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
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.