Friday, January 2, 2015

The 'who' and 'dunnit' of mysteries



While there are clubs dedicated to one genre—sci fi, mystery, history, biography, etc.—most clubs vary choices, and members may be flummoxed in evaluating a who-dunnit. New England writers Barbara Ross, Hank Philippi Ryan and Kate Flora provide guidance.
The rules of good writing are not suspended for a mystery, but there are different considerations a reader may want to use, they say.
It's more than plot. "In a fully formed novel of suspense, or a thriller, there should be much more to chew over than just who the bad guy is," said Hank Phillippi Ryan, multi-award winner for serial mysteries, most recently "Truth Be Told."
"One of the things I enjoy creating in my books is understanding what people's motivation is, and how far a person would go to get what  they want or need," she said. "When I was beginning to write, I had a big discussion with my husband (lawyer Jonathan Shapiro) about murder: What kind of emotion would a person have to be feeling to kill someone? What could drive you to take another person's life? There are a few things—power, money, love and revenge ... when you take out the psychopath, who isn't very interesting, understanding the motivation of a killer is a fascinating topic.
"Book clubs can discuss: whether you would make the same decisions the bad guy did; how else could the situation have been handled; is the motivation believable; is it understandable? Are the bad guy's actions reasonable—because a bad guy doesn't wake up in the morning and decide to be bad. The antagonist, if fully developed, is doing what they do for a reason that seems logical to them: they've been frustrated, or disappointed, or upset that they've been dealt with unfairly; they're the hero in their own life and they feel they're doing the right thing. So for a book group, talking about the motivation of an antagonist can be pretty revealing:
What would you do?
How far would you go?
How does the main character's life compare to your own?
What did you learn about what someone else might do, the decisions they might make and the life they have?
How do you see your life now, having had a taste of someone else's?
"A good book lingers," says Ryan, "and the characters' lives remain in your head after you close the book, so what will you remember about this book, or not?"
Kate Flora is the author of fiction including "And Grant You Peace" (her latest Joe Burgess mystery) and the Theo Kozak series, as well as non-fiction such as "Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice."
She lists several suggestions.
1. Did the main character(s) seem believable to me? Did they hold my interest? Did the author make me care about them and what happens to them?

2. Was the plot disclosed in a way that kept me guessing? Did I need to keep reading to know what happened? Was I surprised by the ending? Was I satisfied?

3. If I was reading a series mystery, was the plot wrapped up well at the end? Was I left eager to read another book about these characters and interested in seeing where their lives will go?

4. Did the book teach me something that I didn't know before? Did I feel like I was in a real world and the situations faced by the characters were real? Did the author write generic cops or bad guys or were they complex and dimensioned?

5. Sense of place: My ancient Thrall and Hibbard copy of "A Handbook to Literatures" defines setting as: “the physical, and sometimes spiritual, background against which the action of a narrative takes place." How well did the author handle setting? Did it feel authentic? Could you see the places, and did their cultural, religious or social backgrounds play a role in deepening the characters for you?

6. Dialogue: Did the writer make you feel like real people were talking? Did the characters have distinctive voices?

7. What do you think the author wanted you to take away from this book? Did the story give you something to think about? Change the way you look at the world? Make you feel nervous or unsafe, or conversely, comfort you at the end by the way that order was restored? Did events in the book scare you or make you wonder? Will the characters live on in your imagination even after the book is done?

Barbara Ross, author of the Maine Clambake mystery series (whimsically titled "Clammed Up," "Boiled Over" and the upcoming "Musseled Out," is co-publisher/editor at Level Best Books, an anthology of crime and mystery stories by New England authors, and blogs on mysteries at mainecrimewriters.com.

"Mysteries are full of relationships, the same mother-daughter, sister-sister, parent-child connections that you’d dissect in any book club discussion. In a mystery, almost every character has a secret, so it would be fruitful to mine this vein. Which secrets did you believe? Which did you guess?

"Literary mysteries are roughly defined as books you can read more than once and get something out of it every time—i.e. the treatment of character, theme, etc. transcends the “puzzle.” It doesn’t wreck the book for you if you know the solution. These mysteries can contain many weighty subjects for book club discussion. For example, Malla Nunn’s Emanual Cooper Mysteries, about a white policeman in South Africa during apartheid, ask the question, “How can a moral man enforce the law when half the laws are immoral?”
"Mysteries have themes. In fact, some people believe that while literary fiction today can tend to get a little preachy, crime fiction can treat serious subjects—like PTSD or the abuse of painkillers, or the damage caused by prolonged unemployment—more adeptly.
"Finally, you can dissect the mystery itself. Did you guess the solution before the end? When and why? Or why not? Did the author “play fair”—i.e. once you knew the solution, were all the clues in the manuscript? Could you have guessed if you’d wanted to?"
"I've never been a member of a book club, but I have been a guest at several when they were reading one of my books" Ross said. "My observation is that book clubs approach crime fiction in two ways. Some choose 'literary' crime fiction, which is as well-written, well-rounded and affecting as anything else they read during the year. Others may choose a 'lighter' mystery as a good book for members during busy times, such as the holidays, or over the summer, when everyone wants a great beach book."

Bottom line, says Ryan:
"I want readers to be entertained and educated a little bit in a timely topical subject. The wonderful thing about a good mystery is that it's a fantastic story, a riveting page turner. My main character is a reporter. I want readers to get a deeper understanding of the high stress, stakes and relentless deadlines of being a reporter, and the pressure for getting a story on the air—the necessity of getting everything absolutely correct. Every day, some sort of moral issue arises that you have to solve. It's critical for a reader to be engaged with the main character, on their team somehow. A reader is living the main character's life for 400 pages, and has to be invested in that."


Mystery masters

Hank Phillippi Ryan, Barbara Ross and Kate Flora suggest these writers, some of their favorites.
Ryan: John Lescroart (SP), Lisa Scottoline, Linwood Barclay ("Trust Your Eyes" is quite astonishing), William Landay ("Defending Jacob"), Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger.
Flora: Michael Connelly, Kathy Lynn Emerson (Lady Appleton/"Face Down.." series), Kaitlyn Dunnett (Liss MacCrimmon series), Nancy Picard.
Ross: Any of Louise Penny’s fantastic Armand Gamache series, set in rural Quebec, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, which take place in the Adirondacks, Paul Doiron’s  Mike Bowditch Mysteries about a Maine game warden, Craig Johnson’s Longmire Mysteries about a sheriff in Wyoming. If you don’t want a series, try William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, which won all the major mystery awards this year. Or B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, which is on its way to becoming a classic.
"If your book club is looking for something lighter, try a cozy mystery. The sleuth is usually an amateur who has another interest or profession, and is propelled into solving the mystery by a personal stake. They’re always light on the descriptive gore (and the descriptive sex) and you can be virtually certain no child or pet will be harmed. These books make a nice break from a heavier reading schedule, and will still leave your group plenty to discuss. Consider one of Cleo Coyle’s Coffee House Mysteries, set in Greenwich Village, Jessie Crockett’s Sugar Grove Mysteries, which follow a multi-generational syrup-making family in New Hampshire, Sheila Connolly’s Orchard Mysteries set in Western Massachusetts or my Maine Clambake Mysteries.

Book group meetings

Northborough Library's Friday Morning Book Group will meet at 10 a.m., Jan. 9, to discuss Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander," a historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars.


The next meeting of the Douglas Library Book Group will consider Slavomir Rawicz’s "The Long Walk" at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 13.  The book recounts the harrowing true tale of seven escaped Soviet prisoners’ desperate 4,000 mile march out of Siberia, through China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and over the Himalayas to British India. Call the Library 508-476-2695 for a copy of the book. New members welcome.
Heywood Library's book group has slated T.C. Boyle II—his second collection of short stories—for its 4:30 p.m. Jan. 8 meeting.
The Worcester-based Women's Issues Book Group will discuss "From A to X: A Story in Letters" by John Berger at its Jan. 12 meeting. Meeting is held at 7 p.m. in Barnes & Noble, 541 Lincoln St.
Brookfield Library book group will meet Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m. to discuss "Spirit of Steamboat" by Craig Johnson.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will meet Jan. 8 to discuss "The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman.


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