The Mystery of Mysteries

LCCPhoenix, Arizona is not very coastal but
Left Coast Crime held its annual mystery and crime-writing conference there recently. The conference’s definition of “coastal” is anyplace west of the central time zone and that includes PHX (mountain time). Next year the conference is in Honolulu, which is about as “coastal” as you can get.

I attended because Phoenix is just up the street and I have a police thriller novel that’s about as good as I can make it, ready for release to the world, and I thought I might find opportunity to take the wrapper off it.

I did shake down some opportunity. I finagled invitations to submit from two editors. one a robust regional publisher of mysteries and thrillers which is not taking submissions, according to their web site, but I buttonholed the right person at a “celebratory breakfast” and she told me what to say in my letter so my submission would come to her personal attention. Can’t beat that.

The other editor was from a boutique New York publisher. In that regard, the conference was a success for me. I will submit with personal letters that recall our warm and friendly relationship at the wonderful LCC conference, and our meaningful conversation at the deafening and overpriced bar.

In another way the conference was a sober learning experience. I discovered that I really don’t care for the mystery genre (despite being the president of Arizona Mystery Writers!). In perusing the titles in the booksellers’ hall, and talking with authors at the meetings, it came to me: what sells, what is successful, are tiny variations on the simple whodunit theme.

The formula is well-known. Somebody is dead, an investigator (professional or amateur) seeks the culprit. Clues are revealed along with misdirection, and the perpetrator turns out to be not who you thought it was going to be, although despite any surprises, the solution to the mystery must be evidence-based. People who enjoy crossword-puzzles probably enjoy mysteries.

The latest and greatest mystery titles at the conference followed the formula closely and distinguished themselves with setting in time and place and by the social characteristics of the investigator. So you had “New and Exciting” mysteries taking place on a NASCAR track, in a national park, on Grecian islands, in the diamond district of Antwerp, in a Zoo, in precolonial Bolivia, in Edwardian England. You had investigators with a “Fresh Voice” such as a kick-ass young woman, a desperate immigrant, an AI computer, a cat or dog or penguin (animal investigators are apparently huge right now), a Ukrainian housewife, a coal-miner, a psychologist, and just about any other carbon- or silicon-based life-form or social role you can imagine, the less plausible the better.

But the formula doesn’t change. Nor does the dialog or the pace or the level of diction. The stories are focused on plot, with largely invisible narrators, and characters motivated solely by circumstance who have no psychological interiors beyond stereotypy. Not to get my nose too far out of joint, but of the dozen or so novels I sampled, only one drew me as far as the halfway mark before I was overwhelmed with boredom.

This is a successful genre of writing and these books sell by the millions. There were over 700 mystery writers in attendance, all successful. Readers don’t ask much of a mystery. They like to “learn about” exotic or unusual locations, not-too-unfamiliar time periods, and stereotypical professions, so details on those are what drive sales, not changes to  the basic formula.

It was a revelation of sorts. I saw clearly what was required to be a successful mystery writer, and I also saw that I was not interested. My challenge is to write interesting characters with personal psychological journeys that illuminate something true about human life. The mystery/thriller pattern is secondary for me, as are settings and costumes.

In describing my work to editors, I characterized it as “literary,” with the mystery aspect serving only to drive the plot. “All our books are literary,” one editor replied. She was either unaware of that descriptor, or, more likely, dismissive of it.

“What is literary?” the other editor snapped back, somewhat defensively.

“Describing a character’s journey in a way that reveals something meaningful about the human condition,” I replied.

“Every good novel does that,” she said.

I agreed, but did not draw the obvious conclusion that therefore, most of the novels on offer at this conference were not “good.”

Genre categories are marketing devices that signal readers what to expect. To separate a customer from his money, a publisher must dangle the satisfaction the customer already expects. In a literary novel, you never know what you might encounter. It’s an exploration, a challenge, sometimes a disappointment. Mystery readers don’t want that, though there are successful mystery and thriller authors who write character-driven stories (e.g., Le Carre).

Why then, am I going to submit to two mystery publishers, when it has become clear to me that I do not fit the category? One reason is that both of these publishers claimed to be open to character-driven stories (but they might have meant role-driven; that’s an open question), and because I want to believe that a character-driven story is just more interesting than a purely plot-driven one, even if the narrator has a clever voice.

But I don’t represent the target demographic.

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