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August 17, 2014


I love the OBT and will immediately begin using it. Currently, my test is How Many Women Die. I am so over stories that use the tragic/hideous death of a woman (or more commonly, women) to get things started.

which recognize that death isn't the only thing worth investigating

YES. Thank you for putting this into words.

One of the things I disliked about a lot of mystery novels was the writer hiding things from the reader.

So, double murders are right out?
There goes Poe ;-)

Agreed, serial killings are more suitable for black comedies.


Double murders are OK, but I side-eye them as heading for the slippery slope of "reducing the list of suspects by having them killed off, one after another".

Dorothy Sayers has a couple where the "murder" turns out to not be a murder.

I'm pretty omnivorous about murder mysteries. It is a genre' that lends itself to travelogue. For example: Andrea Camiliear's books about Sicily, Cotteril's books set in Laos, Barbara Nagel for Turkey, Kaminsky for Russia, Kwei Quarley for Ghana.

In my opinion the best mysteries are the one where, after reading, I remember the book vividly but don't care who did it.

I wonder how much of the problem stems from an increased exposure (sometimes even first hand) of mystery writers to news reporting. If your experience is heavily weighted to "If it bleeds, it leads," you are going to be inclined to go for murders. Preferably gory ones, and lots of them.

It's not that mystery writers today couldn't write about anything else. They just don't

P.S. As I think about it, I wonder if the problem is really the authors. Could it be that the editors/publishers came from that kind of news background, and just won't buy anything else....

I suspect that the trend towards murder mysteries rather than other sorts of mysteries is motivated by the same basic reason as "If it bleeds, it leads": People, in general are just more interested in reading it.

The further away from murder you get, in general the lower the stakes and the greater the risk that it will seem a waste of the incredible mental abilities of the detective to undertake such a painstaking examination. The Red-Headed League is tolerable as a short story, but would you want to read a novel with stakes that low?

Of course, there are other advantages to an investigation of murder. The victim cannot give any evidence, and the heightened emotion makes it all the more plausible for long-hidden secrets to come out.


"[T]he death...of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world"
- Edgar Allen Poe

For good or for ill, Poe appears to have seized upon a popular taste, albeit primarily among men.

If you've never read Reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe mysteries, you might want to give them a try. They follow the traditional police procedural setup, but wind up turning it on its ear. The mysteries are extremely clever: sometimes it's a standard case; sometimes the killer gets away with it; sometimes there wasn't really a crime in the first place. The writing is both erudite and also very down-to-earth. Reginald Hill is lauded in the UK, but very underrated in the US.

Greg Iles writes murder/suspense/mystery type stuff with fairly high body counts. It tends to be a case of witnesses getting bumped off, not suspects. Regardless, a good read is a good read, regardless of an author's plot devices. Iles' stuff is very, very good. Plus his current main protagonist is a lawyer who practiced in Houston for a time. That can't be all bad.

I've not been a mystery fan, it is usually particular detectives that I've liked. A rather short list, Sherlock (though I suspect I'm a fan of Watson), Caedfael, Marlowe and one or two others whose names don't come to mind. I think it is pretty mundane, you find characters you like and you want to see how they cope with different things.

I recently got my wife and daughter hooked on Sherlock, through the BBC series, which on one hand is great, because it's this character that provides an entry into so many things about British culture and because they are embedded into the stories, when she asks about them, it's not like a lecture ticking off facts, it is out of some sense of curiousness. However, I've found myself put off a bit by the male-centric nature of the BBC series, though I'm at a loss as to how they could add a strong female character (when they did add one, in the form of John Watson's fiance, she turns out to be a CIA agent experienced in wet work).

Of course, the dynamic of detectives works in the West because we don't have much problem with people telling (or showing) everyone else how smart they are. I don't think there are many Japanese detective figures. The main one I know about is Kogoro Akechiand the one that perhaps is the most famous, called Detective Conan, part of the shtick is that he is a detective who was forced to take a poison that didn't kill him, but turned him into a child, so he has to constantly hide his ability. Strangely enough, the manga is hugely popular in Vietnam.

After writing this, I realized that there is another manga character, Arsene Lupin III who is the grandson of Arsene Lupin, a French fictional 'gentleman thief', so now I'm wondering if mystery novels are an Anglo-American thing or if they approach the same popularity in non English speaking countries.

Probably not before someone else does, I'll suggest Judge Dee to LJ; not just van Gulik's stories, but his translation of a traditional Chinese original. It does fail the OBT--and I agree with DS's desire for something other than murder.

I found Van Gulik because he was next to Van de Wetering in the mystery section. Van de Wetering, I am pretty sure, wrote a number of mysteries that pass the OBT. I'm not sure they follow Father Knox's rules, but the wackiness in them is so delightful I recommend them anyways. Those books made me want to visit Holland all by themselves.

Thanks DCA, that really looks interesting. I've spent a morning reading about it and it looks fascinating. Who are the detective characters in other countries?

I have the whole van Gulik Judge Dee series (including the mentioned translation of the Chinese original that inspired him) on my bookshelf (front row) plus his one contemporary novel (and his biography written by van de Wetering). All of them read several times. There are at least some 'there was no murder actually' cases in them but still most of the books have 'murder' in the title (standard: The Chinese [insert noun*] murders)

*from memory: lake, bell, maze, nail, gold...

Synchronicity alert, was doing some reading on Pierce and came across this article
Wouters, E. (2000). Detective fiction and indexicality. Semiotica, 1, 143–154. Retrieved from http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/semi.2000.131.issue-1-2/semi.2000.131.1-2.143/semi.2000.131.1-2.143.xml

Academic, but may be of interest to some folks.

Laura Koerbeer, have you visited Venice in the extremely literate company of Donna Leon and Commissario Brunetti? If not, you have a treat in store, although she doesn't always adhere to the OBT (usually does).

And I second the recommendation of Reginald Hill, the outstanding British crime novelist of the last fifty years.

And if you want to mix a little fantasy with your mystery, you might try Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series. Note that they are mostly short stories, rather than full-length novels.

The stories have the interesting feature that, while magic works in that universe, it is seriously constrained magic -- and the detective has to work around its limits, not just wave a wand to solve everything. Not to mention the occasional story where magic turns out not to have been involved in the murder. And, as I recall most, if not all, of them do meet the OBT criteria.

My wife owns several thousand mysteries, all of which (I believe) she has read, many of which I have. So I hardly know where to begin. Maybe by location?

Besides those mentioned, be aware of Nicholas Freeling on the Netherlands (van der Valk series) and France (Henri Castaing); Sjowall and Wahloo onn 1970s Sweden, with sardonic asides on the welfare state; Peter Corris on Australia; Alexander McCall Smith on Botwsana; someone whose name escapes me - but will come back - on apartheid South Africa; Martin Cruz Smith on post-Soviet Russia; Colin Cotterill (mentioned above) on contemporary Laos . . .

. . . and almost every state of the Union AND on almost every time period from at least ancient Rome (Lindsay Davis) through the middle ages (many besides Cadfael) to the present and beyond. Humorous; dark. Totally implausible to impressively "realistic."

I haven't looked at most of these in terms of the OBT, though Alexander McCall Smith certainly qualifies, but everyone should be able to find something to their taste.

I feel like the proprietor of a delicatessen who's been asked "What's good here?" It depends on what you're hungry for.

A few more notes, semi-random:

- on apartheid South Africa, it's James McClure. For a humorous take on modern India, try HRF Keating's "Inspector Ghote" series.

- Southern California (my homeland): Ross MacDonald, T. Jefferson Parker, the Kellermans (Jonathan and Faye), and Walter Mosley (strong *black* writer & protagonist)

- Florida: John D. MacDonald (incurably sexist) and humorists Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen. Read the latter two for wild plots and amusing dialogue, though what sounds like the authentic voice of crime and law enforcement comes through better in the Boston novels of George V. Higgins.

- Louisiana: Julie Smith (N.O.) and James Lee Burke (beyond N.O.)

- Alaska (Dana Stabenow)

- classics: Sayers herself; Josephine Tey; possibly Rex Stout and Ellery Queen, though EQ in particular tends toward the "puzzle" rather than any attempt at reality.

- police procedurals: Ed McBain (AKA Evan Hunter, under which name he writes very differently), Joseph Wambaugh.

- spy novels: Eric Ambler (classic), John LeCarre (worthy of his reputation), Len Deighton (very versatile writer)

- medieval: Ellis Peters (Cadfael); Candace Robb; Sharon Newman

- humorous: Donald Westlake above all, one of the funniest writers in any genre

- US civil war: Owen Parry

- military history: Anthony Price

And this is from a very quick perusal of our shelves, mostly just those in front (our mystery collection is double-shelved)

Further comments to follow.

I haven't really tried to address the OBT theory or "detecting the writer," as posed by DocSci in the original post. Besides the responses to the OBT thoughtfully posted by others in this thread, I might note that the length of a novel makes it hard - by no means impossible, but hard - for a writer to focus on a *single* crime for 250 pages. (Note that the best known Sherlock Holmes tales are short stories, not novels.) So if you start with murder - because it's dramatic, because it's bloody, because it's universally acknowledged as a serious crime (unlike, say, fraud or light-hearted theft), because it's so Final (you can't restore the victim to wellness, as the criminal might have to in financial crime) - it's almost necessary to continue with another murder just to sustain the narrative. Or so I would imagine, never having tried to write one.

As for "detecting the writers," yes, that's a problem, but it's far worse watching TV, which my wife and I do a lot, in part because the writers are not just composing in haste, but they often have less than an hour to wrap things up. I'm not bad at figuring out "who did it" early, based on such clues as the actor they cast, but my wife is downright spooky in her suspicions. Not only is the suspect going to be shot (as I had already opined) in the next couple of minutes, but his life is going to be saved by the lucky silver dollar we saw him insert in his breast pocket just before the commercial! Right, of course.

The problem here is not with mysteries, per se. It is with bad writing, which can be found in all genres. It's more obvious in mysteries, because the reader is supposed to "guess" what's going to happen, but it's not unique. The antidote to bad writing is identifying and locating good writing.

I hope some of my suggestions above are helpful, but de gustibus non disputandum est.

Good hunting.

The Judge Dee novels are quite uncommon in that the detective has to deal with usually three cases at the same time and an important part is to sort out whether they are connected or not.

i've been singing "watching the detectives" ever since this post went up.

Laurie King is mostly known for her Sherlock books, but I actually prefer her Kate Martinelli series. Kate is a San Francisco cop, and though the series fails the OBT, the novels are terrific character studies and cultural observations, with many continuing secondary and tertiary characters whose lives impact Kate's in vital ways.

Besides the other "historical era" mysteries already mentioned, I recommend Elizabeth Eyre's murder mysteries set in Renaissance Italy, with Sigismundo as the roguish sleuth and his sidekick Benno. Great fun.

Let me put in a word for the Dave Brandstetter mysteries by Joseph Hansen. They are set in Southern California in the 60's through 90's (when they were written) and are beautifully written. The first two are Fadeout and Death Claims.

One thing I wish mystery writers would try more often is non-murder mysteries. Say money laundering, arms smuggling, fraud. Have you seen any fiction about the financial crisis at all? Some wish-fulfillment fiction about some highly placed bankers as bad guys could be pretty popular. "How the Banka Did It" as fiction for the millions. Grisham, Turow, (hell, Dave Barry or Christopher Buckley) are you listening?

However, I've found myself put off a bit by the male-centric nature of the BBC series, though I'm at a loss as to how they could add a strong female character (when they did add one, in the form of John Watson's fiance, she turns out to be a CIA agent experienced in wet work)....

Indeed, that was pretty egregious.
There is, obviously Irene Adler - who rather ridiculously appeared naked as a dominatrix in the series.

The problem is, I think, that the BBC does not / cannot afford to use teams of writers, and any given series tends to be dominated by the preoccupations of a single writer.
My children reliably inform me that series creator Steven Moffat (also responsible for much of the current Dr Who) is something of a misogynist...

Great lists, dr ngo
(my spellcheck wants to render you as NGO: non-governmental organisation )

I've read a disconcerting number of them, and you have provided some fruitful avenues of investigation.

I'll check my own shelves, but one I remember fondly is Michael Dibdin's often frustrated Italian detective Aurelio Zen.

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