by Doctor Science
I used to be a voracious reader of mystery novels. I quit kind of abruptly about 15 years ago (or was it 20?) because I had become irrecoverably sick of mystery stories that failed my "One-Body Test". Here's the test:
Is there more than one murder? If so, you fail.
I mean, I still used to read them, but as far as I was concerned they were failures. I felt that way partly because I think murder should be taken more seriously than that, even in fiction. Also, it seemed to me that Agatha Christie failed the OBT so egregiously because she was making a political point: that capital punishment was justified because a murderer would also murder again. I read a lot of Christie in my teenage years, but the OBT only crystallized in maybe my early 30s (1990 or so), as full-on serial killers were becoming more common in the genre.
The other reason I developed the OBT was because of my love of Sherlock Holmes. If you look at e.g. Conan Doyle's first set of Sherlock Holmes stories, only 3 of the 12 involve any murder at all (Boscombe Valley, Five Orange Pips, Speckled Band). Most of the stories are just *puzzles*, mysteries of human behavior in general, not just murderous behavior in particular. I really *like* that, and I kept hoping I'd find mystery stories that were Sherlockian in that way -- and kept being disappointed.
But I kept reading mystery stories in spite of my disappointment. I think what sent me over the edge into I'm Just Not Going To Bother Anymore Land was when I was reading a new Tony Hillerman novel and discovered I was detecting the writer too easily.
"Detecting the Writer" is a phrase from Dorothy Sayers' introduction to Great Short Stories Of Detection, Mystery And Horror, and anthology she edited in 1928 and which is still golden, if you can find it. She wrote:
The mystery-monger's principal difficulty is that of varying his surprises. "You know my methods, Watson," says the detective, and it is only too painfully true. The beauty of Watson was, of course, that after thirty years he still did not know Holmes's methods; but the average readers is sharper-witted. After reading half a dozen stories by one author, he is sufficiently advanced in Dupin's psychological method ‡ to see with the author's eyes. He knows that, when Mr. Austin Freeman drowns somebody in a pond full of water-snails, there will be something odd and localised about those snails; he knows that, when one of Mr. Wills Croft's characters has a cast-iron alibi, that alibi will turn out to have holes in it; he knows that if Father Knox casts suspicion on a Papist, the Papist will turn out to be innocent; instead of detecting the murderer, he is engaged in detecting the writer.[bold mine]
‡ As outlined in "The Purloined Letter"
Reading the Hillerman book, I reached a middle chapter, where our detective was meeting a particular white character for their first significant conversation. "He's the murderer", I thought -- based on nothing more than when he appeared in the book.
I was right.
I was reminded of this because I just broken my long no-mysteries drought to read Spider Woman's Daughter, Anne Hillerman's continuation of her father's series. The sentences don't flow as well as Hillerman Sr.'s did, but it's a pretty good pastiche. To my surprise, it passes the OBT! which is enough for me to plan on looking for the next one. I can also detect-the-writer with the same algorithm I used for her father -- which may just mean that it's a particularly *faithful* pastiche.
But I still yearn for mystery stories more like "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Blue Carbuncle", or "The Red-headed League": ones which recognize that death isn't the only thing worth investigating.