Do Mystery Novels Suck?

My brother Tod is going to get in big trouble. In a post today, he explains why he doesn’t ready mysteries any more. Because, in his view, most of them suck.

I used to read a lot of mystery novels but in the last several years
have found myself easily disappointed by the easy conventions I find in
what are acclaimed as the finest in the genre…

…Part of it is a craft issue: I find a lot of mystery novels lazy in
characterization and lazy in drama, relying more often on tricks than

For instance, Tod recently read the acclaimed new bestseller by a beloved mystery author:

It had plot holes on every page, as if
someone had been fisting it. I solved the mystery in the first ten
pages. The villains were stock. The hero was suitably flawed but easily
redeemed and the ending was so schmaltzy that I literally said aloud,
"Oh, come on!" I then went and looked at the reviews of the book and
was stunned to learn it was the writer’s "best book in years." That the
novel was the "finest mystery of the year." That the writing was
"superb" and evoked "Chandler." That the twists and turns of the plot
kept reviewers "constantly guessing." That the ending packed "an
emotional wallop that will keep fans chatting for months!" Had I read a
different book?

He wonders if critics and readers go easier on mystery novels because they expect less from them than they do from other literary works. He also has a problem with the stagnant character development in some mysteries.

Most mystery novels I’ve read lately feel like just another episode,
the characters stuck in a commercial break until the next book comes
out. That, certainly, was the case with the novel I read…a continuing
series character, widely loved, widely praised, widely selling and so
cliched and trite now that it makes the previous works by the author
now seem something less. It’s a bland book, inoffensive in every way,
except that it made me wonder what mystery reviewers (and readers)
truly consider classic or brilliant anymore.

While I agree with Tod in some ways (look at the lambasting I got for not jumping on the Ken Bruen bandwagon) I think there’s a big difference between a series novel — which is, indeed, intended to be like an episode of a TV series — and a standalone thriller. 

Like TV shows, readers expect a series novel to be the same book as the one they read before in the series — only different. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but we TV writers do it every day. A TV series gives you the same episode week after week, year after year, but with enough differences in the individual stories to make the show seem new and fresh.  Marshall Matt Dillon was essentially the same guy in 1955 when GUNSMOKE premiered as he was when the show was cancelled in 1975…and none of the relationships in his life had really changed. The same is essentially true of most other non-serialized TV series and most series novels.

Stephanie Plum, Nero Wolfe, Phillip Marlowe, Shell Scott, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Millhone, Jack Reacher, John Rain, Inspector Rebus… none of these characters have really changed in the course of their respective series. That’s one of the pleasures and comforts of the books…you know exactly what you’re going to get when you open one up.

Can it get dull? Yeah. Can the writers get sloppy and complacent? Sure. Are readers and critics more forgiving of successful series books and the authors who write them? I think so, because the authors and their characters are so beloved. You are pre-disposed to like the book and to cut it a lot of slack (whereas someone coming to the book fresh, without having read the previous titles, might judge it far more harshly and see the cliches the long-tme reader doesn’t).

The problem, perhaps, is that too many new mystery novels these days are reading like pilots for prospective book series rather than as strong, individual novels. You can feel the writer’s burning desire to create a franchise in every paragraph. In some ways, this goes back to the earlier discussion here about creating suspense. Nothing kills a book faster for me than the sense the author is more interested in marketing and promotion than in actually creativing vivid characters and telling a compelling story. He’s looking ahead to the hoped-for series rather than concentrating on writing a fresh, powerful, and provocative book.

Pilot Parade

Perseverance pays off. Five years ago, writer Jed Seidel wrote a sitcom pilot for Fox called MORE PATIENCE, about a NY psychiatrist named Patience More who has troubles in her personal life. The title turned out to be prophetic. The pilot was shot with Mary McCormack in the lead role, but Fox didn’t pick the show up.  Seidel didn’t give up — he  convinced the network to redeveloped it as an hour-long drama.  That version failed, too.  But Seidel, who went on to VERNONICA MARS among other things, didn’t give up. Now MORE PATIENCE is back again…Fox has given a cast-contigent pick-up on another pilot version of the show.

In other pilot news, ABC is developing a TV series version of MR. AND MRS. SMITH, which will be directed by Doug Liman and written by Simon Kinberg, the same team behind the movie.

Spike has ordered 13 episodes of BLADE, based on the the movie that starred Wesley Snipes and the comics by Marv Wolfman. Kirk Sticky Jones (FX’s "Over There") stars as the vampire hunter in the TV version.

Killer Podcast

Author Lewis Perdue is podcasting his own audio version of his recent novel THE PERFECT KILLER. You can download the first two chapters for free and hear Lew reading the book himself.  Lew tells me that he’s found the experience "far harder than he ever imagined" but that he’s getting better at it as he goes along. Give it a listen and judge for yourself.

Hawaii Lee-O

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran an interview with me today, pegged on the series of library visits I’ll be doing in Hawaii next week.  There are quite a few inaccuracies (eg. I never saw an unreleased HAWAII FIVE-O movie, I saw the unaired revival pilot) and misquotes (eg. I never wrote spec scripts for DIAGNOSIS MURDER), I’m still very pleased with the article.

Blowjobs in Space

On last week’s episode of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, we learned
that one of the heroes has been seeing a hooker and paying for sex. In and of
itself, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. We’ve seen characters to do
this on TV before…but can you imagine one of the noble heroes of the last four STAR TREK series or the two
STARGATE shows paying for blowjobs, much less admitting they need, want, and
have sex? I just love the way BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is taking a sledgehammer to
the boring cliches, stale formulas and
cardboard heroes that have hobbled TV scifi series for decades. 

To be fair, FARSCAPE started the cliché-breaking trend in TV
scifi, but then fell into a blackhole of hopelessly maudlin melodrama and
needlessly confusing story-arcs  that
sucked the fun out of the show and actively discouraged new viewers (for a
while, there were two versions of the lead character on two different ships…as
well as two versions of the main villain, one of whom only existed in the mind
of one version of the hero). FARSCAPE became so self-involved and groaningly
angst-ridden that even regular viewers like myself needed healthy doses of
No-Doze and Advil to make it through an episode.

BATTLESTAR manages to sustain involving story arcs, and be
gritty and dark, without losing the exhiliration and the pure fun. And, unlike
FARSCAPE, the show can deal with weighty issues and human drama without taking
itself so damn seriously.   

I think BATTLESTAR may be my favorite show on the air right
now (at least until DEADWOOD and THE SOPRANOS return).

By the way…how anyone could watch the new BATTLESTAR and still pine for the crappy, corny, campy show from the late 70s is beyond me. This is one case where the remake is far, far, far better than the original in every conceivable way.

The Pot of Gold

I got this email today:

love your blog.  could you give me a rough ballpark range of how much money a show creator makes when the successful show hits 100 episodes and goes into
syndication.   5 mil?  25 mil?  50 mil? is it based on a percentage of what they pay for the rights?

It all depends on how good a deal the creator’s agent managed to strike for his client when they did the pilot.  It also depends on how big a hit the show is and how much it sells for in syndication. What a creator makes could be any of those figures you mention…or much, much more…or much, much less. 

For instance, the creator of  TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT probably didn’t make as much as Larry David did on SEINFELD, though both sitcoms reached 100 episodes and went into syndication, . JAKE AND THE FATMAN ran for five years…but has never been in syndication.  IT TAKES A THIEF ran only three seasons but has been rerunning for decades.

What is Suspense?

Author Joe Konrath gave some advice on his blog on how to create suspense. It read, in part:

Writing is a lot like teasing your younger brother with a secret.

The longer you hold it over his head, the more worked up he gets.

stories, no matter the genre, can benefit from suspense. The tension
doesn’t have to be in the form of the bad guy stalking the hero. It can
be much simpler, much less dramatic, but still make the reader want to
keep reading. For example:

"You seem upset," Jack said. "What’s up?"

"I’ll tell you later." Herb said. "In private."

And we have suspense.

No, what you have is bad writing and an irritated reader. I like Joe a lot and, ordinarily, I think he  gives very good advice.  This time, I have to disagree with my friend.   The example he shares isn’t suspense… it’s a cheat, something weaker writers use when they don’t know how to generate any real suspense, which comes from character and conflict, not gimmickry.

Suspense is about conflict, about the obstacles between the hero and his goal. Suspense is about stakes — personal, physical, and emotional — and a race against the clock. Suspense is about the unknown and a head-long dive into it. Suspense is not about contrivance and word-games.

The example Joe gives is the literary equivalent of the TV moment when the heavy opens the drawer in his desk to gaze at his gun…or the serial killer sticks a knife in a picture of his next victim…or the bad guy picks up the phone and says to someone "Sgt. Hooker is nosing around. He must be eliminated before he stumbles on our evil plan"… or having key plot points happen during the commerical so the viewer won’t be aware of them.

I was about to leave a comment telling Joe why I think his advice this time is dead wrong but several other novelists, like Rob Roberge and my brother Tod, beat me to it (they also teach writing at UCLA and UC Riverside). Here’s what Rob said on Joe’s blog:

this so misunderstands the nature of suspense…suspense occurs when
the reader says "What will happen next?" It doesn’t occur when the
reader says "What is happening?" This is a cheap gimmick…and good
writing, no matter the genre, avoids gimmicks…to not say what’s going
on (as in the example you use where a character asks a question and
then have it unanswered), is the sign of an insecure text that doesn’t
trust there’s enough story to hold the reader with good writing and
characters, so they use manipulation and beginner’s tricks.

And here’s what Tod said:

I read a book recently by a crime novelist of some renown who shall
remain nameless and this is exactly the sort of drama building he did
— cryptic conversations that augered for a big reveal somewhere later
on, but which only served to annoy me as a reader, primarily because
the narrator knew all the answers but chose not to share them with the
reader. It felt like a short cut in place of actual emotion and drama.
As a writer, I knew what this writer was doing, could see it taking
shape 100 pages before the big reveal came and I thought, in my writer
hat, Oh, this is a silly thing to do. As a reader I thought, as I sat
out by my pool, Oh, give me a break, just tell me the damn piece of

What are your thoughts?

Oops for OPs

Screenwriter John August does a post-mortem on his aborted Fox pilot OPS. His post provides a  fascinating glimpse into the world of television development.

When a pilot is announced, it shows up in Variety.  Everyone knows about it. 
When a pilot dies, it dies quietly in the corner…

… the show was announced as a “put pilot,” which means that when Fox
made the original deal with Jordan and me, one of the conditions was
that they basically promised to shoot the pilot. In reality, I’m not
sure there is such a thing as a put pilot.

In the case of Ops, there was a substantial penalty that Fox agreed
to pay in the event they didn’t end up shooting the pilot. In a few
months, I’ll get a check with a few zeroes for my trouble. Given how
much time and money it would have taken to shoot the pilot, it’s almost
certainly for the best the train stopped where it did. There’s no sense
producing a pilot if the network didn’t want the show.

When to Go POD

I got this email the other day:

Hi. I’ve been enjoying your blog. Can you give me an opinion here? I’ve written a book for a local businessman here in XYZ. He
wants to get 500-1000 copies published to give to customers, relatives, etc. I notice you say NEVER to pay anyone to publish your book. Does that apply
in a case like this, where we’re really not concerned with selling through
bookstores, publicity, etc.–just want the copies?

This is actually the perfect use of print-on-demand self-publishing.  While I think it’s a mistake to use POD to self-publish your novels, going to a company like iUniverse to print your annual reports, classroom materials, family memoirs and other non-fiction work in trade paperback form to give your students, relatives, employees, investors, etc. makes a lot of sense.  It’s also great if you’re a lecturer, motivational speaker, instructor, etc. who wants to sell your work at your seminars.

For instance, if my book SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION WRITING ever falls out of print, I could see making it available on iUniverse through their Author’s Guild/Back-In-Print program (so it would cost me nothing at all). Would I print out 1000 copies and try to sell it/distribute it myself to bookstores? Hell no.  But there’s  no financial downside for me in offering a new edition for anyone who wants to buy it — as I have done with my UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS book.