Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mystery with a Little Something Extra

Sandra Parshall

Starting to feel a little Scroogelike because every blog you click on has a holiday theme? Feel like you’re drowning in sentimental good cheer?

Me too.

Let’s talk about vampires instead. And werewolves, ghosts, demons, psychics, and mindreaders.

In case you’ve been languishing on a desert island and missed the news, let me tell you that mysteries with paranormal and supernatural elements are
hot right now. Publishing professionals are generally cautious people who would rather follow a strong trend than try to start one that might fizzle quickly, and that seems to be the case with other-worldly mysteries, as more and more publishers jump on the bandwagon. But somebody had to get the bandwagon rolling in the first place by recognizing that this type of story would appeal to mystery readers. Looking back, it seems to me that the romance genre embraced the paranormal first, and the lines between romance, mystery, and horror have grown fuzzier ever since.

The influence of horror on the mystery genre is nothing new, though. Edgar Allan Poe, considered the father of the modern detective story because of his 1841 tale Murders in the Rue Morgue, spent most of his creative energy on work drenched in horror and the supernatural. Vampires in crime novels, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon, and some mystery writers have borrowed from their colleagues in romance by making their bloodthirsty characters more sexy than terrifying.

For most of us, Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes to mind instantly when we think of vampires, but the world’s first vampire thriller (the term thriller being used in its broadest sense) was Carmilla, a Vampyre Tale, published in 1872 by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Dracula wasn’t published until 1897. Both are grim stories about humans desperately trying to escape the clutches of powerful predators. Not until Anne Rice came along did readers begin to see the human side, so to speak, of fictional vampires. Her characters retain the sensibilities they possessed when they were fully human, and some feel deep regret over what they’ve become. Rice managed to make the undead sympathetic -- and, in some cases, sexy.

These days, vampires can be the good guys, and drop dead gorgeous (sorry) into the bargain. In her groundbreaking Southern Vampires Mysteries, Charlaine Harris writes about the romance between Sookie Stackhouse, a normal young woman except for her ability to read everybody else’s mind, and Bill, a sexy vampire. Harris’s quirky series is a huge hit, and it’s not surprising that other vampire mysteries have popped up in their wake.

Ghosts have crossed over into mystery from horror and romance fiction, and psychics and mind-readers also abound. Victoria Laurie writes about “psychic eye” Amy Cooper. In Madelyn Alt’s Bewitching Mysteries series, heroine Maggie O’Neill hunts ghosts and solves paranormal mysteries. Kay Hooper has built a dark romantic thriller series around a super-secret FBI unit made up of agents with paranormal powers.

In paranormal fiction, getting hit on the head can lead to trouble for a character and a series for the author. L.L. Bartlett writes about an ordinary, likable guy named Jeff Resnick who was knocked unconscious by muggers and woke up with psychic talents that keep dragging him into murder cases. Kat Richardson’s Harper Blaine also got clobbered, and she woke up with a tendency to shift between the normal world and the realm of vampires and ghosts. Since cemetery tour guide Pepper Martin, in the series by Casey Daniels, struck her head on a tombstone, she’s been besieged by ghosts who need her help.

Some series blend the paranormal with a longtime favorite cozy setting, as Alice Kimberly does in her haunted bookshop mysteries. Her heroine, bookseller Penelope Thornton-McClure, didn’t believe in ghosts until she met the spirit of hardboiled 1940s PI Jack Shepard. Now they have a crime-solving partnership.

New paranormal series come along regularly. Annette Blair, author of paranormal romances, ventures into mystery in January with A Veiled Deception: A Vintage Magic Mystery, about a vintage clothing store owner who solves crimes based on the visions she receives from used duds.

The success of a genre-blending book depends entirely on a writer’s ability to create a believable alternate world. Of course, every fiction writer has to do that, but most of us can use familiar points of reference to draw the reader in and persuade him or her to believe in our characters and story. When the characters are vampires, ghosts, werewolves, psychics, and mindreaders, authors must be especially inventive and convincing. The remarkable thing is that so many have succeeded.

A few years ago, a lot of crime fiction authors scoffed at paranormal mysteries and predicted the trend would die quickly because real mystery fans wouldn’t go for them. I don’t think anybody’s saying that now.

P.S. Happy holidays, everyone!


Lonnie Cruse said...

Wow, the cover of Annette Blair's book really caught my eye. Might have to read that.

Merry Christmas one vampire from another. You DO love vampires, right Sandy?

Sandra Parshall said...

>>You DO love vampires, right Sandy?<<

Bloody right I do, Lonnie! Especially now that they've all turned so cute and cuddly. :-) Quite a change from the thoroughly repugnant Bela Lugosi.

Julia Buckley said...

Lots of good reading ideas here. The only vampire book I ever read was an Anne Rice.

Pen N. Hand said...

My "to read" list grows longer & longer. Happy Digging!

sexy said...