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The State of the Mystery

25 April 2019

From Crime Reads:

Once again, the Edgar Awards are upon us—that august night of crime and mystery when honors are bestowed, traditions celebrated, and champions of the genre feted.

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Ahead of the ceremony, we caught up with 20+ Edgar nominees, including the nominees for this year’s inaugural Sue Grafton Award. We’ve organized their responses into a roundtable discussion on the state of mystery and crime fiction.

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In Part I of the roundtable, writers and editors discuss what exactly is a crime novel, the most pressing issues in the genre today, how to build a career as a crime writer, and the best gateway drugs for mystery.

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HOW DO YOU DEFINE A “CRIME” NOVEL?

Lawrence Osborne (nominated for Best Novel – Only to Sleep): I would say the crime novel is any that explores the eternal criminal element in human nature. It is, therefore, not a narrow genre of any kind. “The Brothers Karamazov” is a crime novel. So is “Brighton Rock.”

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Victoria Thompson (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life):I think the answer to this question used to be different, because books used to be classified much more strictly than they are now. This was because books had to fit neatly into the categories listed on bookstore shelves, so “crime novels” used to be either straight mysteries (a whodunnit with a sleuth and clear suspects and a final resolution) or thrillers (with a known villain whom the protagonist is trying to stop before he can perpetrate whatever evil he has in mind). With the development of online booksellers, books don’t need to be classified as strictly anymore. We’re now seeing exciting mysteries called “thrillers” by the marketing department because thrillers appeal more or whatever. Although I’m known as a classic mystery writer, my new Counterfeit Lady series isn’t actually a mystery at all, or a thriller either, for that matter. It is, I have decided, a caper, in which my con artist heroine must do something illegal in order to get justice for someone who can’t get it any other way. Are crimes committed? Indeed, but we already know perfectly well who committed them, so no mystery there! Are they exciting? Sure, but they aren’t thrillers with some dastardly villain trying to perpetrate some dastardly evil. So they don’t fit any standard category. Thank heaven for the “crime novel” label, which covers everything that doesn’t have a neat category. That’s where they fit.

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Mariah Fredericks (nominated for Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award – A Death of No Importance): “Uhm, someone does something bad and someone tries to hold them accountable.” That’s not very erudite, is it? I think the essential tension of a crime novel is between individual will and the social order. Someone says, The rules of this society do not work for me, I’m going to ignore them because I really need to kill so-and-so or I want such-and-such. As a reader, I like when I’m asked to take a side. Do I want the criminal or society to win? Do I feel threatened if the criminal wins or do I feel society’s too restrictive in this case?

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Robert W. Fieseler (nominated for Best Fact Crime – Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation): I think all works in the crime genre operate in the space of violation. They present a violation of a seemingly unbreakable human norm, moral or legal or otherwise, and then attempt to square that violation with a world we thought we knew before. However we organized reality in our minds, as human beings, that previous picture did not anticipate what happened or happens as the reality of a story unfolds in a book.

We experience the shock, devastation and grief of an incomprehensible incident that fractures our understanding of what is true, what is real and what is good. The story then attempts to repair that break, to reconcile that violation with a new and bigger world built from the shards of the old. If the book succeeds, we gain a more realistic picture of who we are and what we are, as human beings.

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WHAT’S THE MOST PRESSING ISSUE FACING THE MYSTERY WORLD?

Lori Rader-Day: Diversity, in all ways—own voices, of course but also age. We have to support literacy programs that increase readership generally and mystery readership specifically, and support young crime writers and young crime readers to find their role in our community, or we won’t have one.

Lisa Black: Getting paid. Getting paid properly. Very few writers can actually make a living at it.

Pete Hautman (nominated for Best Juvenile – Otherwood): Self-ghettoization. Too many of us get defensive about whether our genre is “real” literature. Up go the ramparts, and down goes discernment. The sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.” Same goes for crime fiction. I don’t believe that any genre ought to be defended unreservedly—when we do that (and I have, at times), we separate ourselves from the rest of the literary universe.

Debra Jo Immergut: The constraints of the “crime fiction” label.  If I were the all-powerful empress of book publishing, I’d ban genre terminology.

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Linda Landrigan: I think, with the contraction of the publishing industry, there’s the potential for the loss of variety in terms of style and subgenre. There are smaller publishers springing up attempting to address this with varying degrees of success—and good luck to them—but it’s important to be mindful that a robust genre requires both breadth and depth.

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Mike Lawson: It’s fiction, for Christ’s sake. How can there be a pressing issue? Again, seriously, I think the most pressing issue that affects writers in general is the impact of Amazon on the publishing industry. Some of those impacts have been positive but a lot of them have not been.

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WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PASS ON TO WRITERS JUST STARTING OUT?

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A.B. Greenfield: Readers may come for the crime, but they stay for the characters, so spend as much time developing your characters as your plot.

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Robert W. Fieseler: Have a good support system. You will carry the weight of trauma you relate to readers. Your mind will become the crucible, the sieve through which a violation of human decency pours, and many authors do not recognize until too late that they pay a price to become that vessel, that point of distillation and transfer. Remember that you have to be a person, too…Set boundaries around work hours, and, if possible, have a dedicated space where you allow yourself to do all the working and thinking.

If possible, have that place be away from your home and your domesticity. You will need emotional distance and restraint to stop work each day. And your partner will need emotional distance from your writing life, trust me. Although the act of writing itself occurs in isolation, no writer I’ve met has ever completed a book by himself or herself. They had editors. They had friends. They had forgiving bosses. They had lovers who cooked them dinner and hugged them as they wept until they fell asleep.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

PG notes that the OP is much longer than the excerpts here and he found it to be very interesting.

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