Learning a New Genre

Because I didn’t have enough things to do, I’m working on a ‘Christmas book’. It doesn’t have much to do with Christmas; it’s only set at that time of year, and if I can pull it together, I’ll bring it out during the holiday season, for marketing reasons.

And because I never do anything the easy way, it’s a genre I’ve never written before: the English country house mystery. This is an older sub-genre of cozy mysteries, and they tend to feature large, discordant families in large, rambling houses in the English countryside- surprise! Often, a disliked family member is murdered during a house party or other gathering, thus providing the police with an inconveniently large pool of suspects. Sometimes family heirlooms, a secret from the old retired general’s time out in India, or a case of secret or mistaken identity come to the forefront as the case is solved.

They’re fun, fairly light books, and usually have a happy ending. The murderer is discovered and taken away by the police, sometimes including a mental breakdown, the plucky niece or granddaughter falls in love with the handsome detective- or sometimes a cousin, which I find weird, but, chalk it up to the story being set in England during the Depression and WWII. In any case, everyone but the murderer- and his victims, alas- lives happily ever after.

I like idiosyncratic Brits and happy endings in my fiction, so this kind of story appeals to me. And since imitation is supposed to be the highest form of flattery, writing one of my own is a logical extension of that admiration. It also helps cross-pollinate my other projects when they’re getting stale.

Like with everything, there’s a learning curve. I learn new genres by binge-reading books in that genre. It helps me fix the vocabulary and speech patterns in my head, and sometimes I can learn the story beats along the way (If you’ve ever wondering why my books are best described as ‘eclectic,’ this is why. I never learned how to learn, so I pick things up by osmosis. If it doesn’t drift into my brain that way, I don’t learn it). So I’ve been going through the works of Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, and Patricia Wentworth.

It’s been…instructive. And slightly weird. The cousin-marriage thing is very obvious and odd to a modern reader- or maybe just me. From a story-telling perspective, the plots are most satisfying when I have a chance of guessing the murderer’s identity. Twists are nice, but twists that come completely out of left field, with no foreshadowing, are less satisfying. Heyer tends to go light on the foreshadowing and heavy on the weird coincidences in her mysteries, and I think that’s part of why I prefer her regencies.

I’m also having trouble with my inherent American-ness, namely, why don’t any of these characters own guns? England has practically no civilian gun culture, and that comes through in their books. I keep tripping over my instinctive response to give the frightened heroine a pistol as she wanders the halls of the manor at night, wondering what made that eerie shriek that surprised her out of a sound sleep.

Guns are a simple solution in fiction- not so much in real life- so a lack of guns forces the characters, and therefore the author, to think about the story a bit differently. Any violent confrontation between the murderer and victim, or the murderer and the police, is hand-to-hand, usually with blunt force objects as the weapons of choice. There’s no distance, no taking out the villain with one shot before he knows what’s happening. It gives an otherwise clean and elegant story a bit of messiness among all the old money and formal politeness.

One more thing of note: most of these books were considered ‘contemporary’ when they were first published; they’re were set in the era of publication. Wentworth in particular isn’t shy about putting dates in her books. Yet they’re all considered historical or vintage nowadays. Time marches on.

Does this kind of story appeal to you? What other authors do you recommend? How do you learn a new genre?

50 comments

  1. Dorothy Sayers may be another good choice. “The Nine Tailors,” is set in a small village, but might not be considered, “cozy.” She came to mind because she has Lord Peter advise Harriet Vane (if you haven’t read any of the Lord Peter Wimsy novels, Harriet is a successful mystery writer Peter loves with a passion, eventually requited) to never go out to a rendezvous without checking to be sure that the mysterious phone call is legitimate. She gets one, it’s not, and she does not become a victim because she checked it out.
    Mercedes Lackey cheerfully stole the plot of “Gaudy Night,” the mystery this takes place in, but botched it by turning it into a, “male-dominated quasi-cult that oppresses women is the first, obvious, and actual villain,” story.

    1. Hmm. I tried to get through one of Lord Peter’s adventures a few years back, and couldn’t get into it. Maybe it’s time for another go at it.

      1. Sayers tends to be most invested in howdunnit rather than whodunit. Where Christie does all kinds of convoluted impersonations and concealed identities to complicate the question of who and sometimes whom, Sayers puts that energy into how. Which makes her less good books into studies of the logistics of the crime.

        Nine Tailors, Five Red Herrings, and Have His Carcase all suffer from a lot of mental blah blah blah as boring policemen do the legwork and spin boring, obviously wrong theories. Nine Tailors’s reputation really hangs on the last third, with the good guys dealing with a Hurricane Katrina type situation (natural catastrophe plus politically messed up civil engineering). It’s a slog getting there though.

        Clouds of Witness, Strong Poison, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon are all pretty solid imo, but depend on you knowing and caring about the characters already. Documents in the Case and Murder Must Advertise are kind of nonstandard, although I enjoyed them both.

        If I had to pick an entry point to her books, I would go with the Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

        1. I’d say Whose Body?, or a bunch of Lord Peter stories. Because she pulls some FREAKING WILD things in the short stories. I’m very fond of the Wimsey double vs Wimsey double, because it’s just so great about feeling and fun, ups and downs.

          And then you’ll know the characters, and you’ll be able to settle into the novels.

  2. I’m having a bit of good fun inserting a bit of golden age historical police procedural in the Luna City series – basically through the unpublished memoir of the small-town chief of police in the 1920s and 30s, talking about his investigations and cases back then. It’s a bit fun to write, as he is a doughty Scot transplant, and writes in the high Victorian vocabulary.
    I’m halfway tempted to start a new series, featuring Chief Magill and his sidekick, his chief investigator, John Drury, an aged Texas Ranger and a young Russian émigré, Sgt. Grigoriev. Only part of the charm of Luna City is that there were only a handful of crimes, which kind of limits a potential series.

    1. IE You don’t want Luna City to become Cabot Cove. 😈

        1. You might do something by branching out. Mysteries do not, after all, have to be about murders. There are other crimes.

          1. A lot of Victorian stories were about crimes other than murder. Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke, etc weren’t mostly murder.

    2. I’m so glad you mentioned this; I love the memoir bits and seeing the childhood versions of Luna City characters. If you did the new series I would absolutely read it! (So… that’s a guaranteed audience of one, anyway.)

      1. It’s a fun romp, to do the stories of Luna City in the 20s and 30s, with Stephen, Douglas, Letty and Harry as kids, just as much as the police investigations by Chief Magill. I’ll probably get to it, eventually … maybe even with the kids as detectives, like they did with the Bonnie and Clyde adventure.

  3. Did England really have no gun culture at the time? I recall at least one Sherlock Holmes mystery hinging at least partly on how no one would see a shotgun blast in the evening to be even remotely out of the ordinary, because in the country apparently everyone was out hunting stuff at that time of night. A lot of his mysteries had people getting shot as part of it.

    On the other hand, I believe this is around the big disarming of the British population too, so I find myself wondering if many of these stories have been just that the right thinking Brit was to have nothing to do with guns?

    1. It’s a question of social class and culture. Here in the country, we also wouldn’t see (or hear) anything out of the ordinary if there were a shotgun blast or small arms fire at night. People have their own ranges, or there’s a critter that got too close.

      The idea of a young woman of a certain class background (especially that time period) grabbing a pistol to roam around an ancestral family home, on the other hand, would occasion comment. “Ladies” do not provide for themselves when it comes to violence. They allow men to do it.

      Whereas we don’t tend to have ancestral family estates much in the US anyway, and absolutely we do have people grabbing a gun to investigate what goes bump in the night, even in the upper classes.

    2. “everyone was out hunting stuff at that time of night.”

      Vermin control was and is a normal part of both farming and managing hunting lands. Gamekeeper was a position on pretty much every estate and most if not all farming villages. And poisoning gets a little indiscriminate.

  4. Meh, Give the heroine a poker. She can do some real damage with a period iron poker. Or you can use her misuse of it to add a ;light note.

    Also, between WWI and WWII all upper-middle-class families had a gun room in that country house. It would have been chock-a-block with firearms, including the Webley pistol brought home from the trenches by family members that had served as officers during the Great War. And yes, an English family and station of that era would have male members that served as officers.

  5. I’ll mention 20th century romantic suspense writer Mary Stewart, who I am currently binge-reading.
    She’s a great storyteller, and knows how to ramp up the tension. So far, they’ve all been first person female point of view. The heroines are smart and brave, but not gifted with any bad ass fighting skills. They get through on guts and brains.
    But what’s truly great about these books–more so because they’re so absent in modern fiction–are the male leads. They’re competent, reliable, smart, and of good character. Admirable, in short.

    1. I adored Mary Stewart and her books, when I was at the impressionable teen age – and yes, her heroines were indeed, smart and brave, and the guys are also smart, brave and altogether crush-worthy!
      She wrote so beautifully about Greece, that I finished up wanting to go and live there — and I did. Delphi was just like she wrote about it, in My Brother Michael. Even though I didn’t get there until about 25 years after she wrote about it.

      1. She sent me to Greece too. I had the immense good fortune to go there before Greece turned itself into a tourism theme park; it was possible to walk up to the amphitheatre at Delphi just at dawn.

        Now everything is surrounded by chain-link fences and the busloads of German tourists pull up at the first moment of unlocking. Pfui.

      2. I went to Greece in my 20’s (re-reading Mary Renault the whole while) and never got to Delphi. I finished My Brother Michael last week, and truly regretted not making it there, but we wanted Crete and had to make choices.

    2. Her Arthurian trilogy is told from Merlin’s POV (since it’s been >20 years, can’t remember if 1st or limited 3rd).
      I agree that she’s a very good storyteller.

      1. They are first person, if I remember correctly. I loved _The Crystal Cave_. The others didn’t hold up as well for me.

  6. I have two books left to go (after I publish the WIP in September) in my current colonization series. When it’s done, I plan to turn to very near future SF. My first few novels were set only decades from now, but the ones I’m thinking of would take place in five years.

    I’ve realized it’s going to mean I have to amp up the research even more. Even though I’ve done a lot of research for the colonization stories (wild pigs on YouTube, plasma jet spaceplane designs with former FAA colleagues, on and on), I’ll probably be looking up street names in real cities every time I turn around, never mind orbital mechanics, lunar lava tubes, and terraforming Mars.

    On top of that, I’ve got a year to start amassing data while researching futuristic trucks for the current series.

    1. “I keep tripping over my instinctive response to give the frightened heroine a pistol as she wanders the halls of the manor at night…”

      Britain had (and still has) a perfectly fine gun culture. It all moved underground since roughly the 1980s, but they certainly have one.

      If she’s a rich girl in a manor, and it is pre-1960s, she would have access to a variety of revolvers/pistols/shotguns/rifles, up to and including the .600 Express double rifle. Suitable for elephant, tiger and water buffalo, possibly a touch energetic for home defense.

      Give her a nice Webley .38 revolver. Common as an old shoe in pre-War England.

      They like to pretend otherwise these days, but gun control is an -American- idea. Sullivan Act, you know. Passed in NYC to make sure the “criminal underclass” couldn’t carry. (Yes that’s right lurking camels. Gun control was (and still is) intended to disarm black men. Go look it up, I’ll wait. Please note that the Wikipedia page on the Sullivan Act has been cleaned up to imply that the law was meant to disarm “only” immigrants, specifically Italians and that Sullivan himself was a great guy. Funny how that page changes every time there’s news about gun control, eh?)

      1. Gun control wasn’t entirely an American notion. We, after all, do have a country largely because the British decided to confiscate the gunpowder in Concord (okay, technically ammo control rather than gun control, but the same theory applies).

        1. I think, based on looking it up a long time ago in the 1990s, that the idea was originally (and inevitably) French. They banned the stiletto after some nobleman got killed with one. Ostensibly because it was a “killing” knife but mostly because it was Italian. Thus the theme was born, identify a group you don’t like and ban their style of weapon.

          The Japanese of course got there first, banning anyone not a noble from owning anything with an edge on it longer than a bread knife. That’s how all the crazy martial arts using tonfa, escrima sticks, staffs, benches (yep) and nunchaku came into being. The tonfa and nunchuck are both for threshing rice, the guy who first pressed those into service as weapons must have been desperate.

          But -modern- gun control seems to mostly flow from the Sullivan Act. I believe (but am willing to be proven wrong by superior research) that the Nazis got the idea from America. In an amusing and revealing bit of circularity, the wording of the US 1968 gun control act came directly from the Nazi law passed in the ’30s. Cut and paste, straight up.

          As time goes by, I have more and more respect for those guys in 1776 who took up arms against the Brits. Really had rocks like Gibraltar, those guys.

          1. Now, you’ve done it. You’ve given me an excuse to post my kobudo poem:

            Look, the Okinawans’ arms
            Are multi-tasking at their farms.
            Nanchaku are but thresher’s flails;
            The bo a staff for water pails.
            Gifa are for holding hair;
            Held in hands they rip and tear.
            The kama is a sugar sickle;
            The sai a pitchfork, real little.
            The eku is a wooden oar,
            And broom or bo can sweep the floor.

        1. And of course the classic English situation is “X has a gun in his desk, with bullets right next to it, and everybody in the entire house knows about it and borrows it on occasion. Also guests.”

  7. Am in the same boat: flirting with a mystery series idea, sort of fantasy alt-history 1920s. (English language resources needed on Dual Monarchy law enforcement and judicial structure, especially pre-WWI Austria, because this would be set in a successor state that didn’t happen in our world. Thank you in advance.)

    Good resources I’ve found:
    https://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/10/15/25-things-you-need-to-know-about-writing-mysteries-by-susan-spann/

    https://allfreelancewriting.com/scrivener-murder-mystery-novel-template/
    If you use scrivener, this template is kind of cool. I’ve found the Suspect grid particularly handy.

    Fiction recommendations:

    -Case of the Late Pig is a pretty classical “English Country Village” mystery in the Albert Campion series by Margery Allingham. I personally am most drawn to his more baroque, pulpy adventures (Crime at Black Dudley, Look to the Lady, etc), but Pig is a lot of fun. If you decide you like Campion enough to follow his career in order, consult Allingham’s bibliography on wikipedia, and stay away from the late period snorefest The Beckoning Lady. (Not to be confused with the early, pulpy Look to the Lady).

    -For Sayers: I feel like Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a good “starter” Lord Peter adventure. Maybe Unnatural Death or Whose Body, although they really take Sayers’ howdunnit/whydunnit tendencies to extremes, with only one real suspect to speak of in each book. Nine Tailors, Five Red Herrings, and Have His Carcase all suffer from pretty boring middles, and most of the others either depend on you already caring about the characters (Clouds of Witness, Strong Poison, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon) or are kind of experimental in form (Murder Must Advertise, Documents in the Case).

    -For John Dickson Carr, I favor The Three Coffins, the Judas Window, the Four False Weapons, and the Man who Could Not Shudder. His characters are cartoony, and his detectives are cartoonier. People read them for his colorful settings and bizarre murder methods. Reading order is less important than for Allingham, Sayers or even Doyle/Christie.

    -Father Brown is worthwhile if you don’t mind short stories and can handle G. K. Chesterton’s…unique perspective on the universe. I think “The Flying Stars” is a Christmas party/country manor mystery IIRC. There’s also a Winter Party at Country Manor mystery in the non-Father Brown collection, The Man Who Knew Too Much (no Hitchcock connection).

    *IIRC, the Jesuit compares somewhat favorably to current Pope and the co-Jesuits riding his coattails, but he’s no Father Brown, and he doesn’t line up with my impression of the Far East Jesuit missionaries of that era in general.

    1. Sorry, asterisk refers to Susan Spann’s ninja and Jesuit mystery series. I deleted a sentence pertaining to that series, but forgot the footnote.

      1. Well, the mysteries get explained to the POV character, it’s just that the social order requires that nothing be done about them. It’s not that far off from the “shame the culprit and leave him alone with a pistol” scenarios, except they skip the semi-coerced suicide part. The winter masquerade party one is a solid mystery with clues, motive, means (interesting murder method), opportunity and a reasonable field of suspects.

  8. Not all cousins are biological cousins. I have loads of the latter. No sanguine bar to marriage at all and one just needs to slip a bit of family tree lore in to keep the moderns happy.

    1. Yep! In the WIP, one character calls another “cousin.” He is her: grandfather’s sister’s daughter’s husband’s brother’s son. Genetic link? Not close enough to worry about. But he’s a “cousin.”

  9. I now want to write a pastiche of a country house mystery set in an American suburb. If you put in enough near neighbors in split-level ranches, does that add up to a country house? I think that would be fun.

  10. Because of entailment, any landed family would know its relatives out to multiple degrees of consanguinity. If the current lord of the manor had no sons, who would inherit? Daughters generally didn’t, which becomes a plot point all on its own.

    You’d know your cousins pretty far out.

    Also, since English is sadly deficient in relationship-specific words, we don’t have a word for my brother’s wife’s aunt’s nephew by marriage. If that particular young man is your age, he’s a “cousin”. If he’s old enough to be your father, he’s an “uncle”.

  11. Speaking of changing genres, apparently I’ll need to write a romance one of these days because two of my characters are demanding a story about their courtship (They met in Book 1 and will be getting married in Book 2).

    The closest I’ve ever come to reading a ‘romance’ story is Dorothy Grant’s ‘Combined Operations’ series. (Which I’m looking forward to the next one coming out soon)

    1. Sounds like a romance subplot in a book largely about something else. Dean Koontz’s Dark Rivers of the Heart is one of the better guy-friendly/romance-allergic-friendly examples I can think of offhand, but the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mysteries (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon) also hold up fairly well. Carcase is kind of weak, but also not that essential to the romance arc; you could probably skip to Gaudy Night if you had to. Also decent: Fashion in Shrouds, where most of the romantic development between Albert Campion and his future wife takes place. There are also some Agatha Christies that do this moderately well, such as Mystery of the Blue Train. (Sorry for the mystery examples, they’re what I’ve been reading recently.)

        1. Yeah… I love Sayers, but Five Red Herrings is… um… maybe best experienced through the audio drama from the BBC. Although maybe you will love it if you love trains and train schedules.

    2. There are a number of web-sites that list the plot arc for standard romances, and then have links to the other sub-genres. I played with those a little in *Wolf of the World*, but I was doing a send-up of Paranormal Romance, so it’s not a “standard” romance with all the tropes. (Meet – attraction – crisis and separation – realize love/need/lust after each other – meet again – big crisis – love/lust resolution. The first crisis is usually between the two of them [have a fight or misunderstanding] unless you are in one of the sub-genres. The final crisis is almost always caused by an outside force and the couple have to work together to defeat the bad guy. I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot of essential elements.)

      I used to read Ann River Siddons “romances” because of her use of place as a character. *Low Country* is probably the best of those, but the main characters are already married and need to fall back in love, so it has different tropes.

  12. BTW, thank you for mentioning Patricia Wentworth. I’m reading the first Maude Silver book right now and am slightly boggled by the fact that there’s this Golden Age female sleuth in the Miss Marple style that I’d never heard of before. It’s almost (but not quite) enough to make me take the Mandela Effect seriously.

    1. A lot of actual Golden Age mystery writers, and famous detectives, were unobtainium for a long time, never had movie adaptations (or unobtainium ones), and generally were out of print beyond recall, until recently.

      It does make you cry, except that MOAR MYSTERY is always good.

  13. If you haven’t read “A Holiday for Murder,” aka “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas,” it’s a wonderful example. There’s a lot of family tension here, in fact family is central to the plot. Christie’s use of family dynamics was always very good and one of my favorite things about her books.

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