Who's hiding all the crooks?

April 8th, 2010 § 0

“I don’t know of any good work of art that doesn’t have a mystery.” – Henry Moore

It’s odd but true that many of us who would hate to encounter crime in real life can’t get enough of it in fiction. Although we’re peaceful, kind, and law-abiding, we want to see a skeleton in every cupboard and a body in every library. Bring on the sinister strangers, the prying police, the problematic butlers. This holds true even for books set in 21st century California, where butlers are pretty thin on the ground.

When screams come echoing down corridors, blood seeps out of steamer trunks, the tea smells like bitter almonds, and red herrings lie strewn about like – well, like rose-tinted fishy things – we’re happy, that’s all. Is that a crime? No, the crimes are in the books, and so are the crooks. We like our crooks in books, where they belong, not out on the streets being an actual menace to people.

So many books, so many crooks. Yet with all of Conan Doyle, Christie, Hammett, Allingham, Tey, and Sayers to read – not to mention Hillerman, Grafton, Grimes, Rendell, Dickinson, James, Lovesey, and Peters (Elizabeth and Ellis) – we’re not satisfied. Where’s the next great (though endearingly flawed) detective? Who’s writing the next addictive series? Who’s hiding all the crooks?

This, I believe, is how mystery novels are born: mothered by invention, fathered by need. “Well, gosh!” we say, or “Oh, bollocks!” if British. “I’ll write my own.” In this way we add to the supply. We can also satisfy particular cravings. Rhys Bowen might have asked herself, for example, “Where’s a Welsh police constable when you need him?” and sent Evan Evans to Llanfair. For Sue Grafton, it might have been, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, and also a PI who eats junk food and cuts her hair with nail scissors.” Enter Kinsey Millhone, jogging.

In my case, it was, “Where’s the mystery that takes place on a British Merchant Navy ship with an unhappy American wife on board and a cargo of liquefied ammonia? Damn, I’m never going to find that on the shelves!” So I wrote it myself. And then I wrote a book set in my small town in Sonoma County, California, which hasn’t featured in nearly enough mystery novels. In fact, mine might be the first.

But writing mysteries isn’t enough. I want to write about them as well. That’s what I’m planning to do here. If you love mysteries too, I hope you’ll join me. My tea tastes funny, I think I’ve just heard a scream, and I don’t entirely trust my butler.

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