Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CrimeFest blogfest II: What's traditional about a traditional mystery?

(Here's my second in a series of posts about authors who plan to attend CrimeFest 2009 in Bristol, England, next month. I'll be there, too, working when I should be having fun and having fun when I should be working.)

What's traditional about a traditional mystery? If you'd asked me a few weeks ago, I might have said traditional = cozy = prominent role for old dear = village or country-house setting = knitting = cute animals.

Then I read what Ruth Dudley Edwards had to say on the subject. In the United States, she writes on her Web site, "the distinction is made between cosies and hard-boiled, terms which are unknown here except to the cognoscenti. I am definitely in the cosy league – what Reg Hill, who is there too, calls ‘the Jane Austen end of the crime writing spectrum’."

One always knew that Britain had Christie and the U.S. had Chandler and that the dichotomy might have echoes to this day. Still, having just read Edwards' The English School of Murder, I was surprised to see the author place herself in the cozy league. The novel, after all, is set almost entirely in London, and it includes passing and not-so-passing references to drug use, homosexuality, menages-a-trois and any number of up-to-date political and cultural jabs and other references, not to mention the occasional four-letter word.

I've just opened Martin Edwards' Waterloo Sunset, and I've noticed reflections on urban growth and boosterism, not to mention a character who just might be disturbingly demented. I hadn't expected this from an author who has proclaimed his allegiance to traditional mysteries. Heck, the man even named his novel for a song by the Kinks.

I know something about what a traditional mystery isn't: full of explicit sex and wrenching violence. But sharpen my thinking, and tell me what a contemporary traditional mystery is.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , ,


Blogger Gary Corby said...

Traditional mysteries exist primarily for the intellectual puzzle.

A traditional mystery does not need to make profound statements on the human condition or titillate with sex and violence, although it might do any of those, as long as the puzzle is central to the book.

I've given this a bit of thought in the last year because of my own work. I'm writing historical mysteries set in Classical Greece. Historicals must immerse the reader in the period, but within that all-important envelope could be cozy, or not-cozy.

April 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I salute you on your difficult undertaking. I've thought often about the terrific simultaneous demands of history and fiction on a writer of historical fiction. Throw in the genre demands of crime fictions, and I run out of hands with which to salute you.

I suspect authors of contemporary traditional mysteries would agree with you, but I wonder they might say about the role atmosphere plays in traditional mysteries. There's more to the Ruth Dudley Edwards novel I discussed earlier this week than the puzzle, though the puzzle is certainly present.

April 30, 2009  
Blogger R/T said...

This may sound like I'm taking the easy way out on this one, but I counter your question with the suggestion that your proffered phrase--contemporary traditional mystery--is a bit of an oxymoron. Contemporary fiction suggests certain qualities, and traditional fiction suggests other other, less "modern" or "urban" qualities," and I think any combination of those labels is doomed to failure if you attempt a comprehensive yet workable definition. Now, having said that, I would also suggest--as an alternative to that thinking--that almost anything that shows up among books nominated or awarded the Agatha awards would qualify under your portmanteau hybrid label. Finally, any label is a slippery slope. I am reminded of how much trouble D. G. Myers at A Commonplace Blog got into when the definition of "literature" and "best" came under fire. With that being said, I think labels such as "contemporary traditional mystery" are better understand as marketing gimmicks that mean little in and of themselves. Well, that's all I've got at the moment though I will give it some more thought and perhaps offer something more later.

April 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you may be right. I should also be clear that "contemporary traditional mystery" is not a marketing gimmick, as far as I know, at least not yet. I don't know of any use of it previous to mine, and, in any case, it was just lazy shorthand for mysteries that have city setting and contemporary trappings but are nonetheless in the vein of traditional mysteries.

Ruth Dudley Edwards covered her work's similarity with older mysteries under the label of "cozy." I was trying to summarize the sorts of differences she cited. Those differences may not be inessential and may not therefore need a name.

April 30, 2009  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

I'm probably unwise even to make an attempt at defining my aims as mystery writer, but here goes. Because I like 'trad mysteries' with complex plots and plenty of surprises, when I started out I wanted to adapt those features (and classic elements such as 'dying messages' and 'impossible crimes') to the kind of book I felt keen to write - one which also said something about issues within contemporary society. To begin with, I wrote about a changing urban society - and Liverpool has changed a lot since I started writing about it, hence some of the observations in Waterloo Sunset - and later I've looked at English rural society, in the Lakes. I believe it's possible to combine 'mere ingenuity' successfully and excitingly with a novel that explores character, place and social attitudes. Not saying I've been entirely successful, but that's one of the challenges that motivates me as a writer.

May 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Martin, and I'll keep those thoughts in mind for future questions.

I can't say whether you attempt was wise, but you could not have been clearer about your aims. It's interesting to see what current and recent writers do with traditonal mysteries: updating them, adapting them, poking gentle, affectionate fun. You, Peter Lovesey, even Colin Watson in the Flaxborouh Chronicles come immediately to mind..

May 03, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

To be slightly less elegant than the other commentators, I generally feel that if you're dealing with a fictional case, and it's a 'whodunnit', 'whodunnit' or 'whydunnit', there's always a puzzle element, whatever the context or era. Yes, you can tease out emotional complications and the challenges of contemporary society, but the other is always there. And I don't think that's a bad thing. Ultimately, if there's no puzzle at all (even if it's just staying thirty seconds ahead of impeccable modern forensics) or if at least trying to untangle the plot doesn't matter, I begin to wonder what the crime fiction point is...

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, I'm not sure the puzzle element is explicitly present in, say, Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels, but a reader may certainly wonder about the forces behind the hellish predicament that the protagonist is in.

The puzzle may always be present by implication or even by its absence. After I've refreshed my body and my mind, perhaps I'll think of a crime story that does not involve puzzle elements and stands out for their absence.

May 11, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home