Writing Mysteries - Changes in Mystery Writing Over the Decades
"From Rickshas to a Man on the Moon" by Phyllis A. Whitney
In my lifetime, I've gone from rickshas to
a man on the moon. The changes and developments in the field of mystery
writing have been tremendous, as well, and the present trends seem exciting
and stimulating although I can only write about them from a personal
Sometimes it's interesting to examine what it is that has made us mystery
writers. Not just writers--the answer to that is easy--we can't help it. I
know why I am a mystery writer and a mystery reader. I was exposed at an
early age and the virus has stayed with me.
When we lived in Kobe, Japan, my mother gave me a subscription to St.
Nicholas Magazine, and I began to read, in serial, Augusta Huell Seamun's
mysteries for young people. I could hardly wait for each issue to arrive by
boat from the States. And I had my very own copy of The Secret Garden.
My father worked for a shipping company, but our evenings were spent as a
family. Radio and television were far in the future, and there were no
libraries. However, there was a boarding house for foreigners next door to
the bungalow we rented, and English visitors often discarded their books when
they left. We borrowed these, and most were mystery-adventures that we read
aloud, taking turns through long winter evenings.
I was introduced to The Prisoner of Zenda, the Graustark novels, The Scarlet
Pimpernel, and Rider Haggard's She.
I can still remember the warmth of a coal fire, the snow falling gently on a
little Japanese pine tree outside our window. That was a happy, loving,
wonderfully satisfying time. So now, when I become engrossed in a good
mystery novel, with bodies falling and blood flowing, I have a lovely, cozy
feeling that all is right in my little world.
Somewhere along the way I began to make up stories of my own. Mostly exciting
beginnings that I could never bring to a conclusion. Later, when we lived in
China, I was sent to a missionary school in the mountains above the Yangtze
River. One of the teachers took an interest in my writing and her praise went
to my head. I've never wanted any road but writing ever since.
After my father's death in China, my mother brought me to Berkeley,
California--my first taste of America. I was fifteen, and now there were
libraries! I wonder how many of us look back with gratitude to the librarians
and English teachers who encouraged us on the way to becoming published
writers? Our next move was to San Antonio, where my mother died. I was sent
to Chicago to live with an aunt whom I didn't like. Culture shock! But a
library was close and I could escape the gray streets of Chicago's near West
After high school I worked in libraries and bookstores (and got married),
always making up stories, and beginning to send them out. Mostly I collected
rejection slips, until I discovered that I wasn't a short story writer, and
sold my first book--a teen age novel.
Mary Roberts Rinehart, the reigning queen of mystery at that time, was a
favorite of mine. She was a far cry from Zenda, Graustark, and that tricky
Pimpernel! So for my fourth book I ventured and wrote a "grownup" murder
mystery--with a detective. (My first and last.) Of course, Rinehart took over
and I went heavily into the land of had-I-but-known. The book received
surprisingly good reviews, but nobody bought it. Sales were under 3,000
copies, and I decided, as the motto of Mystery Writers of America says, that
"crime does not pay--enough." In fact, when MWA was born and I was invited to
join, I declined, never expecting to write another mystery. Now, all these
years later, this book has been reprinted many times, and still sells. A
lesson for writers in holding on to rights because one never knows what will
During this time the mystery novel was being shaken up by Raymond Chandler
and Dashiell Hammett. The hard-boiled detective was in the ascendency, but
that wasn't for me. I closed my eyes to such goings-on and stayed safely in
my juvenile field.
Today, writers of mysteries can go in any direction they please. Their number
and excellence continue to increase. Women writers are coming to the fore and
may write anything from hard-boiled to cozy. Often mystery writers escape
labels altogether and go straight into mainstream. Tony Hillerman, with
detectives, and Mary Higgins Clark, without, are widely read by all types of
readers. Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Anne Perry write remarkable novels that
dispense with limiting categories. Elizabeth Peters, writing about Egypt,
occupies a niche of her own; Dorothy Gilman, Joan Hess, Charlotte MacLeod and
other make us laugh. Sharyn McCrumb writes notable folk mysteries of the
Appalachians. There are a great many regional writers, both men and women.
Among the women writers their books run from Elisabeth Ogilvie's charming
Maine stories to Sara Paretsky writing about a tough aspect of Chicago. And,
of course, Patricia Cornwell, who has carved out (no pun intended) her own
place in Virginia.
Our numbers grow because readers like us. We are the storytellers and we swim
well in the mainstream.
A selected Phyllis A. Whitney mystery book reading list
Listen for the Whisperer, 1972
Dream of Orchids, 1985
Dream of Orchids, 1985
Feather on the Moon, 1988
Daughter of the Stars, 1994
Amethyst Dreams, 1997
Guide to Fiction Writing, 1984
Phyllis A. Whitney was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1903 and has been a
bestselling romantic suspense writers for decades. In 1988, she won the
coveted Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. She has also
won two Edgar Allan Poe Awards for her juvenile mysteries.