Sunday, April 25, 2010


"Mysteries," declares Scholastic, "have the ability to get reluctant readers and writers enthusiastic about reading, thinking, and writing. Mysteries often contain intriguing characters and are often able to hold a student's interest with their suspenseful and dynamic plots. Mysteries are a wonderful vehicle for teaching critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills in an exciting and enjoyable way."

A good who-done-it can keep you guessing. Mystery is a popular genre in books but less popular in film because a film dependent upon a shocking who-done-it answer is one dependent upon a world where spoilers don't rush to inform everyone they know, "The killer was ____!" When the board game Clue was made into a film in 1985, it attempted to get around the spoilers by offering one film with three different endings. That did not help the box office. Suspense is more popular in film as a result of the fact that the audiences know who-did-it and are instead following how they'll continue doing it or how they'll get caught.

One of the biggest criticism of the mystery genre was voiced by Truman Capote's character in the comic-mystery film Murder By Death. In the film, various detectives (spoofs of Miss Marple, Sam Diamond, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, etc) are assembled at a spooky mansion to solve a murder and the Capote character castigates the writers for their surprise endings that depend upon characters never mentioned before and incidents never revealed to the reader until the last pages.

Perhaps partly as a response to this criticism, for a brief period in the early eighties, a number of paperbook mysteries were published with no last chapter, just blank pages for the reader to write the outcome. (Yes, that strikes us as lazy as well.)

But mysteries have long been a genre of popular literature. Some of the notable past writers include Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler among others. A list of today's strongest writers would have to include Sara Paretsky.

Prompted by an e-mail from mystery lover Debbie P., we decided to take a look at some of today's mystery novels. How to do so? We randomly selected page 167 (numerologists should be able to figure out why) and grabbed five of the best sellers in the genre.


The first writer on the list is a household name . . . as a TV personality. Al Roker, the weather guide of the NBC's Today Show. And he teams up with Dick Lohte to write The Morning Show Murders which, despite the title, is not about forcing Jane Pauley off The Today Show. Instead it focuses on a morning television personality and a celebrity chef teaming up to solve a murder as Mossad wanders the sets with assassins on their trail. And you thought CBS' The Early Show had a rough and tumble set!

I let Kiki handle the whole car-repair thing. While she made the calls and arrangements, I slumped on the only soft chair in my office, brodding as I dabbled at the red spots on my jacket with lighter fluid. That's where Arnie found me. "Your presence is requested in Gretchen's office," he said. "What's up?" I asked, getting to my feet and following him through the door. "Something about a car accident." "How'd she find out about it?" "She passed your car on the way back from lunch," Arnie said, leading me to the bank of elevators. "It's not that big a deal," I said. "Gretchen said the car looked like crap," he said. "What's the big deal? It always looks like crap," I said.

You get the idea that "crap" is Al's attempt at 'working blue.' Or maybe that should read:

We said, "You get the idea that 'crap' is Al's attempt at 'working blue.'"

"Said" is certainly a popular term, appearing four times in the above excerpt and one more time on page 167. As a general rule, repeatedly resorting to the same verb is not seen as a hallmark of good writing. But telling writing? We learn from the above that there was a car accident; however, the details will be . . . handled by someone's assistant. So it's kind of like Al's writing autobiography!

The Morning Show Murders came out last year, published by Delacorte Press (Random House), retails for $26.00 in hard cover and is 312 pages.

Unlike Al Roker, Sue Grafton has a lengthy history of mystery writing. Her most famous character is probably Kinsey Millhone who is the lead character in what's termed Grafton's "alphabet series" due to each novel starting with the letter of an alphabet. She's now up to "U" with U is for Undertow published last year by Putnam, retailing for $27.95 and featuring 403 pages.

In this novel, Kinsey Millhone becomes entangled in a long ago murder of a small child when a potential witness steps forward.

After a brief consultation and a phone call, they loaded her onto the gurney and put her in the rear of the ambulance. From the look that passed between them, Jon knew she was sicker than he'd thought. When the paramedic told him he could follow them to St. Terry's, he wanted to laugh. "I'm a kid. I can't drive. My dad's not even home. He's out of town."
After more murmured conversation, he was allowed to ride in the front of the ambulance, which he gathered was against the ambulance company's policy.
In the emergency room, he sat in the reception area while the doctor examined his mom. The nurse told him he should call someone, but that only confused him. He didn't know how to reach his brother in Nashville and who else was there? It wasn't like he had his teacher's home telephone number. The school would be closed by then anyway, so that was no help. There weren't any other close relatives that he knew of. His parents didn't go to church, so there wasn't even a minister to call.
The nurse went back down the hall and pretty soon the hospital social worker showed up and talked to him. She wasn't much help, asking him the same series of questions he couldn't answer. She finally contacted a neighbor, a couple his parents barely knew.
Jon spent that night and the next night with them. He left notes on the front and back doors so his father would know where he was. His mother survived for a day and a half and then she was gone.
The last time he saw her -- the night his father finally showed up -- she had IV lines in both ankles. There was a blood-pressure cuff on one arm, and a clamp on her finger to measure her pulse, a catheter, an arterial line in one wrist, and tubing taped over her face. He knew the exact moment the rise and fall of her chest ceased, but he watched her anyway, thinking he could still see movement. Finally, his father told him it was time to go.

And that, Al Roker, is how you write a mystery.


Walter Mosley is also a veteran of the genre and is most famous for his series of novels featuring the detecitve Easy Rawlins. In 2009, he introduced Leonid McGill. 2010's Known To Evil is another Leonid McGill mystery, this one running 326 pages and retailing for$25.95 (published by Riverhead Books). Doing a favor, the NYC detective ends up at a murder scene and the prime suspect increasing the tense nature of the book.

"They tried to pick her up or something?" I asked, trying to seem as dense and as coarse as I possibly could.
"No. At least I don't think so. Two big strong men in suits tried to make her get into their car."
"What happened?"
"There's a building down the street tenanted by some, uh, long-haired men with tattos and the like. They work on cars." Nichols sounded excited by these men. I was sure that he could describe the scent of their sweat. "They saved Miss Lear . . . drove the attackers off."
"That sounds promising," I said.
"Yes. Their place is three buildings east of our property."
"You seem to know a lot about that building, Mr. Nichols. Are you this familiar with all Plenty properties?"
"The senior Mr. Planter owned quite a few buildings," Mr. Nichols said wistfully. "His son has sold almost everything. Now we . . . I . . . am mostly a real estate agent for rentals and sales here in the West Village. But I go out to look at the three buildings we still own . . . at least once a month."
He took off his glasses and rubbed them clean with his blue-and-white tie.
"Can you think of anything else, Mr. Nichols?"
"There's no name associated with the money from the bank?"
"Maybe if I spoke to Jeff?" I suggested.
"The transfer was made electronically, and the original communication was made by phone -- with me. Jeffy . . . Mr. Planter doesn't spend much time in the office even when he's in New York. It was a woman's voice but I'm sure it wasn't her money."

Note that Walter Mosley has Leonid McGill speaking to the people that Al Roker's novel ignores. The ones who do the work. Note how, like Grafton, Mosley offers key details that grab the reader and increase the interest.

Elizabeth George is a best selling mystery author and, like Mosley, a number of her books have been adapted (his for film, hers for television). Her popular detective is Thomas Lynley. This year, HarperCollins published the latest Inspector Lynley mystery entitled This Body Of Death which runs for 689 pages and retails for $28.99. Still grieving over his wife's murder (see 2005's With No One As Witness), Lynley returns to assisting his team when a new murder and a new staffer both raise issues.

Unlike so many small parks in town, this one was neither locked nor barred. It was fenced in wrought iron, which was typical of London's squares, but the fence was only waist high and its gate stood open to admit anyone who wanted access to its wide lawn and to the pools of shade offered by the leafy trees that towered over it. Children were playing noisily on the green near to where Barbara parked her old Mini. In one corner a family was having a picnic, and in another a guitarist was entertaining a young adoring female. It was a very good place to escape the heat.
Sidney answered the door to Barbara's knock, and Barbara tried not to feel what she indeed was in the presence of St. James younger sister: a frightening contrast. Sidney was quite tall, she was slender, and she was naturally in possession of the sort of cheekbones that women happily went under the knife to acquire. She had the same coal-coloured hair as her brother and the same blue-today-and-grey-tomorrow eyes. She was wearing capris, which emphasised legs that went from here to China, and a cropped tank top that showed off her arms, disgustingly tan like the rest of her. Large hoop earrings dangled from her ears, and she was removing them as she said, "Barbara, I expect the traffic was a nightmare, wasn't it?" and admitted her into the house.
This was small. All the windows were open, but that was doing little to mitigate the heat inside. Sidney appeared to be one of those loathsome women who did not perspire, but Barbara was not among their number, and she could feel the sweat popping out on her face the moment the front door closed behind her.
Sidney said sympathetically, "Terrible, isn't it? We complain and complain about the rain, and then we get this. There should be some middle ground, but there never is. I'm just this way, if you don't mind."
Just this way turned out to be a staircase. This rose towards the back of the little house, where a door stood open to a small garden from which the sound of vicious pounding was emanating. Sidney went to the door, saying over her shoulder to Barbara, "That's just Matt." And into the garden, "Matt, darling, come and meet Barbara Havers."

Lastly we arrive at Robert Graysmith's The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock's Shower: A Murder That Became A Real-Life Mystery, A Mystery That Became An Obsession and with that lengthy of a title, you might expect this 2010 book to have the most pages of any in our survey; however, it's only 289 pages of text. Retailing for $25.95, this Berkley Publishing Group book explores the murder of Janet Leigh's nude stand-in, Marli Renfro, for the shower scene in Psycho.

He had cut the mouths away from four women's faces and made cutouts for eyes so he could wear them as Halloween masks. When the flashlights gave out, the police worked by the light of a kerosene lantern that illuminated a belt of nipples hanging from a doorknob, and ten skulls grinning down on them from a high shelf. In the desolate summer shed, cops came to the nude, headless torso of Bernice Worden hanging upside down from pulleys attached to block and tackle and hoisted to the ceiling.
Scattered around the farmhouse were Bloch's stories in Marvel Tales and Unknown Worlds, anatomy books, and catalogs of embalming supplies. Upstairs, the sickened investigators located five dusty, unused rooms.
Gein's deceased mother's bedroom door was nailed shut and when they broke it down, they found the only clean room in the house unchanged from the day she died.
Bloch put down his newspaper and considered what he had read. His hands were shaking a little. This article suggested to him that even the reclusive loner down the road might really be a killer, something he might use in a book. He tried to figure out how such an ineffectual man could get away with murder for so long. He was really intrigued when he read Gein's comment that he had a thing about his mother ever since he had lost her.
"I decided to write a novel based on the notion that the man next door may be a monster," Bloch wrote," unsuspected even in the gossip-ridden microcosm of small-town life."
In a week he had completed a first draft, shipped it to Harry Altshuler, his New York literary agent, who sent it to Harper & Brothers, who rejected it, and to Simon & Schuster editor Clayton Altshuler, who did not. Clayton aquired Psycho for their Inner Sanctum Mystery Book series for a $750 advance on a run of sixty thousand copies. Hitchock, finished with shooting North by Northwest and preparing for postproduction, wasn't particularly searching for his next project. As his production assistant Peggy Robertson recalled, "Hitchy would read the New York Times Book Review over the weekend and bring it into the office on Monday."

Of the five books, we most strongly recommend Grafton and Mosley's titles. All but Roker's book held our attention; however, if the excerpt from The Morning Show Murders captures your interest, it's probably the book for you.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }