The OF Blog: What makes a detective/mystery novel "work"?

Monday, August 17, 2009

What makes a detective/mystery novel "work"?

Just a little question I have at 3 AM (yes, I have to be at work in 5 hours, but I've slept so much this weekend that it's impossible to sleep right now). I am not a huge detective novel reader, yet in the past year, I have read four novels, each of them vastly different in style and scope, that utilize elements of the detective/police procedural novel, starting with Brian Evenson's Last Days, then the ARC of Jeff VanderMeer's Finch (to be reviewed in October), then China Miéville's The City and the City (which I won't review until I re-read it at some point in the future), and now I'm halfway through Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, which I'll review by Saturday. I have discovered that despite my relative unfamiliarity with the genre, most of these novels have managed to keep my attention, but I am still trying to puzzle out the specifics of the whys.

So I thought I'd pose that to the readers here. For those who've read detective novels (perhaps some or all of the ones above), what was it about the stories, plots, characterizations, style, etc. that appealed to you?


S.M.D. said...

I'm reading Last Days as well and really loving it. It's so...bizarre. It's hard not to like, and it will probably become a part of my MA Thesis now that I'm actually in grad school.

How are you enjoying the Pynchon? I know you said you like it, but I'm curious for a more detailed analysis as to why you're enjoying that particular work. I've not read it, so I don't know how it holds up to his earlier work.

As for your question: I personally am not a detective fiction reader. I used to be when I was a kid (Hardy Boys all the way, baby), but I stopped reading them after a while and moved to SF/F. I think the elements that tend to appeal to me in detective fiction are inconsistent, because while I love all the noir elements, they can get annoying and overdone. It takes a damn good writer to do something truly unique and interesting with detective fiction (see Jo Walton's Farthin, Ha'Penny, and now Half A Crown). Last Days works for me because it's bizarre. I don't really care that it's a detective story, because the world he has created is gripping.

But I also have very specific reading tastes. I cannot read anything that lacks the weird. If there isn't something strange in it, I fall asleep.

marco said...

That's a rather perplexing question.
What makes a crime (broader term -not all crime stories are mysteries) novel work is the same thing that makes a sf/f novel work - acknowledgement/original take/busting and subversion of the rules and tropes of its (sub)genre - and/or the use of the particular angle they provide to say something relevant about human nature or the human condition.

As a rule, crime fiction is more directly "social", tied to a definite time and place. Someone said that journalism is the first draft of history, crime fiction is the second.
Otherwise, there isn't much in common between Glauser's In Matto's Realm, Sayers' Gaudy Night, Crumley's The Last Good Kiss, Sjöwall and Wahlöö's Story Of a Crime sequence, or Raymond's He Died With His Eyes Open. The respective strengths, styles and interests are very different.

Anonymous said...

Not a real answer but you might want to check out "The Reader and the Detective Story" by George N. Dove (Amazon) if it is a question you really want to pursue.

Matt Keeley said...

I'm not familiar with ALL the books you've read, but I get the impression they're more based off the cynical hardboiled noir school of detective fiction than the English country house type. Noir tends to be more about the society the crime occurs in than in the clue-by-clue unraveling of the mystery.

The classic "Golden Age" British mystery, on the other hand, is generally about a quirky detective solving an "impossible" crime. Think Agatha Christie. Usually the murder (or other crime) is solved and order is restored. In noir, there's not much order to restore, and it's not a very nice order.

(Though I'm really oversimplifying with my briefer comments on British mysteries - Dorothy L. Sayers wrote "light" mystery novels that make trenchant comments about her society. She was one of the first women to go to Oxford. She was also a translator of the Divine Comedy. P.D. James started as a Christie-like writer, but then turned into one of Britain's best novelists.)

I haven't read the book recommended by kingofthenerds, but Julian Symons' book Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel is quite good. Symons wrote several mysteries, but he also wrote biography and poetry and edited a collection of Dr. Johnson's writings. My one caveat: I haven't read the "final" version of Bloody Murder, which he revised a few times, so the edition I had neglects some important authors who came to the fore after the book's original publication. I have no doubt later editions are superior.

Matt Keeley said...

I just did some research, and it appears P.D. James has a book called "Talking About Detective Fiction" coming out this year. This is exciting, as James certainly knows her stuff - she was made a life peer for her contributions to literature. Her most recent stuff hasn't been her very best - she is now eighty-nine - but even her weaker books are very good. Consider The Black Tower or Devices and Desires.

Larry said...


I'm about halfway into it, but no reading tonight (I'm crashing in a few, plus I was busy with a project that I'll be working on for quite some time, it seems). I'll say more in a couple of days in a formal review. Wednesday, maybe?


Interesting definition/grouping there for crime fiction. I like it.


I'll look at it in a bit, but not tonight, as I'm about to crash.


I've read both noir and the English mysteries that you've mentioned, although not much in either subgenre. Will look into those suggestions later, when I'm a bit more coherent :P

Add to Technorati Favorites