Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Here be Dragons

Sharon Wildwind

A while ago, say 2002, being a new and naive mystery writer, I thought I had a handle on mysteries. So confident was I that I reduced the mystery spectrum to a simple diagram.

I listed authors under each category, but I’ll let you add your own.

My basic premise was that each category was fairly clean and could be identified by how much blood, violence and gore appeared on-stage; what emotion drove the plot; and how likely a reader was to laugh verses need anti-depressant therapy after having read extensively in a given category.

Recently, preparing for a talk at a local library, I revisited my original diagram. The mystery world has changed in the past seven years.

For a while we’ve had to deal with the mystery/thriller split, and periodic discussions over when does a mystery become a thriller and vice versa. “Mystery” and “Thriller” are, of course, marketing terms. We writers joke among ourselves that the definition of “thriller” is “we want you to buy this book.”

What surprised me is how polarized the second chart is. We’ve lost something in the middle ground, something I’ve called “here be dragons” after the markings on old maps.

Be that as it may, we’re stuck with those two terms, and often asked to explain the the differences to readers. I usually start my explanation with the two definitions in the above chart.

Personal disclosure: most of what I read falls along the procedural/traditional/funny axis in the older chart and solidly in the mystery corner of the newer chart. So I had no difficulty assembling a possible reading list of those kinds of books.

Reluctantly, in the spirit of inclusiveness and fair play, I grudgingly decided to explore that dark (and mostly unknown to me) corner, thrillers. Boy, did I get my eyes opened.

The first thing I discovered was that thriller writers seem to be incredibly prolific. Many have at least two series, sometimes three in active productions. The prolific champion so far was Dennis Lynds (1924 – 2005), who not only wrote literary books and short stories under his own name, but fiction under the pen names of Michael Collins, William Arden, Mark Sadler, John Crowe, Maxwell Grant, and Carl Dekker. His lifetime output was 80 novels and 200 short stories.

The second thing was that the gender discussion is not an issue. The old saw that women write traditional mysteries and men write thrillers is dead. And about time.

The final thing was just how dark some of these books have gotten. Talk about angst and the darker side of human nature. Here’s my take on the plot spectrum for thrillers. What they share in common is that none of them pull any punches; everything is on stage.

Disgraced professional or a professional who is trying not to be overcome by the dark side: criminalist; doctor; FBI agent, profiler, counter-terrorist; hard-boiled detective; high placed officers of multi-million dollar corporations; lawyer; military; police officer; politician; reporter; scientist or spy

End of the world as we know it: biological disaster; creation of super soldiers; ecological disaster; natural phenomena (often helped along by men meddling where no man should go); nuclear disaster; race against time to save the world; or scientific doomsday

Urban rot: America’s dispossessed; drug dealing; missing women; the underside of modern city life or vigilante

Myths, legends, and the paranormal: ancient symbols and myths; paranormal beings, such as vampires, demons, angels, or ghosts; or the use of science fiction/fantasy settings

Damaged people: children in jeopardy; childhood traumas resurface in adulthood; deeply disturbed young women trying to survive; people haunted by their pasts; ordinary people in extraordinary situations; serial killers; woman in jeopardy; or woman in jeopardy in a rural setting—the woman must not only outsmart the serial killer, but battle the elements as well

It was the children who surprised me most. The other old saw that is unfortunately dead is harm no child. There are many books out there now where childhood traumas surface after decades, and books where very bad things are done to children, or where children, whom adults and society have failed, must solve crimes and dispense vigilante justice and/or retribution themselves.

I think that is the saddest note of all.


Quote for the week:

The break in private eye novels started with Michael Collins [pen name for Dennis Lynds]. At the end of the 1960s, he gave the form something new, a human touch needed for years. His novels are much more than entertainment. There is a philosophy behind the detective, and in each book we take a look at a special section of American society. ~Crime Literature Association of West Germany


Auntie Knickers said...

I'm with you on my usual reading choices. I did read the two books by S.J. Bolton (Sacrifice and Awakening) which I'd characterize as thrillers with a bit of whodunnit, and they were very good.

Sheila Connolly said...

I can't argue with your new, simplified chart (love the dragons). But what continues to mystify me is that the thrillers get all the public attention, in both sales and reviews. Readers prefer violence and tension over a mind-puzzle?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Antie, there are some cross-overs or melds with some from one end of the line and some from the other.

Sheila, here's my personal opinion take on the public attention:

Large numbers of "thriller" writers are younger men; large numbers of "mystery" writers are middle-aged to older women. A) Men have more clout in publicity and marketing; B) Going back to that multiple series in production, the more frequently an author has a book out, the more the publicity opportunities; C) Women will read books by both men and women, men are more likely to read books by men. [This one, unfortunately, has been confirmed by numerous polls.] Advertise a thriller by a woman and you might reach more people than advertising a mystery by a woman.

Sandra Parshall said...

There IS a middle ground between thrillers and mysteries: psychological suspense.Ruth Rendell excels at it. So does Thomas H. Cook. Among the more recent arrivals to this subgenre are Sophie Hannah (LITTLE FACE, THE WRONG MOTHER, etc.)and Jennifer McMahon (DISMANTLED, etc.). They write stand-alone suspense that includes very little actual violence and blood and depends on the characters' psychological turmoil to drive the story. The Nicci French novels also fall into this category. This is my favorite type of crime fiction, and there's not enough of it being published.

kathy d. said...

Mind-puzzles yes! Blood, gore, dysfunction, gratuitous violence no!

I don't read "thrillers" or "traditionals." Somehow I find lots to read in-between, with Donna Leon, Fred Vargas, Denise Mina, Arnaldur Indridasson, Tana French, Elizabeth Zelvin, Elizabeth Hand, Louise Ure, Marcia Muller, and legal mysteries by lots of writers, including Paul Goldstein and David Rosenfelt (witty, fun), Michael Connelly, Steve Martini and more. L.R. Wright (Laurali Rose Wright) was a new find; a Canadian, she wrote suspense which are good. Just wrote down R.J. Harlick and Barbara Fradkin to try. And more Scandinavians. But there is so much out there that isn't at either pole. I still want interesting characters and mind puzzles. And I abhor violence, blood and gore and will skip those parts if I get pulled into a book with those things included.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

It is amazing how many books are available even within subgenres. I'm a fan of historical mysteries and I would have years of reading even if I never ventured outside of that. I would say the crime fiction genre hasn't necessarily fractured, but it has "niched." There's just about something for every taste.