Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why We Love Mysteries - Part II

A couple weeks ago I posted some opinions as to why we all love crime fiction so much. It was a start, but I only scratched the surface - there is much more to our passion for these books.

For example, another big draw of crime fiction is that it lets us look into the lives of others. My character Hannibal Jones is a professional troubleshooter living in Southeast DC. But you can check out the lives of private detectives, cops, DA’s, lawyers, and amateur sleuths who can be chefs, maids, cab drivers, practically anything. Then there are the lives of the suspects and victims. We see them all, and see their every secret because, let’s face it, there are no secrets in a murder investigation. And because these stories are about people’s motives, the good ones are really about the truth. Stories based on investigations are ideal for exploring the smallest details of daily life. And to create realistic characters we authors have to pay attention to the details: what people eat, what they drink, what they wear, what music they listen to and maybe more than anything else, what they want out of life. We have to show what the prevailing customs are in our society, and what the norms are in different groups. We examine social issues best.

My stories often start in the poorer quarters of Washington, but before me Walter Mosley used Easy Rawlins to push mysteries out of the drawing room and out into the streets where violence is a day-to-day, life and death issue. We use our characters to show people a side of our society they might not see any other way.

Since the early days of mysteries, women have done for women what Walter Mosley and I do for African Americans. Starting in 1920 Agatha Christie wrote nearly 70 novels, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Georgette Heyer, and Ngaio March represented for British ladies. And a lot of women got hooked on mysteries early because of Mildred Wirt Benson, who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote most of the original Nancy Drew mysteries.

Reading more contemporary mysteries is a good way to understand the changing role of women in our society. Until the 70’s women wrote cozies while men wrote hard-boiled and police procedurals. Then Sue Grafton got published and offered the distaff view of professional detective work. Patricia Cornwell and Karin Slaughter write books that make a lot of MEN squeamish. I’ve already mentioned Tess Monahan, Laura Lippman’s private eye. Tess and Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski are both female hard-boiled private eyes. In 1986 Ms. Paretsky helped found Sisters in Crime to, in her words, “combat discrimination against women in the mystery field,” among other things. Today, Sisters in Crime boasts more than 3,000 members, and 20% of us are men.

Lauren Henderson’s detective is a dominatrix. She, Laura Lippman and Katy Munger call their sub-genre of detective fiction “tart noir.” Their web site, tart, says that their characters are, “neofeminist women, half Phillip Marlowe, half femme fatale, who think it’s entirely possible to save the world while wearing s drop-dead dress and stiletto heels.”

Among the seemingly contradictory reasons we love mysteries is because they keep us up at night. Karin Slaughter is one of the recent writers who take violence to a new level. Dealing with violence is one of the important undercurrents of crime fiction. My detective, Hannibal Jones has a problem controlling his temper in the first novel. It’s one of the more important sub-plots because he lives in a violent world.

Paradoxically, people also read mysteries because they keep the darkness away. Remember these books gained popularity in the Victorian Age, when the murder rate was double what it is now. People needed reassurance, and these books give us that. We can see how the police actually do their job, and get a sense that the criminal justice system really works. And we get to spend time in a world where bad guys are always punished. It’s comforting.

We love mysteries in part because of the rich historical heritage. It’s generally agreed that the genre as we know it began with Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840’s, although I personally don’t consider his stuff real detective fiction. I pin the beginning to Wilkie Collins who published the Moonstone in 1868. It settled into a firm shape when Arthur Conan Doyle published “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887. Amazingly, these people are still in print, along with others I mentioned earlier – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and the rest. And the people I admire most, those who created hardboiled fiction, can still be found. All five of Dashiel Hammett’s books are available, and all seven of Raymond Chandler’s beautiful novels remain in print. Ellery Queen? Still there. And what better way to rediscover the noir period of the 1950’s, the free love days of the 1960s, and the rebellious 1970s’?

So mysteries give us a lot to look back on. But I think the biggest reason my readers say they love mysteries is that these books gives them something to look forward to. Fans develop serious addictions to their favorite characters. They want to know what happens next in the lives of Hannibal Jones or Kinsey Milhone or Tess Monahan or Alex Delaware. Let’s face it; we know more about these fictional people than we do about our best friends. And we can’t wait to see them again when the next book comes out.

And it’s a good thing that we love mysteries because as I said, crime fiction is the only literature courageous enough to deal with the biggest issues of our times – guilty versus innocence, good versus evil, right versus wrong. We can escape reality and deal with it at the same time, reading crime fiction.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's raining...

Congratulations to Karen Harrington for being roasted!

I opened my front door today to go to work, the forecasts had predicted rain and they were right. It is raining. I don't know what I expected, I guess I kind of thought it would a a sweet sort of rain, the kind that inspires you to snuggle up next to a really good friend or book, maybe catch up on those DVD's that always seem to be collecting dust somewhere.... But no, it's not that kind of rain. It's not the kind of rain that traps you in introspection as you gaze out of your window, it's not even the kind of rain you silently thank for keeping what's left of your lawn from dying and turning the sad, lusterless brown of failure and decay. No, it's a dreary, ugly, mean kind of rain. The kind of rain that makes you turn away in dread, the kind that fills you with dismay at the thought of going out in its soggy, nasty ether. It's a rain cold as the grave and twice as repellent. At home, you close the curtains with a shudder and turn up the volume on your television or radio to drown out the leathery sussuration of its unnatural call. You don't care that it is reviving your lawn or saving the last of this season's tomatoes... this rain is not quite right, it just feels bad. It makes you feel inexplicably lonely, it dredges up memories of things you'd buried deep inside and prayed that you'd forget... yes, it's that kind of rain. The kind of rain that washes the blood of murder victims down sewer drains, that destroys crime scenes and renders evidence unusable. The kind of rain that hides a victims tears, that makes escape from a predator so much harder, that causes the innocent to slip and fall at the worst possible time...
it's a crime writer's kind of rain...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Roast is grilling up authors

What's cookin? Well, the fine book chefs at Book Roast are officially roasting me today. Hmm. I'd like to ask Martha if this is a "good thing."

Hop on over to the Book Roast grill and take a look at how they've set the table.Not only is the Maitre d serving up an excerpt from JANEOLOGY, he is also going to help me give away one copy of the book to a lucky commenter. And the winner will be chosen by the end of TODAY! I'll be stopping by the grill all day to answer questions, too.

Hey, one little blog comment of what, 50 or so words, to win 75,000 words! That seems like a deal to me.

"Fascinating...this debut novel is as much a character study as a thriller. -- BOOKLIST

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Opportunity versus Means...

Oh those meanies, always seeking any opportunity to make a writer's job so much harder! Okay, okay, so I'm not such a funny guy. Here's what I have always considered the differences between Means and Opportunity.

Opportunity conveys the actual, physical ability to have been able to commit the crime. The time frame is always extremely important and many individuals have been caught due solely to the "WHEN". The criminal's proximity to the victim or crime scene. As you know, most murders are committed by people known to the victim. Was there something the criminal could immediately gain by committing the crime at that particular time (see, time again), many crimes are crimes of "opportunity" such as baggage checkers at airports stealing valuables from someone's suitcase.

Means means (okay, sorry again) the criminal's ability to commit a crime as referenced by that particular criminal's skill, tools, background, etc. If a particularly breach-proof safe is broken into without causing undo damage to said safe physically, law enforcement starts looking for those unsavory characters that have the singular skills and/or access to the tools needed to have committed this act of perfidy. That criminal has the "means" to have committed his/her crime.

Anyway, that's what I think. Hope it helps.

Friday, October 24, 2008

In a Word

Here’s a question that has puzzled me for a long time: I have always considered the three elements of a crime leading to the solution as Motive, Method and Opportunity while others state the elements as Motive, Method and Means. Could someone please define the difference between Opportunity and Means for me. I’m thinking it might just be a matter of alliteration but I could be missing a finer point.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's a Small World

This is a time of communities especially on-line communities. Be it social networks like Facebook, professional networks like Linkedin or company communities that support their products like Kraft.  Groups of people are coming together in numbers unprecedented.  This is nothing new though for readers.  There have always been "people who read" and people who don't. Us readers have always had that drive to connect with other readers (and to be honest maybe even convert a few non-readers!)   What is it about a book that just begs to be lent to a friend?  I've done this all my life: shared books, exchanged books, talked books with friends and with strangers.  It's a much better way to get to know someone than talking about the weather.

So why did it so surprise me when it happened with my book, Murder Makes Mischief?  It was easy to follow some of my early sales as they went to friends and family.  One of my first sales ended up being passed through five different people in four different cities before I lost track of it.  Now to be honest, one side of me would have liked each of those people to buy their own copy but the other side said Yes!  You don't pass on a book you don't like.  Besides part of why I write is to provide people with a few hours of reading pleasure, a few hours of fun.  Bottom line: the more my books are shared the better.

Still it was a surprise to get a fan letter from a remote coastal town in Scotland!  Between sharing and the on-line book sites and communities, books are being sold and shared in places I would not have imagined.  Where next? My cozy murder mystery is off to book fairs in China and Germany and after that who knows.  It is after all a very small world!  


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Remote Control - another scene is added to this serialized novelette

Meet Harold Fielding--plumber by part of the day, slacker/tv addict the rest of the day and night. Harry believes that fame and fortune will come to him if he wishes hard enough. God forbid if he should actually work for it.

Beatrice Fielding is Harry's hardworking wife. She holds down multiple jobs so her husband can laze about on his recliner, eating popcorn and drinking cola while watching his favorite shows. She has many wishes--some aren't so nice.

In this dark, suspenseful and somewhat comical look at one man's desires, Remote Control delivers a strong message:

Be careful what you wish for!

I am serializing this novelette, adding one scene each week. I hope you enjoy. If so, please leave me a comment.

Read Remote Control.

~Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Research is a passion for me. When I began writing murder mystery scripts I was determined to have a performance that was entertaining AND 'fair play'; meaning that all the clues needed to solve the mystery were presented to the audience so that the mystery could be solved if they were clever enough to follow the cluetrail.

Glorious years were spent reading and analyzing mysteries by the masters of the craft; Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and many, many others. Plots and perpetrators were reduced to their bare bones and plunked into a spreadsheet in an attempt to find a cluetrail formula. Patterns began to emerge. Library stacks were searched looking for one book that would detail the tangled web. It hasn’t been written yet. Ok – I’ll write it then.

The manuscript has been gathering dust for five years. Now as the website for Mystery Factory is taking shape I am starting to write instructions for mystery house parties. That dusty manuscript is going to be getting a workout. Over the next however long it takes, I will be sharing the process of what is involved in creating the bones of a cluetrail and fleshing it out into a mystery. Any feedback and questions will be welcome.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Why do we love crime fiction?

Next week I’ll be in the midst of Bouchercon. Aside from the panel I’ll be on Thursday morning, I’ve been asked to give a presentation on Saturday, October 11 at the Canton Library in Baltimore. Being as much as fan as an author, I decided to talk about why we love crime fiction so much, which gave me an opportunity to do some interesting research.

Did you know that crime novels account for somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the fiction sold around the world? At least what’s published in English. It makes you wonder why books about murder and other evils that men do are so popular.

There’s no denying that this is the kind of book that people really read. I mean, Independent bookstores have almost disappeared, but shops that specialize in mysteries are booming. I’ve done signings at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore, but I’ve probably bought more books there over the years than I’ve sold. There are three shops in New York City alone: Black Orchid, Partners and Crime and the Mysterious Bookshop. If you visit Mystery you will find a list of mystery bookstores across the country and the world.*

The popularity of crime fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon. 20 or 30 years ago, you didn’t see crime novels on the bestseller list. Today they regularly account for half of it. But what accounts for this love of mystery fiction?

At my book signings people tell me they love mystery novels because they tell real stories. Mainstream fiction, if there is such a thing, often has no real conflict and no resolution. More and more self indulgence, with less and less plot - that’s literary fiction. But mysteries always give you a story, and the satisfying conclusion we don’t often get in real life. You can’t do this if you haven’t mastered the basic mechanics of storytelling – a beginning, middle and end, heroes and villains. There’s a definite form. Harlan Coben who writes the Myron Bolitar series says it’s like writing a sonata or haiku. But within that form you can do almost anything. Pick up anything by Baltimore detective writer Laura Lippman. She says that the best books are at war with themselves. The reader is dying to get to the end of the story, but she’s also dying to make the book last forever. People read mysteries to find out what happens.

Mysteries also take us where we want to go, or sometimes they just show us the places we already know. My detective, Hannibal Jones , lives and works in Washington. He shares the city with James Patterson’s Alex Cross and George Pelecanos’ marvelously hard-boiled Derek Strange. Of course Laura Lippman’s Tess Monahan rules Baltimore, Robert B. Parker's Spencer owns Boston, and Paula Woods redefines L.A. urban noir with Charlotte Justice. Elmore Leonard, one of my favorites, shows you a gritty side of Detroit. Janet Evanovich takes a rather satirical look at New Jersey. Want to get a bit farther away? Read Alexander McCall Smith’s books about the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana.

You can also travel through time in mysteries. I’ve read them set in Ancient Egypt, China and Japan, Victorian England, WWI and the roaring 20’s. In the Middle Ages, nuns and monks solved a lot of crimes. And I read in Pages magazine that the best selling post-Communist Russian author is Alexandra Marinina – a mystery novelist.

You can hear more of my reasons why people love crime fiction on Saturday, October 11 at 2:00 p.m. at the Canton Library, 1030 S. Ellwood Avenue and O'Donnell Street in Baltimore. Meanwhile, tell me why YOU think people love mysteries so much. In a couple of weeks I’ll gather your comments and post an update on the topic.