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.
26 thoughts on “Do Mystery Novels Suck?”
You wrote: “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.”
I think a lot of it is due to the New York publishing crowd who keep harping about wanting fresh voices, but won’t take a chance on anything that hasn’t been written a million times before. Strong writing, great characterization, but “it doesn’t fit my list” is one excuse I’ve heard way too often.
Is it any wonder so many fresh voices are relegated to small presses–hey, like us with Five Star.
Thank Todd for brining up this important point. The guy had cajones.
I’m a thriller author and a former avid mystery reader. I quit reading mysteries several years ago for the reasons Todd outlines. I have a lot of friends who write mystery series and, frankly, I shudder at the thought of having to read one of their books for a blurb. I’ll buy their books to support them, then give them away after thumbing through to see if anything has changed, but it’s usually the same hero-defeats-serial-killer-who-came-up-with-a-new-way-to-slice-and -dice (usually women, sometimes children.)
Obviously it’s a sucessful strategy–just look at the Edgar best novel nominees–nothing new and fresh there.
Personally, I’d go insane if I had to keep pumping out the same thing over and over again with the same cast of characters. At least TV writers have the camaraderie of each other to keep them from going over the edge. Trilogies push me to the limit.
i like the plum novels. there’s a not bad balance between the entertainment and the hint, hint, hint, mystery in them.
Funny… I feel toward literary fiction what Tod feels toward mysteries. Used to love it, but can’t stand the stuff getting churned out these days. Dull, predictable, pointless, inane, and with plot holes up the wazoo. Feh.
Chacun a son gout, and isn’t it cool that there are books for all of us to relish?
Obviously the entire genre sucks. It’s a wonder anything sells. Hopefully NY will listen to Tod, come to its senses, and stop publishing everything except lit fiction.
Or perhaps the unwashed masses simply aren’t as clever as your brother, and will chow on any cheap swill they’re fed.
Or perhaps Tod needs to read BLOODY MARY. 🙂
enough with the serious debates already. how about commenting on the being a famous writer, emphasis on the fame part. do wannabee actresses hit on you and all that? do people recognize you on the street?
It’s nothing new. In 1997, this is what I wrote about James Lee Burke’s “Cimarron Rose.”
“This is a manly man’s book, full of testosterone, piss and vinegar, where it seems like everyone is savaging everyone else. If Holland is not getting beaten up, his horse is getting slashed, his house ransacked, the new sheriff’s deputy who may or may not be a Fed is getting ambushed, his son’s getting drugged, stripped and dumped at the country club, or any one of a dozen acts of mayhem. Put it to music and you’ve got a country song.”
This won the Edgar for best novel.
“He’s looking ahead to the hoped-for series rather than concentrating on writing a fresh, powerful, and provocative book.”
Of course the writer should first make sure his or her current story is a good one in itself, but don’t you think the current market tends to feed this series-motivated writing? Everyone wants to brand themselves. The publishing world has become more about business than art. Perhaps we’ve all gotten a little carried away with the business end of things.
Great posts. You and Tod have both made me think. The book I’m working on now is one I hope to make a series, but I also want to write the best story possible, a satisfying mystery in itself, whether it has series potential in others’ opinion or not. I suppose the perfect series fiction strikes a balance somewhere in there.
I agree with Tod. Most of my reading these days is written by long-dead old-timers because those writing mysteries today just can’t get the job done. How many drunk, divorced, ex-cop private eyes (or cops or whatever the hero-of-the-week is) with a “haunted past” can there be before a gag reflex results? That theme worked great with Matt Scudder, but even Block must have realized he coudln’t keep Matt drunk and haunted forever before he dried him out after a few books. Crime-themed Movies and TV shows are following the same path as well, making them impossible to watch. When’s the tide going to turn?
there is nothing intrinsic in any work of art that makes it great, only atributes that people ascribe to said work of art.
Are you having any luck finding someone who’ll argue the other side of this?
I have to think that if you can see “the burning desire to create a franchise in every paragraph”, then the writing may not be so good. Everyone reads a different book, but in the end, it’s the quality of the writing that distinguishes good and great books from OK or mediocre ones.
As you said, “one of the pleasures and comforts” of crime fiction is in knowing “exactly what you’re going to get when you open one up”. To me, the fun of reading crime fiction comes from the ways the best writers fool around with its generally accepted parameters. They push it, without going over the edge, and the quality of their work makes the familiar seem new again.
Funny you should mention Nero Wolfe as a character who doesn’t change during the course of the series. I just read “In the Best Families,” one of the few books where he really does change — literally, into another person. Of course, at the end, all the characters (except one) are headed back towards their status quo.
Reviewers go easy on almost every book, no matter the genre, because there are real-world consequences for publicly saying a novel is lousy. If you want to make enemies by the busload – writers, agents, publishers – slam a well-hyped novel. On the other hand, if you write a love letter, the only people who lose out are the saps who actually buy the stinker.
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.
I think this is exactly it. And the first person to comment blamed the pub houses for forcing this… I don’t buy that. Well, I do, but what I mean is there’s a big and very obvious difference when you read something that’s been written because the author figured it would make a marketable franchise, and when you read something that you can tell was written without thought to the dollars it might bring in.
And if you look at the standout books in this genre over the past several years, the ones most praised tend to be the latter.
I wouldn’t lump the whole of mystery/thriller genres together. I hear there’s somewhere between 10k-20k novels being published every year and maybe 1000 make it to bestseller lists.
There are many, many good novels on the market that don’t get the publicity because they aren’t by “known” authors.
Go to a local independant or genre bookstore and look for an imprint by an Indie publisher like Bleak House or Poison Pen, and check out someone new. I think you may be surprised at what really is out there.
Interesting post. I think we grow as readers therefore what we thought was a good book at one time we now look back on and wonder why. But don’t look down on anyone behind you on the path in their mystery reading — some books are for you and some are for them.
I agree with Lee regarding Ken Bruen. I’ve tried so many times to read his books but they are apparently not my cuppa.
I would like to ask Tod or anyone else what they are therefore looking in a mystery that would make them consider it good, “transcending the genre” mystery.
What are some examples?
On a final note, I’ve set myself the task of reading as many of the Edgar nominees as I can. I’m currently reading IMMORAL by Freeman which I’m finding more enjoyable, so far, than I thought I would. Also reading DRAMA CITY by Pelacanos with which I’m really struggling.
Upon previewing my post before sending it on, the thought occurred to me that we’re reading for different reasons or definitely from different POVs. I’m reading, as just a reader, for a good story, characters, etc., that is purely how much I’m enjoying the experience. Others are reading from the craft/critique POV and can’t step away from that because they are inside the process.
A lot of mysteries suck. That is true across all genre fiction, including romances, westerns, and science fiction. But just now, literary fiction is in much worse shape. Here’s what the Pulitzer-winning Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley said recently:
“Readers of Book World who browse elsewhere in this massive newspaper are perhaps aware that I write an irregular column for the Style section called Second Reading, in which I reconsider ‘notable and/or neglected books from the past.’ To date, something on the order of 90 percent of the books discussed there have been works of fiction, and almost all of those are books that I admire or even love. By contrast the ‘literary’ fiction being written in this country nowadays strikes me as so jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless that I am just about unable to read it, much less pass fair judgment on it. Instead, I find myself turning more and more to what is commonly dismissed by the literati as ‘popular’ or ‘genre’ fiction…”
“there is nothing intrinsic in any work of art that makes it great, only atributes that people ascribe to said work of art.”
“Are you having any luck finding someone who’ll argue the other side of this?”
No. And lots of people disagree with my statement: “The only way to measure the greatness of an artist at a given time in a given society is by sales and popularity.” but no one has posited a better or contrary way to measure greatness.
People seem to be really offended by the fact that art is a commodity, and that many books that they don’t deem ‘artistic’ wind up being very popular.
Tod dismissing an entire genre has to do with his personal taste, not with any intrinsic problem within the genre or by the popular writers who dominate it. Obviously, many others don’t share his concerns about the genre, or else these books wouldn’t sell.
He’s entitled to his opinion. It’s valid. But while giving his opinion, he’s slyly insulting others who don’t share his opinion, along with authors who sell a lot of books. I’m not sure that thumbing your nose at writers who are wildly successful makes much logic sense. It’s like yelling ‘you suck’ at Michael Jordan or the championship White Sox.
If a book is critically acclaimed, wildly loved, and widley selling, yet Tod still considers it trite, that says more about Tod than the book in question.
Anon says, “Obviously it’s a sucessful strategy–just look at the Edgar best novel nominees–nothing new and fresh there.”
The Edgars are chosen by professional writers. You’re not only dismissing the books they’ve nominated, but the working professionals who narrowed those books down out of hundreds. I don’t think the problem is with the Edgars in this case.
Do I believe everything published is gold? No. But if it got published, SOMEONE thought it was gold.
How could that happen? How could some editor think that something so obviously lousy is really wonderful?
Because there is nothing intrinsic in any work of art that makes it great, only atributes that people ascribe to said work of art…
I just read your comments about Ken Bruen’s The Guards and the reaction from his writer buddies and had to laugh. The same thing happened to me on the Rara-Avis list when I commented negatively about Bruen’s third book in the Jack Taylor series, The Magdalen Martyrs. Actually I had enjoyed both The Guards and The Killing of the Tinkers and felt that The Magdalen Martyrs wasn’t of the same calibre. I first started reading Bruen when I picked up some of his earlier books in bargain stores in Yorkshire and London and probably was reading him before his American noir buddies had heard about him. I think it was Charlie Stella who almost suggested that I didn’t have the right to have an opinion about The Magdalen Martyrs because I clearly didn’t understand it. I had a copy of book four in the series, The Dramatist, delivered to me in Canada last summer and felt Bruen was back on track. But I won’t tell his drinking buddies that.
I wish Tod had identified the best-selling author.
“Do I believe everything published is gold? No. But if it got published, SOMEONE thought it was gold.”
No argument there. The right ones thought so. That’s the gig.
Guyot said: … there’s a big and very obvious difference when you read something that’s been written because the author figured it would make a marketable franchise, and when you read something that you can tell was written without thought to the dollars it might bring in.
Hi Paul, I think I agree with you on this point, but can you expand on it for me? I assume it’s more than just the difference between writing a book that will sell, and writing a book that will sell a lot.
I completely agree and disagree at the same time… It all depends on the story line and the author… but over time I suppose just about every variation has been done. I think, however that even the original Poe mysteries can use a redoing… a main factor in this, I believe is character development… they have to be some that you absolutely love, other, whom you love to hate, and yet those who get under your skin, but just like a sucking air into a cavity the reader will always crave more. Humor is always good, especially with the grisly murders… The worst of all though is when the writer pulls a Scooby Doo, and the person who ‘did it’ is the only minor character in the book. All in all though, nothing will ever cure my lust for mysteries.
there’s a big and very obvious difference when you read something that’s been written because the author figured it would make a marketable franchise, and when you read something that you can tell was written without thought to the dollars it might bring in
This is true for so many things in life… (cf “Blowjobs in Space,” prev. entry)
Nonsense. Some of the best, freshest writing is happening in contemporary crime fiction. Even literary fiction folks have figured out that to make their plots better, they need to throw in a little crime a la Alice Seybold’s Lovely Bones.
My all time favorites:
City of Bones
T. Jefferson Parker
More evidence that mysteries rule:
This San Francisco author should have been nominated for an Edgar for best first novel:
And here’s one due out this summer that is flat out brilliant:
Field of Darkness
I rest my case.
“there’s a big and very obvious difference when you read something that’s been written because the author figured it would make a marketable franchise, and when you read something that you can tell was written without thought to the dollars it might bring in”
The first is intended for a specific audience, and the second is just masturbation?
It’s easy to write without worrying about the audience. There are no rules or limitations. But selling something is hard, and that requires a knowledge of who is buying.
But selling something is hard, and that requires a knowledge of who is buying.
Guess I did it wrong, then.