Writing Mysteries – Essay by Laurie R. King

“Writing About Things That Matter”

Why a mystery novel? The classic mystery rests on a crime and its resolution towards justice. Of course, a lot of books not generally called mysteries cover the same ground, so as an aid to the beleaguered reader, the publishing world sweeps together an often mismatched lot of books and classifies them as belonging to the mystery genre. The childlike simplicity of the move at times leaves one gasping.

What do we do when an established mainstream writer such as, say, Jane Smiley or more recently Ron Hansen produces a more or less classic mystery? Do we call it simply a dark novel that happens to deal with a crime? Or, worse, when a known multiple offender of the mystery genre such as Josephine Tey or Peter Dickinson comes up with a perfect literary gem that has only the most fragile dependence on the form?

The whole genre question is further complicated by the undeniable fact that a great deal of crime fiction is simply pap, predigested and undemanding, suitable for the reader who lacks the inner fortitude necessary for tackling something with fiber (moral or otherwise). Many writers, good writers who ought to know better, focus so tightly on the structure demanded by a crime story that they lose trace of the fact that they are writing a novel. Accusations of both sensationalism and trivialization are, alas, often justified.

(As we are concerned here with the mystery genre I shall politely refrain from pointing to the pap in mainstream fiction, that multitude of books where Nothing Happens aside from 300 pages of kvetching about a divorce. The point is not who has the worse record, but the difficulties in categorizing a book.)

A genre book is about something; a mainstream story can be about anything. Knowing that a book is assigned to a genre makes the would-be reader feel snug, or smug, depending on how the reader values the genre. To the smug deprecator of the mystery genre, I can only say, You’re missing some fine writing.

So why a mystery novel? Because it is a strong form that allows me to do what I wish with it. I love the genre, with its rigid structure and its immense freedom. On its bones I can hang a story about things that matter, about death and pain and the dark side of the human mind, about fear and triumph and joy and the price we pay for justice, about the full gamut of human response.

A mystery novel, because the form is as big as I need it to be, and as intimate.

A mystery, because it’s human.

Buy Laurie R. King Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com


Laurie R. King is the award-winning author of two mystery series, one featuring Kate Martinelli, a lesbian police detective in San Francisco, and the other Mary Russell, a young American girl who becomes the partner of the “retired” Sherlock Holmes.

Laurie R. King is a third generation northern Californian. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, received her M.A. from the Graduate Theological Union in 1984, and was awarded an honary doctorate from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 1997. She is married to a now-retired professor of Comparative Religion and has two children.

The Kate Martinelli Mysteries

A Grave Talent, 1993 (Best First Novel Edgar)
Investigating a series of murders in which the victims are all children, Detective Kate Martinelli finds a suspect in Vaun Adams, a renowned woman painter convicted of strangling a little girl eighteen years earlier. Buy This Book from Amazon.com >>

  • [su_amazon_link title=”To Play the Fool, 1995″ code=”0553574558″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”With Child, 1996 (Edgar Nominee for Best Novel)” code=”0553574582″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”Night Work, 2000″ code=”0553578251″]

The Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes Mysteries

  • [su_amazon_link title=”The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, 1994″ code=”0553571656″] Tutoring the audacious Miss Mary Russell in all the fine arts of deduction, Sherlock Holmes is called out of retirement to oversee her ultimate challenge when bombs are placed on both of their front doorsteps.
  • [su_amazon_link title=”A Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1995″ code=”0553574566″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”A Letter of Mary, 1996″ code=”0553577808″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”The Moor, 1997″ code=”0312169345″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”O Jerusalem, 1999″ code=”0553581058″]


[su_amazon_link title=”A Darker Place, 1999″ code=”0553578243″]

Buy Laurie R. King Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com


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