Traditional MysteriesOne of the enduring legacies of Agatha Christie and other Golden Age/classic-era crime writers is arguably the traditional mystery structure. The ‘whodunit’ has survived very well, thank you, and continues to thrive.

To give one example of how the traditional mystery has thrived, consider that every year, the Malice Domestic convention is held in the US. Its focus is the traditional mystery, which is loosely defined as a mystery that contains no gratuitous violence, excessive gore or explicit sex. The Agatha Awards are given each year at Malice Domestic to US authors (or authors who publish in the US) who write the best traditional mysteries. And the Agathas are not the only awards that celebrate such crime fiction.

So what is the appeal of the traditional mystery? Why do they sell, and why do so many people love them? One reason is arguably that the traditional mystery is a really flexible way to tell a story. There are no rules that determine who the killer has to be, who the sleuth has to be, how many suspects there are, etc.

What this means is that there’s room for a lot of variety. For example, Cathy Ace’s Cait Morgan novels are considered traditional mysteries. They feature Morgan, a criminologist and academician who uses her experience, plus her own photographic memory, to solve crimes. Morgan is originally Welsh, but now lives in British Columbia. As an academic, she travels, presents at conferences, and so on. The mysteries that she solves don’t contain a lot of gore, gratuitous violence or explicit sex. They’re ‘whodunits’ in the traditional style. And yet, they’re thoroughly modern in outlook.

And they’re quite different to Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. Also considered traditional, the Lake District mysteries feature Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Together (and sometimes independently) they work to solve contemporary crimes that have connections to the past in some way. Edwards’ stories also bear the hallmarks of the traditional mystery; yet, they’re not like Ace’s. That’s what I mean by flexibility.

Another reason for the traditional mystery’s appeal arguably lies in its very nature. Many readers enjoy crime novels, but aren’t so fond of a lot of gore, blood and explicit sex. Since traditional mysteries, by their very natures, don’t feature those elements, they’re attractive to such crime fiction fans. For instance, consider work like that of D.S. Nelson, whose Blake Heatherington novels are traditional. Her stories take place mostly in the fictional village of Tuesbury, and feature contemporary life, contemporary issues and so on. There’s nothing ‘frothy’ about them. And yet, they aren’t gory, and Nelson leaves the reader to imagine whatever intimacy there is among different characters.

The same is true of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write as Michael Stanley. Their David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series takes place in modern Botswana, and features Kubu, who works for the Botswana CID. These novels are contemporary in outlook, and include an honest look at today’s Botswana. Sears and Trollip don’t gloss over the horror of murder. But at the same time, the novels are not gratuitous, and don’t feature a lot of gore or explicit sex. The focus is on the crime(s) and on the search for the killer.

And this leads me to another reason for which the traditional mystery may be so appealing. Just because a reader may not care for a lot of gore or explicit sex doesn’t mean that reader prefers Golden Age/classic social views. Novels written during that time period often reflect, however subtly, the prejudices and ‘isms’ of the times. Many modern readers don’t care for those attitudes, no matter how elegantly the mystery is done. Modern takes on the traditional mystery allow readers to enjoy the traditional structure without gritting their teeth at the ‘isms.’ For instance, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series features many characters who would probably have been marginalized in earlier times. As an example, there are Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, who own the local B&B/bistro. They’re an integral part of the community of Three Pines, where many of the novels take place, and the ‘regulars’ in this series see them as excellent cooks and hosts, and good friends – not as gay people who run a bistro. There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who might be marginalized in classic or Golden Age novels, but aren’t as much in today’s world.

We also see that in the work of Martin Walker. His sleuth, Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis. The town and area are becoming more diverse, as indeed France is; and many of the characters are members of groups that might have been marginalized in earlier crime fiction. But they really aren’t in Walker’s world. And although Bruno is the protagonist, there are plenty of strong, independent female characters as well. This isn’t to say that there is no prejudice in these novels. They’re about people and people have biases. But you don’t see the systematic, sometimes casual bias that you sometimes do see in earlier crime novels.

There’s also the matter of engagement in the mystery itself. Many, many readers enjoy matching wits with the author to find out whodunit before that information is revealed. There are other intellectual challenges, too, that come from modern-day traditional-style mysteries. Cryptic clues, intellectual puzzles and so on are often really appealing to readers, and traditional mysteries offer them. There are too many such novels for me to list them, but I’m sure you can think of at least as many examples as I ever could.

It’s also worth noting that while today’s traditional mysteries don’t contain a lot of gore, ugly violence or explicit sex, they are also realistic. They don’t tend to be ‘frothy,’ and they include the kind of character development that invites the reader to engage in the story. Some of them are witty, but they don’t offer trite, easy solutions to mysteries.

To me, it’s little wonder that the traditional mystery, that’s low on gore, doesn’t indulge in gratuitous violence or explicit sex, and does feature the whodunit puzzle, is popular. It’s at least as popular now as it ever was.

What do you think? Do you enjoy traditional style mysteries? Why (not)? If you’re a writer, do you use that structure? Why (not)?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Martin Walker, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip

36 responses to “Tradition*

  1. Great post Margot! And thank you for the mention. I’m very flattered to be in the company of such great authors, you’ve mentioned some fab books there. Whenever someone says to me, traditional detective fiction is formulaic I reply, ‘The skeleton my be the same, but it’s what you hang on it that makes the story.’

  2. Thanks for this nice description of what a contemporary traditional mystery is. I am sure there is plenty of room for variety within the structure.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Tracy. And that’s just it: there is a lot of room for variety and flexibility within the traditional mystery structure. There are any number of possibilities for killer, victim, motive, and circumstances; and that allows for authors to use their own voices and tell innovative stories.

  3. I do enjoy Martin Walker’s Bruno books. They make me want to move there immediately, mainly for the gorgeous food! (Guess that’ll have to wait until I win the lottery, or write my own bestselling crime novel 😉 !)

    • Oh, I like Walker’s books very much, too, Crimeworm. I am certain though that if I were exposed to that amazing food in real life, I’d soon be as big as a house! One day I’ll partake of the real thing, though… 🙂 – And you know, I don’t see why you couldn’t write a great novel. You certainly know what makes for one.

  4. I do enjoy traditional mysteries very much, both classic and contemporary. Unfortunately quite often the choice today is between graphic and cosy, but there are a few authors that find the midway point – recent discoveries for me have been Peter Helton, who has a police procedural series and a PI series, and the wonderful Eli Marks series by John Gaspard, which is becoming an absolute must-read series for me – good plots, great characters and a nice mix of serious and humour. I’ve just read the third in the series (due out next month) and each one is getting better as he grows into it.

    • Oh, thanks for those tips, FictionFan! I keep hearing good things about Gaspard, and it’s about time I sample his work. Helton, too. You really do have a point that it’s difficult to find that balance between too graphic and too ‘frothy.’ It’s quite tricky, which is why I so appreciate it when I discover an author who can do it well. I’ll look forward to your review of the newest Gaspard 🙂

  5. Love this post. I’m curious, though, what your take is on traditional vs cozy. I tend to equate cozy with frothy–do you? Because of this, I’m trying to get my own work categorized as traditional, as it is neither frothy nor graphic. Amazon makes this difficult, however.

    • It does, doesn’t it, Meg? And thanks for the kind words. To be honest, I know too many cosy authors whose work isn’t in the least ‘frothy,’ so that for me, the two are not synonymous. But for a lot of people, they are. I do see a difference between ‘cosy’ and ‘traditional,’ though. A mystery can be a cosy mystery without it being (necessarily) traditional. And I wouldn’t call Martin Walker’s stories ‘cosy,’ ‘though they are traditional. The distinction can be subtle at times, but I think it’s real.

  6. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good traditional mystery. Who doesn’t? But I prefer a deeper look into the killer’s mind, his crime scene, the murder victim, that sort of thing. I wouldn’t necessarily call it gore, but I would say it dances on the edge. Graphic is a better term, I suppose. But not a full swing toward horror, either. It’s that sweet spot in the middle. A good mystery, wrapped in suspense and a face pace, with a realistic, however ugly, crime scene. I’ve always classified the traditional mystery (as depicted here) as cozies. If they are, in fact, considered traditional, I have to wonder what traits classify a mystery as cozy. I’m interested in what you see as the difference.

    • I understand what you mean, Sue, as the difference between the kind of novel you prefer, and gore. There is a difference, and everyone has a different perception of whether a book fits in one or the other category.
      As to the difference between ‘cosy’ and ‘traditional,’ I will admit that some stories and series overlap. But for me (and this is just personal; your mileage may vary), a cosy mystery is focused on a small, usually intimate community, where the sleuth is often (‘though not always) an amateur. Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swenson series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series, and Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover series are, to me, cosy series.
      On the other hand, traditional mysteries are sometimes ‘harder edged’ than are cosy series. Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is like that. That series isn’t light, although there are witty comments made. Colin Dexter’s series is also traditional, in my opinion, as is Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford series. All are a bit grittier than the cosy is. The distinction is sometimes a bit hazy though, I’ll admit.

  7. Kathy D.

    I’m not a lover of Golden Age mysteries, though I read some in my teen years as that was most of what was available in crime fiction then, except for Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, Mickey Spillane, Ellery Queen, etc.
    But I do like “traditional” type plots told in current day. I kind of would put Sarah Ward’s excellent “In Bitter Chill” in the category of contemporary/traditional crime fiction. It isn’t gory or brutal. It has good character development, and it tells a good story.
    One aspect that I, as a long-time mystery reader, like is that one can follow the investigation along with the detectives and protagonist. All unfolds to all of us at the same time, a very important trait.
    And I would say as someone who dislikes “cozies” and brutality, gore and serial killers, that there are a lot of mysteries available that fall in between. I find plenty, way more than I can possibly read.
    Sara Paretsky, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon are among writers that fall in between. Fred Vargas, genius that she is, tells quirky stories which can push the envelope, but that are told without much gore.
    I would say that Liza Marklund’s books with Annika Bengtzon usually fall in between, but there is some brutality. Her latest book, Borderline, is more brutal than usual (and I wish I hadn’t seen some sections), but in general, there is some of it but it doesn’t go over the top for me
    Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney books set in Thailand fall in the middle.
    Malla Nunn’s books, set in 1952 South Africa, do have brutality, but it was apartheid, after all, and the reality was worse than the fiction. But it never is gratuitous, and for me, it doesn’t go over the top.
    And Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s series is pretty tame compared to many of today’s books.
    I have a TBR list of hundreds of books, and if I live to be 100, I’ll never catch up. But then, of course, there would be thousands more books.

    • I don’t think I’ll ever catch up with my TBR list, either, Kathy. Every time I read something, three more somethings take its place on the TBR. You’re right, too, that there are plenty of writers whose work is neither really gritty/brutal/explicit nor what you’d call cosy. You’ve mentioned some really talented ones. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned Sjöwall and Wahlöö. I think they wrote such a well-done series. And even now, years after it was written, the series doesn’t feel dated.

  8. Col

    Interesting analysis. Its hard to put my finger on exactly what doesn’t quite do it for me regarding “traditional” style mysteries, but I do favour non. I can read and enjoy them though and not every book I read has to have excessive blood, sex or gore.(It does help though! :-)) Maybe there’s a tendency for a slower pace in these types of books and it seems to take a lot longer to get where we’re going?

    • That’s interesting, Col. It may indeed be the pacing, or the kinds of characters you see in traditional mysteries. And not every novel or style appeals to everyone. You’re not the only one who likes plenty of grit in a story. The nice thing about crime fiction, of course, is that there’s enough variety that there’s something for everyone.

  9. Janet

    Thought provoking post as always Margot. I agree with your comments regarding difference between cosy and traditional. Whilst I do read books with quite a bit of violence I do enjoy a read that can keep you interested without necessarily being overtly bloody etc. I might add Susan Hill’s Simon Serrillier series into this category her eight book series gives depth, of characters and story, and suspense without going overboard on the violence or gore. Where do you think Val McDermid sits? I believe she commented that actually her books (I particularly think of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series) don’t contain a great deal of blood/gore but that the readers mind fills in so making her books much darker. Actually I quite enjoy the odd cosy read too. Perhaps preference may just reflect readers mood with regard to the genre and sub genres, just a thought.

    • Thanks, Janet. And I think you make a very strong point about the impact of mood on what we read. I think that effects our choices a lot, actually. So do things such as the last book read. As to Val McDermid, I would certainly say it’s possible for a book or series to be dark without there being a lot of gore or violence. To me, psychological darkness is every bit as dark as violence is, perhaps even darker. I think her books are, in that sense, darker than some other authors’ works are. And I wouldn’t call them all traditional, only because the structure – the ‘whodunit’ isn’t there. But she has done some great more traditional-style work, too.

  10. There is just something about traditional mysteries and trying to solve that puzzle that draws me back time and time again. While I also enjoy mysteries that are gritter and more detailed about the aspects of the murder (you know the gore and blood), I still have to have those traditional mysteries. They are the foundation.

    • I know what you mean, Mason. Traditional mysteries really do have an appeal, don’t they? Even for readers such as yourself, who also read gritter crime fiction, the traditional mystery does call one back, if I can put it that way.

  11. Interesting thoughts here, Margot. I think the appeal, for me, is that there is a particular structure (with genre and space constraints), but enough room for variety (as you pointed out). I love traditional mysteries and the mental exercise they provide. 🙂

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I love traditional mysteries, too, for the way they invite readers to exercise their minds. That has a way of drawing the reader in. And you’re absolutely right; there’s so much variety within that parameters of the traditional mystery that they can have a very broad appeal.

  12. Fascinating post, Margot. I learnt much about traditional mysteries and why they appeal to most readers of crime fiction — thank you. I’d like to think of the traditional mystery as a simple but effective story that people of all ages can read. I can identify with it because it’s the kind of mystery that I can imagine taking place in my backyard. While I enjoy reading contemporary mysteries, I prefer the traditional whodunit for its realistic structure and old world charm. And I do like the name of that convention — Malice Domestic. Wonder who thought of it.

    • Thank you, Prashant. I think you hit on something very important in your mention of the ‘everyday’ appeal of the traditional mystery. Many of them do deal with ‘regular’ people – people we can identify with as we read. And they often involve the kind of crime that one could well imagine happening in real life. I think that authenticity is part of their appeal. And you’re right: Malice Domestic is a great name for a conference.

  13. Great analysis Margot – thoughtful and convincing. I think people who don’t read traditional mysteries tend to dismiss them, but those of us who enjoy them know how very varied they can be, and how full of life the genre still is.

    • Thank you, Moira. The traditional mystery really is alive and well; and today, it takes many different forms. So there really is plenty of variety to suit different preferences. People who aren’t familiar with traditional mysteries may conflate that sort of novel with the Golden Age/classic novel. To me, though, they’re two separate kinds of stories, the one having been the roots of the other. And, as you say, the modern traditional mystery is flexible and varied enough that it really does have, I think, a wide appeal.

  14. I like to insert a good traditional mystery (and I consider cozies a subset of the traditional) into my reading schedule from time to time. They can satisfy in a way no other genre can: they challenge the brain without those constant shots of adrenaline created in today’s thrillers.

    • It’s interesting, Pat, that you include cosies as a subset of traditional. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I do agree with you that it is very nice to vary the reading pattern, so that you’re not always reading the same kind of novel. Thrillers, traditionals, etc., make a nice counterbalance to each other.

  15. Good analysis (as always), Margot. Pesonally, I much prefer traditional mysteries over virtually all other sub-genres. I’m delighted that they are still being written (hooray for authors such as Martin Edwards and Paul Doherty) and I also relish discovering new Golden Age authors I haven’t previously encountered.

    By the way, Bouchercon, the world mystery conference which will be meeting in Raleigh, N.C., next month, has what seems to me to be more sessions than usual devoted to the “traditional” mystery (the conference covers ALL types of mysteries and thrillers). Among the topics for panels this year: Resurgence of the Traditional Mystery; The Game’s Afoot: Under the Shadow of Holmes and Watson; Trends in the “Traditional” Mystery; Why are some Traditional mysteries comfort reads?; The “Masters” that influenced the “Masters” in Crime & Mystery; and so on. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the sessions! And when are you going to break down and come to a Bouchercon – or a Malice Domestic, for that matter? You’d be SO welcome there!

    • Thank you, Les. And thank you so much for sharing the panels and topics with us. Folks, you heard it here! I do hope to get to Bouchercon and/or Malice Domestic. The fact is, my university only contributes towards my travel if I’m giving a presentation. Otherwise, my travels are my own expense. That means I have to be very careful of everything I spend. I’ll get there one day though…
      I know what you mean about authors such as Edwards and Doherty (must spotlight him!) who do modern-day traditional mysteries. They add an awful lot to the genre, and are excellent choices for readers who want that format (or want to try it), but don’t want the Golden Age/classic mystery. There’s just something about that format…

  16. Great post, Margot, on the modern take on the traditional formula. However, and despite their sometimes un-pc isms, I prefer the Golden Age mystery, because they are so …. cozy – or is it cosy? We feel safe with them, and can curl up by the fireplace with sherry & scones, and know that with Poirot, Miss Marple or Lord Peter on the case, right and virtue will (usually) triumph in the end and we’ll have a tidy resolution. And there’s the puzzle aspect that’s always fun.

    • Bryan,
      There is definitely something to the comfort you can find in some of the GA mysteries, no doubt about that. Some of them, I will admit, make me absolutely cringe with their ‘-isms.’ But some of them (as you know, I love Christie’s work, for instance) are such great stories.

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