My point of view, Writer's life

Level Thinking – The Mystery Spectrum

The naive mystery writer

A while ago, say 2002, being a new and naive mystery writer, I thought I had a handle on mysteries. So confident was I that I reduced the mystery spectrum to a simple diagram, neatly tied up with qualities and a single word to embody different parts of the spectrum.

My simple view of mysteries a long time ago

My simple view of mysteries a long time ago

My basic premise was that each category was clean and could be identified by how much blood, violence and gore appeared on-stage; what emotion drove the plot; and how likely a reader was to laugh verses need anti-depressant therapy after having read extensively in a given category.

Mystery versus thriller
For a while after that simple beginning we had to deal with the mystery/thriller split, and periodic discussions over when does a mystery become a thriller and vice versa. Mystery and Thriller are, of course, marketing terms. Writers joke that the definition of thriller is “we want you to buy this book.”

Be that as it may, we’re stuck with those two terms, and often asked to explain the the differences to readers. I usually start my explanation with three definitions

How are mysteries and thrillers different?

How are mysteries and thrillers different?

Just about the time we figured we’d aced the thriller/mystery question, here came the world. Literally. Several years ago there was an explosion of popularity in mysteries written by writers living outside of North America, writing mysteries that took place outside of North America and Britain. We were treated to nordic, Italian, African, Indian, Chinese, and South American mysteries. High time, too.

Around this time each year — with a summer reading list in mind — I take a tour of what’s new and hot in mysteries. The easiest way to do this is to look at authors and books that have been nominated or received awards this year. There are a lot of mystery, thriller, and crime awards out there. The most well known are the Arthur Ellis (Crime Writers of Canada), Agathas (Malice Domestic Convention), Anthonys (Bouchercon), Daggers (Crime Writers Association of the UK), Edgars (Mystery Writers of America), several awards at Left Coast Crime, Macavities (Mystery Readers Magazine), and Thrillers (International Thriller Writers).

Once again, in my naivety, I thought that pretty much covered it. I found out recently that there are at least fifty less well known awards. For a complete list, go to the Crime Writers Association (UK) web site, and click the links to the organizations and awards in the sidebar at the left.

If you also looking for summer reading, I’ve put together a list of the 2014 nominees and winners. Happy reading.

Or maybe not, because the trends I see this year are dark. The most noticeable plot elements were the past catching up with the protagonists. There are lots of cold cases, often involving unsolved abductions and disappearances of children or young women. Characters are frequently returning to their home towns and being forced to uncover small town secrets, especially those from the 1960s.

I think what we’re looking at here is a desire for redemption; a longing to be able to unwind time and get something right that we got wrong the first time.

The second evident trend is families with dark secrets

  • adultery
  • bad marriages
  • child suicide
  • families that are not what they seem
  • family abductions
  • spousal murder

I don’t know. Maybe people don’t feel safe any more, even in their own families.

Minor, but noticeably trends are cop suicides that turn out to be murder and ghosts. New Orleans is getting a lot of play. Historical mysteries are still hugely popular, with a focus on the last half of the 1800s, and the first half of the 1900s.

Next Tuesday, July 22, we’ll be doing the third part in our common critique comments — PNS: perfectly nice syndrome or what happens when we are too nice to our characters. Hope you can spare some time from your summer reading to join us.



3 thoughts on “Level Thinking – The Mystery Spectrum

  1. I borrow the Doctor’s TARDIS and keep jumping back in time until I have the blog completed. Don’t I wish. Yes, this one took an unusual amount of time, but now I have this huge reading list that I will probably never finish. 🙂


  2. Sharon, I love your posts!
    I don’t know where you find all the time to compose such great blogs…but pardon me while I share them with my readers 🙂
    See you next week!!
    (and I still need to work on my scene for next Monday – yikes!)


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