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When I write mysteries, I often also read mysteries.  And I tend to read older mysteries, at least as much because it’s hard to find the kind of mystery I like being published today. 

We are in an era of “thrillers,” and thrillers don’t thrill me very much.

But we are also in an era of escalation, if that’s the word for it. 

There are so many mysteries being published by so many different people in such a very few subgenres, that each of the subgenres seems to me to be in a state of constant one-upsmanship. 

I have no idea if the grammar of that sentence makes any sense.

But you know what I mean.  Each author feels the need to go one better than the last author, especially the last best seller author.   Each serial killer novel is gorier and more outrageous than the last.  Each police procedural has a more convoluted set of body wounds or a more complex set of twists that rely on the idea that the police aren’t necessarily angels.

This kind of thing causes problems in any subgenre it occurs in.  After awhile, readers like me tend to get innured to the blood and gore and yet another sexual aspect and to feel more bored than shocked or entranced.

But in the particular subgenre in which I work–the fair play mystery–there’s another problem, and it’s a big one.

If you’re going to start out your mystery with a corpse found in a spectular situation–dressed like a bat and hanging upside down from its knees from the lintel of his wife’s front door, say–you’d damn well better have an explanation that is just as spectacular.

Okay, I’ll admit it.

I like that bat thing.

But I’m never going to use it, because there are only two ways in which I could explain it that would be in any sense plausible.

The first is that there is something about the commission of the crime that REQUIRES the perpetrator to resort to such a thing.

And by requires, I don’t mean “was made at the victim and this was his way of getting revenge on the victim by making the victim look ridiculous.”

That’s the kind of explanation we get for most of these things, and it’s beyond lame.

I know a lot of you here don’t think it’s necessary to stick to what could happen in the real world when you’re writing a story, but a situation like the one I’ve outlined above, coupled with the kind of explanation I’ve outlined above is beyond being implausible.  It’s just plain silly.

Murderers do not dress their victims up as bats and hang them from lintels for the very good reason that doing so naturally increases the chance that they’ll be caught. 

That kind of thing takes a lot of time, and it provides many more opportunities for the murderer to leave physical evidence, like fingerprints and clothes fibers. 

The closest thing I ever saw to a decent explanation for a situation like this came in a Murder, She Wrote episode, where the corpse was dressed in a costume from a costume party in order to make people believe, when seeing it, that it was really somebody else.

The plot did  not require that anybody buy the mistaken identity for very long, and the reason for the switch was in fact necessary to the murderer getting away with it, but it was still iffy.

In most cases, the explanation isn’t nearly as well thought out, and what we’re left with amounts to “the murderer went through all this extra trouble because the victim locked him in a room with a bat when they were both five.”

The other possible explanation is that the murderer wasn’t able to avoid leaving the corpse in such an outrageous position–that the living person was actually in that position at the time he was killed, or that something about the disposal of the body or the killer’s need to get away left him no other choice but to do this thing.

The obvious problem with this, of course, is that there are very few circumstances in which this sort of thing would be the case.  How plausible is it (there’s that word again) that the ONLY time the killer could have to murder the victim is in the middle of a costume party while the victim is hanging from a lintel in a bat costume? 

In the actual world of murder mysteries, and especially of cozies or quasi-cozies–we get a lot of situations like this in which the reason for the victim wearing the bat costume is plausible enough (costume party, Halloween), but where we are then told that the murderer deliberately posed the body over the lintel.

Worse, we eventually come to find out that by doing this, the murderer was “sending a message” he expected at least some other people to be able to read.

Apparently, the murderer does not care that sending messages of this kind will almost certainly make it much easier for the police to figure out who did it.

This is, I think, a large part of what I don’t like about the core of the “cozie” subgenre.  I’m not a big fan of cute in any case, but I don’t mind the outlying regions of “cozy” which are not so much “cozy” as they are just sort of straightforward middle of the road detective stories.

But the artificialness of this kind of situation makes me wild.

And that goes back to why I end up reading old mysteries.

Before the escalation started, there were a fair number of books written that did the outrageious-circumstance thing fairly well, and did it both plausibly and without resorting to lots of silly not-really-within-the-realm-of-believability explanations.

Of course, there were also a lot of books that did just the kind of awful thing I’m talking about–but they’re now out of print.

This morning, I’m reading Erle Stanley Gardener’s Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife.

He’s very good at the kind of thing I’m talking about.

And he’s a genius–because only a genius could have named a continuing character Ham Burger, and gotten away with it for 40 years.

Written by janeh

March 11th, 2012 at 11:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Hook'

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  1. The bat thing? Piece of cake. Focus on the critical element of the mystery–the copyright date and the page count.

    If the murder us Golden Age or prior, the whole thing is part of the initiation rite for the Order of the Bat–a secret society–and leaving the corpse like that is a warning to other members of the society. If the murder is 1960’s forward, it’s a sexual fetish. If the murder is 50 pages or less, all you have to do is expose the murderous member of the OOTB or reveal which attractive female is the bat fetishist. (HINT: she had a sex scene with the detective. If he only slept with one female character, that’s the one.) If the mystery is 100 pages and up, then the whole bat thing is a red herring. Our vic is still a paid up member of the OOB or a bat fetishist, but Golden Age and prior murder is for revenge or inheritance and Modern Era it’s a matter of societal depravity. (Mind you this is time of writing, not time of setting: especially important when reading Anne Perry or Elizabeth Peters.)

    If it’s Golden Age, just hope no one could possibly have placed our victime there. In that case, Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale solve the case, and we only get a chapter or so of backstory. Otherwise, Sherlock Holmes solves it, and the perpetrator is going to talk for 100 pages about how and when he joined the Order of the Bat–overseas, with impossible geography.

    And I bet if you invent the fetish, it will be in someone else’s novel within two years and in the APA Handbook within three. Kipling claims to have invented a tree–name and characteristics–and seen it in someone else’s print in 18 months.

    But you’re perfectly right about escalating thrills. What I don’t know is how to ease up on the dosage.


    11 Mar 12 at 6:28 pm

  2. Robert, I believe you are entirely correct except for one thing: It takes the American Psychiatric Association a lot longer than three years to revise the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. You will, however, find psychiatrists diagnosing it within 3 years and lawyers getting people off of murder charges because of it within 5.



    11 Mar 12 at 10:45 pm

  3. I sit corrected. I checked and next year’s DSM-V will be the 8th new set of insanities starting in 1952, so eight years, give or take, between editions.

    Cathy’s 3 and 5 sound right, but we could check this. Does anyone know how long between the first reference to “battered spouse syndrome” and the first wife to kill a sleeping heavily insured husband and walk?


    12 Mar 12 at 4:09 pm

  4. I don’t remember, but I do remember coming across a chapter in a true crime book about wife-killers which described an obscure case in which a drunken husband had murdered his wife. The author concluded after describing their lengthy history, which included mutual violence during joint drunken binges that it was a matter of chance whether their marriage was going to end with a wife-murder or a husband-murder. I was briefly startled by this departure from domestic violence orthodoxy, but then I realized that in fact I knew of marriages in which both parties contributed mightily to the mayhem, although so far the people I knew had stopped short of murder.


    13 Mar 12 at 11:31 am

  5. “But you’re perfectly right about escalating thrills. What I don’t know is how to ease up on the dosage.”

    JD and I were discussing these issues earlier today, and we noted that the relatively recent apparent escalation of the shock, horror and blood-thirstiness of mysteries and thrillers seems to follow the same trend that people of a certain age will recall occurring in the early 60s-late 70s. In that period, it often seemed that writers were following each other ever lower and lower into the pornographic sludge inhabited by the likes of Harold Robbins and the Kyle Onstotts of this world. It seemed impossible for writers to have any book published that didn’t entail vivid descriptions of the most spectacular and imaginative, indeed physically unsustainable (to borrow a currently much-abused word) sexual gymnastics – the more gratuitous the better, or so it often seemed.

    Waiting for the usual suspects to give birth to new books, I’ve been paddling around in the Kindle freebie and cheapie swamps where self-published stuff abounds. Not only have female protagonists tended to approach and often exceed the plausible bounds of supreme intelligence, physical prowess and to-die-for good looks, but also they are either perfect wives and mothers or wallowing in the angst of falling short in that one desirable trait while excelling at all the others. Such paragons! Some of them make Scarpetta and even the egregious Lucy look like incompetent little troglodytes.

    But, the most notable and worrying thing about many of the books that I’ve sampled is that there no longer seems to be an effective taboo against explicit violence and/or sexual assault against children. Some of them read like a how-to manual.

    To me this is a real worry, particularly as it has already appeared in the serious end of mystery and thriller fiction.


    17 Mar 12 at 12:19 am

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