R.E. Donald

author of the Hunter Rayne Highway Mysteries series


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Mystery of mysteries

What’s the mystery?  I want to know just what makes a mystery qualify to be described as a “traditional mystery”.   I always thought that the term traditional applied to a mystery novel that existed primarily to pit the author’s skill at sprinkling subtle clues against the reader’s skill at solving the puzzle of “who done it” before the story’s protaganist did.  That’s the kind of mystery I like to read the best – not something with a lot of fear and violence, like a thriller or suspense novel might have, but a story that presents an intellectual challenge.  Who did it?  No cheating!  No clairvoyance or lucky guesses on the part of the sleuth!  The clues have to be there for the reader, albeit well hidden within the story.

I think I can identify a cozy, I used to think I had a good handle on what makes a hard boiled mystery, it’s easy to identify a thriller or suspense novel.  But just what can be called a traditional mystery?  Is it a whodunnit?  A locked room style of murder mystery?  Does it have to be set in England?  What do you call a mystery that’s not hard boiled, not a thriller, not a cozy and not a suspense novel?  Just a plain old mystery?

In an effort to enlighten myself, I turned up some of the following:

Author Lea Wait writes: “traditional mysteries, also known as cozies, in the Agatha Christie tradition where, it is often said, “more tea is spilled than blood,” have been popular for decades, and are still selling. Their readers and authors are predominantly – but not exclusively – women.”

According to Travis Casey, “There’s two basic kinds of mysteries — what I like to think of as ‘traditional’ and ‘mystery-suspense’. ”

In connection with the Agatha Award given each year by Malice Domestic, the traditional mystery is defined as one that contains no explicit sex, contains no gore or gratuitous violence, usually features an amateur detective, and takes place in a confined setting and contains characters who know one another.  It seems that novels featuring police officers or private investigators can also qualify for the award, but “hard-boiled” detective novels do not.

Hmmm.

However they’re classified, it’s easy to see that what makes a good mystery for one reader may be precisely the thing that makes it not such a good mystery for another reader.  Some readers like blood and guts, or psychotic villains stalking the hero – others not so much.  Check out the reviews on Amazon for any given mystery novel.  A novel that receives five stars from most readers gets panned by others.  The beauty of a good mystery is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

Take Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote for example.  Michael Connelly is one of my favorite writers, and that Harry Bosch novel was one of my favorites.  Reviews range from “gripping, forceful novel. … I defy you to put Connelly’s book down for more than a few hours, if at all” to ” This book is not fast paced at all. I found it very boring.”  Were both reviewers reading the same book?

All of this is academic, ultimately.  Because I am first and foremost a reader, and I am writing to suit readers like myself.  I know I’m not alone.  I like my characters and situations realistic, I like my characters to have lives outside of the mystery plot, and I look forward to changes in their lives in subsequent novels.  One of my readers did use the term hard boiled about my series, but I suspect that’s because there’s a bit of swearing and sex involved.  (Well, some of them are truckers.  What do you expect?)

I’d be interested to know how you (I must assume that anyone reading this post is a mystery reader like myself) would classify the novels in my Hunter Rayne highway mystery series.  Traditional, cozy, hard boiled?   If you have read either of my novels, please let me know what you think!

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The death of the English language: a murder mystery

Just like everyone else, I studied English grammar and usage in school.  I was taught that using the word ain’t would brand me as a hillbilly (not such an awful thing, after all) and when to use who and whom.  I’m sure it gave me great delight to correct other students who were using lay and lie incorrectly.  I still take pains to make sure I use the words right, although not quite as religiously as in the past.

You see, I also studied English literature, starting with Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, moving along past the works of Shakespeare and Donne, Dryden and Swift.  Only snippets of each, mind you, but the message was clear.  “Ek gret effect men write in place lite; Th’ entente is al, and nat the lettres space” was perfectly good English in 1400 AD, while “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man” was well said in 1614.

And I studied Latin for at least a year in high school, which is so long ago now that I don’t remember exactly if it was for one year or two, but I do remember that the energetic vice-principal, Mr. Todd, taught the class and that he was a very entertaining speaker.  I learned, of course, that Latin is a dead language.  It is no longer living, because it is not being used outside of academia and the church.  Because it’s no longer living, it doesn’t change, or perhaps the other way around.

Then in university, I studied several other languages: French, Russian, German and Serbo-Croatian.  I also took what was called Slavonic Studies as part of the Russian major program.  One of the courses was in linguistics, and that was very enlightening indeed.  The course traced some of the European languages back to their roots, and illustrated the connections between them depending on who conquered whom (ha!) or which peoples migrated where.  Germanic, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, Greek, Scandanavian, Turkish, Hungarian – a whole smorgasbord of languages and dialects in close proximity, sharing words and expressions and sentence construction over centuries.

Studying linguistics in general made me want to explore the evolution of English spelling and grammar.  It made me wonder if English could possibly have stopped changing when they published my high school English textbook in the 1960’s, or if it stopped changing when I graduated from university in the 1970’s, or if it stopped changing in 1984, or perhaps at the end of the millenium.  The only conclusion that I can come to is that it hasn’t stopped changing at all.  It’s still a living language.  English isn’t dead!

So what does that mean?  Obviously common usage has dictated the rules of grammar, and not the other way around.  Words – their spelling and their use – and grammar, the way sentences are constructed, changed over the centuries as they began being used differently.  Ergo, common usage trumps a rule.  As a writer, and a speaker, and an ordinary everday English speaking person, I feel tremendously empowered by that thought.  Here we are, on Facebook and Twitter and in ebooks and blogs, shaping the English language of the future by the way we use it today.

I know, I know.  That’s no excuse to get sloppy with my spelling and grammar.  As Hemingway once lamented, “all our words from loose using have lost their edge”.   So I’ll do my best not to annoy the academics by murdering the English language in my writings and speech, whilst bearing in mind that changes in usage are the very thing that’s keeping it alive.

(Did I say that correctly?)