Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Point

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Well–let’s start here.  I don’t have a desired word count when I write.  There’s always a minimum, beneath which your publisher doesn’t think you actually have a book, but I get past that without too much trouble.

And no, the mysteries are no more complicated–but then I’ve never read or written mystery novels for the mystery. 

And I want to stress that thing about reading.  I don’t read mysteries for the mysteries.  I read them for the story, which in the best detective novels has to do with the relationships between people, usually the people who are the suspects in the case.

I am, in fact, so thoroughly oblvious to the mystery in a mystery that I often can’t remember it.  A very few mysteries–Murder on the Orient Express; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd–stick in my head so thoroughly that I do remember them, but I read those again anyway, because it doesn’t matter to me if I know who did it.

Which brings me to where I’m at at the moment, which is in the middle of a Perry Mason novel called The Case of the One-Eyed Witness.  I’m reading it hard on the heels of Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.

And although the two writers are very different in some ways, in one they’re exactly alike:  these books are about the detection, period.  Not about the detective (although Perry Mason proposes to Della Street in this one, and she turns him down because she doesn’t want to have to leave work and stay home.  Ah, the Fifties!).

I’m not saying that the books are about their plots–that’s not quite right.  The plots are formulaic, really, and pretty much the same for both. 

What these books are about is the puzzle as a puzzle.  Christie spends time getting you into the lives of the suspects.  Gardner does not.   It almost doesn’t matter, because the primary focus is always on the complicated murder scheme and how it is unraveled.

I don’t think I ever realized how much Golden Age mysteries depend on the mysery.  The last time I read these things, I was very young, and that wasn’t what I took away from them. 

Maybe that’s a good thing, because if I had realized that that was the focus, I might never have written any mysteries of my own. 

I keep thinking about that discussion we had with the people from the other blog.  This seemed to be the kind of thing they said they wanted, but almost no modern day mystery will give it to them. 

The weird thing is, I’m having a really good time.

Maybe this is about what my brain can hold, what with all the other stuff that’s going on.

Maybe it’s just been a long time since I’ve done this.

I wonder why people stopped writing books like this, though, and why nobody seems to want to publish them anymore.

Written by janeh

July 27th, 2010 at 4:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Point'

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  1. I like puzzles in mystery novels. I always have, although I don’t know if that was caused by reading practically all of Christie and a good bit of Stout by the time I was 11 or 12. The other things are a kind of bonus. In fact, one of the reasons I gave up on another author was the way she seemed to lose sight of the fact she was supposedly writing a mystery for long stretches of the story.

    Someone’s still reading Christie – you can always find at least some of her books. Modern examples of the type – well, maybe they’re just considered too old-fashioned for publishers to bother with.


    27 Jul 10 at 7:50 am

  2. Hmmm. I’ll leave why I like classic mysteries for another time, and stick with the question raised–why they don’t make them like that anymore. I don’t KNOW, but I can suggest some possibilities:

    1. They aren’t easy to write. When the puzzle is all there is, the puzzle needs to be perfect–that is, comprehensible but unsolvable until the Big Reveal, and head-thumpingly obvious afterward. Even the greats failed some of the time. There are plenty of authors who can write a 300-400 page “crime novel” with plenty of character and atmosphere who could not write a competent 200 page mystery. (Want proof? Go through the fatter crime novels, outline the mystery and see how often the clues do not produce one and only one guilty party.)

    2. The bar keeps getting raised. I’ve probably read several hundred real mysteries. A new one has to be just as clever, but not be obvious to the old hand who has already read, say six fictional variants on the Tichborne Claimant.

    3. The money man at the publisher’s has to like them. I’m serious here. If the man shelling out the money can’t understand the appeal, he’s in the position of a color-blind man picking fabrics. It gets really obvious in Hollywood: one successful TV show or movie spawns a dozen flops as people who never understood why anyone liked the first one copy the peripherals and miss the essentials. Same thing here. If the publisher doesn’t understand the attraction, you get what Jane says publishers now call “cozies”–cute and emotionally detached crime stories, not generally competent as mysteries. They look like Agatha Christie to someone who never understood why people buy Agatha Christie. It’s very telling that readers and publishers use the word “cozy” to mean different things.

    So if you can’t figure out why the books sell, you can’t pick new ones. You can only try to get the rights to the ones already identified. So there are nice trade papers of Josephine Tey and Rex Stout, and Black Dog & Lowenthal is reprinting Christie in very nice hard covers–but I can’t get anything new. But there’s also

    4. Classic mysteries make demands of the reader as well. With a crime novel, the reader can just come along for the ride. With a good spare mystery, you have to participate. It takes work to do it right. And

    5. I’d have to find new ones, buried among the crime fiction. That’s a different sort of detective work. Much easier to wait for John Dickson Carr to come back into print.


    27 Jul 10 at 4:48 pm

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