Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Quality Mystery

One evening last week when the new Kubu novel had been put to bed for the day, Stan and I talked about the issue of quality in mystery novels. We started off discussing what we thought quality meant, and ended up wondering if it meant anything at all beyond personal taste. Of course, that’s not an issue restricted to genre fiction; you can ask the same questions about any form of writing, and perhaps any form of art. And the issue isn’t whether it’s commercial or not, although there is certainly a perception that anything that makes money can’t be highbrow enough for literary judges. Henning Mankell is reputed to have commented that John Le Carré is the best writer who will never win a Nobel prize. I’d be inclined to agree.

So what’s the issue? Surely the best quality mysteries are the ones that win prizes and pick up rave reviews in reputable newspapers and journals? Well, it’s relevant to look at some of the prizes. Let me say that I’d give my eye teeth to win one – anything! Even the one for the best second mystery novel set in Botswana not written by McCall Smith. (We are thinking of endowing such a prize.)

Some prizes do involve critics and judges soberly reading hundreds of books and coming up with their considered choice. Do they weigh excellence of writing, believable and interesting characters, depth of plot, and so on? Or do they just decide which book they like?

Some other prizes seem more fun. What about the prize for the mystery that the booksellers most enjoyed selling? Is that because they sold a lot? Honed their selling skills on an awful no-hoper? Really loved the book and enjoyed persuading one other person she would too?

And many prizes seem to be by popular demand. One comment I read on last year’s awards suggested that both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Child 44 deserved to win best first mystery, so it was best to share out the prizes between them. Oh.

Publishers seem to think that quality is determined retrospectively. Find something well enough written to be publishable, and it is high quality if it sells a lorry load of books. They don’t expect to judge that sort of quality in advance. Both our French and Italian publishers published translations of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Neither expected it to do particularly well! On the other hand The Lost Symbol got a really good review in the New York Times, and all the local book sellers have piles of it. But negative comments from mystery readers on sites like 4MA certainly haven’t encouraged me to buy it. And the piles still look about the same height to me.

Stan and I came to the conclusion that it was all a mystery and went to bed. Can anyone help us with this mystery of quality?

Michael - Thursday


  1. Hi Guys,
    I'm as flummoxed by some of the issues you bring up as you fellows are, but I do have something to bring to the discussion.
    Here's why:
    In the mystery/thriller community, I've had the experience of sitting on two juries, the "first best" for ITW and the "first best" for MWA (The Edgars).
    I stand behind what I and my fellow panelists have done. I assure you that the finalists in those two instances are books that, without exception, had merit.
    But were they the only books, of all the ones submitted, that did?
    I don't think so.
    In the case of the Edgars, for example, there was one book that I thought deserved to be a finalist. But not a single other panel member thought so. And there was another book that two of the panel members put at the top of their list - and it didn't enter into my top ten.
    How do I score merit?
    Memorable imagery gains points
    Great characters do too.
    And, when it comes to a mystery, or a thriller, surprising twists and turns of plot count for something.
    There are parameters, of course.
    And all of us, from personal experience, know what they are.
    Do all of the finalists have all the characterists that contribute to merit?
    No, they don't.
    Some of them have few.
    Personal preference?
    Oh, yeah. That's a factor. Big time.
    I like historical mysteries. I like mysteries set in (surprise, surprise) locations outside the US. I like words that sing. (That one, I admit, is entirely subjective.)
    The ideal jury would be balanced in terms of preferences, but how do you do that? Has there ever been one?
    I doubt it.
    I'll betcha there have been, for example, juries composed of people who only like "cozies", and turn away from bloodshed?
    How would one of my books do with a jury like that.
    Not well at all.
    Another factor: not all the good books published in a given year come to the attention of the jury. Sometimes because they don't qualify (not on the "approved publisher" list or, in the case of the Edgars First Best, because the author wasn't born in the United States, or because the publisher or author didn't bother to submit).
    So here's my take on how you should look at the Edgars (or any other competition):
    The winner ISN'T the best book in the category for that given year.
    It MAY be the best book for you, and for the jury, but that doesn't necessarily make it the best book for everyone else. The other finalists are probably just as much worth reading as the winner.
    Put another way, if you didn't like reading the winner, you're unlikely to enjoy reading any of the other finalists.
    And this may be only because the panel members share certain tastes. And those tastes aren't yours.
    There are many, many great books that don't get to be finalists - and that's something you should always keep in mind.
    So what's the value of it all?
    For me, it's to draw attention to a few good books, and thereby help to give their authors a wider audience.
    But how important, in the long run, is it to win one of these competitions?
    For an answer to that, you have to go back, as I have, and look at the finalists and winners from past years.
    And then track how their careers have gone since then.
    I have.
    It's kinda disappointing.
    Sic transit gloria mundi.

  2. Leighton, great to get your perspective from real experience. I agree with you entirely about the value of prizes and think that goes beyond the winners.
    The point about the finalists being of an ilk is an interesting one too, and hadn't occured to me. Well, that's where multiple prizes with multiple criteria and judges or voting or whatever comes in.
    I guess the point is to look for what is there and not for what isn't...

  3. Before I started reading and responding to blogs, I read an average of 5 books a week (sometimes I only finish 4 now). The only fiction I read is mysteries and very few of those are cozies. I include espionage and thrillers in the mystery category.

    Now, to finally get to the point, quality is definitely subjective. I recommend many of the books I enjoy but I never preface the recommendation with "you're going to love this book." Similar taste doesn't mean the same taste.

    I read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD when it was first published and I thought it was a great book, a great story. At the risk of revealing my lack of literary sophistication, I haven't liked a John LeCarre book since. For espionage and Cold War stories, I much prefer Charles McCarry's Paul Christopher books.

    The Robert Wilson's series set in Africa is not to my taste, but I very much like the Javier Falcon series set in Spain. He also wrote A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON, which is better than any of the Falcon books, and THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS, a book I have tried unsuccessfully to read a few times. The same writer but such different books.

    WITH NO ONE AS WITNESS angered many of Elizabeth George's fans and she answered insult with injury when she published CARELESS IN RED. Some posters have declared that they will never read her books again. But they are her characters to do with as she sees fit. I definitely will read the Lynley book coming out in the spring. Unless Ms. George starts writing like Dan Brown, I fully expect to enjoy that one too.

    As to Dan Brown, I read ANGELS AND DEMONS and liked it primarily as a tourist guide to all the best places to find Bernini sculptures. THE DAVINCI CODE wasn't just anti-Catholic, it was anti-Chritian and I think that made it attractive to many readers. I think a lot of people bought it because it was big and everyone else was carrying it. I started it but didn't finish it because it was too silly. Take out the romance, the art, and the full-blown descriptions of place and the code-breaking that was the base of the story would have appealed to 12 year old boys. I do not plan to read THE LOST SYMBOL although I do wonder if he eviserated the Masons to the degree he did the Church.

    Jo Bannister writes a series with two protagonists, Brodie Farrell, a single mother whose business is finding things, and Daniel Hood, a math teacher. A third major character is a police inspector. The main characters would seem to place this book in the "cozie" pile, but the description of torture in the first book, ECHOES OF LIES, will disabuse readers of that notion.

    My four most recent acquisitions are by Andrea Camilleri, Charles Todd, Paul Adam, and Mark Billingham. I read these authors because I like them and look forward to each new release. That must mean I consider the quality of all these books to be high. Aside from the required murders in each book and the police investigations, I can't find any one thing upon which I can make a reasonable comparison.

    Michael, I like your books much better than McCall Smith's. No comparison between Kubu and the #1 lady detective. The television productions were cute and although Tim says "cute" is an adjective of great value in Asia, cute doesn't seem quite the right word to apply to a mystery.

    I am never without two books when I leave the house. I go to NYC to visit my daughter; we visit a variety of museums, shop, and sometimes see a show. I take no fewer than 10 books for a 3 day weekend. What if I got stuck there? What would I do? I had a 400 page book when I went to one of my doctors who is notorious for running very far behind schedule. He laughs because he knows there is a message for him in the size of the book.

    So, having not answered your question, I thank you for the opportunity to try.

    Michael, as to Dan Brown, it seems, from your observation, that not only is the glory of the world passing him by but so is the gold that went with that glory.


  4. Hi Beth,

    Thanks for that analysis! I think you've made an excellent case for beauty being in the eye of the beholder. But I'd certainly take your recommendations very seriously; our tastes may not be the same, but you have such an amazing breadth of knowledge! Surely context is important in this discussion also, and you have that.

    I was slightly irritated the other day when I was told by someone that she "doesn't read mysteries, but the Millenium Trilogy was good because it was set in Sweden". The person had never heard of Henning Mankell.

    By the way, I've no idea how The Lost Symbol is selling. My comment was just based on what I've observed in stores here. I guess momentum will sell lots of them anyway...

    PS Thanks for the comment about our books!

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  6. The quality mystery is not strain'd,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

    It's a visceral thing. You know a good mystery when you read it.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"