At the end of last year, I decided to do some themed reading but, rather than selecting a Christmas theme, I went for the wider option of wintry titles. Whilst browsing the wide range of titles available, I found myself being drawn to mysteries and thrillers – some old-fashioned, and some modern. A few of my choices proved to be exactly what I’d hoped, others were not, and while I put that down to the usual variances in individual books or in an author’s style of writing, I later read an article which led me down a a different path.
But let’s start at the beginning. As a young teen, I was brought up on thrillers – everything from police procedural in the form of Ed McBain, via the crime suspense works of John D Macdonald, to the adventure tales of Alastair McLean. Despite later developing a taste for literary fiction, I’m on record as being a lifelong fan of Dick Francis as well as the early works of Tom Clancy, and a mystery or a thriller remains one of the options I’d choose to read in-between (what I call a sorbet read).
More recently, I’ve been dipping into the works of the original mistresses of mystery writing – Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers – and initially they required a degree of adjustment on my part to accommodate old fashioned societal norms. But, somewhat to my surprise, I’ve developed a growing appreciation for the genre on my part. Why surprising? Well, because I’ve not really found modern mysteries or thrillers satisfying in quite the same way. Bestsellers such as Her Name was Rose, Friend Request, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train from the popular genre known as psychological thrillers should be right up my street … but somehow weren’t. Even when really well written, with an interesting and believable plot, I ultimately still found them not fully satisfying due in large part to the lack of a central hero.
With the death of Dick Francis and the drift in quality of the later works of Tom Clancy (and his subsequent death), I’ve spent considerable time seeking out replacements, without finding any immediate winners. One example of this search is that despite finding a Scandi-noir TV production to be pleasant viewing, I’ve not been reliably gripped by the written form (with the exception of Iain Kelly’s 2017 A2Z Challenge which I’d love to see published).
So, what’s missing?
Time then to return to that article, for Crime Read’s Revising the Traditional Mystery for a 21st Century Audience gave me food for thought, in particular, the article’s subheading “Traditional mysteries used to be all about restoring the status quo. Now, they’re just about good people, striving.” I spent considerable time analysing whether I was truly more comforted by the cosy society presented in the older mysteries than unsettled by the old-fashioned societal norms they depicted, as I’d initially believed … and, being honest, there was some evidence to support this view.
Something Himself and I watch regularly on TV is Midsomer Murders – set in the small villages of Oxfordshire, they’re full of bucolic images – pretty cottages, village greens, country pubs and huge manor houses. It’s not challenging viewing, and its saving grace is that it gently takes the mick out of the two central detective characters. In my defence and to refute this possibility, I offer the fact that Himself finds television the ideal way to wind down at the end of the day, and I hugely prefer this option to his more usual rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ action/violence-fest choices. For while I’ll allow television viewing to be mindless, I’d be extremely unlikely to read the books upon which the show is based as my reading choices are more mindful than mindless.
Back to that question – why? What is it about the traditional mystery that I find more satisfying? It’s the second part of that subheading which is spot on “now they’re just about good people, striving.” Our heroes are now more nuanced and flawed, more ordinary and hardworking than brilliant and insightful. More tales now end with a crime being solved but without right being done and with the day not being saved. And while that’s reality, in a world containing too many leaders who embody might rather than right, there’s something reassuring about an old fashioned hero.
A friend recently told me that her psychotherapist had suggested she steer clear of world news due to her anxiety being at a level described as explosive. I must admit that I too, for some while, have been giving the news a fairly wide berth – not because I suffer from anxiety, but because I’d like to avoid adding it to the litany of troublesome issues I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I work hard to remain positive, which is helped by the belief that – even if it’s only in the fiction I read – there are heroes who are not just good people, but clever people, who won’t get hoodwinked by those who are not.
© Debra Carey, 2020