What Makes a Mystery “Traditional”?

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?

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Mystery “Traditional”?

  1. Josephine Tey is one of my very favorite mystery writers—I love, even more than Miss Pym Disposes, her Brat Farrar and the Franchise Affair. ( I read somewhere that she had trouble plotting and had to ask her friends for help.) I also love Dorothy Sayers, Kate Ross, Sarah Caudwell, and, more recently, the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd. I find that character building is essential to my pleasure in the story—that, and I want the main protagonist to have an admirable headspace, a place where I want to be. I loved the Laurie King books about Mary Russell in the earlier years, up to the God of the Hive, I think—again, because the mystery was inhabited by people I wanted to know, and because the relationships were healthy and intriguing. Actually, I like many Dick Francis mysteries for the same reason—a friend got me to read them because ‘they all have highly competent, modest young men who do the right thing..” I started with To The Hilt and have been happy to add others to my list of favorites. A long time ago, (40 years?) the NYTImes book review had a front page article on mysteries as the modern morality tale—there is an injustice that is put right—and I realized that was why I started reading them in graduate school, a regular sink of iniquity. Thank you for your question, Kim, it is a pleasure to discuss.

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    1. Hello Julia! I enjoyed your comment so much–thanks! It’s fun that I’ve read and enjoyed all the writers you’ve listed. During a few months in my life when nothing seemed to be working out right, I read every single Dick Francis that had been published up until that point (and have since read the rest of his books, although not quite so fervently) exactly because I wanted to be in a world where good people put things right and made sure justice was done. Your point about wanting to be in the mind of a protagonist you can admire and maybe even like makes great sense to me, although my definition of a traditional mystery didn’t include a detective the reader enjoys spending time with., Do you think it should?

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  2. Not that surprisingly, I like many of the same authors as the two of you do, Kim and Julia, and they came to mind when I began thinking about the question. I would add JA Jance, Margaret Maron, and Nevada Barr. I have never been a big fan of “cozies” (too cute and bland) or of psychological and/or violent thrillers (disturbing and creepy). There are exceptions, of course. And I feel that the traditional mystery does include a detective that the reader enjoys spending time with or, at least, respects. A few faults are acceptable and human!

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    1. Both of you listing so many good mystery writers makes me think of others. I write police procedurals, and many of those also fall into the category of traditional mystery, as I’ve defined it. I consider the king of police procedurals to be Michael Connelly with his Harry Bosch series. But there are so many other excellent writers in this category, including Deborah Crombie, Tana French, and Ann Cleve.. With the first book in the DC Smith series by Peter Grainger, I recently discovered a new (to me) writer of police procedurals to recommend. The first in the series is “An Accidental Death” (2013). Smith is definitely one of those detectives with a strong moral compass that we three all like.

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