Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)



Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

cropped-author-photoMiss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. 😉  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.


Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996) (#004 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #004

Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996)


Charlaine Harris was born in 1951 and toiled away in the lower reaches of commercial fiction until she hit it big with the Southern Vampire Mysteries, aka the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the source material for the well-known and well-received television series True Blood.

Publication Data:

This is the fourth volume in the Aurora Teagarden mystery series and has a slightly unusual history. In 1996, the Southern Vampire series was some five years in the future; Aurora Teagarden was Ms. Harris’s only source of writing income, barring two very early non-series novels. (She was in the same year to introduce the first novel in her second series, the Lily Bard mysteries.) Anyway, the first edition of this book is Scribners US.  The first paperback appears to be — I’m not absolutely certain — the book you see in the vicinity of these words, from Worldwide Library in 1997 (cited in Abe) or January, 1998, as it says in my copy. Since Worldwide Library was at that point in time a subsidiary of Harlequin Enterprises, that makes the first paper a Canadian edition.

Then came the success of True Blood, and all of a sudden you could have sold Harris’s laundry lists. The first US paper seems to be 2008, from Bantam (note that this is 12 years after US hardcover publication). There has been a British omnibus edition in two volumes containing all eight novels in the series, the full series in individual paperbacks from Gollancz, and  a new hardcover edition from Bantam in 2012, no doubt for the library trade.

What’s important to note is that the traditional path of hardcover-to-paperback has been deformed here for whatever reason, and that no one was interested in this book in the slightest until 2008 when Harris hit the jackpot with True Blood.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Aurora Teagarden lives in the small imaginary town of Lawrenceton, Georgia. At the opening of this eight-book series, she works as a librarian and has an extra-curricular interest in “real murders”. Over the course of the series, by the time we reach this fifth book, she has dated a policeman, a priest, and a writer, but married a wealthy industrialist. Aurora — “Roe” — is wealthy in her own right, having inherited the property of a fellow librarian in book one.

As this book begins, Roe is lounging on the patio while the female half of her husband’s married pair of bodyguards is mowing the lawn.  A low-flying plane buzzes by and a man’s body falls from it, embedding itself into the freshly-mowed turf.  The body turns out to be that of a local police officer with whom Roe had had a history of disagreements, as has her female bodyguard. In short order other people in the town are attacked, all of whom have had public disagreements with Roe just before they died. Roe, in the meantime, deals extensively and in detail with her personal life while the investigation goes on around her. It turns out that Roe has had a secret admirer for a long time who has decided to kill people who have the bad luck to come into conflict with Roe. The climax of the book comes when the admirer is holding Roe’s husband at gunpoint in a cemetery and is forestalled by Roe stabbing him, then hugging him until her husband can hit him with a gun butt.

Why is this so awful?

There are two things that are wrong with this novel in a very large way. One is its mistaken emphasis on the form of the “cozy” mystery, and one is its membership in what I will call the “industrial” novel.

What is an “industrial” novel?  It’s certainly an adjective that I use idiosyncratically. In order to understand it, you have to place it within its proper context, that of “commercial fiction”.  And so I’ll define that first. Commercial fiction is probably most easily defined by its antonym, literary fiction. If it isn’t literary, it’s commercial. I suggest that literary fiction is most often written for artistic reasons and commercial fiction is most often written to make money.  You know the difference, right?  Literary fiction wants to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and commercial fiction wants to sell a million copies of itself.

Commercial fiction embraces a large range of genres: mystery, romance, western, science fiction, etc.  (So does literary fiction but genre-based literary fiction is quite rare.) Some writers of commercial fiction are trying to approach the standards of literary fiction; most are just trying to make a buck.  I should add here that I have no problem whatsoever with commercial fiction; in fact, I find literary fiction quite tiresome. I do not disrespect commercial fiction because it is written to make money; usually, books in this category have a strong focus on entertaining the reader, and I am a reader who likes to be entertained.

I use the term “industrial fiction” to describe a subset of commercial fiction; again, it’s hard to define, but what I’m talking about here is fiction that is not constructed with the pleasure of the reader foremost in mind. In fact, I think of industrial fiction as novels that are written to fulfill a contract. Or, as Truman Capote said in a different context (referring to Jack Kerouac), “That isn’t writing.  That’s typing.”  Monty Python’s Flying Circus once released a record (in 1980, so pre-CD) called “Contractual Obligation Album” and I think that title encapsulates what is happening here.  I’m also reminded of the Jack Nicholson character in the film version of The Shining, typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over and over.  Had he collated those pages and submitted them to his publisher to fulfill a contract, that’s what I mean by industrial fiction.  And the day that robots or computers or artificial intelligences begin to publish their own works, that will truly define industrial fiction.

As to why this particular novel seems to me to be industrial fiction;  this is a slight, slight book that has been padded into 80,000 words. The actual material of the plot in and of itself takes very little space; the criminal events are few and far between.  The rest of the book consists of bumph, which to me means padding; material about the personal life of the protagonist that has little or nothing to do with the events of the novel.

For instance, I opened my copy of the novel at random and found (page 53) a large paragraph detailing the physical layout of the Lawrenceton Public Library along with a note to buy pregnancy vitamins for her pregnant bodyguard and some anguish about how the woman could be pregnant because her husband had had a vasectomy. Page 130, immediately after Roe discovers the concussed body of her male bodyguard on her lawn, has a paragraph detailing what Roe needs to do about, among other things, picking up the man’s paycheque at the factory. Pages 164-165 are completely devoted to Roe’s mental monologue as she leaves the house for the beauty parlour to get ready for a dinner party (which party also has nothing to do with the plot except for the murderer’s presence).

Now, the fact that this bumph has nothing to do with the plot is not automatically a bad thing, of course. This could be termed characterization; we learn more about Roe than this reader, at least, actually wanted to. The fact that there is such an enormous amount of bumph that one has to wade through in order to get to anything meaningful could also be described in the context of detective fiction as obfuscation; hiding tiny clues in a long laundry list of stuff is a tradition that dates back at least to E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. So, for me to call this industrial fiction is more a personal reaction that is saying, “I don’t like this kind of fiction and think its primary reason for existence is monetary,” whereas I’d be ready to praise similar novels for similar reasons.  I acknowledge that. I disliked this novel and I’m prepared to admit that that colours my interpretation of the motives which produced it.

Where I am on more secure ground, though, is with the nature of this bumph.   And here, I’m going to quote myself from elsewhere in this blog (specifically, the entry for #002 in this series). “One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning.  For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.”

The plot here is based on the idea that Roe has a secret admirer who commits crimes against people whom he believes to have disrespected her.  The theme — hard to say.  Perhaps it’s that unrequited love should not be concealed, or that crazy people do crazy things in the name of love, or … well, I can’t say.  It’s certainly not obvious.  And one of the reasons it is not obvious is because there is literally nothing in the novel that illustrates it.

There is a sub-plot in this book wherein a married couple learn that the wife is pregnant although the husband has had a vasectomy. I was immediately looking for connections here and found nothing.  Similarly, there’s quite a bit of material about the relationship between Roe and her husband, all of it irrelevant. There is no instance of unrequited love anywhere else in the book; we know absolutely nothing about why the murderer has fixed his attentions upon Roe. There is nothing in the book that could be described as a reversal, or a twist, on the idea of unrequited love — barring a brief moment when one of Roe’s discarded boyfriends announces that he wants her back.  But this goes nowhere.

In fact, one of the reasons that I chose this particular novel to pillory in this series is because I was extremely amused by the idea that the author has indeed revealed the real theme of this book; “Things drop out of thin air and land in front of you and cause you problems”.  Can’t you just see Ms. Harris thinking, “Oh, I know, I’ll have the dead body drop out of an airplane in Chapter 1! That’s exciting! That’s going to really hook the reader and get her interested.” It might do so, but for someone who is actually reading this book looking for structure, it tends to send entirely the wrong message. There is just no reason for anything to happen in this book. It’s more like Harris made up what she feels to be an interesting character — Roe, who has lots of money, gets lots of sex, has a handsome husband, loving family, and devoted retainers, a career, and a cat — and then had to think of something for her to do that would qualify as a mystery without, you know, actually AFFECTING her.  I think of this as the worst kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. I am told by textbooks on writing that the cardinal sin is to be too kind to one’s protagonist, and that this is the sign of a novice writer who is destined to remain unsold.  And that’s why I suggest that this is industrial fiction, because there is no other reason for this to exist save that two parties signed a contract agreeing to publish what showed up as long as it had Aurora Teagarden in it.

Which brings me, at long last, to the second part of my complaint; the mistaken emphasis upon the “cozy” form. It is certainly true that I dislike cozies as a sub-genre of the mystery; I don’t think that murder should be a bloodless game, by and large, and there ought to be a certain amount of societal outrage inherent in the killing of one person by another. But mostly why I object to cozies is that, 95% of the time, they are written by people who either don’t understand how commercial fiction works or are incapable of producing it skilfully.

A defender of the work of Ms. Harris, and I imagine there are quite a few of them (whom I will discourage from sending me angry screeds about my insolence in daring to suggest that someone who sells as many books as Ms. Harris can possibly be incompetent; save your breath to cool your porridge, ladies, that argument won’t fly with me) will say, “Well, you know, I don’t read these for the murders.  In fact I don’t usually care whodunit.  I like to read about Aurora Teagarden and her everyday life and what it’s like to live in small-town Georgia. So POOH to you and your insistence that mysteries should be written to your stupid high standards, I like these and I’ll continue to read them.”  Go for it; if you wish to embrace mediocrity, I have no wish to stop you and will take great pleasure in selling you rare copies at inflated prices of the rubbish you apparently cherish.

The problem with this particular book is that about 75% of its contents have nothing to do with murder or the plot. Do you wish to call the padding and bumph about Roe’s personal life “characterization”? I will only ask you to note that Roe Teagarden is not someone who exists in the real world. In fact, this character is not likely to exist anywhere because she seems to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Charlaine Harris about what she would like her personal life to be like. Roe Teagarden is a cardboard cutout whom Harris shuffles through events taking great care to preserve her from any lasting impacts.  The cutout is incredibly detailed, right down to the colour of the frames of her eyeglasses, but cardboard nevertheless.

“But, but, but,” sputter the fans.  “Harris actually kills off the husband in a later book.” Yes, and that’s an example of another big and similar problem that is only really easy to see when you look at Harris’s work as a whole. I can give you an example from the work of someone who is a much better writer; Agatha Christie.  Her mystery-writing character, Ariadne Oliver, is constantly bemoaning the fact that she has made her detective, Sven Hjerson, a vegetarian Finn.  I’ve forgotten the reference, but at one point Mrs. Oliver bemoans the fact that she is constantly getting letters from people who say, rightly, that a REAL Finn wouldn’t say/do such-and-such, and that a REAL vegetarian wouldn’t say/do such-and-such.  That’s because Christie wishes us to believe that Mrs. Oliver (like her own experience with Hercule Poirot) makes up bits of the character to simply generate some interest in the reader and is then buried by their accumulated weight in later volumes.  And that’s what happens here; and she gets out from under the accumulated weight by killing the husband and starting fresh.

In Charlaine Harris’s work, this is most easily seen by looking at the 13 volumes of the Southern Vampire series. Here’s how it works.  In a novel, Harris has a plot problem, usually that there is not enough of the primary plot structure upon which to usefully or productively focus.  So she introduces a subsidiary character or two, and introduces a sub-plot, that enables her to deliver a complete book.  I’m thinking here of the character of Alcide Herveaux, a handsome werewolf who first appeared in book 3, Club Dead. To me, it’s easy to see that she introduced werewolves in an off-hand way because she wanted a supernatural romantic involvement for Sookie as a sub-plot in a book where Bill Compton was off-stage. Then she had to give Alcide a girlfriend and tie her into the plot, so that Sookie wouldn’t have to deal with three romantic interests instead of merely two.

But in the nature of such things, the reader becomes invested in secondary characters who recur from book to book and wants to see them in every book. And since Harris uses this trick in nearly every book to add some oomph to a sagging plot — by the time the 13th volume rolls around, there is almost no room for plot, because we have an obligatory interaction with every single minor character who has ever stepped onto the stage, even if it’s only a “hihowarya” phone call or a brief musing about whatever happened to …

And it’s the same in this series, although somewhat less because the series was shorter. The first few volumes use the trick of having Roe in an unsatisfactory romantic relationship and aware that she is interested in someone else.  Then there’s a volume where she meets a man and is powerfully attracted to him, and marries him.  But this means that the plots cannot contain new potential boyfriends — so Harris kills off the husband.  As I recall dimly, she then stupidly repeats the process of boyfriend/boyfriend/husband and, had the series not ended, Roe would have been well on her way to a third husband.  Anyway, at this point in the series we have to deal with many characters and incidents from Roe’s previous adventures, and the leftover attitudes of those characters towards her, and bringing those characters up to date with a snippet of information about how they’ve changed lately, or not changed lately, plus Roe’s favourite stores, jewelry, habits, attitudes, moralizing … it’s as though the character is wearing a “fat suit” made up of old material that she has to drag with her wherever she goes. And listening to it all is like sitting on an airplane trapped next to someone who wants to tell you the story of her life and her opinion on everything under the sun, and you sat next to her the last four flights.

The point of this is that because the “characterization” doesn’t arise organically from the characters interacting with sensible plots, and is merely meretricious and/or wish-fulfillment fantasy for the writer, it’s leaden and it weighs down the character. And it weighs down all future novels in the series, and accretes more such bumph because Harris, having discovered a trick that works, makes use of it again and again.  This is, to me, why Harris is now working on her fourth series character; she doesn’t have the knack of creating a plot and characters that illustrate a theme, so she pads the novels with bumph and then has to deal with the consequences, and soon she has to abandon these characters who have become too laden with bumph to move in any direction.  It’s the literary equivalent of an episode of “Hoarders”.  If Roe was the type of person who would organically accumulate, say, old lovers and people who wanted to possess her for their own, this particular novel would make some sense.  As it stands, it’s just the fantasy of an author who probably wishes someone would admit to having unrequited love for her AND it’s really obvious that she hasn’t the faintest idea how this might work in real life.  The character in the novel is unremarkable in the extreme and has no psychological realism.  If he’s fixated on Roe to the point of killing for her, would he casually introduce her to his date at a dance?  Doesn’t ring true, and nothing about this character, plot or book does ring true.

I should add that I have no wish to see Charlaine Harris in the poorhouse, as it were.  She’s quite entitled to write this nonsense in whatever quantity she wishes, and sell it to the credulous people who require nothing more than what one amateur reviewer charmingly called a “brain dump”.  If you love her work because it doesn’t challenge you, I have no doubt there will be plenty more of the same.  But you will not be able to change my mind about the true merits of her work, so don’t bother trying; your comments will be deleted and I will be much more amused than taken to task by them.

One final parenthetical note: the acknowledgement cites “the fact that Joan Hess gave me exactly one suggestion for this book when I was in a bind”.  Since that is one more idea than I have ever found in the collected works of Joan Hess, I find that difficult to believe, but having swallowed the camel that is Aurora Teagarden, why should I strain at this gnat?  I expect that some work of “housewife mystery soft-core porn” that is the specialty of Ms. Hess shall form the basis for a future work in this series, if I can ever bring myself to finish and then re-read one.

Notes For the Collector: has a signed copy of the uncorrected proofs for the first edition at $50 plus shipping, similarly a signed first for $25 and a signed paperback for $10. It’s odd that most of the books I look at under the Die Before You Read heading are essentially worthless; this is not likely to be so for Charlaine Harris ever again. Because of True Blood, Harris’s entire oeuvre has become somewhat collectible. Still, this really is a poor book in a poor series; purchase with care.