Friday, October 06, 2006

What's the difference between a mystery and a thriller?

Who's asking: John Schramm

Crime writers can talk about this question forever, and an entire association has formed to clarify and promote the difference.

Joe Finder gave as good an answer to this question as I've heard, at a Bouchercon panel last week. I'm paraphrasing, but he said that mysteries are intellectual puzzles about the solution of a crime, where the criminal's identity is not revealed until the end. Thrillers are stories of sensation, where the question is whether the hero survives. The protagonist of a thriller is at risk throughout the book, while the protagonist of a mystery is at risk only because of his or her role in the investigation.

That said, I agree with Joe -- and with his co-panelist, Jay Bonansinga -- that these distinctions are academic, and perhaps not very useful for readers or even for booksellers. I'd like to see fewer genre distinctions, rather than the Balkanization that seems to be happening within crime writing. I don't want to read "a yoga mystery," I just want to read a good book.

A handful of authors are challenging these genre lines, maybe not on purpose but just by writing the books they want to write. They're meeting with mixed success. My client Kent Harrington's Red Jungle never did find a mainstream publisher, because the publishers couldn't pigeonhole it: was it an adventure novel, a thriller, historical fiction, romance, magical realism? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. It was a fantastic book, and if you can track down one of the 2,000 copies that were printed, you'll be lucky.

I have high hopes for John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, another book that is fantasy/adventure/literature/historical fiction, and an absolute jewel. People have asked John which shelf booksellers will put The Book of Lost Things on, and he doesn't know; frustratingly, this is something that could keep people who should read the book (i.e., everyone) from finding it.

It's tempting to imagine a bookstore of my own, in which I'd classify things a little differently. My categories would probably be something like "Contributions to Humanity," "Entertainment without Insult," and "Total Crap."

** I posted this before reading Sarah Weinman's excellent musings on a similar subject, here.**

This week's reading list is a special double issue, since I didn't post the list last week, and all of these books fall into the first two categories.

What I Read These Weeks:

Steve Ettlinger, Twinkie, Deconstructed. It's been at least 20 years since I've eaten a Twinkie, and after this book, it'll be at least 20 more. This is no Fast Food Nation, though; it's not Ettlinger's mission to turn you off Twinkies, but to explore the complex processes of making a uniform, tasty snack food that has an almost-indefinite shelf life. He uses the Twinkies ingredients list as his table of contents, and explains (among other things) exactly what "Polysorbate 60" is, and where baking powder comes from (it's mined, at least in part). Fascinating. It'll be out next March.

Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury. Between 1840 and 1882, the greatest minds in American literature lived on one corner in Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson served as landlord and mentor, at various times, to the Alcott family, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Their friends and correspondents included the James brothers, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. Cheever gives us a social history of their lives and works, illuminating subtexts and dishing great literary gossip. This book will be out in December.

Lise McClendon, Blue Wolf. Art dealer Alix Thorssen, responsible for coordinating a wildlife-benefit auction, agrees to do some research on a long-ago hunting accident for one of her artists, a controversial recluse who turns out to be the mother of the boy who was killed. The book does a nice job of presenting all sides of the wolf debate, as one of the major subplots involves the investigation of a wolf shooting.

Linda Barnes, The Big Dig. Boston PI Carlotta Carlyle goes undercover as a temp on a building site responsible for part of the construction of Boston's notorious underpass, and discovers corruption, kidnapping, and murder. My admiration for Linda Barnes was high before last week, and now knows no bounds.

Dana Cameron, Ashes and Bones. Archaeologist Emma Fielding is convinced that Tony Markham, a deranged colleague who supposedly died years before, is stalking her, her family and her friends. Emma's friends and relatives, caught in the crossfire, respond by questioning her sanity and then -- as they become targets -- by shutting her off to protect themselves. This series has taken tremendous strides, and I'm looking forward to Dana's next book, a standalone.

Mike Harrison, All Shook Up. Mike was a last-minute substitution on my Bouchercon panel, and I'm glad of it; he's a fascinating guy, and writes a good detective novel. Canadian PI Eddie Dancer goes to England to help his psychiatrist clear himself of murder charges. The real murderer is a man who's convinced himself that he's the reincarnation of a serial killer who lived centuries earlier -- but is he?

William Landay, Mission Flats. Ben Truman, the young police chief of Versailles, Maine, goes to Boston to help investigate the murder of a Boston D.A. whose body was found in a Versailles tourist cabin. This first novel is an ambitious exercise in unreliable narration, and didn't completely work for me; I admired it, and kept reading, but the ending didn't shake me as much as it should have.


Anonymous said...

I just happen to be about 50 pages into Harrington's _Red Jungle_ right now. Secondary access to my sister's library is one of the many benefits of camping out at the Virginia Beach homestead.

From what I've read so far, I'd cross media to compare _Red Jungle_ to the movie _The Year of Living Dangerously_, which (while mostly a true story) itself was a riff on the book _The Quiet American_. High praise, but Harrington's book touches on economic theory and its discontents, adventure, romance, murder, and all the other good stuff. Definitely worth hunting up.


JIM LAMB said...

My dear, I am always amazed at your ability to read four or five books a week. I think I'm doing well on two.

I have tried to read Red Jungle several times and can't get through it. Maybe it's because I really dispise almost all the characters. The attitude of the author toward the characters reminds me of Hemingway's attitude toward the Cubans in "Islands in the Stream". There are no heroes, only different degrees of corruption and villany.

I wish I could read more and even write some, but now that I have gone back to work I am missing at least two naps a day and making those up in my free time doesn't leave much time for recreation.

Jennifer Jordan said...

Joseph Finder's comments resonate and I'm damned tempted to copy and paste them somewhere that's handy for the future, inevitable debates on the subject.

Readers must feel overwhelmed by choices as it is and to see things split into sub and sub-sub-genres is disturbing and, as you mention, keeps them from books they might really enjoy. Because then it's up to the discretion of the people stocking the shelves and where they would put things to get reader and writer to connect.

I adored John's book as well. That's a once a year re-read and buy for everyone I care about book. I was incredibly stimulated and moved by it.

AnswerGirl said...

Dad, you could say the same things about TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE -- another classic without a sympathetic character. In fact, Kent describes RED JUNGLE as a cross between TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and THE QUIET AMERICAN -- so good call, Ed.

Jen, the opportunity to match up book and reader is what I loved (and miss) most about bookselling -- and something that the big-box stores make only the feeblest attempts at. Go support your independent bookstore, people!

lynn said...

I'm still struggling with the information that you read five books a week. How??

AnswerGirl said...

Nah, that was two weeks' worth of reading. I read four one week and three the next, because I'm actually editing a couple of manuscripts at the moment.

John Schramm said...

Thanks for including my question. Some good thoughts here. I'm not sure how I feel about all the fus lately. I always return to the classic definition -- puzzle vs cat&mouse game. It's easy that way.

Steve Ettlinger said...

Re Twinkie, Deconstructed, I'm delighted that you not only read my book, but wrote about it, and you are in Gardniner, to boot. I'm curious how you happend to read it and where you got your copy....

I have a Maine connection, as noted in the intro, and eat at the A-1 Diner about once a year, with incredible pleasure. This is on my way to and from Stonington (Deer Isle) and New York.

You are the first! My wife googled me and the book for fun and we're both surprised.

Thanks again for the review.

Steve Ettlinger
PS I don't have a web site yet but will make one.

AnswerGirl said...

How very cool! I got my advance copy of TWINKIE, DECONSTRUCTED at the New England Booksellers Association convention; I was there on behalf of Kate's Mystery Books, and got your book at Saturday night's dinner.

I don't think you made it to my table, though...