In praise of…the mystery novelist

I recently finished the first two books in the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock and Last Seen WearingI enjoyed the first—the second, not so much. Thinking about my very different reactions to these books got me to thinking about how mystery writers construct their stories. While every genre has its own particular challenges in addition to just creating a solid, interesting story, I feel for the mystery writer.

0427b07704c11bdd71fb2adedb14f4e2First, there’s the plot. To write a really good mystery, a writer has to construct a plausible crime. It has to make sense once a reader has gotten to the end and read the solution. But, it can’t be predictable (unless you’re writing a whydunit instead of a whodunit). Predictability is a killer. Plus, I’ve also noticed an escalation in crime plots since their early days in the mid-1800s. Writers have to out-do what’s come before in terms of deviousness, gore, or something more. All this would be hard enough if it weren’t the wrinkle that, once a reader knows the solution to the mystery, they’re not likely to re-read the book unless there’s more to the book than just the puzzle.

The first two Inspector Morse novels highlight these challenges. In both novels, the mysteries are fiendishly complicated. Because Morse creates wild theories based on very little evidence, one is left with multiple possible solutions. There’s enough evidence that it’s all just plausible enough. I like puzzles, but I was left a bit unsatisfied, especially with Last Seen Wearing. The endings didn’t quite work for me. There was too much of an effort at being clever.

Second, there’s the detective. A good detective can keep readers coming back for new instalments. The genre has seen the savant (Holmes), the world worn (Harry Hole, from Jo Nesbø), the disillusioned (Philip Marlowe, by Dashiell Hammet), the humorous (Stephanie Plum, by Janet Evanovich) and the pain in the ass (Inspector Morse, from Colin Dexter). But if the character swings too far into cliché, then readers are less likely to bond with the character and carry on with new novels. Because pacing is so important to mysteries, it must be tempting to rely on genre shorthand to build character—which leads straight into clichés. It’s a delicate balance between taking time to develop the character and keeping the reader turning the pages.

My biggest problem with these two books by Dexter is Morse himself. While I rather enjoyed being in his head as his brain made all sorts of outrageous leaps. I’ve never read any detective novel quite like it; Dexter was almost writing stream-of-consciousness at times. But, I was also privy to all of Morse’s lecherous thoughts about nearly every woman he encountered in the course of his investigations. The books were published in the 1970s, but I can’t excuse the sexism. I stayed for the solutions, but I don’t want to spend anymore in that head.

Even if these particular books didn’t thrill me, mysteries have been some of the most enjoyable books I’ve read. The little gears in my head whirl while I try to figure it out before the detective. There is so much to think about, especially when the author uses an unreliable narrator. They’re great mental palate cleansers after a heavy, literary read.

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