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A Bagfull of Non-Police-Procedurals

Other than police procedurals (and there are I’m sure subgenres of those, but though I go on occasional police-procedural binges — now — it’s not my main playground, and I don’t normally examine them that closely) there are a ton of mysteries that fall somewhere in a gray area.

They all follow the general mystery structure of opening with a crime, having the first phase of inquiry, after which you have the second murder (often killing your main suspect) then a series of interviews (I highly recommend those in which the interviews take the form of fights or other unusual means of acquiring information) and finally the denouement and restoring the world to its proper place, with the additional chapter to provide the reader with a “cigarette moment” being optional (but appreciated by this reader.)

But there are variations that influence that structure and I’ll mention some variations.

Take Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf mysteries.  Are they cozies or not?  They fail on the front of not being PRECISELY as mannered as British cozies, but OTOH they are certainly not the blood and guts type realistic mystery.

What it actually is is a “relationship mystery.”  The relationship in question is friendship between two men, and in this it follows the pattern or Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries.  Only in this case it is more of a Sherlock/Watson thing, in that one of them is the brain and the other the “gatherer of information/forager in the world”  Or in this case, Archie Godwin is the muscle to Nero Wolfe’s brain.

So why do I call it a relationship mystery?  Because it is. Often the precipitating incident, reason to investigate the crime, whatever originates in the two main character’s relationship, which in this case is often one of getting on each other’s nerves.

I’ll note  a lot of these, these days, are not friendships but romances, (hetero, usually) and that this isn’t a bad thing.  If you create a compelling enough relationship over several books, I have found I will read them even if the mystery is meh, because I want to know what you’re doing with these interesting characters.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  Note though that you can’t give them happy ever after on the first book for this to work.  Often the relationships that will have me binge a series are well night impossible by reasons of either personality or society.

Place/time/society mystery.  There was some years ago a woman doing Hollywood mysteries.  She might still be.  I started reading electronic and lost track of her.  The structure is still the basic mystery structure.  HOWEVER the place/time/type of society is an extra character.  Assume that your readers are reading you because they were attracted by the location or peculiarity of the setting.  You need to make sure your interrogation scenes/etc. exploit that setting to its full extent, or you’re going to piss of the reader.  For extra dollop of fun make sure the motive is something relating only to that setting.  (Yeah, Hollywood motives can be hilarious.  Or bizarre.  or both.)

Craft mystery – I think I already mentioned this.  It is not enough for your character to meet the murderer/witness the murder at a craft show.  For this to work, your character has to have special knowledge derived from the craft that enable the solving of the murder.  This is why I couldn’t do a “real” craft mystery.  While I do crochet, I don’t go to shows, and I never learned the lingo.  I just do what I see.

Supernatural mystery – instead of interviews, etc, you’re allowed to have dreams or visions or whatever.

Then there is the hard boiled mystery, which is NOT a  procedural.  These often billed themselves as realistic.  They’re not, of course.  They’re just mysteries for the people who want to be shocked by the descriptions/motives/etc of the crime and therefore think themselves tougher than those who read cozies.

These mysteries often use shock value/blood and gore to distract you from the obvious solution.

Since the ethos of the writing is “we’re all damned” often there is no punishment for the crime.

Next up: the peculiar structure of police procedurals.

34 Comments
  1. lpdbw #

    Mr. & Mrs. North
    In fact, most anything by Richard and Frances Lockridge. They did relationships.

    September 20, 2017
  2. I’d expand the relationship mystery category to include any mystery which spends time focusing on the relationships between the sleuths, whether it’s buddy-buddy, traditional boy-girl, or something else. My wife and I just finished watching Death in Paradise, and the romantic subplots over the seasons made the series much more interesting.

    September 20, 2017
  3. Relationship mysteries… yeah, that’s pretty much where Scooby Doo falls, isn’t it? Whatever will those meddling kids get into next?

    September 20, 2017
    • Madame, you’re a bad woman.

      September 20, 2017
    • Mike Houst #

      Strange. I never really considered a boy and his dog to be a relationship mystery.

      September 20, 2017
  4. Zsuzsa #

    One thing I will dispute is that the romance mysteries can’t have their “happily ever after” in the first book. It seems to me that many of the romantic-types do end the first book with the hero and heroine getting married. Often complications arise in the sequel, but from the point of view of someone who just read the first one, there was a HEA.

    Example I would put here would be the Amelia Peabody mysteries. At the end of the first book, Amelia and Emerson propose to each other, they get married, and the ending shows them happily supervising an archaeological dig while expecting their first child. Then in the next book, it turns out that having a son wasn’t quite as compatible with their neat schedule as they thought…

    September 20, 2017
    • I’m not saying they can’t but if they do you’re really straddling the line.
      OTOH my own preference if the mystery is not too strong, is to keep it going a few books, because that will keep me reading 😉

      September 20, 2017
    • And then there’s the Thin Man movies, where the happily ever after happened before the first frame.

      September 20, 2017
  5. paladin3001 #

    c4c….

    September 20, 2017
  6. “Supernatural mystery – instead of interviews, etc, you’re allowed to have dreams or visions or whatever.”

    Summoning up dead people can be fun too. Just be careful that you don’t get the wrong dead guy, or worse, the bonus demon. 😉

    September 20, 2017
    • Uncle Lar #

      As epitomized by the Midnight Texas series by Charlaine Harris. Witches, vampires, shape shifters, and psychics living peacefully in a small Texas town. With assassins, serial killers, and demons thrown in for a bit of spice.

      September 20, 2017
      • see, mystery structure doesn’t mean it’s a mystery. That’s a clear urban fantasy.

        September 20, 2017
        • Charlaine Harris’ first successful series were mysteries, so for a while her Sookie Stackhouse books could sometimes be found there as well. Thankfully, they straightened that out after the HBO series took off.

          September 20, 2017
    • You also have to pay attention to the season and the year. Out of shear habit, once your summon them, they head straight to the polls.

      September 20, 2017
      • 😀

        September 20, 2017
      • Javahead #

        Isn’t there a clear geographical component to that? Very much an issue if you summon them in Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, or other major urban centers, not so much so in rural areas.

        September 20, 2017
  7. You made the mistake of writing a somewhat-related post on a day when I am aggravated at one or more writing styles. ‘Aggravation’ is NOT a characteristic which is admirable in a reviewer, and so, the following.

    I like to know what is going on in a mystery. You mentioned Nero Wolfe; it’s been awhile since I last devoured one of those mysteries, but I am under the distinct impression that they play fair with the reader: the clues for the solution are there, and we still get the ‘aha!’ moment at the end.

    What I DON’T like are cryptic references, without coherent exposition, to something essential, either the nature of the criminal, or factor critical to the plot. As an example of this, in one of the Ringworld novels, the protagonist is behaving in unusual ways, and we don’t know why. It’s mentioned that he has bubbles in his urine, in a throw-away comment.

    That’s not playing fair. I don’t think it’s reasonable for the reader to know this means he has cancer of the whatever, and is going to die shortly. Without that information, his behavior makes no sense, and since this is a character we have some history with, it’s not fair.

    I REALLY want to talks about why I hate the collection of stories I’m reading now. However, even in my aggravated state, I can’t stretch the topic far enough to provide justification for doing so.

    September 20, 2017
    • sam57l0 #

      Sure. Leave us hanging. See if I’ll read YOU again. OK, one more chance.

      September 20, 2017
    • mrsizer #

      Because no one here ever goes off topic 😉

      September 20, 2017
    • mysteries should play fair. That said, I’ve also been accused of not playing fair, because people missed ALL THREE HINTS.

      September 20, 2017
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        You forgot to add a *Note: HINT. 😉

        September 20, 2017
      • That’s because your subtlety is as boundless as your evil. 😛

        September 20, 2017
        • sigh. I know.

          September 20, 2017
        • Which is why TELEVISION mysteries don’t work so well, compared to written mysteries. You HAVE to show the clue, to be fair; and, in television, anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the narrative doesn’t make it onscreen. So, if you are shown a desk with soft wood in the beginning of a show, somebody’s head is going to leave a dent in it, or NOT leave a dent in it, thus solving the murder.
          Nero Wolf, on the other hand, gets to eat whatever he wants, and it only makes us hungry.

          September 20, 2017
          • mrsizer #

            I have the opposite opinion: It’s easy for a visual clue to get lost in the clutter but if you write the word, I AM going to read it.

            September 20, 2017
          • It varies. You can also have the red herring. Thus what seems significant may not be at all. That said, it must lead to a plausible dead end, just as the legitimate clues lead to a plausible solution.

            September 20, 2017
      • I got this complaint with “Murder on the Aldrin Express”. “That’s not fair! You have to be a chemist to solve that mystery!” No, I was very careful to EXPLAIN the chemistry long before it was relevant. It’s not my fault if the reader skimmed over the chemistry. The story was in freakin’ Analog! THE SCIENCE IS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPORTANT IN AN ANALOG STORY!

        I took great pride in planting those clues…

        September 20, 2017
  8. Jonathan Gash’s novels about antique dealer Lovejoy are probably the best ‘craft mysteries’ I’ve read. Even though Lovejoy is a cad and really not a very nice man, he’s an interesting character and seeing what he does is why I love those stories.

    There’s a series set in Rapid City, SD that I picked up the first one when it was free because 1) Free, 2) unusual setting that I’m at least somewhat familiar with. However, I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading anything else by that author let alone that series, even though I’ve got others I picked up for free as well. Because A) I wanted to strangle the ‘protagonist’, ‘hero’, or whatever you want to call her because she was so annoying and stupid B) the setting was almost completely ignored throughout the entire story. It could have been set in pretty much any big city rather than small town SD with a major nuclear Air Force Base on one side and the Black Hills (you know, Mount Rushmore!) on the other.

    September 20, 2017
  9. I apologize in advance for the off topic link, but I think this is of great importance for everyone there in the US. I was told that this is something you all need to fight against, if you wish to retain the ability to have freedom of speech, especially online.

    https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/08/internet-censorship-bill-would-spell-disaster-speech-and-innovation

    September 21, 2017
    • Robin Munn #

      Shadowdancer is quite right to point this one out. See https://accordingtohoyt.com/2017/09/20/the-great-american-eclipse-from-the-centerline-by-stephanie-osborn/#comment-477847 for a longer discussion of the dangers of this particular bill. I won’t repeat them except to say that it would be a very, VERY bad thing if this one got passed. Follow that link and read the whole thing for the full explanation.

      September 21, 2017
      • Credit goes to my housemate for the alert. He basically thundered downstairs and told me, ‘If you have any American friends you care about you need to warn them about this and get them to pester their senators and congressional representatives. This shit makes all the previous attempts to shut down online freedoms nice in comparison.’

        September 21, 2017

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