Old v. new mysteries…

I’m finishing another P. D. James’ mystery, A Certain Justice (Adam Dalgliesh #10); some Big Five subsidiary has decided to make more money by (finally!) releasing the James’ mysteries in inexpensive ebook editions. I’m not proud—if I missed it, I’ll buy it, if it meets my less-than-$5 criterion for ebooks!

The first part was tedious enough that it set me thinking: there’s a big difference between the “classic” and modern mystery writers—at least in what I’ve read. James’ book spends the entire first part in what today would be called back story—tediously describing both the victim and the suspects. Dalgliesh doesn’t appear until Part Two, and I’m now enjoying the novel as he and his squad do their sleuthing.

There are several differences between old and new mysteries. The first is general and can be described as reflecting the difference between American and British writers: the old novelists weren’t minimalists. Hammett, Chandler, and other American writers were minimalist writers—often called “hard-boiled” in the mystery literature. The idea is to get the reader involved early on, keeping descriptive narrative to a minimum by letting the reader participate in the creative process, letting him or her form their own mental images with only a few prompts from the writer. Dialogue is kept to a minimum too, becoming brisk and to the point.

Both Christie and James are almost the antithesis of minimalist, James more so than Christie. The old minimalists wrote “pulp fiction,” a derogatory term; the non-minimalists wrote “literary fiction” that happened to be mystery stories (of course, I consider literary fiction to be an absurd genre, if we can even call it that). Minimalists aren’t verbose; non-minimalists often are. I’m not saying the latter’s stories aren’t good—I just find myself skipping over pages and pages of verbose description when reading them. Minimalists are more journalistic; non-minimalists are the pride and joy of MFA writing programs. I don’t want a lot of description and ancillary background when I read fiction—it gets in the way of the story. Of course, that makes my reading of the classics a bit inefficient and stressful, becomes sometimes I miss a key clue in all that background verbosity and have to return to it—definitely not a good thing for speed readers! (A minimalist author could be defined as one who’s nice to speed readers.)

Because I know my own novels very well, I’ll use one as an example. In the first chapter of Gaia and the Goliaths, we experience the crime and meet the victim. In A Certain Justice, toward the end of a lengthy part one (ten chapters!), the victim is finally murdered, and we’ve come to know that there are many suspects, people who might have wanted to kill her. Castilblanco and Chen appear in my Chapter Two and begin to solve the case. Dalgliesh appears in Chapter Eleven. If I’d known that, I’d probably would have started in Chapter Eleven! Castilblanco and Chen discover the victim’s back story in bits and pieces; P. D. James slams me with it all right up front, with pages and pages of verbose description. I would like to think that Raymond Chandler (a British-American mystery writer) would prefer my approach!

Of course, authors’ styles don’t really matter that much because it’s all about readers’ subjective preferences in our approach to reading. Many readers will relish James’ verbose description, her detailed probing into the minds of both victim and suspects. That’s fine. Every reader’s tastes are different. But James is performing a bit of trickery here. The reader knows all about the characters, but Dalgliesch doesn’t—he and his squad have to follow the clues and discover their secrets, zeroing in on the real culprit. All of James’ Part One is pretty close to being a spoiler. Chen and Castilblanco start at the same place as the readers—detectives and readers discover the clues as they go. James’ style puts the reader outside the story; the hard-boiled style puts the reader into it. It’s clear that James makes the reader more of a passive participant.

James’ mysteries, and Christie’s before her, aren’t for the faint-of-heart—the reader has to work to maintain his or her interest—a negative feature of many so-called literary novels—perhaps focusing too much on the discovery process the detectives follow because they already know too much about the suspects. Sure, I’m willing to wade through everything and get to the plot and its themes because the latter are usually interesting—A Certain Justice points out the vagaries in the British court system, for example. I admire Christie too, so much so that my upcoming novel, Rembrandt’s Angel, can be considered an homage to her and her characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. But they never wrote hardboiled stories, so many people, not just Americans, might not find either author to be their cup o’ tea.


Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder. Detective Chen is framed for the murder of a U.S. senator. As her partner Castilblanco moves to prove her innocence, they uncover a complex plot involving the underbelly of NYC as well as the overbelly corresponding to the rich and powerful. #3 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” this book is now on sale at Smashwords and is available in all ebook formats. Use coupon code XW55G. Last week! Also coming soon this spring from Penmore Press: Rembrandt’s Angel, an international tour de force involving a Scotland Yard expert on art heists and an Interpol agent. Chasing down some dealers in stolen artworks suddenly becomes very dangerous!

In libris libertas….

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