Saturday, November 28, 2009

At The Feet of A Master of Detective Fiction: P. D. James

For anyone interested in writing detective fiction (or crime fiction for that matter), a great new Master Class is at hand: "Talking About Detective Fiction" by P. D. James will be released on December 1, 2009. The perfect stocking stuffer gift (I know I've added it to my wish list!) for the holidays for any writer of mystery, crime, and detective fiction.

P. D. James is one of a cadre of Grand Dames of the British school of the detective novel. Alongside Dorothy Sayres, Agatha Christie, Martha Grimes, Ruth Rendell, Josephine Tey and countless others. Published since the 1960's, her mysteries are atmospheric, complex, and oh-so-British. And there are plenty of them to satisfy even the most speedy of readers. But for the writer seeking to create a unique protagonist who will stand out among the pantheon of the greatest, this book is a must. (Along with her great mysteries, themselves.)

Can't wait? Then check out the P. D. James site that has a link to writing detective fiction to tide you over.

And in the meantime, Merry Murder!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's A Mystery for NaNoWriMo 2009!

Well, not exactly a mystery. Or rather, not JUST a mystery. I'm a Gemini and suffer from "like-a-dog-if-you-throw-a-stick" disorder so I jump around a lot. So rather than a "mystery", I've got on tap a mystery/romantic suspense with elements of dark/black humor and a few sex scenes. In other words, a hot book for folks who like their who-dun-its with a dash of snark. Or as they say in the publishing game, my "concept" is "Desperate Housewives" meets CSI. Sort of.

Anyway, I've excelled at NaNo (Yep, its the LADIYTAS disorder again) for several years, completing not just the 50,000 word mark, but in one case going well over 70,000 words (I lost weight that year, too).

I've tried a number of approaches to NaNo - when I'm not writing a mystery I tend to be a "pantster" or a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of gal. Give me a plot line, two characters and I'm off to the races. But with a mystery I've learned that you cannot work without a plot. You end up banging your head against a wall after you've written your protagonists into a corner with no way out.

So for this year I'm working out my 3 plot lines (killings/mystery; attendant secondary plot line involving High School sex scandal; meeting & attraction of my hero and heroine sleuths). I'll be putting together character sketches and creating my "world" of Eden, Long Island (an utterly fictitious place but having been a suburbanite for decades, I can guarantee that it won't be that much of a stretch!)

I'm currently in a mystery/thriller/crime novel mode these days, but I can't work without humor - my snarky, sarcastic humor will probably work well in the context of slayings and sexual misconduct, so I'm not worried there. Hardest will be the level of details when discussing the crime, and the niggling legal details (age of a teenager in NY before they can be charged as an adult in a murder, for example).

I've stopped reading the thrillers for the time being because I don't want the influence of the great ladies and gents I've been enjoying (Allison Brennan, Mariah Stewart, Ridley Pearson, Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Jackson and Karen Rose, among others). So, oddly enough, I'm reading Regency romances to keep me focused on my 21st century murder mystery.

And of course, as is so often the case with me (as my Grandmother always said, "your eyes are bigger than your stomach"), this is intended to be - YOU GUESSED IT! - a series.

A friend of mine has a Yahoo group for Southern Noir - those dark crime novels set in the South filled with Texas sheriffs and Rangers alongside legendary Texas criminals. So I'm going to grab the idea from him and my series shall be titled:

Suburban Noir.

I figure it has the black comedy-murder-suburban setting thing locked up that way.

And while I should know better, I'm going to give away my title, too. (You tell me if it doesn't convey what I'm going for, OK?)


Catchy, huh?


Saturday, April 11, 2009

So Many Mysteries, So Little Time: Genres of the who-dunit

Noir. Hard-boiled. Cozy. Madcap. Amature sleuth. Thriller. Historical. Paranormal. Police procedural. Psychological. Academic.

The genre of the mystery has many literary flavors. Like other genre fiction (romance, sci-fi/fantasy, horror), it has something for every sensibility.

And the greats of days gone by remain hot mystery properties today. Chandler, Hammett, Sayres, Christie. These books remain in print and not a day goes by that I don't see someone reading one of these standards (it's what I love about riding the New York City transit system, be it bus, train or subway ... getting a gander at the books everyone is reading to take advantage of commuting time).

I've been reading mysteries since I was a young teen reading Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Then I picked up the books my mother was so fond of: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayres, P. D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and Martha Grimes. My favorite from this august collection has to be Dorothy Sayres, with her Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane characters and the rich evocation of the times and lives of the protagonists who so ably solved the crimes they were dealt by the author.

Since my teen years I've read everything to come down the pike. There've been a lot of male mystery authors whose works I have enjoyed immensely, including Robert Parker and Spenser, Ed McBain's wry and taut urban police series and then most recently James Lee Burke (who was introduced to me by Southern Noir crime fiction author Milton T. Burton, himself no slouch in the genre of crime fiction with a human touch).

But the female authors have always reigned supreme on my mystery fiction bookshelves. Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell, Elizabeth Peters have stood the test of time. My current faves are Kathy Reichs, Tami Hoag and Linda Fairstein as well as authors of the less intense series like Joan Hess' Maggody series. And of coures, the initimatable, uncategorizable, Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum mysteries.

Lesser known and harder to find, I nonetheless have always greatly enjoyed Joanna Dobson and her Karen Pelletier academic mysteries, Edith Skom's literary mysteries and Sharyn McCrumb's various, especially her riotously funny Bimbos of the Death Sun.

In between there are writers of flower shop mysteries, tea room mysteries, bake shop mysteries, gardening mysteries, fashion design, quilting, sewing, coffee, restaurant, B&B mysteries and even the paranormal mysteries of Yasemine Galenorn and others.

With so much to choose from is it any wonder that I can't pin down my favorite author or sub-genre? Some days I'm in the mood for the intense serial killers of Allison Brennan, others the whacky doings of Sookie Stackhouse and her mystery-solving pals. And then again I'm still waiting to find a female author of noir to sink my teeth into.

And of course, I've got my own mysteries on tap: I call them Suburban Noir.

And another sub-sub genre is born!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tough As Nails and Twice As Smart

Former DA Linda Fairstein, prosecutor of sex crimes in the City of New York, may have hung up her shingle but persists in bringing criminals to justice. The fictional kind. Her alter-ego, Alex Cooper, is a tough, smart, multi-faceted woman who persues justice in her own inimitable style. Her most frequent companions are the men she works with, though her love life is fraught with ill fortune.

The Alex Cooper books are based in NYC and as a born-and-bred Big Apple babe, I love them all. Filled with gritty, grisly crimes ranging from white collar to rape, the books are also wonderful histories of the City of New York.

Attorney Fairstein obviously loves this City and each of her 11 novels provides her another opportunity to explore some facet of Sodom by the Sea (as I like to call it) and delve into the history of that aspect, the people who populated the place at that time, and then tie it neatly, wonderfully, all together with the contemporary crime.

She's a master as suspense - Alex rarely escapes unscathed, though she has the resolve to overcome every frightening incident. She has compassion for her victims, she's got the savvy to swim the dangerous waters of NYC politics and the psyche to get beneath the veneer of the criminals and ferret out their secrets.

If you like your heroines tough, in body and mind, want to have a bit of history to go with your stories, or love Manhattan, give Fairstein's canon a try. You won't be disappointed.

And if you are an author (or aspiring) of the gritty, dark mystery - the kind that exposes the good and the bad of humanity, there's no better teacher than this lady.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Being Dorothy L. Sayers

"The only Christian work is good work, well done."
Dorothy L. Sayers

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. To mystery fans, he, alongside Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, is one of the great creations of the golden age of British mystery fiction.

His creator, Dorothy L. Sayers, is known primarily for her stylish detective and his lover and fellow detective, Harriet Vane, but her body of work is vast and varied, and crosses out of the mystery genre into poetry, drama and translation of classical fiction. In fact, she was a classical scholar and respected translator and considered her translation of The Divine Comedy her favorite work, work she undertook after teaching herself Italian for the task.

Born in Oxford on June 13, 1893, Sayers grew up the daughter of the Rev. Henry Sayers and Christianity played a vital and consuming role in her life. (Sayers was later to write numerous books on various topics of Christianity including "Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine".)

She won a scholarship in 1912 to study at Somerville College, Oxford. Despite the fact that women were not at the time eligible to receive degrees, she later was the first woman to receive a degree when this changed in 1920. She studying modern languages and medieval literature (translating "The Song of Roland" as well as Dante).

A supremely intelligent woman, Sayers also was a woman outside of her time. Amid the tumult of post-World War I England she fell in love with, and became pregnant by, novelist John Cournos. When the romance failed, she gave birth to her son (under an assumed name) and turned him over to be raised by her aunt and cousin, Amy and Ivy Shrimpton, who were fostering children as a way of supporting themselves. Only Ivy was apprised of the child's parentage and Sayers family learned of it only following her death. Her son, John Anthony, was her sole heir upon her death.

Subsequent disagreement between Sayers and Cournos provided her with material that became "Strong Poison", published in 1930.

Sayers later married Captain Oswald Atherton Fleming, a Scottish journalist on April
8, 1926. Due to Fleming's previous divorce, no church wedding was permissable, a disappointment to Sayers' family, but he became a welcome part of the family. Despite a strong marriage, Fleming's health began to decline at the same time that Sayers was enjoying literary success.

Beyond her poetry, translations, and non-fiction writings (both on the plight of women as well as Christian subjects), Sayers created a masterful detective, and series, with Peter Wimsey.

She began her first novel, which became "Whose Body?" sometime in 1920-21.

A letter she wrote on Jan. 22, 1921 (Wikipedia): "My detective story begins brightly, with a fat lady found dead in her bath with nothing on but her pince-nez. Now why did she wear pince-nez in her bath? If you can guess, you'll be in a position to lay hands upon the murderer, but he's a very cool and cunning fellow." (p. 101, Ryenolds)

Throughout ten novels Peter Wimsey entertained and amused. Sayers once commented that he was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. As wonderful as he was as a solo detective, when Sayers introduced Harriet Vane in "Strong Poison", a suspect in the poisoning death of her lover, the pair became an even more intriguing and complex team. With the novel, "Gaudy Night" and the subsequent marriage of Peter and Harriet, Sayers anticipated retiring her detective. Her affection for him, however, dissuaded her and the novels with the pair continued. Praised also for the inventive methods of dispatching her victims and diverse secondary characters, the mysteris are well worth reading both for enjoyment, as well as a look at consummately plotted mysteries and deep, complicated characters whose emotions are as important to the stories as are their detecting skills. Complex and human, the novels explore as well the romance between two very different people.

Her Wimsey mysteries were not fluff or cozies, but rather explored the darker side of life, among the wealthy and the working class alike ("Murder Must Advertise" finds Wimsey employed as an advertising copyrighter, to his amusement)and addressed various social issues, including World War I, religion and women's rights. She advocated education for women in "Gaudy Night" (at a time when the subject was quite controversial - in fact it was considered by some to be a first feminist mystery), a long and complex tale that allows Vane to take center stage as she returns to her alma mater and becomes embroiled in murders while contemplating her deepening relationship with Wimsey and her lingering guilt over the death of her lover.

Despite criticism of her beloved pair, such as Edmund Wlson's comment: "There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey", the books have remained constantly in print and continue to garner fans for the author. Wimsey is such an iconoclastic figure that he was given a cameo appearance in Laurie R. King's "A Letter of Mary".

Sayers' work was a product of her times and her characters reflect the wide-ranging views and opinions prevelant in England, including racism and anti-semitism. But as any author knows, we create characters that reflect the worst of society as well as the best. Biographer and literary critic Caroline Heilbrun (who wrote her own marvelous mysteries under the pseudonym Amanda Cross)defended Sayers and refuted claims that she was anti-semitic in her biography, "Dorothy L. Sayers: Biography Between the Lines".

Numerous biographies have, in fact, been written about this fascinating author. Additional background information is available at the Dorothy Sayers Society, a link for which can be found on this blog.

Sayers continued to write throughout her life, and was friends with fellow theological thinker C. S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot. An intelligent woman she was also a lecturer on many subjects known for her wit and logic.

Sayers' husband Mac Fleming died on June 9, 1950. Dorothy died of a stroke on December 17, 1957 while at work on her translation of the third volume of Dante's work, "Paradiso". She was cremated and her ashes were buried beneath the tower of St. Anne's Church, where she had been churchwarden since 1952. Her only child, Tony, died November 26, 1960, in Florida.

Today's mystery writers can learn a wealth about writing novels with wonderfully complicated protagonists by studying Sayers' Wimsey works. But more importantly, they can enjoy the mastery of a superlative author and the company of two amazing people in Harriet and Peter.

In addition to her wealth of non-fiction writings, translations, poetry, plays, and other mystery and detective fiction, Sayers' inventive Wimsey novels are:

Whose Body? (1923)
Clouds of Witness (1926)
Unnatural Death (1927)
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
Lord Peter Views the Body (a 1928 collection of 12 stories)
Strong Poison (1930)
Five Red Herrings (1931)
Have His Carase (1932)
Hangman's Holiday (a 1933 collection of stories that include 4 Wimsey tales)
Murder Must Advertise (1933)
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Gaudy Night (1935)
Busman's Holeymoon (1937)
In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939 collection of stories that include 4 Wimsey tales)
Thrones, Dominations (1998 - begun by Sayers in 1936, it was completed by Jill Paton Walsh).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Mystery or Romantic Suspense?

What is the difference between a mystery and a romantic suspense? I used to know the answer - if the mystery was predominant, that's what it was, but if there was a predominant romance and there was a mystery, it was romantic suspense.

But now I am not so sure.

I've come to the conclusion that there is a more subtle difference and it has nothing to do with romance.

In a mystery, there is a crime (usually a murder of one degree of heinousness or another - depending on whether it is a cozy mystery or a gritty crime novel) and throughout the course of the book, characters and clues are both introduced and the saavy reader can follow them to discover the criminal, if she is smart enough.

In a suspense however (and I'm just coming off of a reading binge of 2) there are no clues as to the bad guy. The bad guy all too often is utterly unknown until the denoument in which he is captured/killed/discovered, etc. We do know the bad guy - just not his identity. We may even be in his point of view on some occasions. However, who he is in regards to the heroine is a mystery.

The follow-the-clues aspect seems to be either absent or minor in an RS. There may be an investigation - there was a significant one in Lisa Gardner's HIDE - but it doesn't actually drop hints as to who the killer is. In fact, there were 2 bad guys in HIDE, neither one of which was the reader able to divine in advance. We KNEW that there were 2 bad guys and even knew who they were and expected the ending to be one of the 2 of them. However, the discovery of the two in their current guises were utterly unpredictable.

I'm not saying this is a BAD thing. Or a GOOD thing. I think it is for different reader's tastes. Perhaps some prefer the puzzle of a good mystery with clues laid out that will point to the correct villain. Or some prefer the suspense factor that gives them the little frission of fear that they like, rather than the puzzle factor.

But what about the romance? I have found that as more and more women get into mystery I've discovered more and more romantic plot lines in those mysteries.

And the notion I once heard that the other difference is that in mysteries the heroine is usually NOT the one against whom the crime was perpetrated, but she was the active detective (whether amature or pro). In an RS, the heroine was the direct victim. That line seems to be blurring too.

Just as romance genres are melding it appears that so, too, are mysteries and romantic suspense.

Hear Hear! Something for everyone.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Allow me to introduce myself ...

I am a woman of mystery. Suspense. Drama. Death and mayhem. Secrets and whispers, and hopes and dreams. The darkness is my friend as I create the worlds of murders and women on the run and romance in the shadows.

Welcome. Join me as I explore the world of suspicion and desire - where want turns to need and need turns to craving ....