Traditional mysteries


[T]he term “traditional mystery” is from the outset somewhat difficult to define absolutely. It has an almost organic structure, with successive authors and generations adding their own extensions and renovations to the house built by the likes of Poe, Christie, James, Sayers and Conan Doyle.

That original house had a foundation built on the reassurance of the middle classes, and four recognizable walls: the amateur detective or private investigator with superior powers of deduction, violence and sex occurring largely off-stage and referenced rather than shown, an incompetent or indifferent police force and, above all, the restoration of social order.

Hmm. What can the author of this post, Sulari Gentill, mean by “built on the reassurance of the middle classes”? It seems to me Gentill is trying too hard to sound erudite, because I do think that is a strained way of saying that traditional mysteries tend to involve a middle-class cast of characters, or that they tend to have a middle-class setting, or whatever she has in mind here. Also, that sort of statement makes me immediately think of counterexamples. There are so many historical mysteries that involve the upper classes. Do those not count as traditional? They seem pretty traditional to me.

How about the rest of this? The investigator with superior deductive skill, maybe. Nero Wolfe, say, absolutely. Roderick Alleyn, not quite so much, but he is a smart guy. Anne Perry’s Inspector Pitt is honestly not that smart, which is why his wife can be more involved in solving mysteries sometimes.

Off-stage violence, check.

An incompetent police force, no way! Inspector Cramer isn’t incompetent! He’s not as brilliant as Nero Wolfe, but he’s a solid detective, as we see in The Red Threads, where he is the protagonist. Ditto for Charles Parker in the Lord Peter novels. The police are certainly not indifferent, either! That’s really unfair.

But not only that, LOOK at Inspector Alleyn, for heaven’s sake! That’s a classic and I would say definitely traditional mystery series, and the detective is the protagonist. This is hardly unusual! Using as your definition of traditional mysteries the necessary separation of the sleuth and the police, I don’t know, that seems really odd.

The restoration of social order, I have no issue with that part. That’s a crucial element of mystery fiction, or it has been.

Where is Gentill going with this?

Perhaps however the most radical renovation is to the notion of the restoration of social order, the load-bearing wall which is an extension of the traditional mystery’s function as a literature of reassurance. Arguably this restoration is the most important facet of not only traditional mystery, but crime novels in general.

The modern protagonist, on the other hand, can fail to save the day even if he or she solves the crime. The perpetrator can go unpunished, and lives can remain shattered by loss. The reader knows who did it, but may be denied the simple satisfaction of a “just desserts” ending, without the story failing to meet the standards of a genre which had evolved beyond being a discreet intellectual puzzle.

Oh, no. No no no! This is an argument in favor of the kind of thing we see in In the Woods by Tana French., where we have a beautifully written novel where the protagonist slowly destroys his own life and no one manages to stop the murderer from getting away with the crime. That’s terrible! Gentill argues this:

And so, the mystery novel has become, above all, a literature of resistance. At its core is a champion who will not let matters lie, who will defy propriety, circumstance and fate itself to achieve a greater end, whether that be justice, truth or a personal sense of right and duty. They may not succeed but they will try, and if they fail, the reader will know—even in the absence of a sequel—that they will return to the fight. The fine art of the mystery writer relies on an ability to lead the reader through the darkest of moments to a realization of some sort. Occasionally that realization involves hope, but not always.

The realization doesn’t always involve hope! Well, good Lord above, don’t tell me that is a traditional mystery! That is a grimdark mystery, a sub-subgenre I have never thought about before and have no wish to encounter by accident, as happened with In the Woods.

Well, in my opinion, there’s absolutely no need to re-interpret traditional mysteries, because lots of them are still being written. The more serious, less cute cozies are traditional mysteries, and there are certainly plenty of those. The above argument seems to me to be more usefully framed as an attempt to delineate a different subgenre of mysteries.

But click through and read the whole thing, if you have time, and see what you think.

Incidentally, one of my favorite current traditional mystery series is Patrice Greenwood’s Wysteria Tearoom mysteries, which are cozies, but very much set on the serious end of the cozy spectrum. If any of you read mysteries, do you have a current series you especially favor?

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2 thoughts on “Traditional mysteries”

  1. No, no, no!

    I want to know the answer and I want justice at the end. For me, that’s part of the deal I think I’ve made with the author. There’s enough grey, enough unsolved mysteries and evil people getting away with it in real life. I want that fantasy of justice in my mystery novels and if I don’t get it, I feel the author has broken their end of the deal and I’m unlikely to read them again.

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