The mystery genre is hugely popular. Just about any type of story you’d enjoy, you can find on the mystery shelves. The trick is finding something that fits your tastes. There are sub-genres: cozies, thrillers, historical, police procedural, and so on.
It’s also a hugely competitive genre for authors, so it seems the successful authors have to scramble to find a way to make their books stand out from the pack. The best mysteries have long had unique settings and characters; one thinks, for example, of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s sharp-eyed, cynical old lady, or Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s fat orchid-fancying detective.
The trend toward unique settings and characters seems to have intensified in recent years, and it’s not hard to see why. There aren’t actually that many interesting ways to kill someone or to hunt for a murderer. As a result, the shelves are crammed with oddities in which the crime is, not infrequently, pushed to one side in favor of what amounts to soap opera. At least, the mystery shelves in my local public library are.
I read a lot of mysteries, but most of the authors whose work I prize are dead, so I’m always on the lookout for new authors and series that I might enjoy. This week I went to the local library and grabbed five novels at random by authors who have published longish series.
The first three I delved into are sadly disappointing, each in its own sweet way.
First I tried Cara Black’s Murder on the Champ de Mars. The setting is Paris, the time period is modern. Since I’ve been studying French, Paris is a place I’d like to read about! Unfortunately, there’s no murder in the opening scenes, but the detective’s ex-boyfriend is promising to make her life miserable by hiring a lawyer to sue for joint custody of the infant son he has managed to ignore so far. Evidently the sub-plot is more important to Black than the actual mystery, whatever it turns out to be. The setting of the opening is the baby’s christening, and during the getting-the-baby-dressed scene there are three instances of spit-up. One spit-up would have been fine to add verisimilitude. Three, though — the author is cultivating an audience of young mothers, or of women who remember being young mothers. Murder is not yet on the menu.
What’s worse, because this is Paris, the fashions people are wearing are mentioned, with brand names, and the dialog is liberally sprinkled with mon dieu!, alors, desolée, and s’il vous plait. Look, these people are French! Every word that comes out of their mouths is French! The author has translated it all into English, but she can’t resist reminding the reader, over and over, that they’re in France. She could have written, “My God,” “So,” “Sorry,” and “Please.” But no. What we have here is an author who is writing a sub-plot-heavy family story and writing down to her readers by continually reminding them that on est á Paris. No, thank you.
Next up was Back of Beyond by C. J. Box. Police procedural, rural Montana, starts with a murder. Good. But the police detective is not a likable character, he’s a loose cannon. Driving on a mountain road, at night, in the rain, toward the murder scene he hits an elk. He then gets out of the car and shoots the poor suffering elk. Now he’s driving with one headlight and elk hair on his front bumper, which turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for his whole character. He’s an alcoholic (and that’s all right — Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder is an alcoholic). He has been sober for two months. And immediately after discovering the body, which turns out to be his AA sponsor, he fortuitously acquires a quart of whisky, chugs it, and gets blackout drunk. There’s nothing unrealistic about this, but what we have here is not a lead character that I want to hang around with, not because he’s a drunk but because he’s a loose cannon and a drunk. I’ll pass.
Janet Evanovich’s Takedown Twenty features Stephanie Plum, a freelance bounty hunter for a bail bondsman in New Jersey. Okay, that could be good. But in the opening scene (a night surveillance job) Plum and her sidekick see a giraffe running down the street. The giraffe disappears around a corner, a big car with tinted windows passes and turns the same corner, there is the sound of gunshots, and when the sleuth follows, she finds a man lying in the street with a tranquilizer dart in his butt. She calls an ambulance without checking to see whether the man is even alive.
All this makes no sense — and Plum seems remarkably incurious about where the giraffe came from. Nor does she report the giraffe sighting to the cops, who are likely to be looking for an escaped giraffe. Or so one would think. Maybe runaway giraffes are a commonplace in New Jersey. But beyond that, the sleuth has two hunky boyfriends, with both of whom she quite evidently sleeps from time to time. One hunky boyfriend, okay — this is what readers crave, I guess. But two? Between the boyfriends, the giraffe, and the remarkable lack of attention to detail, this is not a book I would want to go on with.
All I want is another Ross MacDonald or Rex Stout. Is that so much to ask?