Unexpectedly busy week

I suddenly needed to drive to St Louis twice, once early Tuesday morning and again VERY VERY early Wednesday morning. This gave me a chance to listen to, oh, about a dozen lectures from The Great Courses “Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction.”

Of course the title is silly, or perhaps meta — there aren’t any “secrets” of great fiction. I commented on that before, when I ripped into the professor’s take on cozy mysteries. And I kinda stopped listening to these lectures at that point. But I guess I was in the mood for this topic, because I just let the lectures run for about two hours each way on both days, and I did enjoy the lectures quite a bit. Many interesting topics, and every now and then the professor even managed to hit a mystery writer I’m familiar with, such as Tony Hillerman. It’s been a long time since I read Hillerman’s mysteries. I liked them quite a bit. I should revisit that series.

It’s a bit apropos given my recent reading, because somewhat to my surprise, Sharon Shinn’s recent collection includes several murder mystery stories, very outside her normal range. Except, come to think of it, for Wrapt in Crystal, which is in some ways — in a lot of ways — a murder mystery.

The three murder mysteries are “The Sorcerer’s Assassin,” “In the House of Seven Spirits,” and “Chief Executed Officers.”

The first is very tongue-in-cheek, which is signaled by every character being unpleasant in an over-the-top way, particularly the first-person protagonist. I guessed part, but not all, of the solution.

The third is almost as light in style. I didn’t actually believe in the basic premise about the nature of the alien species, but it’s an enjoyable story nevertheless. I didn’t guess the solution, though I’m not surprised in retrospect.

I liked “In the House of Seven Spirits” best. It’s also a light story, but not quite as feather-weighted as the other two. Plus I just liked it. I like the protagonist to be a nice person. It’s a shame she lost the ghosts, though no doubt it’s just as well they all moved on. And as she says, she can get a cat. In this one, I didn’t guess the solution at all. I really thought, well, never mind.

I will add, I’m having trouble which story in this collection I actually like the best, but it’s not one of the mysteries. It might be “The Unrhymed Couplets of the Universe.” Not sure, but I liked that one a lot.

But back to mysteries! As it happens, there’s a relevant post at Book Riot today: DOES SOLVING THE MYSTERY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

When I was younger, I was a mystery writer’s dream reader because I never solved a mystery before the big reveal. I would get completely absorbed in the set up, the crime, the clues and misdirections, and I never looked ahead or took the time to puzzle it out on my own. I might have made the occasional guess, but I was usually wrong, and I was almost always delightfully surprised by the big reveal. And I would have stayed so happily oblivious if I hadn’t decided that I wanted to write a mystery myself and therefore had to start looking at mystery novels with a critical eye. Writing a mystery is no small undertaking, and there are many considerations that go into plot, but the biggest question I found myself asking was, Does it matter if the reader can solve the mystery before the protagonist?

What do you think?

I don’t generally care whether I solve the mystery before the protagonist. That’s not important to me at all. I’m like the author of the linked post, only more so. I get absorbed by the characters and the details of the setting and don’t even particularly care about the clues or the misdirections. I may make a casual attempt to figure out whodunit, but it’s a very casual attempt because I don’t actually care.

There’s an exception to this rule:

I hate, hate, hate if the protagonist is stupidly missing ultra-obvious clues and therefore I figure out the mystery first.

I remember one Anne Perry mystery, don’t remember which one, where all the way from the murder onward I was thinking, “Or, you know what, maybe the murderer is THE ONLY PERSON TO WHOM THE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE POINTS.” I should add, I like Anne Perry’s mysteries as a rule. I was just baffled at how dense the police detective was in this one.

Or in Margaret Maron’s Winter’s Child, that’s another example. I reviewed it here. I don’t think I have ever in my life read a mystery where the solution was so blindingly, blazingly clear, and where the protagonist had to be more dense in order to not see this extraordinarily obvious solution.

However! All that aside, generally, I don’t care whether I solve the mystery before the protagonist or not. It’s fine either way. For example, I thought the mysteries were not super mysterious in Barbara Hambly’s historical mysteries with Abigail Adams as the protagonist, written under the name Barbara Hamilton, but that was fine, because the historical setting was so well evoked and the characters so well drawn.

Now, this Book Riot post is pretty good. The author of the post, let me see, Tirzah Price, makes what seems to me a good distinction between mysteries and thrillers, which is also relevant to the series of lectures I’m listening to, which is concerned with both mysteries and suspense novels. I’m listening to the lecture on spy novels right now.

Anyway, then Price discusses two mysteries, one where she figured out whodunit and the other where she didn’t. Let me take a look — oh, this is funny! The first book she discusses is The Searcher by Tana French, and you all know how I felt about In the Woods. So, hah, no, I’m not likely to read The Searcher. Sorry, but when I dislike a book that much, I’m not likely ever to read anything else by the author. Now if a regular commenter here pointed to one of French’s books and said, Oh, but you should try this one, I probably would, but otherwise no.

However, Price’s discussion of this book is good.

The other book she discusses is The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur. Well, that is certainly a most evocative title. It sounds like a pretty good book, too.

Price sums up her post this way:

These days, now that I’ve written a few mysteries of my own and read with a much more critical eye, I want enough information that I can start putting the elements together myself, but I don’t necessarily want to guess the whole who, how, and why of a mystery before the big reveal. I would not be satisfied if I was totally off-base about the mystery during reading (and I’d argue that a book that completely misleads its readers probably isn’t a successful mystery) but I read mysteries for the intrigue and the questions, so of course I want to be surprised in some way.

I don’t read mysteries for the intrigue and the puzzle; I read them for setting and character and essentially story. But, although I don’t (generally) care if I get all or most of the whodunit elements right before the big reveal, I do agree that if the novel completely misleads the reader, that’s not a great mystery. I can’t offhand think of a mystery that does that.

If you read mysteries, do you personally generally solve the mystery before you get to the end and have it handed to you in the big reveal? And do you care?

And, if you’ve read a mystery lately that stood out to you in some way, what was it? For me, it would be Wrapt in Crystal. But this lecture series has made me scribble down some names — including, to my considerable surprise, KIM by Rudyard Kipling, as an example of a spy novel, did not see that coming — anyway, I may be trying a good handful of new-to-me mystery and/or suspense authors in the near-ish future.

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12 thoughts on “Unexpectedly busy week”

  1. There are secrets in the sense that some people simply will not listen and so are not in on them.

    As for mysteries, yes, I mind if I can guess first. Especially since it’s generally by trope analysis for who is the least likely suspect.

  2. The Audiobook version of Kim narrated by Sam Dastur is REALLY good. Because Kim is a spy novel, a coming of age and a road novel, it has a very large cast, of all ages, genders, religions, caste, regions and countries. I think Sam Dastur does a brilliant job of bringing them off. Also Kipling prefaces each chapter with some verse, which I did not appreciate in text as I am a fast reader. But the narration helped with that. Captain’s Courageous, narrated by George Guidall is also very good.

  3. Ah should note that both these have period typical racial slurs; and Kim has a fairly uncritical colonialist bent. Having said that, all the best characters are non British (Pathan, Tibetan, Portuguese, Bengali, hill tribes and rani’s) – dynamic, smart, nuanced – and with only few exceptions, the white characters are mostly clueless (either well meaning or malicious). A marked contrast to some other period authors – when Conan Doyle does Indian bits it’s much more wincingly cartoonish. And I do love the adventure, philosophy and fabulous travelogue aspects.

  4. Never read Kim although I like some Kipling – maybe I should give it another try – anyway, posting to remark I remember a live action try at it with Peter O’Toole as a Tibetan Lama (IIRC, if not, some other sort of holy man) and what I managed to watch was quite good.

  5. Thank you, Meera! Those are really useful comments. I’ve picked up an e-copy of KIM, but now I may go for the audio edition! And for Captain’s Courageous too. I’ve never read that either.

  6. I have found two things that make or break a mystery for me. First, is the detective competent? This means asking good questions, not jumping to wild conclusions, and actively trying to solve the mystery. This also means I want the detective character to be the person who actually solves the mystery.
    Second, do I agree with the author’s sense of justice? This is harder to quantify. Sometimes a detective let’s the murderer go or allows them “the honorable way out”. I feel like I need to agree with the detective’s reasoning. I read a mystery (I can’t remember the title because I disliked it and didn’t try to remember it) where a detective gives up on making their findings public because the murderer is powerful and rich and the detective knows they’ll not be prosecuted anyway. That ending was deeply unsatisfying.

  7. Kaylynn, ugh. Ugh! I would LOATHE an ending like that! I would never read another mystery by that author again. I hadn’t thought about agreeing with the author’s sense of justice, but you are absolutely right. That’s crucial.

  8. I love the Deborah Crombie mysteries. I find them so richly characterized. I also love the Martin Walker Bruno series, bc of the European political situations I never considered, but recently I’ve decided all the cooking and recipes has become a little hilarious and not necessarily in a good way. I truly love the Dame Frevisse novels, also so richly characterized, and medieval, and fascinating, especially her last. I’m so sorry she’s passed.

  9. Thanks, Alison! I’ve never read anything by any of those authors, so that gives me great leads on some mysteries to try.

  10. G.K. Chesterton wrote The Man Who Knew Too Much — no connection with the film except the title — where the lead detective was always deducing who the murderer was and then why he would get away with it. Happy endings were when he made his deductions rapidly enough that they covered up the murder as another cause and prevented political repercussions, or when he deduced that the victim was a menace.

    OTOH, he did make it very clear very early that they weren’t ordinary stories.

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