Hunting for a Mystery

Yesterday I prowled the Mystery section of the local public library, in search of a new author. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries over the years, both classic pulp paperbacks and fat books by johnny-come-latelies. We all have our tasted in mysteries. I don’t care for heavy suspense or oodles of gore, and I find detectives’ sexual exploits tedious — but I do like a good story.

I picked up four books, choosing authors who had a number on the shelf (if you find a good author, you don’t want to just read one book, although I’ve read a couple of great mysteries by authors who only wrote one or two). When I got home, I started with The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. After 35 pages, there’s not a trace of a hint of a crime, nor even anything odd and inexplicable. The viewpoint character is a woman in Edinburgh, Scotland, who owns a quarterly academic journal on ethics. Her boyfriend is a bassoonist. She has a maid who believes in spirit visitations. Yawn. Next.

Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know was heavily padded with 30-year-old flashbacks, which I skimmed, but there was a genuine mystery. The characterization was good, and the ending was satisfying. In retrospect the mystery angle seems quite forced; it only existed because a key character was stubbornly lying about her identity, and at the end I still didn’t understand why she was lying.

Having enjoyed that one, I tried Lippman’s Another Thing to Fall. Again, the writing is engaging — but for more than a hundred pages (in a 300-page book) there’s no mystery in sight. We catch glimpses of a stalker, or someone who is behaving rather like a stalker, but we don’t know who he is or what he’s up to. (Alfred Hitchcock recommended against this technique, by the way. The suspense, he proposed, is greater when the audience does know what’s going on.) Then, abruptly, there’s a brutal murder. And as in What the Dead Know, the ending is rather unsatisfying if you stop to think about it. Lippman is a good writer, but not a great mystery writer.

The next morning I had a go at The Buzzard Table, by Margaret Maron. After a brief suspenseful opening, which is evidently a teaser, we’re plunged into the world — well, really, into the extended family — of Deborah Knott. Unless I mis-read (and I’m not going to skim back through to check), Knott is a district court judge. Evidently in a rural area. In the course of the first 25 pages we’re inundated with fragments of family back-story. Among the people mentioned, most of them very briefly, are Reese, Haywood, Daddy, Maidie, Will, Herman, Adam, Zach, Annie Sue, Dwight, Amy, Cal, Portland Avery, Kate, Rob, Mary Pat, Sigrid Harald, Mrs. Lattimore, and Anne. If you can keep track of all that, you’re either autistic or have a serious case of OCD.

Or, more likely, you’ve been reading Maron’s books right along, and know all these people from before. And that’s the central problem with the modern mystery genre: These aren’t crime novels at all, they’re soap operas. Apparently, readers lap this stuff up. Sue Grafton, whom I’ve lambasted before in this blog, is a repeat offender, but she’s not out on a limb somewhere — she’s right smack-dab in the mainstream.

If you compare any of these soap mysteries with classics by Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, the difference is glaring. In those authors’ books, the detective had no family and barely any emotions. The entire book was about the case. I’m happy to put up with a bit of soap opera — Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries always had quite a bit of byplay between Wolfe and Archie, and that’s part of the fun. Sara Paretsky uses soap opera, but she keeps it reined in. I stopped reading Elizabeth George because the soap opera was a deluge.

Message to modern mystery writers: Get on with the damn story!

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