Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Changing Face of Mystery Fiction by Marvin Kaye

Over at the Ellery Queen blog there's an essay called "The Changing Face of Mystery Fiction" by Marvin Kaye.  The essay is basically a how to write a who dunnit.

While the author misses this type of fiction, I've found over the years that I was getting bored with this type of puzzle solvers.  I was given a copy of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" for Christmas and I read over two hundred pages and with just forty-three pages left I set it aside.  I found that I didn't care who did the murder.  I got bored with Hercule Poirot sitting around and telling everyone they were wrong in their deductions and he was always right in that smug way of his.

I have read many of Agatha's Christie's books over the years, I'm a Miss Marple fan, but I love the newer books that have some action in them.  I don't care for the big reveals with everyone sitting in a room waiting for the detective to reveal the murderer.  In this day and age the murderer would have been long gone.  The truth is we're not a polite society anymore, maybe we never were.

Knowing this I can see why the new generation of writers want to put more action into their stories.  But the truth is there are still red herrings and plot twists in these new mysteries, the criminals and the detectives just aren't so very polite anymore.

How about you?  Do you miss the old puzzle solvers?


Todd Mason said...

There's a place for classic detection...and the refinements on Conan Doyle Rex Stout made with the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin stories was an excellent and hugely influential start, as well as fruitful result...I don't think any other series in that post-Holmes mode has been more influential, and only Perry Mason more popular. And I find I enjoy them more than some of their contemporary works, actually most...though, for example, the bits of satire Christie might drop into her work were always appreciated by me (perhaps it helps that I've read only a small fraction of her work, and that mostly widely-spaced). She's not Dorothy Sayers, much less Dorothy Parker, but I've not burnt myself out on her work...

Todd Mason said...

Hadn't jumped over to see that Kaye was writing Wolfe stories himself, till after the post above. Not too surprising, given how much he's always loved pastiche.

Todd Mason, in under my Google-oriented login.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks for pointing out this interesting essay. I just read and bookmarked it for future reference.

Thomas Pluck said...

I liked Marple but have little time for the Sherlockian type of detection where the protagonist is always right and has to school the professionals. Not that I'm a big fan of police procedurals, either. When a really good one comes along I enjoy it, but in general these stories don't interest me, and I cut my teeth on all the Marples. The last one of the parlor room solutions I liked is Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series, where it is tongue in cheek, and rather like Columbo, except Bernie knows something the killer doesn't. Such as "I planted the evidence you tried to dispose of back in your briefcase" or similar. That I can buy, because he's not just sitting there saying how smart he is, he's a crook tipping the scales of justice. Which it seems like is the game all along, who can adjust the scales more.
I didn't like the early Reacher books when he did this. In the latest he works differently, but is still a sleuth, and it was more enjoyable. The system is ugly, even when there aren't evil actors, and someone revealing the mistakes before they can put innocent people away is more satisfying that a mustache twirling smarty-pants (for me, at least).

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't miss it. I like character-driven stories and mostly whudunnit's are plot-driven. Plus they are too formulaic or at least it seems that way.

Al Tucher said...

The puzzle mystery risks makeing murder bloodless or even cute, and I deplore that.

sandra seamans said...

I've always loved Christie's work, Todd, but not so much Poirot. I'm not fond of characters who think they're the best at everything. They tend to be so self-absorbed that the story suffers, in my opinion. One of the reasons I don't read the Reacher books. I made it through the first one and half way through the second one and quit. There's not enough reading time for self important characters.

I don't read a lot of police procedurals either, Thomas. The one series I did read a lot of was John Sandford's Prey books, especially the early ones.

I don't mind reading them once in a while, Patti, but after you read them one after another you tend to know who the killer is early on and you just tap your foot waiting for the sleuth to catch up :)

Yes, Al, the puzzle mysteries and cozies especially act like murder is an everyday occurrence. And nobody seems to be bothered, or upset in the least bit. Murder has consequences not just for the victim and killer but for the families. Something the puzzlers don't seem to consider.

Todd Mason said...

There's no compelling need for a cozy or classic detection story to treat the murder or other crime as a trivial challenge...the better ones go out of their way to Not do so...while hardboiled fiction can too easily dismiss the violence as merely the Price of Manhood, whether on the part of the villains or the "heroes"...though, sadly, reality does too often show a rather minimal regard for the matter of others' lives whether on the part of the actually on-the-scene malefactors, or their bosses, political or otherwise, when any.