Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Whine and Roses

with 6 comments

Okay, I have to start here by saying that I am an ordinary sort of person, and something of an idiot at times.  This explains why, every six months or so, I google myself and see what comes up.

What came up this time was an Internet reivew, linked here


of the kind that makes me wonder if I live in an alternative universe. 

The problem isn’t that the review is bad–it’s bad enough, but, believe me, I’ve had worse.  I can still remember what Kirkus said about my first novel, “an amateurish mess of a plot.”  They may have been right.

What confused me about this was twofold–one was the complete wrongheadedness of it in simple explanatory terms.  It’s not that the reviewer thought I was doing what I was trying to do badly.  I think that of myself all the time.

It’s as if the reviewer has no idea that anybody writing mystery fiction would be trying to do what I’m trying to do at all.  

Hmmm, the reviewer says.  Why would anybody want to read these books?  It must be the comfort they get from hearing about things on Cavanaugh Street–although there’s never much of that in the books, so, um…

Actually, there are Gregor Demarkian novels with virtually nothing about Cavanaugh Street in them, and I’m with the reviewer here.  If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re really going to have a hard time getting it.

And yet what I’m trying to do–and may be doing very badly–is hardly unique to me.  Mysteries that concentrate on the suspects and not on the detectives are out there–P.D. James does them.  So do Frances Fyfiled and Martha Grimes (sometimes).  It’s not like I invented something.

Beyond that, however, is something else–and that is the demand that mystery novels have examples of “great detection,” for instance.

Maybe I read the wrong mystery books, but I can’t think of one that does.

For one thing, by now, virtually every mystery plot available, in or out of the subgenre of detective fiction, has been done not once but a hundred times.  It’s gotten to the point where I can almost predict a set of plots that will occur in almost any series if it lasts long enough–the one where the cop is the killer , for instance, and the one where the person thought to have been dead for many years has actually been alive all that time.

Genres are like any other art form.  They have a natural history, and the mystery genre has been going on for so long, and now takes in so many authors, that pretty much everything that can be done has been done.

And it doesn’t help that Agatha Christie, good writer or mediocre writer or whatever, managed to anticipate most of them sixty years ago. 

Now, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the author of the review/blog linked above is male.  In my experience, men tend to like lots of plot and to see nothing but wasted time and space in a concentration on character. 

But even so, even most plot-besotted readers should have noticed by now that there really isn’t anytihng new in the way of plot out there, and hasn’t been for years.  There isn’t much new in the way of detection, either.   I’ve been watching my way through four and a half seasons of the old Perry Mason, and I can see the plots coming down the pike as predictably as summer follows spring.

But that’s not because Perry Mason is trite, or unoriginal.  It’s just that this particular form of narrative, with these particular parameters, has a limited number of available plots.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I can’t imagine reading a mystery for the plot, and I really have no particular use for reading one for the continuing characters, who are either going to be boring as hell in no time at all or are going to have the kind of overwrought lives that make Dark Shadows look like a children’s story.

Apparently, however, a lot of people out there are innocent of the idea that you might want to read mystery fiction for any other reason.


Written by janeh

May 26th, 2010 at 7:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Whine and Roses'

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  1. […] her blog, author Jane Haddam takes issue with my review of her book Cheating at Solitaire here on this one. […]

  2. Hi Jane

    I’ve posted a reply over at my blog.


    Best regards

    Steve Lewis


    26 May 10 at 1:01 pm

  3. That’s an odd review, and a little incoherent. I agree with you, Jane, about not reading mysteries primarily for plot – we’ve discussed that here before. But I’m not sure why the knock on Gregor having a life. Book characters have to resemble real people at least to an extent to be believable; this involves having people that they interact with and a home. Even Poirot had that, though for the most part he goes around detecting in other places.

    I do think people will read books about characters that they like, though. You may be right that if it’s all about the characters it will get stale quickly, but while I’ve read books that are populated entirely by people who are offputting and unlikable AND have been able to recognize that the writing is good (or not) I don’t want to spend too much of my limited recreational reading time with a bunch of assholes, even fictional ones.

    So characters that can at least be respected, if not liked, are a positive thing, though not the only thing.

    I’m just glad that when I google myself nothing comes up! You should revisit that website, though, the guy noticed this blog post and responded.


    26 May 10 at 1:25 pm

  4. It sounds a bit like you and the reviewer are talking past each other – did you see his response to your response?

    I’m not sure that I’d call your books cozy, exactly, except in the sense that you don’t dwell on the blood and guts. I suspect I’d find Cavanaugh Street very claustrophobic, and as you point out, a lot of the books don’t spend a lot of time there. If I want a nice setting that is familiar and comfortable, I wouldn’t look in your books for it – and in fact, although setting is not at the top of my list of priorities when choosing a book, when I consider it, I go for the new-to-me and exotic and exciting every time.

    I like plot. OK, there aren’t any original ones, but I like seeing what someone does with the old familiar ones, and as I’ve said before, I like the ‘puzzle’ element in mystery fiction a lot.

    I like the way you look at groups of people or social situations and work them out. Sometimes I like it more than other times – but the ones I like or at least find interesting so far outnumber the other enough to keep me reading.

    I wouldn’t have thought ‘hometown values’ are what you’re getting at at all.


    26 May 10 at 1:28 pm

  5. There are an astonishing number of google hits on my name, but none of them are me, at least not as far down as I bothered to go. I really didn’t think my name was that popular! I think the last time I did it, some years back, I showed up pretty high in the listings because I was listed as a contact person on a website.


    26 May 10 at 1:34 pm

  6. If the “first mystery” was SWEET, SAVAGE LOVE, the plot is not amateurish, but there was an error in editing. Somewhere around page 140 of the hardcover, someone should have told me WHY the money is bouncing in and out of accounts. (I keep hoping for a revised edition–which I will buy, honest! $25 for one missing page.)

    But on the main point, the things we aren’t interested in all have a sameness they lack to those who are interested. The lowest count of “basic plots” I ever ran into was three–and that was from a very successful fiction writer. But there’s a serious difference between “basic plot” or even “narrative arc” and “story.” Becaue the Watson or the Policeman have been the murderers in other detective novels doesn’t mean they never can be used well again. To me, we’ll run out of plots about the same time someone composes the last music.

    But the same is true of character. A Meirs-Briggs test would tell me there are only 16 human personalities, and I’ve seen counts as low as four. Nero Wolfe admited only three motivations for homicide. But a talented writer and an interested reader can find infinite variations on character and motivation.

    As for the series character, if the series is about the character’s life, six or eight volumes ought to go from adolesence to raising his own children. But if we’re watching to see how the character might cope with this or that situation, or watching over the Great Detective’s shoulder to try to solve a Fair Play mystery–well, few people tell me there are too many Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe mysteries.

    I would say as a general rule if a reviewer can’t see the point of a novel or series which nonetheless has fans, the reviewer should admit a blind spot and let someone who thinks there is a point do the review.(Meaning I wouldn’t let you review John Ringo or David Drake.) This is even more true of criticism. This doesn’t mean a review has to be favorable, but an essay which says “this is what the author was trying to do, and here is where I think he failed” has value. It may help readers better understand the book. The review which says “no book of this type should be written or read” may be fun to write, but has no value. (Think I’m exagerating bad reviews? Read Edmund Wilson on Tolkien–or mysteries.)


    26 May 10 at 3:42 pm

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