I have been reading mystery and crime fiction since I was twelve and first discovered Mr. Holmes. The contest of good and evil was a fine caution for a teenage mind bent on breaking the rules. I did study the genre briefly in the 1970’s for the purpose of developing a mystery magazine to complement the science fiction monster that was swallowing me then, but that came to naught and in general I do not like to spend my time watching the sausage get made. I just happily eat it. When I made the decision to write a fiction about the death of the book some years ago, I quickly adopted the mystery genre as the right vehicle for the getaway. It was then that I decided to catch up with what had been going on since Travis McGee took permanent retirement.
In short, very few detectives drive Oldsmobiles these days (or an old Rolls-Royce converted to a pick-up truck for that matter). The psychology of the criminal act has taken the place of any moral judgment for a large percentage of mysteries. Social concerns often outweigh catching much less punishing the criminal. Criminality in and of itself is frequently in question, no matter the ultimate nature of the crime. The ‘mystery’ is more often an exposition of a crime and its aftermath.
Something that I have commonly found missing from the mystery genre today is cause, as in ’cause and effect.’ It seems that cause requires judgment and being judgmental has also fallen from favor along with the idea that there is such a thing as ‘crime’ as opposed to (I suppose) bad acts and good acts. And thus, punishment is now relative as well.
There are deep rifts in the mystery genre which have given rise to very specific geologic features. There is the ‘cozy’ and the ‘hard-boiled,’ of course, as well as the ‘noir,’ and the ‘police procedural’–all well established high ground for the writing practitioner and the faithful reader. There is even a sub-sub-genre for the ‘biblio-mystery’ which a few critics have already used to label HOUND. What is unfortunate to my mind is that there is relatively little cross reference. Outside of a few excellent and omnivorous blogs on the subject, few mystery readers play across the rifts.
More interestingly, as male readership has precipitously declined in recent years and female readership in general has declined less, there is a sort of ‘feminization’ of the mystery genre, very much kin to the dominance of fantasy over science fiction in that literary province. Women were always the majority of readers in the mystery field–as they have always been the majority of readers of fiction in general. But there was, from the time of Conan Doyle, a strong male presence. When I was growing up, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, and Ian Fleming, were offering excellent fare in the wake of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. These and a dozen more gave any male reader the kind of reference he could believe in as he sank beneath the ether of a good story.
This is less the case today for several reasons. One is politics. Another is Freud. But an even more practical reason lies in the mechanics of a reading culture. Boys and girls are no longer taught to read, much less to read fiction. And boys in particular have adopted the easy outlet of a newly digitalized artifice to replace books. Video games are popular with girls, but they are the rage with boys. I have raised a few of these creatures myself and have watched the battle in progress. I won’t truly know who won the war of course until it’s too late, but I have at least maintained the high ground and avoided the rifts as the father figure (I think).
Like a single parent home where the mother is stuck with the kids, the lack of male presence in the mystery novel has evolved into a restructuring of the genre which is stark. Emotional awareness dominates over detection. Female ‘issues’ often outweigh evidence. Strangely, the act of murder has taken on a ‘Peckinpah’ type surrealism. Victims are often female and suffer the most horrible deaths at the hands of men. (The simple fact that most murders are committed by men upon men seems irrelevant). The thriller is now the last dry land for male readers. Men do read some procedurals, but unhappily skipping to avoid the soft fleshy parts.
I have spent hours standing in bookshops close to the mystery section in the past few years–never mind the nearly 30 years previous to that when I sold them daily to the public myself. I cannot remember seeing a man read something as old fashioned as Agatha Christie, but nor do I see men picking up the Julia Spencer Fleming books which are so well written and contain a very believable male protagonist. An excellent mystery writer like Martha Grimes is sadly ignored by male readers in favor of Dennis Lehane, but this is not a good trade. Lehane is an excellent writer with a strong male voice, but he seems caught in a world of twisted psychological excuse rather than moral imperative. I’m afraid he will wear out his welcome sooner than later.
A woman once came into my shop and told me she had just seen a revival of Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap and thought it was great fun–but did I know of any other staged mysteries as good as that. I said I knew one that was better–Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th. The woman’s face fell and then contorted in a way I cannot take time to describe. She finally said, “You’re not a Republican, are you?” I did not inform her that Rand was not a Republican either. It was pointless. There was a world of literature she would not read no matter how well written, because of political as opposed to aesthetic prejudice.
By far the great majority of crime writers and readers are lefties. This is fine. As a libertarian I am no less offended by that political persuasion than I am by righties like Spillane or Buckley. I read for story. I read to be amused. I read to learn. I read to escape. I don’t read to pass judgment on an author’s religion or political persuasion (so often now the same matter). If the story holds the water, I don’t assume I’ll be poisoned. Most authors have better manners than that.
There is a whole twin planet of literary work which is invisible from the earth because it revolves around the sun at the exact opposite moment in space–at least that is the way it is for most readers. Do not try to get them to read a C.S. Lewis or a Dorothy Sayers if they read Hammett and Chandler. Forget Elizabeth Peters if they read Mankell.
P.D. James is accused of being conservative. I did not know this until I was in a Border’s one day and asked a clerk who pretended to be knowledgeable in the field about new mystery titles. She pointed at several books which were face out, skipping the latest James offering. I asked about it. She waved her hand at the cover. “She’s a conservative. You don’t want to read her.” I almost wanted to buy it just to make a statement–but such foolishness is beyond my budget. I generally don’t read James because she can be a bit mean to her characters. Meanness counts for more with me than politics when I’m under the ether.
But I do wonder why mysteries are so popular with readers of a left-leaning persuasion. Aside from the vicarious experience of danger (as with a roller coaster), is the interest a subconscious desire for order in a disorderly world? Is it a relieving of primal fears? A desire for justice? Might it be a humanist search for the terms and limits of right and wrong? I would like to think this last is at least part of the case. It is certainly a key motivation behind my own effort.
Dad no longer teaches us to drive the Olds. One person in ten can handle a stick shift. They do offer driver’s ed at most schools now, but no concept of what is happening as the gears change. Read the signs. Parallel park. You’re through. You are the operator of thousands of pounds of metal hurtling through space, but you have no idea how it works. I wonder if this does not leave its mark on the human brain. To be cognizant of the fact that you have no idea what you are doing, but you are doing it very fast must have an effect on the conscience. We all know someone who lost control. We might even know someone who was killed. In a social milieu where responsibility for our actions is so readily lifted from our shoulders, perhaps the cause and effect of the mystery story offers some grounding.
And then, maybe it is just that the mystery genre–like the western genre of old–is the last refuge of scoundrels. Women always seem to love a scoundrel.