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The So What Factor

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A long time ago–around the time I first met Bill–I came up with a kind of schema for classifying detective novels, a way of sorting them out for the purposes of talking about them.

The schema used to drive Bill nuts, because, as he said over and over again, “nobody else uses that.”  And nobody else does. 

But I found that schema very useful to me, and I still use it.

It goes like this:  there are three basic kinds of detective stories.

There’s hard boiled, which is a book that concentrates on the life and adventures of the detective and that is gritty and often dark.

Then there’s soft boiled, which is a book that concentrates on the life and adventures of the detective and that is not so gritty and not dark at all.

Then there’s traditional, which is a book that concentrates on the crime and the suspects and where the detective functions more as an organizing principle.

I bring t his up at the moment because I’ve spent the past day reading a little light mystery of a kind I rarely read anymore.    I’m  not going to give the name of the book or of the author, because the author is somebody I rather like as a human being, and what I’ve tgot to say not only about this book, but about the entire category, is not necessarily positive.

And what I have to say is this:  I don’t understand why anybody reads this kind of thing.

You’ve got to understand.  There’s nothing in particular wrong with this book, or with the dozens of books like it that are published every year.  The writing is solid enough.  The basic underlying mystery isn’t too shabby, either, although in this particular case it’s a bit obvious.

The obviousness may clear itself up in a book or two.  This is a fairly new writer.  She just may not have figured out how to throw enough confetti around the room to mask her real purposes.

The problem is that although there’s nothing really wrong with the book, there’s nothing really right with it, either.  Since it’s written in first person, we get very little insight into the characters involved in the mystery.

That’s always a danger with first person, although it can be compensated for by giving the book a narrator with insight into the other characters.  That’s not here.

But what also isn’t here is much in the way of insight into the narrator herself. 

If there’s one thing you can do with first person narration, it’s explicate quite a lot about your narrator’s interior life.  There is literally none of that here, and the narrator, although pleasant enough, comes off as sort of dead flat.

The other thing you can do with a first person narrator in a detective story is to concentrate on the detection–to show the way the detective unravels the mystery.

 But in some weird and indefinable way, that isn’t here either.  The detective gets clues and follows up on them, but there’s no sense that solving the mystery is at the center of the narrative.  It’s just sort of there.

By now, half of you are out there thinking that I’ve got it all wrong.  This really is a bad book, and I don’t want to think so because I like the author.

But that’s really not it.  Everything that ought to be in this thing is here.  All the basic elements of a good detective story are present and accounted for. 

It’s just that they lack–I don’t know.


I have no idea why I care about some characters when I read and why I sometimes don’t–but I usually care, even in very bad books indeed. 

And with this, it’s like there’s no there there. 

To steal from Gertrude Stein, who is one of those writers everybody steals from.   

And, thinking about it, this is how I generally respond to soft boiled mysteries.  They lack some essential power source for me.

But it’s me they lack a power source for.  Soft boiled is probably the most popular form of detective novel available these days.   You can go to Barnes and Noble and find the mystery section literally overrun with them. 

Which means there must be people out there who are buying them and reading them, over and over and over again.

It’s getting to the point where I am less and less able to understand why people read what they do, and I don’t think it’s because I’ve got some Seven Sisters snob thing going on where I turn my nose up at the “accessible.”

I used to joke that I read books the way other people watched television.  I meant that I read them constantly.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that some people really do read the way they watch television–on autopilot, without really paying attention.

Because if you pay too much attention to this kind of thing, it disappears.

Written by janeh

April 28th, 2011 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The So What Factor'

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  1. OK. Not the division I use, but I think I understand it well enough. I’m thinking of an ex-nun–Christine Bennett?–as an example of the type, if I’m right and someone else (Fowler?) with titles taken from quilt patterns? I used to read some but they didn’t make the list for the apartment.
    And I’ll skip my usual diatribe on the subjective element in literature.
    But I would agree they’re difficult to engage emotionally. There’s no one to emotionally engage with. I don’t think the first person narration is the problem: a first-person narrator can be very revealing about himself. But these narrators aren’t under severe stress (then they’d be hard-boiled) and they aren’t focused on the mystery and the suspects the way a traditional would be.
    It’s an easy level to fall into, if you will. Crusie’s TELL ME LIES and FAST WOMEN are soft-boileds starting as romances, and when a traditional author gets tired you get something similar. (Anyone who bought Stout’s DEATH OF A DUDE under the impression it was a real detective story ought to have gotten a refund.)
    I think they’re comfort food–and yes, a lot of television operates that way too. By and large the readers don’t need to draw up family trees or time schedules, as in traditionals, and they’re not going to emotionally bond with someone who’s had half his family tree killed by the Outfit, as in hard-boiled. The soft-boiled asserts that there is order in the universe, and everything will work out in the end. I do not say this to desparage them: I’ve eaten a few cookies myself. For that matter, there’s a lot of comfort food sold in bookstores over in non-fiction, too. These will last longer and do less damage than THE BEER AND POTATO CHIP DIET and its political equivalent.


    28 Apr 11 at 4:57 pm

  2. Appeal of the soft boiled detective story, IMO:

    1) The reader wants a predictable outcome. That is not say, the reader wants a predictable mystery but she or he does want the cast of core characters to survive intact. Probably, this gives the reader a sense of control that she or he doesn’t have in real life. I would call this the Nancy Drew factor. No matter how many stories were told Nancy always had titian red hair, a boyfriend named Ned, and roadster.

    2). The reader wants intimacy short hand, maybe to soothe an internal loneliness. I am thinking of the amount of ordinary detail which gets described for no reason in light weight mystery. Like food..I sometimes stop reading when the writer desribes dinner or breakfast for no apparent reason. Sometimes, I keep reading because I want an escape. Other types of descriptions: morning routines, color and decorating schemes, exercising. Sure these can be used to build a character but more often these descriptions are just ‘cues’ to trigger familiarity to the reader’s life. Hence, the false intimacy of ‘soft boiled’ mystery.


    28 Apr 11 at 7:37 pm

  3. PS…do you have a category for Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective books? I would also include Collin Coterill’s books set in Laos under this category.
    These are mysteries where the location is its own character.


    28 Apr 11 at 7:47 pm

  4. These are pretty much sui generis, I think. I’m a great fan of Precious, and I have them all. I don’t see them as mysteries or detective stories but rather as gentle social commentary, ie without the sort of pious and self-righteous preaching that usually accompanies that type of thing.


    29 Apr 11 at 2:45 am

  5. So I started trying to think of examples of Jane’s three categories. Hardboiled, of course, is Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritson, and Dana Stabenow. Each has handed me a reading experience I can only call “harrowing” at one time or another.

    The soft-boiled is like Jane Churchill or Donna Andrews. Both of those I really like, Andrews more than Churchill. But there are numerous others that I cannot stand to read, because they’re too lightweight and brainless. Repetitive, lacking in actual character development, and with a flat learning curve. Yes, D.M Davidson, I’m looking at you and your caterer.

    The traditional doesn’t really get published much any more, does it? You often have to settle for it being mixed with the other two. PJ Tracy, for example.

    I think Mary is correct in what she says about the appeal of the cozy or soft-boiled mystery. People don’t want that harrowing involvement with the characters. They want to read about characters they consider friends, without any actual danger that their friends might change or be adversely affected by the events of the book. They want a resolution in the second-to-last chapter (equivalent to 45 minutes into an hour TV show) and a little wrap-up at the end to tuck in all the loose ends.

    As long as they’re well-written, I’m not sure these kinds of books are any worse than watching, say, America’s Next Top Model. ;) Brain candy. Comfortable jammies.

    I think you’d be shocked to find out how many readers consider Gregor & Bennis to be among their literary friends, and who read the series for that, not the puzzles.


    29 Apr 11 at 1:02 pm

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