Monday, October 4, 2010

By Jeffrey Marks

I’ve conservatively read 10,000 books in my lifetime. When I first began reading mystery fiction, I devoured everything, the good, the bad, and the barely made sense. Now that I’m approaching 50, I would like to think that I’ve learned from my reading habits and that I am a bit more discerning in my habits.

A good read to me must have two things: a devious plot and great characterization. As a writer, it’s a difficult combination to create. As Harriet Vane lamented in Gaudy Night, to breathe life into her characters meant that the plot changed in many ways from its tidy and methodical ways.

A good plot to me is essential. I grew up reading the books of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr where plot was king. I enjoyed matching wits with the author and seeing who came out on top. Locked rooms, impossible crimes, and dying clues were the stuff of magic for me, and I still enjoy a puzzling plot.

The problem was that many of these cases had characters who were little more than stereotypes, and I read the books for the plot, the sheer audacity of a criminal who could pull off a crime inside a locked room with no way in or out or the murderer who killed with impunity while 75 people looked on.

Sadly there are very few practitioners today who take the time to really lay out a complicated plot and an impossible crime is a rarity. In so many cases, it feels as if the story consists of five suspects, any of whom could be guilty. You don’t know until the last chapter when one of them makes a mistake and the case is solved, usually with a hero or heroine in mortal danger.

The book also has to have great characterization, which is not to say likable characters. I often read books with characters that I wouldn’t want to spend time with. That doesn’t make them any less fascinating. Dexter is a great example of this type of character. Some of the characters in Laura Lippman’s wonderful stand-alones fit the bill too. Walter Bowman in her latest makes my skin crawl, but he’s fascinating in his rationalization of what he’s done.

I see many characters who owe too big a debt to Marlowe or Marple. People are not stereotypes. People have quirks and foibles. They do things that annoys us. They do things that make us nod our heads in agreement.

While it might seem like an impossible task, I do have a variety of favorites in all genres who meet these standards. These are the books that fill my time now, and I am always looking for new authors who can meet the demands of plot and character.


Jeffrey Marks is the Anthony-winning author of Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel along with a series of History of Mystery biographies including Who Was That Lady? and Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s/1950s. He can be reached through his website.

1 comment:

Cathy Pickens said...

Mystery historian extraordinaire Marv Lachman once asked some of us on a panel why no one is writing really clever puzzle mysteries any more. "Is no one smart enough?" I had to ruefully admit that might be the case, at least for me. Christie's "Death on the Nile" had 15 plausible potential murderers. Fifteen! And she led us away from the most likely ... then right back to them. I agree -- the best books have both great characters and tricky plots.