Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The State of the Art in Time and Space

Sharon Wildwind

Next week I’m speaking to a local book club. As I always do before one of these gatherings, I thought about the state of the mystery art. Where are we today? Who’s hot and why? What’s the common thread running through the current crop of popular mysteries?

For the first time in six years, nothing leapt to mind. Had I not been paying attention? Hardly. I’m a great believer that if you’re going to write the genre, you need to both read the genre and read about it. I read five mystery-related lists, plus this blog. I subscribe to four mystery journals and I read every issue—maybe not for several months—but I do eventually read them. A big percentage of the movies I watch on DVDs are mysteries. I read, on average, two mysteries a week, chosen from the whole spectrum. Well, okay, I don’t read vampires and I don’t read the off-the-scale torture, rape, cannibalism ones. I don’t know, maybe there is some connection there, something about I don’t eat red meat either. Maybe I like my blood confined to emergency rooms.

So, getting a little desperate since the book club is now only nine days away and I have not one thing to say, I dropped back to my old standby. Say something about the current crop of awards. I started by looking at the best novel nominees for the Edgars (Mystery Writers of America) and Agathas (Malice Domestic Convention).

And there the threads were: old scandals, long-held family secrets, vanished places, cold cases, the cold war, a society struggling to come to terms with a war, denial of the past, hiding the past, and suede pixie boots as a symbol of the 1980s. Only two of the books were set in current time, and one of those dealt with the past coming back to haunt. The rest were either set in or had strong plot connections to 1830, 1836, 1931, 1975, 1984, 1987, and 1990.

I realized with some surprise that I write smack-dab in the middle of this trend. My books are set in the early 1970s for a good reason. The Viet Nam war and it’s immediate aftermath is the backdrop and I couldn’t just move the war to another time or another planet. Well, I could, but since the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, among others, has already done that so well, why try?

Writing the past isn’t only nostalgia. There’s something satisfying about writing a closed set, knowing past, present, and future of the context in which the story takes place. And setting a book in 1830 or 1975 gets rids of all that pesky technology. There are just so many times your heroine can forget her cell phone or not charge the battery. There’s just so much speculation characters can do about a suspect before someone says, “Why don’t we look him up on the Internet?” Which ever end of the criminalistic spectrum you choose, whether it be the CSI glamor-lab or the appalling length of time—years in many cases—that real law enforcement agencies have wait for evidence to be processed, the growth in forensic science and criminalistics means that your detective might as well go home and watch baseball until “the lab” solves the case for her.

None of my characters have those problems. I’m thinking of bringing in a character with a fax machine, but I’m not sure at this point that there are enough fax machines out there in 1974 for him to have anyone with whom to correspond. Maybe I’ll just let him get a really good hi-fi instead.

The other trend I noticed is location, location, location. A couple of weeks ago, one of the mystery lists had a lively discussion about agents and publishers telling writers that any mystery set outside of New York City was doomed to failure. True two of the award nominees were set in New York: one at the military academy at West Point and the other in upstate New York, neither of which is exactly Times Square. The others were set in Istanbul, Scotland, England, an unnamed eastern country, California, Arizona and Kansas. Maybe the “experts” in New York should get out of town once in a while.

Oh, in case you want to read the nominees and winners, here’s a list

The 2007 Edgars (Mystery Writers of America)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (the winner)
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris
The Dead Hour by Denise Mina
The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard
Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer

The 2007 Agathas (a fan-based award, awarded at the Malice Domestic Convention)
The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard (the winner)
All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Messenger of Truth, by Jacqueline Winspear
The Saddlemaker's Wife, by Earlene Fowler
Why Casey Had to Die, by L.C. Hayden
Writing quote for the week:
You probably are familiar with the beginning of this sentence, but here is the whole thing in all its original glory.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, from the novel "Paul Clifford” (1830)


Julia Buckley said...

Great quote, Sharon! I didn't know the "dark and stormy night" cliche originated from an actual book!

And some interesting facts about the state of mysteries today. Are you ready for that book chat now?

Lonnie Cruse said...


Wish I could be there for your book chat! Sounds interesting.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

The funny thing to me about the "dark and stormy night" is that it's become the emblem of bad writing--but the paragraph, though rather florid by our standards and from the point of view of the currently unfashionable omniscient narrator, is not so bad.

And speaking of trends, I read two excellent books not in my usual taste because I got them free at the Edgars--The Pale Blue Eye and Gentlemen and Players--and both of them featured an unreliable narrator. (To avoid spoilers, I won't say more, but both used the device very effectively.)