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.
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!
May 9, 2012 at 8:01 AM
I like what you said about being a reader first and foremost. Me too! I read and write exclusively suspense, and I’ve discovered that suspense/mystery/thriller/crime is sometimes difficult to identify.
Here’s a description of the mystery genre by Hallie Ephron.
Mystery Genre: usually . . .
– Told (at least partly) from the point of view of the sleuth
– The reader knows everything the POV character(S) know.
– Bad things happen
– By the end, all is explained and the reader finds out who did what and why
– Justice triumphs
– Formula versus formulaic
I must confess, I have no idea what the last one means! More of an established pattern, I would guess.
May 9, 2012 at 6:47 AM
I divide mysteries into two categories: good and bad. If I like the mystery, it’s good. If I don’t, it’s bad. I don’t worry about whether it’s traditional or not.