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Middling on mysteries...

It's hard to find a mystery that I can't figure out on my own well before the end of the book (or movie). But I think that's because mysteries have to follow a certain kind of formula, and for those of us who've read a ton of them, the formula(s) become instinctively simple to discover.

I used to think I wanted to write mysteries, but once I discovered how challenging it easy to make that formula new and fresh, I changed my mind. However, I do end up putting some kind of mystery in most of my books, but it's usually a secondary plot. Many books have mysteries in them like that -- it's part of what keeps us reading. We want to discover the unknown.

As a kid, I read probably 80-90% mysteries (Phyllis Whitney, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, the Happy Hollisters, etc). I moved on to Agatha Christie around 12 or 13, and then Mary Higgins Clark as a freshman in college. I wrote my senior (high school) paper on Christie, and when I did that, I realized I'd read every one of her books -- except for the Miss Marple series (because I never did like Miss Marple much). ETA: Of course, as Joan reminded me, I also devoured all of Mary Stewart's books in junior high and high school (and still reread them regularly today).

Nowadays, I don't read many new mysteries. There aren't many for teens, actually. I've read some Gail Giles and a couple of others. They've been fine, but since I like Linda Howard (romantic suspense) -- and because mysteries are overly familiar to me -- it's hard to find YA books which live up to that. I think my favorite right now is Kim Derting's books (The Body Finder). I just finished Rosebush, by Michele Jaffe, and that was also good (thanks for the rec, deenaml), although one way she challenged the reader to find the 'bad guy' was to make everybody kind of insane ;)

How about you? What do kinds of mysteries do you like and/or read/write?


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 6th, 2011 03:27 pm (UTC)
I didn't read mysteries much as a kid or teen... I think because I found them too formulaic in the way you mentioned, and I was more interested in getting to know characters and exploring speculative "what if"s than figuring out who killed who how. ;) I did read some of the '80s Nancy Drew books because the character appealed to me (since she was young, smart, and female), that's about it.

I've started reading mysteries and related genres as an adult, though, partly because I'm trying to expose myself to as many good stories across as many genres as possible (you never know when you'll absorb something that fits perfectly with something you want to write) and partly because POSSESSING LUCY was supposed to have a sort of noir/crime novel feel so I figured I'd better read some actual noir/crime novels. I've read some of Agatha Christie's best known books and generally enjoyed them (and haven't been able to figure any of the out before the end except ROGER ACKROYD, and there only because I knew going in what the twist was, which impressed me). Also like Raymond Chandler's books. Starting to read some Lisa Gardner and Michael Connelly which I enjoy if I'm in the right mood. There doesn't seem to be a lot of mystery YA right now, but I've gone back and read some of the older Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike books, most of which have a strong mystery element. They're dated but still good reads.

It's still not my favorite genre. But I do love a strong mystery within a story that's also about other things. :)

BTW, you might want to try Christopher Golden's Body of Evidence series--the first book was a very solid YA mystery IMHO; haven't read the others yet.
Apr. 6th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the rec -- I'll definitely look for it!

Interesting that you hadn't read many -- I thought PL had a very strong mystery feel to it (so well done :D).

I also loved Lois Duncan, and periodically, I'll reread my favs of hers (Gallows Hill, The Third Eye, Don't Look Behind You, They Never Came Home, and Summer of Fear). I've read some Lisa Gardner, as well, and when I'm in the right mood (just as you say), I like her. Strangely, I've read only two male mystery/suspense writers that I truly enjoy -- Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. They often collaborate, but I've read a few of their non-collaborative books, as well.
Apr. 6th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
How funny! I read the exact same books growing up. Mary Higgins Clark is still one of my favorites to re-read. I also liked Mary Stewart and even read a few of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books.

I don't read many mysteries now for the same reason you mentioned (predictable) . . . but also because I think things like "oh it would be so cool if ____ happened. What a twist that would be" and am disappointed when it doesn't happen. ;-)

When I watch "mystery" TV shows (crime dramas etc. I always tell my hubby "that's the bad guy" or "he/she did it" the first time the character is introduced. 99.9% of the time I'm right, though the motive sometimes surprises me (not often though). I think this is why TV shows like MONK and CASTLE have to have more than the mystery to go on. They have to have fun characters, witty banter, etc. to keep us watching.

It's the same with books. There has to be something more than the mystery to keep us reading.

All of the stories I write have some sort of mystery elements in them. Maybe it's because it's what I grew up with and love so much. I'm sure there will be readers who can figure out the mysteries just as I did when I was reading, but hopefully there'll be enough involvement with the characters to keep the reader going. =D

Funny how our reading . . . even the early years . . . makes us the kind of writers we are today.

Edited at 2011-04-06 03:42 pm (UTC)
Apr. 6th, 2011 04:04 pm (UTC)
Yes! It's the witty banter that I especially liked in Parker's Spenser series.
Apr. 6th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
Okay, I can't believe I forgot Mary Stewart -- she was (and still is) my favorite romantic mystery writer, and I started reading her books in junior high and high school. (I'm going to edit my post to reflect that.)

I so agree -- in books, there really does need to be something special. That's why I especially like Linda Howard, because some of her characters are just so much fun to spend time with -- and she, like Mary Stewart, excels with romantic tension, which is what I personally love ;)
Apr. 6th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
I like the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker and also enjoyed the tv series. Most of Jonathon Kellerman's Alex Delaware series are interesting, although I'm beginning to be able to guess the killer or the motivation. In a good series, revisiting the characters is as much fun as following the clues.
Apr. 6th, 2011 05:12 pm (UTC)
I've read most of Faye Kellerman's books, but I read them for the Law & Order feel more than the actual mystery (which was often easy to spot -- though a few times, I had no clue until the 'reveal'). Most male mystery authors tend to write more prosaically than I personally appreciate ;)
Apr. 6th, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC)
That's the kind of book I read a lot as a kid, too. I find that even though I don't read too many mysteries now, all the ones I read have been well composted, and my mind is always trying to make a mystery out of whatever I'm writing.

One series I discovered as an adult is Dorothy Sayers's books. I can't figure out how I ever missed them (1930s Golden Age British detective fiction), but I'm sort of glad I discovered them when I did. I have certainly never been tried for murdering my boyfriend like Harriet Vane, and my husband is not a British peer with countless funds at his disposal to buy incunables--but between me writing and him researching incunabula, there is enough sympathetic in there for me to love them! I love the mystery structure--but I love all the other things Sayers throws in there, too. Bach and French and Planck's Constant--basically, the randomness that anchors a book to real life.
Apr. 6th, 2011 10:08 pm (UTC)
I've read one Dorothy Sayers' book (something with Yellow in the title), and I liked it. At least, I think she was the author...did she write something about a chubby woman who was funny as all get out and got the guy anyway?

But yeah, mine have been well composted too :)
Apr. 6th, 2011 11:29 pm (UTC)
Nnno, not that I know of, anyway. She wrote a number of them, but the ones that are more of a series (with series development, I mean, not unconnected one-offs about the same character) start with Strong Poison, then Have His Carcase, then Gaudy Night, and ending with Busman's Honeymoon. Really good!
Apr. 6th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC)
I have read the first two "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series by Stieg Larrson and have #3 in the queue... enjoyed them.

Currently reading "Lisey's Story" by Stephen King who seems to have gotten better lately. His early tales were great, then he got too prolific, and now he's back.

Had been reading James Patterson's "Alex Cross" detective stories but have pretty much given up on them. Too gruesome.

Enjoy the ... brain freeze ... John Grisham?... legal mysteries as well as some of his yarns ... "A Painted House" was an amazing tale of the old South.

Liked the Hardy Boys as a kid ... longgggggg ago.
Apr. 6th, 2011 10:11 pm (UTC)
John Grisham is one of the only male mystery writers I like (other than Lincoln Child/Douglas Preston). I haven't read his new stuff, however -- I kind of got tired of the legalese...but I really enjoyed both THE FIRM and PELICAN BRIEF.

I tried one Patterson book -- there was a graphic and brutal rape near the beginning, and I put it down and have never picked up anything of his again. I can handle a fair amount of violence (even graphic), but not anything sexually oriented.

I read Nancy Drew when I was in first and second grade, but although I liked the mysteries (and the girls), the writing made me cringe (even then) ;)
Apr. 7th, 2011 12:24 am (UTC)
*perks up* Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators? I remember reading some books, once upon a time, featuring three boys solving mysteries, and their clubhouse was an old trailer buried in a junkyard. Can't for the life of me remember what the book(s) was/were called, but I thought they had something to do with Alfred Hitchcock. Have you finally pointed me in the right direction?
Apr. 7th, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
Yep, those are the ones :) Jupiter Jones was the ring leader...and I can't remember the other boys' names, but the junkyard was definitely their hideout -- I have some of those books around here somewhere (down in the kiddos' bookcase, I think).
Apr. 7th, 2011 03:25 am (UTC)
OMG, YES! You are my HERO! Did I ever tell you you're my hero? You ARE! I have been wracking my brains for YEARS trying to think of that. Guh. Seriously. Each time I'd buy another Trixie Belden, I'd think, 'What WAS that other series of books...?'

*showers you with smooches*
Apr. 7th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
Oh, and you reminded me how much I loved and read Trixie Belden too (I own all my favs)...

There was also a very short series (maybe three or four books) about a girl and boy who worked with Sherlock Holmes (I think the first was called THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS).
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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