in this regard (Death in Holy Orders is a masterpiece). But sometimes, reading a more contemporary novel like Louise Penny's Still Life, I do start wishing that the characters were more cardboard and the incidents more extravagant. It's a quirk of my mind, I guess.

Wow, looks I need to start reading your blog. Nice articles so far. I agree that the seeking truth and order in a fallen world element to detective stories is part of what makes them so appealing. I guess I'd just also add that the most enjoyable mysteries are about the detectives who enjoy themselves. There's something appealing to a story about a man who can be relied upon to use his will and intellect to face and fix any problem brought to him, but who also enjoys himself along the way. Holmes is only really alive when he's working on a case. Marlowe wouldn't be as fun if he didn't stop to enjoy taking so many simple pleasures. Lord Wimsey might as well be 14 with the childlike sense of wonder that he has as if every mystery were a treasure hunt. Nick and Nora Charles love their life and each other, which just so happens to include solving a mystery along the way. Each of these characters is willing to stop and confront evil when they are forced to, but there is something inherently good and joyful about them (even the more cynical ones like Spade and Marlowe). Which ... by the way, may have something to do with why I'm always depressed & bored out of my mind by P.D. James' sad Freudian tales.

p.s. For what it's worth, a while back, after a half dozen years or so of reading any current hardboiled or noir fiction I could find, to do my homework on the subject, my reading list did not include Christie or Carr but Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

That would be because neither Christie nor Carr would classify as hardboiled/noir fiction. They're in a class of their own, with perhaps Sayers sitting at the top. If you liked Chandler, Hammett and MacDonald, then I'd recommend Ellroy and Lehane from today.

#6 J. Henry Waugh

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 09:28 PM

Good point, Persiflage. I should have been more clear by stating that after reading 500+ contemporary books in the genre, I wanted to explore some of the roots and knew that Hammett and others would be more to my liking than the cozies.

For the most part, I prefer the descendants of Hammett to those of Chandler, even though I have a weak spot for Estleman's Walker series.

And I too love Ellroy and Lehane and have read all their fiction. I roll my eyes at them both from time to time (for entirely different reasons), but that won't stop me from buying their next one day of release.

Edited by J. Henry Waugh, 14 March 2011 - 10:44 PM.


#7 NBooth

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Posted 14 March 2011 - 09:36 PM

Wow, looks I need to start reading your blog. Nice articles so far. I agree that the seeking truth and order in a fallen world element to detective stories is part of what makes them so appealing. I guess I'd just also add that the most enjoyable mysteries are about the detectives who enjoy themselves. There's something appealing to a story about a man who can be relied upon to use his will and intellect to face and fix any problem brought to him, but who also enjoys himself along the way. Holmes is only really alive when he's working on a case. Marlowe wouldn't be as fun if he didn't stop to enjoy taking so many simple pleasures. Lord Wimsey might as well be 14 with the childlike sense of wonder that he has as if every mystery were a treasure hunt. Nick and Nora Charles love their life and each other, which just so happens to include solving a mystery along the way. Each of these characters is willing to stop and confront evil when they are forced to, but there is something inherently good and joyful about them (even the more cynical ones like Spade and Marlowe). Which ... by the way, may have something to do with why I'm always depressed & bored out of my mind by P.D. James' sad Freudian tales.


FWIW, about a year ago the blog was very political, and, um, you might not find that to your liking. I've tried to move away from online opining on that score, so going forward it should be fine.

Absolutely agreed on the importance of the detectives enjoying themselves. Gotta add the Chestertonian Gideon Fell to the list though, with his shovel hat and his cries of "Archons of Athens!" (Incidentally, Carr was heavily influenced by Chesterton, so I'm surprised you find him dry. Have you read his more extreme books like The Arabian Nights Mystery? Or even The Sleeping Sphinx, which gets the Chesterton-fairy tale land down pat, iirc). The element of, for lack of a better word, fun, is a big part of what keeps me coming back for more (although I admire the social realism of James, I would rather spend time with Nick Charles than with Adam Dalgliesh)

EDIT: Nice list. I would protest that about half of A Study in Scarlet is mind-numbingly boring, but the stuff with Holmes just crackles. The Sign of Four is far superior, and even it feels a little padded. It's no surprise that after another attempt at a novel, Doyle mostly confined Holmes to the short story.

Love, love, love Edwin Drood, but I've not read the copy you link. I'll have to check it out.

Since we're listmaking, let me plug The Moonstone (there's a free Kindle edition). It's been called the "earliest, longest, and best" detective novel, and while that might be an overstatement, it isn't by much.

The Moving Toyshop is also lots of fun, and goes a long way toward proving that genre fiction was meta before meta was cool. But it's hardly the best example of the genre.

EDIT EDIT (Because I keep thinking of stuff): An interesting hybrid of the hard boiled and the so-called "cozy" (I would debate calling Christie "cozy". It's like saying that Jane Austin is "romantic") would be the novels of Rex Stout. I've not delved too deeply into his work, but the detective, Nero Wolfe, is like an illtempered Mycroft Holmes, while his assistant Archie is a street-smart private investigator type. And, unlike Carr and Queen, Stout is still in print and available in most bookstores.

Edited by NBooth, 14 March 2011 - 10:56 PM.


#8 Nathaniel

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 01:43 AM

Thanks for the contributions so far, guys! These are exactly the kind of responses I was hoping for.

Thanks for the kind words! Since you mention it, I'm gonna go ahead and drop a link to my post on the detective story as a religious exercise. In it, I try to deal with what I, personally, find so compelling about the detective story. Here's a brief clip:

Not only has the mystery-as-religious-novel been done well (Death in Holy Orders, for instance, or Ellery Queen's The Player on the Other Side), but I've come to believe that the genre itself is an innately metaphysical one; that the work of the detective is analogous to the work of the prophet who seeks the hidden things of God.


Ah, now that's what I'm talking about. The focus should not be on mysteries, but the Mystery. This apocalyptic view of the genre is terribly attractive to me.

Another reason I enjoy the Chesterton's Father Brown stories (and will probably love Sayers whenever I get around to reading her) is that the author is clearly a metaphysician. He always concludes with a plainly realistic explanation, but not before teasing you with the possibility of a supernatural one. I admit I also like the idea of Father Brown as detective. Remember his "secret"? He identifies the murderer by identifying with the murderer. How creepy. How true.

For those who've found Carr difficult, I'd like to recommend trying a frequently anthologized short story called "The House in Goblin Wood". It gives us a satisfying locked room mystery in about 15 pages, and with such a high degree of morbidity you may have difficulty turning off the lights after finishing it.

As far as old school stuff goes, I'd like to tip my hat to Poe and mention someone many readers might not be familiar with, the Irish Victorian author J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Not only did he write some of the finest ghost stories in English ("Schalken the Painter" is a favorite), his Dr. Hesselius character helped pioneer the genre. "The Room in the Dragon Volant" involves some very Poe-like ghoulishness.

I've got a copy of The Big Sleep and Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time at my bedside right now. Can't wait.

Edited by Nathaniel, 20 March 2011 - 12:07 AM.


#9 BethR

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 06:29 AM

As far as old school stuff goes, I'd like to ... mention someone many readers might not be familiar with, the Irish Victorian author J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Not only did he write some of the finest ghost stories in English ("Schalken the Painter" is a favorite), his Dr. Hesselius character helped pioneer the genre. "The Room in the Dragon Volant" involves some very Poe-like ghoulishness.

You made it through THI without reading Sayers? I'm shocked--shocked! She was also an admirer or Le Fanu; one of her characters is researching Le Fanu in a subplot of Gaudy Night.

I'm getting some good recommendations from this thread. I enjoy mysteries, and I don't mind re-reading ones that are well-written and offer more than just the suspense of whodunnit, but those are difficult to find. Many, many disposable mystery novels are being written, many with various gimmicks (cats, cooks, gardens, knitting, numbers--kill me now). There's also an expired thread on mysteries with clerical detectives. Other than Father Brown, most are pretty forgettable.

#10 Christian

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 08:12 AM

[quote name='NBooth' date='14 March 2011 - 08:09 PM' timestamp='1300147799' post='246965']
[quote name='Nathaniel' date='14 March 2011 - 06:25 PM' timestamp='1300145137' post='246963']
fter reading a couple of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr novels I've decided I'm not a very good reader of mysteries. Unless the book is loaded with atmosphere or tinged with the supernatural I can't seem to concentrate for very long. I think it may have something to do with the traditional emphasis on the reconstruction of the crime (especially the when's and how's and to whom's), which for me is the least interesting part of a book. (I'm far more concerned with the what's and the why's.) I guess I don't have the type of brain that excels at putting together puzzles. I'd never make a good detective, that's for sure.
[/quote]
Amen to all of this. I wish it weren't so, but I have next to no interest in mysteries. I watched crime dramas on TV for several years because certain characters interested me, but I couldn't have cared less about the resolution to each episode's mystery.

I remember J.I. Packer saying that he loved to read a few pages of a mystery each night before he went to bed. My pastor has indicated that mysteries stimulate the active mind, or something like that. He says that jokingly -- sort of -- but I've always felt a bit stupid for not gravitating toward the genre.

#11 M. Leary

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 09:17 AM

Are there any mystery readers out there? What makes the genre so attractive to you? Don't you ever get bothered by the cardboard characters and detailed workings out of the plot?


What a great thread!

The genre is attractive to me for the reasons outlined in NBooth's great post on the religious exercise aspect of a good mystery. I grew up reading through my mom's huge collection of Rex Stout, Christie, Queen, and Carr paperbacks (when all the good sci-fi was checked out of the library or dad was taking too long to read the lastest batch of L'Amour novels), so I was steeped in a lot of these cardboard characters and often comically complicated plots at a young age. Part of me still equates these conventions with the act of reading itself. But I am glad that the genre has shifted, as NBooth points out, more towards the PD James and Elizabeth George character sketch epics. Just like all those early Poe detective stories, I get caught up in the existential drama of Dalgliesh every time I crack one of those open.

But I get confused here, because I think this shift has blurred the lines between mystery proper and crime fiction. Right? Do we really even have a "mystery" genre of any significance any more? Now the spectrum seems to be crime event fiction with the whole forensic science focus on one end and the existential detective on the other. The plots on this spectrum can become complicated, but they are not complicated in that cerebral, rube goldberg way the mystery genre used to be.

I don't have a problem with this, I just have a hard time understanding how we actually define this genre these days. Crime fiction? Not sure. One thing I am pretty sure about is that the forensic science end of the spectrum has lost me. That kind of fiction trades the plot or character-based complication of good mystery/crime fiction with the complications of a process. Good crime fiction maintains the terrible mythology of evil, whereas forensic fiction attempts to demythologize it by scrutinizing its remains.

But as far as contemporary authors go, random thoughts:

- Poe never seems to get his due.
- I am frequently tempted to draw a straight line from Poe to Lehane through Graham Greene. (Though, the most recent Kenzie and Gennaro novel lacked that earlier vigor).
- Robert Parker's novels became more and more basic towards the end, and where they lacked in plot they gained in subtext. That said, the Jesse Stone adaptations by Tom Selleck are among the best bits of detective cinema in recent memory. Selleck has an odd knack for transposing the thoughtful quiet at the heart of Parker's fiction to the screen.
- James Lee Burke is flat out fascinating. I think he is one of the best at what NBooth refers to as the social drama aspect of recent crime fiction, but both his plotlines and character sketch are immensely complicated in detail. And there are stretches of Burke novels that are beautiful, heartbreaking, and edifying in scope. The man has a knack for words. His post-Katrina novel contains one of the most harrowing metaphors for human tragedy I have encountered, and tugs the reader's soul even down through the dark waters to the beginning of Genesis itself, where the Spirit is still hovering.
- Ian Rankin seems under-read in the US, but his Edinburgh based detective is worth spending a few months with (read the Rebus books in order). These sense of place and history in the Rebus series is staggering at times.
- I like the universality of Hammett (read Ellroy on Hammett right now). But by the time I get to Ellroy I am not sure where I am. By Ellroy, all that alienation and self-suspicion morphs into complicated stories about words, epochs, race, and the loose threads of crime that bind all these things together. Color me an Ellroy fan, but I haven't the slightest idea how to understand him as a genre author. He seems closer to Umberto Eco than anything else.
- Thomas Harris. I can't for the life of me figure out how the same person who wrote Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs wrote Hannibal Rising.

Edited by M. Leary, 15 March 2011 - 09:21 AM.


#12 Christian

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 09:31 AM

- Robert Parker's novels became more and more basic towards the end, and where they lacked in plot they gained in subtext. That said, the Jesse Stone adaptations by Tom Selleck are among the best bits of detective cinema in recent memory. Selleck has an odd knack for transposing the thoughtful quiet at the heart of Parker's fiction to the screen.

See, we watched two of these a few months ago, and while I didn't hate them, they seemed little better than an average TV crime drama. They weren't bad cinema, just average. I can understand their straightforward appeal, but nothing cries out to me to keep watching these films.

#13 J. Henry Waugh

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 09:32 AM

FWIW, here is a link to an essay that, as silly as it sounds, was revelatory for me 10 years ago.

http://www.salon.com...01/03/mysteries

It's hard to remember, but back then I didn't have internet at home and only had a few minutes online during my lunch break at work, so finding commentary about favorite authors in a fairly mainstream publication was a big deal for me. At the time, I was plodding through all of the recommended literary fiction like it was homework and taking breaks to read Connelly and Pelecanos, etc.

Much of the books Taylor recommends (McDermid's A Place of Execution notwithstanding), I didn't particularly care for, but it was great to use those authors as a launching pad for my own discoveries.

#14 J. Henry Waugh

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 09:37 AM

For anyone interested in the hardboiled and noir side of the genre, the Rara Avis archives are an absolute treasure:

http://www.miskatoni...-avis/archives/

I have learned so much from searching around in them.

The list still continues, though it seems as if many of the best and most knowledgeable participants busy themselves more with their own blogs these days.

#15 NBooth

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 10:44 AM

But I get confused here, because I think this shift has blurred the lines between mystery proper and crime fiction. Right? Do we really even have a "mystery" genre of any significance any more?


Not like we had in the Golden Age. It's hard to believe, but at one time people like Ellery Queen (now, alas, forgotten) were sort-of superstars. There were writers working out a theory of the detective novel, and outlining its rules; it was all very Modern. But with the introduction of thriller elements, and the general expectation of forensic realism, the genre seems to have fragmented into harmless "cozies" and crime novels. It's harder to keep the field in a single view. That's part of the reason, honestly, why I prefer the older stuff; it's easier to know what I'm getting. Creature of habit.

One thing I am pretty sure about is that the forensic science end of the spectrum has lost me. That kind of fiction trades the plot or character-based complication of good mystery/crime fiction with the complications of a process. Good crime fiction maintains the terrible mythology of evil, whereas forensic fiction attempts to demythologize it by scrutinizing its remains.


YES! Ahem. I actually thought of this on a recent re-viewing of the Jeremy Brett adaptation of "The Norwood Builder." In it, there's a fingerprint that seems to point directly to Holmes' client, but Holmes is adamant that the poor boy is innocent. Now, imagine this happening in CSI (to be honest, my most thorough exposure to forensic mysteries): this sort of approach takes Holmes at his word when he says that deduction should be an "exact science" and so the print would be run through tests, an obscure fiber would be found, and the investigators would be lead, without any great effort on their part, directly to the true killer's hiding place. But Holmes looks beyond physical facts, through them, and is able to discern their true nature. The physical becomes a clue to the, for lack of a better word, spiritual. See also: my favorite Holmes quote of all time, from "The Naval Treaty":

"What a lovely thing a rose is! [...]There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion," said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. "It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."


It's difficult to imagine David Caruso caring much about a rose, unless a blood-spatter on one petal could be useful to him.

I've actually got several of those contemporaries you mention on my shelf right now waiting for me to finish Halfway House. Can I add that I've found David Peace's Tokyo novels to be fantastic? He's an example of an author who takes a branch of mystery/crime fiction (the procedural) and merrily demolishes it as he goes after other game.

J. Henry Waugh:

FWIW, here is a link to an essay that, as silly as it sounds, was revelatory for me 10 years ago.

http://www.salon.com...01/03/mysteries


Great essay. And great set of archives. I've been feeling very hardboiled this year, so I might dip into some of that in the coming months.

#16 M. Leary

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 11:12 AM

I've actually got several of those contemporaries you mention on my shelf right now waiting for me to finish Halfway House. Can I add that I've found David Peace's Tokyo novels to be fantastic? He's an example of an author who takes a branch of mystery/crime fiction (the procedural) and merrily demolishes it as he goes after other game.


Stoked. Added to the list.

#17 Ryan H.

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 11:19 AM

- Thomas Harris. I can't for the life of me figure out how the same person who wrote Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs wrote Hannibal Rising.

There were rumors to the effect that Harris was essentially pushed into it by Dino De Laurentiis, with a rushed schedule, which would somewhat explain the book's laziness and clumsiness.

Word is that Harris is contracted for two more books (not necessarily Lecter-related). Given how long he usually takes to turn out a novel, lord only knows when we'll see one, but I hope it's a good sight better than his last effort.

Edited by Ryan H., 15 March 2011 - 11:20 AM.


#18 J. Henry Waugh

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Posted 15 March 2011 - 11:25 AM

NBooth: You can't go wrong over at Rara Avis. The current list is a shadow of its former self (partly, I think, because several of the best and most generous posters have died--we really relied on them as discussion starters). But the archives are a treasure.

#19 NBooth

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 03:15 PM


I've actually got several of those contemporaries you mention on my shelf right now waiting for me to finish Halfway House. Can I add that I've found David Peace's Tokyo novels to be fantastic? He's an example of an author who takes a branch of mystery/crime fiction (the procedural) and merrily demolishes it as he goes after other game.


Stoked. Added to the list.


I should note that, while the first book (Tokyo Year Zero) seems to have been pretty well received, its sequel Occupied City has been...polarizing. Some readers hate it, find it pretentious and dull, and positively froth at the mouth at its stylistic tics; others (such as myself) go into raptures about repeated sentences, repeated sentences and TEXT THAT ALTERNATES LIKE THIS combined with a huge dose of strikethrough. I find it very immersive, myself, similar to the way Faulkner's unending sentences create a dream-space that can't quite be replicated with conventional prose. But I think I've got a weakness for pretension.

EDIT: Veering into personal territory, I'm very excited to have received my copy of Isn't Justice Always Unfair? The Detective in Southern Literature. The book traces the development of the form from its inception in Poe (it's always odd, to me, to think of him as a Southern writer, since he was born in Boston and spent much of his adult life in places like Baltimore and New York) up through Carl Hiassen. Since I'm hoping that the next stage of my academic career will involve genre studies, I'm looking forward to digging into this book.

Edited by NBooth, 16 March 2011 - 03:23 PM.


#20 Ryan H.

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 06:39 PM

One mystery writer I am only loosely acquainted with is Arturo Perez-Reverte, who I gather is most well-known for his "Alatriste" novels, although the only book of his I've read all the way through is THE CLUB DUMAS (which served as the foundation for Polanski's THE NINTH GATE, although the book and film have fairly substantial differences). But THE CLUB DUMAS did strike me as a very interesting kind of postermodern mystery, particularly for the way it handles its "solution," which is both kind of fun and kind of unsatisfying at the same time. Its appeal lies mostly in the world in which the mystery is set: the world of book-collecting, where missing chapters of Dumas are deeply prized, and occult secrets lie hidden in the pages of forgotten tomes. There is also something to be said for the way in which Reverte uses discussions of Dumas' body of work as an opportunity to defend his own kind of literature.

I did start a second book of Reverte's--THE SEVILLE COMMUNION--but it didn't seem anywhere near as well-written as THE CLUB DUMAS and so I subsequently put it away, moving on to other things.