One 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