Friday, April 25, 2008

Why I Don't Read Mysteries Anymore

I used to love reading mysteries: Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Ruth Rendell, those Swedish people, the Sue Graftons (up to H, anyway). And once in a while I try again, because I love the idea of mysteries, but it's been a long time since I've found one that doesn't engage in one of the following deal-breakers:

Excessive blood and gore. I know, it's murder, and murder's bloody, and I don't want to pretend otherwise. But I'm not interested in seeing the human body taken lovingly apart before my eyes, I'm really not. The last time I tried reading Henning Mankell (I think it was him), he described a person who had been skinned alive. Okay! Too much! That was a few years ago and I'm still nauseated. Not everyone interested in crime and puzzles is also into blood and guts. Even giving blood makes me pass out.

Serial Killers. I dislike serial killer novels for two reasons. For one, it seems too easy for the writer: as soon as things get slack, Oh no, he strikes again! When I was a kid watching The Incredible Hulk, I noticed that Bruce Banner consistently Hulked-out at 20 after, 40 after, and right before the end. Pretty soon I was more interested in timing the Hulkings-out than in following the story line. That's how I feel about serial killers.

Secondly, they're implausible. Yeah, Ted Bundy was real, and interesting, but all the serial killers after him seem like tired knock-offs. And real ones never act like the ones in books, killing according to a secret design that the detective, matching wits with the killer, has to figure out before another innocent dies.

Getting Into the Mind of the Killer. I don't want to be there. It's boring and it undercuts the tension. Getting into the mind tells you who the killer is, or else the author has to go through annoying acrobatics to keep it from you. Or it doesn't matter who it is, it's just some random serial killer. Why do authors think this technique adds to the storyline? They probably don't think this, but just need to fill pages. (Exception to this one: when the whole book is told from the killer's point of view.) Especially bad: when the killer's point of view is entirely in italics.

When the Detective is in Peril at the End. Gawd, I hate this. I especially hate when the detective and the bad guy are alone at the end and have to have some kind of hand-to-hand showdown. Of course this is a Hollywood thing, but it's bad there, too. What, is there some rule book out there that says the detective's gun has to fly away and the bad guy has to die quasi-accidentally, like falling on a big spike? Please spare me the spike ending.

So, seeing this list, you'd think I'd go for the Cozy Type Mystery, which seem designed for weak-stomached ladies like myself. But sadly, no. I tried a few, and they were, without exception, the most poorly written, implausible, creepy (in a bad way) things I'd ever read. In the new Cozies, the murder has to be Cute. Think about this: cute murder. In the three I read, the victim totally deserved it, because otherwise feelings of grief and injustice would undermine the coziness of it all. So a cute murder happens (stabbed with knitting needles, beaten with a pepper grinder, poisoned with special bad mushrooms) to a person who probably deserved it (town gossip, village show off, camp bully, summer person) and life goes on pretty much as usual in its charming small-town way until the sharp-eyed main character figures it out. Done skillfully, as in the Miss Marple books, this can be okay, but a really ingenious puzzle has to be at the center to make these work. The writers I read thought their ham-fisted attempts at cuteness would be enough. Nope. (Did you know that there are cozy mysteries based on pretty much any theme you can think of? There are Ceramics Mysteries, Candle-Making Mysteries, Bed-and-Breakfast ones, Mommy-track, figure skating, etc. Why is this depressing? I guess it's the idea that you have to be lured into a work of fiction by it being about your hobby -- about you!)

The last good mystery I read, and it was really more of an old-fashioned Gothic than a mystery, was Barbara Vine's The Minotaur. I loved that one. If you know any of any others that meet my requirements, let me know about them!

I mean, I really don't think I'm asking for too much.


myles said...

Exactly. Bloodthirsty and predictable, for the most part. I guess they're popular because a lot of people like to be told stories they already know.

But still, I try one from time to time to see if I'm wrong. "The Broken Shore' by Peter Temple (an Austalian writer) is good. It's a police detective yarn, but it's original, it's engaging, it's not gory and it's not eye-rolling predictable. The "big secret" is no great surprise, but that doesn't really matter.

I also liked "Christina Falls" by Benjamin Black. The mystery is almost incidental, compared to the complexities of character, and it's written by John Banville, who is brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree, Christine Falls was pretty good. The prose is a little ponderous for my taste, but Banville is a crack scribbler by any standard. And I will check out the Temple!

Rhian's right, though--I love mysteries but haven't read many lately for the same reasons. One problem is that most crime novels are series books. That's fine in theory, but what ends up happening is that the detective has the same boring old problems for book after book. Alcohol, wayward kids, estranged wife, etc. A good book has interior drama--you know, the revalation of self. There's only so many times you can do this with one character, but character development is low on the list of priorities in a police procedural, and most writers just don't bother.

If anybody ever publishes my crime novel, I have ideas for two more that would actually be about interesting changes in my detective's life...something tells me they ain't gonna get written though...

5 Red Pandas said...

I think Laura Lippman's stand alone mysteries are pretty good. I don't like to read series very much but I've been reading Sujata Massey's "Rei Shimura" series that's mostly set in Japan. There are no gory descriptions, but there is always a confrontation in the end, though those are pretty easily stomached.

I also liked Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine. You get to see life in modern China, and the detective is also a modernist poet.

Aos said...

Think the Blacks are overrated due to genre elitism....loved The Shroud and was very well disposed to the man in general but found that for a mystery reader, which I unashamedly am, the books were second rate compared to the masters of the genre. Not that there is anything wrong with that or him writing mysteries, just that a lot of fine writers are losing exposure to this "great writer turning his hand to mysteries".

I would recommend not only as a comparison to those, but as brilliantly written and somewhat restrained mysteries anything by Karin Fossum. If you can't find her, Peter Robinson is good..and of course you can hop into the wayback machine and reread Raymond Chandler.

Writer Reading said...

I stopped reading mysteries after Sarah Paretsky and a mystery stories series called "Sisters in Crime."
It was something to keep my mind functioning through pregnancy and early childhood but I've never gone back. I was seriously addicted and am afraid if I start up again...

Anonymous said...

I agree, Karin Fossum is brilliant.

AC said...

I like the mystery novels by Mary Stewart from the 60s. They've got the good aspects of a "cozy" mystery without the stereotypical cute. And it's always a whole new setting and cast of characters with each book, although they have a certain sameness. Main character is always a young British woman at loose ends, usually traveling alone in Europe, who gets sucked into some kind of shady dealings and has to figure out what's going on. These things are pure escapism for me. I love the exotic settings, the references to Shakespeare and classical Greece, and the way all the women wear dresses and take long drags from their cigarettes at dinner. I think my favorites are My Brother Michael and The Ivy Tree.

bookfraud said...

i really, really wanted to comment on this in depth, but i've never read mysteries, and can't say if i've noticed the parade of cliches you list here, for as much as i enjoyed reading about them.

but it did remind me why i haven't read science fiction since i was 13. because most sci-fi never seemed to go beyond the realm of its plot, and i became a snob.

rmellis said...

Hm, fantasy and science fiction might be the subject of a future post. I credit science fiction with making me a reader, but I haven't read a bit of it in years. Decades!

GFS3 said...

Blame the publishing industry. They go for the tried and true rather than take risks with something different.

I still read mysteries, but I generally walk away disappointed. For example, I've given up on Robert B. Parker and Spenser. I used to love the series, but it has become so dull and predictable that it gives me a headache.

There are good mystery writers out there. You just have to find them.

AC said...

You notice the cliches especially when you read through a whole series at once. My mother in law has a vast collection of mysteries, and I read all the way through several authors during the summer that I was living in her basement and unemployed. It pretty much put me off mysteries for good.

AC said...

You notice the cliches especially when you read through a whole series at once. My mother in law has a vast collection of mysteries, and I read all the way through several authors during the summer that I was living in her basement and unemployed. It pretty much put me off mysteries for good.

Kirsten said...

Ah, it's always them shifty-eyed summer people, dagnabit!

I stopped reading mysteries for pretty much these reasons as well. Also, so many series are based on a high concept that sounds good--but the resulting story is so underwritten that my attention wanders and I don't get past page 20.

But I recently picked up a historical mystery at the library that seems well-researched, so I'll give it a try.