Opinion by Les Roberts on MysteryNet
The real trend in mystery has little to do with a particular “type” of story and everything to do with today’s detectives…
Anyone foolish enough or arrogant enough to predict whither the modern mystery goeth ought to be playing the horses or shooting craps in Atlantic City where there is at least a fighting chance. My own crystal ball is in the shop, but I discern a definite pattern emerging.
Of course there will always be trends, fads and flurries. Thomas Harris jump-started an avalanche of serial killer stories, Mary Higgins Clark began an outpouring of woman-or-child-in-jeopardy clones. Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky begat a truckload of smart-talking and feisty female private eyes, and Scott Turow caused lawyers all over America to start writing legal mysteries during their non-billable hours. Success always inspires imitation. And some of those imitations have penetrated the best-seller lists.
But as a novelist, critic and fan who reads at least a hundred and fifty books a year, I see all kinds of crime writers veering off in more or less the same direction, i.e. the character-driven mystery. Our psychologically-informed society wants to know more about the personal lives and private pains of our modern-day sleuths than was presented in the plot-heavy work of Agatha Christie, Earl Derr Biggers and Ngaio Marsh.
Readers know, after all, that the crime will be solved. They now want a more intimate relationship with the person doing the solving. They want somebody to root for, someone with whom they can somehow identify. They probably don’t know anyone like Hercule Poirot or the Lone Ranger or Sherlock Holmes or Jane Marple. But Sharon McCone or Harry Bosch or Mathew Scudder or Kinsey Millhone might live next door. Or even closer than that.
There is also a new emphasis on the craft of really fine writing. I’ve said loudly and often that some of the the best writing in America is currently being done by mystery authors who eschew the navel contemplation of their so-called literary colleagues and can at least construct a story and keep it moving. And of course keeping the reader turning pages is ultimately our Number One Job.
We read about murder in the newspapers all the time, but many of them today, saving O.J. and the Menendez brothers, are almost impersonal executions, drive-by shootings, gang-related vengeance, and criminals killing other criminals. Unless the crime is particularly heinous, as in the case of Susan Smith’s drowning of her two children, the public just doesn’t get exercised about it any more. A day without a murder somewhere is a slow news day indeed.
But when we read a novel about murder, we are unconsciously hoping for a bit more elegance and style. We are searching for protagonists who can overcome adversity in their own lives and beat the odds by solving the crime. Our fictional heroes and heroines have become more realistic in the past fifteen years or so, and who we fancy we ourselves could be if only we had the guts.
The current popularity of the mystery is no accident. We live in a time in which tings rarely turn out the way we want them to, where everything is in shades of gray, where morality and truth have become matters of opinion. But readers pick up a mystery novel with the absolute certainty that somehow things will be set right, that evil will be punished and justice will be served, that order will prevail. And there is a comfort in that which we rarely find in the news of the day. Real wrong-doers frequently get away with it, but in mystery fiction the weed of crime always bears bitter fruit. To write it any other way is cheating the reader.
So the sleuths who bring about that order in crime and suspense novels, whether they carry a badge or a PI license or are simply gifted amateurs, are Everyman and Everywoman, and are among the few heroic figures around today, and readers want to know who they are and what makes them laugh and cry and sweat and bleed. So if there is any sort of prevailing wind at all in the field, it is the one that blows toward the creation of leading characters of style and substance, protagonists that prove Rhett Butler’s posit that somewhere there is still grace and decency in the world.
The modern mystery has acquired humanity.
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A Selection of Milan Jacovich Mysteries by Les Roberts
- Pepper Pike
- The Lake Effect (1994)
- Collision Bend (1996)
- The Cleveland Local (1997)
- A Shoot in Cleveland (1998)
- The Best-Kept Secret (1999)
Les Roberts came to mystery writing after 24 years as a writer-producer in Hollywood. His first novel, An Infinite Number Of Monkeys, won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA “Best First Private Eye Novel Contest” in 1986. His latest in the Cleveland-based Milan Jacovich series is The Best-Kept Secret (St. Martin’s).