250 posts… when I started this blog, about eighteen months ago, I honestly didn’t think I’d get past twenty posts, let alone a quarter-millennium. But, 184 book reviews, several short story reviews and a whole plethora of other stuff – not to mention the many discussions generated by the comments given by you, readers, and we’re still going strong. But, apart from significantly upping my reading, what have I actually learned from doing this? And have my tastes evolved at all?
Martin Edwards, at a recent talk organised by Formby Books, talked on the marriage of plot, character and setting that was the crux of the modern mystery novel. I was always of the opinion that, for me, with my mathematical background, the plot was the most important part and the rest would be a bonus, nothing else. So, is that still the case?
The notable difference in my reading since the blog started is that I’ve finished a number of books that in the past I would not have. Putting aside the books that have been, to be frank, a bit rubbish, there are some books – take, for example, Martin’s own The Arsenic Labyrinth or the recently read (and yet to be reviewed The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötsch) – that needed a little time to get into, but spending that time is so rewarding. Once upon a time, I might not have invested that time – that’s not the case now.
So given that my tastes have changed a little, what now makes a book unsatisfying for me?
Unconvincing Character Actions – look at The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson. A number of characters have to do some pretty stupid things in order for the plot to work. Similarly The Ten Teacups by the same author. I can remember a time when this sort of thing didn’t bother me so much, but it does seem to irk me more these days.
Unconvincing Characters – Agatha Christie always gets the finger pointed at her for this, and I really don’t think that’s particularly fair. One of the reasons that I’ve stalled on my Ellery Queen bibliography is that the central character is really getting on my nerves. It’s not exclusive to older books though – the killers in many modern thrillers who can be ranting nut-jobs one minute and act normally in their day to day doings – effectively a secret identity – is the sort of thing that has basically stopped me reading modern thrillers from the USA with a few notable exceptions.
Slow Plots – I don’t mind a book where things take a while to get going any more, but some sort of intriguing movement has to happen. Take for example, The Maze of Cadiz, a recent read where it basically moved from conversation to conversation until the final act. There has to be a reason to turn the page other than to simply get to the end of the book.
What has surprised me is the change in my opinion on the “fair-play” mystery. I’ve become less fussed about the need to have a narrative littered with play-along clues, and have come to accept the only-one-solution-makes-sense school of plotting. Take the recent The Demon Archer. There are many and varied occurrences that only form a sensible whole when looked at in the right way – which then makes perfect sense.
What about you? What makes a “bad” mystery for you?
But I’m pleased to say though at I’ve enjoyed at least 90% of the books that I’ve read – probably more than that, in fact, so let’s finish with some recommendations of authors that I’ve found due to the blog.
Kate Ellis – in part due to the blog, in part due to meeting her at Formby Books, I really enjoy her Wesley Peterson series. I’ve read five of them so far and the marriage of police procedural, twisty mystery and historical elements is an absolute joy.
Martin Edwards – probably have said enough about Martin before now. A writer of outstanding crime novels.
Peter Tremayne – historical mysteries set in seventh century Ireland, full of detail, character and busy plots. Very satisfying
Paul Doherty – have I not mentioned him yet? The master of historical mysteries, in my book. Go and snap up those cheap Athelstan books on Kindle while they’re still there…
Right. Back to reviewing…
I realize this may impress some as the scoffing of a purist snob, but I hate it when a book is advertised as mystery/detective novel when it really isn’t. Adair’s The Act of Roger Murgatroyd was not a delightful send-up of Agatha Christie, but the literary equivalent of desecrating her grave and memory.
When there are no clues to look at is another thing that gets me. I can forgive sparse clueing if the story, writing and/or characters are good enough (Rex Stout!), but this is the reason why I stay away from best-selling thrillers and crime novels.
I agree with you on unconvincing actions of some characters just to make the plot work, which is why I never rank The Peacock Feather Murders among my favorite locked room novels.
Have you ever read Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law? It’s a very, very slow moving detective story, but that’s an intricate part of the plot and the only example I can think of were the pace of the story has an actual bearing on the plot.
The two main culprits that I found in the “it’s not a mystery” camp were Edward Marston’s The Railway Detective and Candace Robb’s The Apothecary Rose, both of which were advertised as a mystery on the front cover and neither of which had anything for the reader to work out/have a guess at.
It depends on how one defines clues, really – I can see an argument that the “only-one-solution-makes-sense” school isn’t necessarily providing tangible clues – but I do agree that there have been some books where the murderer is revealed due to the author running out of pages and then grabbing a character at random, who has revealed their guilt by trying to kill someone in front of the hero. One book that I read recently could be accused of that by a harsh critic, but there was enough there for me. It’s all in the eyes of the individual reader, though.
Not read Cyril Hare – going on the TBR list…
I don’t mind slow plots at all. I love the books of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and their books really are very slow moving. Have you read these? But as you say the plots do need to be going somewhere. Bugbears of mine are: historical mysteries that are historically inaccurate. I don’t expect perfection but do expect some research/authenticity. I also don’t like books that are clear prequels/sequels to another. I like my mysteries to be self contained within a book, even if it is part of a series.
Congrats on your 250th post! I’m not far off my hundredth.
I did feel that the plot of The Maze of Cadiz was basically – man arrives, man talks to a lot of people, most of whom have nothing to do with the plot, man spots fairly obvious plot and sorts it out. There was a lot of local colour and character but the plot simply wasn’t enough for a novel. I’ve got Roseanna on my Kindle, so I’ll give it a go soon. Currently struggling through a “difficult” book though, so will revert to a few favourites – see the blog – before I tackle something that requires concentration 🙂
I agree with the historically inaccurate thought but unless a Spitfire turns up in the First World War, I’m ashamed to say that I might not notice. Oh, there was a bit of gay rights stuff in Wine of Violence that stood out as odd, but the author’s heart was clearly in the right place, so I could live with that.
Talking of series though – another pain is the book in a series that spoils an early one – see Peter Robinson’s Strange Affair, that spoils Playing With Fire and almost all the Hugh Corbett books by Paul Doherty that spoils the first one, Satan In St Mary’s. But you should skip that one anyway…
Isn’t it funny how time flies with these blogs… Roll on the 200th actual review.
I hate it when a plot fitted for a short story frame is extended for a full-length novel. Take Ellery Queen’s THE DUTCH SHOE MYSTERY. The puzzle and the presentation of the clues are mostly fine and logical (apart from the motivation of the culprit maybe), but is there actually any plot movement between the murder and the denouement beside interrogations? I usually like dialogue in a novel, but it has to be crafted into the narrative in a way that makes you feel like it’s necessary. Or at least it has to serve some kind of overall theme, like the backwardness of the crime in THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY (which happens to feature a lot of other developments as well though).
In general, I think a good writer does not bore the reader with needless filling material when the basic idea behind all the layers is a rather straight and simple affair. There are some rare cases where filling material is actually reasonable, like when there’s really intriguing character development, but otherwise any writer should avoid the point where the reader forgets for which exact purpose he is reading a whole book right now. I hope this does not happen to me while reading THE EGYPTIAN CROSS MYSTERY like it happened to other readers…
Oh, and of course as you already mentioned, unconvincing character actions are problematic too and THE RED WIDOW MURDERS sadly is a good example for that. I know, the novel was about madness so the actions might not have to be strictly logical or rational, but when reading a fair-play mystery novel, the reader has to be able to simulate actions the characters could possibly take or otherwise it would not be fair-play anymore. It’s a delicate issue…
Out of curiousity, what do you think of the plot where the actual case is quite simple but the bulk of the book is taken up by a massive red herring? I’m a bit undecided on this one – if it’s done well, then it’s fine, but if not, then it can feel like you’ve just wasted your time reading it.
Even though I have to admit I can’t think of a perfect example right now, I know exactly what you mean and it’s a really good question. But then again, how do we define something as a red herring? What about something like the halfway revelation in Carr’s TILL DEATH DO US PART? I’ve read negative opinions about a ‘twist’ like that, because supposedly it rendered everything that happened until that point useless. However personally I don’t think so, especially because Carr went to the trouble of actually thinking about posing the question why the locked room method was used and provides a satisfying answer. That would not have been possible without the part that was nullified later. Or what about novels with so many twists and reinterpretations of clues like THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY? Where can we actually apply the term red herring there?
Answering questions with more questions now, but basically I agree to what you said. It can be awesome if it’s done well, but depending on what else happened over the course of the novel, it can also turn out annoying. Again, you need enough interesting, developing plot to justify massive red herrings that are discarded later on. How you construct an interesting plot when it relies on a red herring is another good question though…
Many congratulations on your 250th! And thanks, needless to say, for your generous remarks about my own books. As for Cyril Hare, I’m a real fan of his. There’s usually something a bit different about a Hare novel. He wrote well, too.
Many thanks, Martin. I’ll definitely look up the Hare novel. Given the tome that I’m struggling through at the moment, “wrote well” sounds like just the thing…
It is wonderful that you have been blogging about books for so long and have written so many posts. Here’s to many more! Unconvincing characters are bad, but a slow plot is the worst.
Thanks for the nice thoughts. And I think I agree – the plot must move forward at all times…
250 is a very handsome, very round, very envy-making number – bravo Steve!
Well done also for focusing on what you think has and has not changed during the last 18 months, which is a smart bit of reflective practice which I tend to find very hard to do. What I think is true and desirable is that one’s horizons should broaden rather than contract, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, there are lots of things I did and said and read in my early 20s which now that I am twice that age I find both amusing and wince-inducing – but I do very much enjoy being able at least to take the long view. I loved puzzles and cleverness almost of its own sake in my teens but very quickly I found that I also enjoyed the virtues of intelligence in the dialogue and a flair for prose. Which is to say, for example, that I read the early Ian Fleming books for the plots, the colour, the sex and the violence, but what remains 20 years later, for me at least, is his style. The reason i still like Carr is because he is still a superb magician with a great sense of humour and a powerful sense of the macabre – just re-read THE EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX for instance and thought it was even better than before, perhaps because it does focus to an unusual degree on the characterisation. Shame about your stalling over the Queen books, but SIAMESE really is a beaut!
I am quite fan of postmodern fiction so will never agree with Patrick and TomCat – two very, very smart fellows after all – that Adair’s books aren’t witty and entertaining. but that;’s just me – I like being able to enjoy Christie and then flex different muscles and enjoy Chandler or Ross Macdonald ans then read authors like Adair who have very different agendas. At this point in my life I enjoy a little guidance but want to do anything I can to shirk any preconceptions I have accumulated – because I will never be able to read all the books I would like to read anyway,
Thanks as always for the excellent reviews and for guiding towards, and away, so many books and authors – always a great pleasure.
Wow. Sergio, you should make that into a post on your own blog!
What is interesting is that I still have limits on what I enjoy. There absolutely has to be a “reveal” at the end of the book. If it’s simply an adventure, then it never sits well with me. And there is a limit on how far from the norm I can stray. The Last Policeman, a detective story set in a pre-apocalypse New England, was outstanding, but Hotel Noir, which I honestly can’t describe easily, was, for want of a better word, awful as a crime novel.
Must have another look at Snuffbox – it’s never had a good press, but I remember enjoying it a lot when I read it.
As for Ellery – the early Ellery is fine. But the mid-Ellery, especially Hollywood-Ellery, I find very annoying. The drinking section at the beginning of The Four Of Hearts, for example. But I will get round to it… soon, I promise.
Thanks for the kind words, and keep up the good work yourself.
Not a big fan of second period Ellery either so I know what you mean. Actually, for me a mystery book doesn’t have resolve the plot and leave things ambiguous but only if that is the point – what is truly exasperating is when you feel this hasn’t been earned by the author and actually it’s just laziness or cheap literary point scoring. It’s very noticeable with ‘literary’ authors who indulge and knowck off a mystery and you just think they are slumming. Paul Auster can give that impression in the NEW YOUR TRILOGY for instance but I think he just about gets away with it (it helps if you’ve read his more orthodox excusion into the gre, SQUEEZE PLAY, as by Paul Benjamin). In my view this also goes for Adair – would love to know what you make of Evadne Mount …
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