My debut police procedural, Pesticide, won’t go on sale until April 2022, but already I’ve been busy combing the page proofs for typos. I’ve also drafted text for the book’s back cover. Trying to come up with the best way to describe Pesticide made me ask myself: What does it mean to call a book a “traditional” mystery? I think every dedicated mystery reader would answer this question a little differently, so I’m going to offer my opinion and then see what the rest of you think about it.
My first step is explaining what I believe a traditional mystery is not.
A traditional mystery is not a thriller. More than anything else, a thriller is about pacing. The story has to move fast, fast, fast. Leaving the reader breathless is more important that carefully presenting each step toward the solution of a crime. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are terrific thrillers, but I don’t see them as traditional mysteries. The same is true of many extremely popular domestic thrillers, like Paula’s Hawkins The Girl on the Train. Exciting reads, but not classic mysteries.
Now we go further into my personal opinion. As much as I like Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, I would argue that a traditional mystery is not supernatural. Nor is it satire, like Carl Hiaasen’s laugh-out-loud funny Razor Girl. It features no psychopathic serial killers, and it isn’t deliberately creepy or terrifying. It can be set in the past or future, as long as its focus is the solution of a crime and not world-building.
Now for true sacrilege: I don’t consider most of the Agatha Christies I’ve read to be traditional mysteries. What!? How can anything be more traditional than Christie? Well, to my mind, traditional mysteries have to balance clever plotting (Christie’s strength) with well-developed characters. The investigator(s) and potential suspects have to be people whom readers get to know and feel they understand, because this is crucial to readers’ own attempts to solve the crime. Most of Agatha Christie’s books don’t offer this kind of character-building.
So how would I define a traditional mystery? It’s a novel that introduces an interesting set of people and unrolls a preliminary series of events that present a puzzle. As the story goes on, the puzzle becomes more worrisome and, because one or more of the characters are curious enough to investigate it, a crime is uncovered. Step by step, through conversations and revelations, the reader gets to know more about the crime and the people who might have committed it. Eventually, an often surprising but always logical solution emerges. The convincing nature of the solution is much more important than the reader’s astonishment at its revelation.
I am a great fan of the traditional mystery writer Josephine Tey, and one of my favorite of her books is Miss Pym Disposes (1948). Lucy Pym is visiting a women’s college of physical training to give a few lectures in psychology. She enjoys getting to know the college instructors and the senior students and speculates on their characters and futures. Then there is an accident in the gymnasium that leads to a student’s death. Miss Pym is horrified, as everyone at the college is—but also curious. She becomes convinced that the accident was engineered and is determined to figure out who is responsible. There is indeed a surprise at the end of Miss Pym Disposes, but it isn’t contrived. At the end of a traditional mystery, readers should feel entertained and intellectually satisfied—never manipulated.
So what do you consider a traditional mystery and why? What are some of your favorites?