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Someday, I’ll Get These Revisions Done

with 6 comments

Actually, it had better be soon, because they’re due back at SMP on the first of July.

Actually, I am, at the moment, in something of a conundrum.  I have never revised a book this extensively in this piecemeal a fashion before.  Usually, if I think I need to make extensive changes, I think I need another book.  I just chuck the thing and start over from the beginning.

In this case, I like the premise, I like the characters, it’s just that something is sort of off.  And it’s possibly to do with the fact that I did my cut on the first draft far faster than I usually do.  Maybe Iwasn’t paying enough attention. 

For whatever reason, here I am.  And it’s driving me crazy.  It kept me up last night, and when I got up this morning I managed about an hour before I had to put on the Frescobaldi. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how this turns out in the long run.

Or, you know, not.

But, frazzled as I am, and in need of jumping up and running around to do about forty errands, I have spent a certain amount of my time getting almost as depressive as some of the people who comment here.

Several weeks ago now, I think–I may be exaggerating the time–I asked anybody who wanted to to give me the name of the book they thought had the best opening paragraphs/pages/chapter, and lots of people posted recommendations.

Between now and then I’ve been looking into them.  I’ve been using Amazon’s “look inside this book” feature for some of them, and grabbing stuff off the shelves when I have them, and hounding bookstore shelves to read in the store (thank you for the chairs, Barnes and Noble). 

The results have been interesting, on a number of levels.  And I’ll get to them.

But today, what I did was to start to think about what made a good mystery, as opposed to what made a good book.

I still think that it’s not possible to write a really good mystery without writing a good book.  But it is true that a book can be a very good book and not be a very good mystery.

Part of the problem, of course, is in what constitutes a “mystery’ to begin with.  The common practice in the professional associations–Mystery Writers of America in the US, Crime Writers in the Uk–is to call all books with crimes in them “mysteries,” and then to divide the mysteries into types:  puzzle mysteries (or “fair play”), quest mysteries,  caper novels, police procedurals, etc.

And we’ve gone over that before on this blog, especially when I’ve been having little fits about cozies.

But right now, I want to talk about the fair play puzzle in particular.  It was the dominant form of the genre in the “golden age,” and has since dropped into a subsidiary part of the genre.

The reasons for that are, I think, closely connected to the existence of television and to the movie services.  Fair play isn’t really a very good foundation for a movie, made for TV or otherwise.  It’s took talky, and it requires paying attention to small details in a way that’s a lot easier when you can go back and forth through the pages of a book.

Readers, on the other hand, have the filmed versions on offer, and they have them on offer before they read the books that began the genre.

I’m doing really terribly here with syntax.

What most people actually seem to want in mystery books these days is some form of action/adventure, with the crime as not much more than the McGuffin on which to hang car chases, explosions, kidnappings, and all that kind of thing.

But right now, I want to concentrate on the fair play puzzle. 

And today, I made a list of what I thought were the best ones I had ever read.

They include (but are not limited to):

Murder on the Orient Express

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Gaudy Night

And it hit me that these are also among the best written–now, talking about the sheer prose and character development–of what came out of the Golden Age.

And Gaudy Night is out of print, at least as far as I can tell. 

But what struck me about the Christies–and these aren’t the only ones on my list–is that the ones I think of as really good mysteries are also the ones that could not be used again ever, by anybody else.  They are unique in their conceptions. 

Which leads me to wonder whether the reality is simply that there are only a finite number of Really Incredible Fair Play Premises, and that once those are used up, there isn’t much of a point to the form.

Except, as I’ve said before, as an excuse–a frame around which to write a different kind of novel.

Some of you reading this blog read fair play–because you read me, and I write fair play.

But lots of you who read the blog can’t get through a book of mine to save your lives.

Are you that way about all fair play? 

If you don’t read fair play, why don’t you?

If you do, why do you?

And yes, I’m soliciting comments again.

But first I have to go off and look at the art for this book I haven’t actually finished yet.

Written by janeh

June 20th, 2011 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Someday, I’ll Get These Revisions Done'

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  1. I may be weird, but I’d have to say that, yes, I read fair play novels – I’ve read all three of those listed above, and in fact just re-read Gaudy Night weekend before last.

    But I’m not reading them because they’re fair play books, I’m reading them (in the case of Gaudy Night) because they’re written well, they take me to a place that I’d like to spend time in (setting aside the series of incidents that constituted the mystery, I’d love to have had the chance to do a degree at Oxford) and when the mystery is solved, it’s not some deus ex machina swooping in out of the sky.

    Which means that the fair play may come into it, but it’s not how I consciously choose a book. Quality of writing, a setting I like, characters I can like.

    I’m not sure why the number of premises should be limited, though. The idea of fair play is just a framework to hang the story on. And, yes, as you know, I do read your books, for much the same reason that I read Sayers – they’re written well, I like the time and place, and I like many of the characters.

    When’s this new one due out?


    20 Jun 11 at 10:28 am

  2. Gaudy Night is alive and well at Amazon:


    And I read all of the above avidly. I love Sayers, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Agatha Christie and even Jane Haddam. But apart from steering clear of the usual suspects, eg Deaver, Patterson and our Patsy, whom I have learnt from bitter experience not to trust, I don’t usually care much about where a particular author fits in the genre.


    20 Jun 11 at 10:48 am

  3. I dunno, Mique, that looks pretty out of print to me. A new mass-market paperback for $39?


    20 Jun 11 at 1:23 pm

  4. I’ve been following this discussion about why we read what we read with interest. Before you asked the question, I had never given it much thought. I was a fortunate child. I had a mother who believed that books were for reading and that you should read as many of them as you liked. She never censored my reading list and always encouraged me to read what I was interested in. I know it can’t be true but I feel like I went straight from Dr. Seuss to Agatha Christie – with a detour or two for Harriet the Spy and the complete Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books. I do remember reading my first Agatha Christie in my grade school years – The Murder at the Vicarage. Once I started I didn’t stop.

    That has probably been my pattern – I find a book that I like (well written, interesting characters) then I try to read everything by that author I can find. I read Borrower of the Night by Elizabeth Peters and kept reading. I read Not a Creature was Stirring – then kept reading. I’ve read Sue Grafton’s books, Kathy Reichs books, Patricia Cornwell’s books (not that they’re fair play), – all the same way.

    But to answer the question – I do read fair play. It appeals to my sense of balance and symmetry. And if life can only be fair in fiction, well – I’ll take that at least! :-)


    20 Jun 11 at 2:00 pm

  5. Talking fair play mysteries only, I have read all Sayers, all Stout, all Tey, all John Dickson Carr, all Heyer, all Conan Doyle some Earl Stanley Gardners and a decent sampling of Christie, including all the Marples and several Poirots–before one gets to “moderns.”
    Note that none of them made the “best opening” list, though I waffled on GAUDY NIGHT. Fair plays tend to build, which doesn’t work well with TV’s “catch them in the teaser” approach to grabbing an audience. And, as you say, people talk to you and kids run in front of the screen. Television is a poor medium when you need attention to detail, though the original Perry Masons and Banacek were among the exceptions.

    The puzzle gets me through once, and then I can’t read it again for years for the puzzle–though I may re-read it for plot, style and characterization. But if those are done right, that’s sufficient. If the puzzle can be cracked at the half-way point and the book is preachy or didactic, I may take a quick check to confirm the ending and pitch it. Life is too short to spend it being lectured at.

    ACKROYD and ORIENT EXPRESS were not repeatable. I’m not so sure about GAUDY NIGHT. But I’m quite sure the modern era has a number of new possibilities–and a fair number of people who don’t remember the old mysteries. (And how does anyone know that all the good ideas have been used up? Proving the absence of an idea is–tricky, at least.) What it may NOT have is a large stock of people who read for pleasure–I blame the schools–pay attention to details (ditto) and reason clearly (one more time–but in each case, the schools had accomplices.) To bring back the Golden Age of the Mystery, I’d begin by bringing back the Golden Age of the Mystery Reader.


    20 Jun 11 at 4:04 pm

  6. I didn’t answer the question about first paragraphs because I don’t remember books that way. I mean, I read first paragraphs, obviously, and if something about them grab me, I’ll probably buy or borrow the book. But I can’t think of examples; I think different approaches pique my interest.

    I’ve read all those books and enjoyed them. I like puzzle-type books, although I read others. I’m not sure that we’ve collectively run out of puzzles to put in them. Maybe the reason they aren’t as dominant as they used to be is because fashion has changed, which might be another way of saying that people don’t want to engage in their books as deeply as a puzzle might require. Or they want to engage deeply with something else; the characters or the locale.

    I actually am not one of those people who actively tries to work out the puzzles, making notes of train times or minor hints/possible red herrings dropped along the way. I do prefer it if the solution is ‘honest’ and I don’t much like it if I realize by about page 6 that the killer was Col. Mustard in the drawing room with the knife. I prefer the let the puzzle just simmer away in the back of my mind while I read.


    20 Jun 11 at 5:38 pm

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