Sunday, May 25, 2008


At speaking gigs and book signings I most often refer to my crime novels as detective stories. I suppose that’s because I think of them as being about my fictional sleuth, Hannibal Jones more than about the plot. Still, people often challenge that description, either for clarification or seemingly as a correction.

“Oh, you mean a murder mystery?”

Well, yes and no. Between them, the four books in the series give Hannibal five murders to solve. But two of those murders are in one book, and three in another. The other books have different puzzles for him to solve, and as I thought of it, none of the cases begin with him actually hired to solve a murder. Lately I’ve begun to wonder if I’m the weirdo for thinking that a story can be a valid mystery without a bloody killing at the center of it. Has our society come so far that it isn’t a mystery without murder?

I blame the girls.

Ler me explain. The first mysteries I ever read were Sherlock Holmes stories. Seen as a body of work one notices that there are rather few grisly killings in the lot. Missing persons, stolen artifacts, lost documents, even stolen identities - Arthur Conan Doyle found a remarkable variety of cases to challenge his consulting detective, but not that many outright murders.

From there I graduated to what are now called hard-boiled detective stories. Despite their reputations as he-man writers, Ray Chandler, Dash Hammett and even John D. McDonald managed to spin some great tales without making the solving of a murder the focus. Instead they managed a pleasing variety of cases.

You may have started with Nancy Drew’s mysteries. As I understand it, there’s not a lot of gore in those tales, and there’s a total absence of maniac serial killers. But then you probably moved on to the most influential of all mystery authors: Agatha Christie.

Yes, we can credit Edgar Allen Poe for inventing the form and Wilkie Collins for making it work as a novel, but nobody popularized mystery fiction like Dame Agatha. She solidified the format of what we call the traditional mystery, and created most of the conventions of the genre. She invented the locked-room mystery, the dining room interrogation, and the drawing room denouement, Even the term “red herring” is from Ten Little Indians (or is it, And Then There Were None?)

And every one of Miss Marple’s or Hercule Poirot’s cases revolves around a murder most foul. All the greats that followed close after her - Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, etc. - Held to that formula. A mystery wasn’t a mystery without a murder. And let’s face it, these ladies made the mystery novel what it is today.

So these seminal sisters in crime must take the blame for the expectations of mystery readers. But the question is, were they right? Must a mystery require a murder?


Martha Reed said...

I'm afraid that readers expect that someone has to die, Austin, but it's up to us to decide how gory it needs to be.

I've seen an interesting transition lately where formerly 'cozy' writers are calling themselves 'traditional mystery' writers and including a bit of sex and violence. I'm afraid the pure puzzles are gone - perhaps the influence of TV shows like Columbo, with a dead body in every episode? If that's what we trained our viewers to expect, then we have to deliver!

Juanita Rose Violini said...

For that matter, why do mysteries even have to be crimes? A mystery could just as easily who wrote the secret love letter or be who took out the garbage as well as who clobbered Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.

The pure puzzle may be gone for now but it may also re-emerge. Dame Agatha is still selling last I heard to a whole new generation of fans. It's my personal theory that the puzzle is what made the Da Vinci Code so popular - with apologizes to Dan Brown - god knows it wasn't the writing.