“Today’s Literary Mystery—It’s Not What Your Granny Used to Read” (by Scott Loring Sanders)

Scott Loring Sanders teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech. He’s also a novelist and an award-winning short-story writer. His topic for this post—pigeonholing by publishers and booksellers—is something he knows about from personal experience. His first novel, The Hanging Woods, is a dark and disturbing mystery that he intended for an adult audience, but because its central character is fourteen, it was packaged for young-adult readers. His second book, Gray Baby, was released in the same category. His publisher’s projection must have been that more sales would be gained by targeting a limited age group than by releasing the novels for the general adult market. The trouble with this strategy is that often it’s only those in the targeted group who ever hear about the work. In the case of Scott’s books, many adult readers missed mysteries they’d have enjoyed (though those who are interested can still purchase the books).Janet Hutchings

In today’s market, there’s so much pigeonholing going on by publishers that a lot of good books and stories are being missed by readers. A work is labeled “Sci-Fi” and some will immediately run the other way. “Young Adult” and people think of a story only for teens. The same goes for “Mystery.” That word automatically turns off certain groups. I’m thinking mainly of scholars and academics who might feel that to read a mystery is to indulge in the superficial. An endeavor that will only fill their heads with fluff and poor, cliched writing. I’m here to tell you they are missing out. The current modern mystery is not only entertaining and suspenseful, it is often solid and legitimate literature.

Look at Dennis Lehane’s story “Until Gwen,” which was first published in The Atlantic and later anthologized in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories (BAMS). The opening paragraph reads like this:

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat. Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time. The rest of the time she does light secretarial for an independent video chain and tends bar, two Sundays a month, at the local VFW. But she feels her calling—her true calling in life—is to write.

Bam! The hooks are set and I’m ready to go on the ride. The story has a nasty yet wonderful villain in the father. He’s murderous, he’s callous, yet he’s also funny and maybe even slightly endearing. The story never takes its foot off the reader’s neck; it’s packed with tension, violence, and suspense. Yet there’s something far more complex happening than just the on-the-surface murder mystery. The characters are fully fleshed out. They are living, breathing (or not breathing in some cases), three-dimensional people who pop off the page. They are intriguing, they are deeply flawed, and by the end you can’t help but feel empathy, especially for the narrator; in fact, his ultimate fate is heartbreaking. Lehane uses the second person “you” to write this story, which is unconventional and often seen as gimmicky. But he uses it for a specific purpose (to reinforce the narrator’s lack of identity/lack of self) and not just as some artsy tactic or device. The story is told in a nonlinear fashion; it jumps all over the place and challenges the reader to keep up and pay attention. There is no doubt Lehane thought deeply about how to approach this story before he ever started writing it. So yes, it’s a mystery, but it’s also an excellent literary achievement, hence why it was first published in The Atlantic, which, last time I checked, isn’t exactly famous for its “mystery” stories.

But that’s what today’s authors in the field are doing. Pushing the boundaries. Blending the traditional qualities of a classic mystery with the art and craft of highbrow literature. Who says we can’t have both, all in one nice package? As a reader, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I want edgy, I want hard-hitting, I want dark. I want to squeeze the pages in anticipation as I read, I want to be entertained, I want to be scared. Or worried. Or nervous. But I also want to care and be invested in multilayered characters. I want to think and be challenged. I want to admire an author’s turn of phrase or how he/she incorporates the perfect metaphor. I want to see their skill with the craft. In a nutshell, I want it all.

Apparently the experts see it the same way. If you take a look at Best American Mystery Stories 2012, for example, not surprisingly you’ll find that three of the stories selected were first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Yet The New Yorker had two of its stories selected. And I ask you, what is more highbrow than The New Yorker? Year in and year out, the BAMS series has quite an eclectic list of journals and magazines that they pull from. The reason? They don’t care what “category” a magazine generally publishes in; they are simply looking for quality. They are looking for the best stories of the year that deal with a mystery in some form or fashion.

And what types of authors are showing up in the anthology? Surely Stephen King and Lee Child, right? Nope. Instead, they are featuring authors like Alice Munro. She frequently appears in BAMS, and oh by the way, she just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The freaking Nobel Prize. A Nobel Laureate writing mystery stories, you say? Unheard of? Preposterous? Not at all. How about Joyce Carol Oates? I don’t know many scholars who look down their noses at her, yet a large majority of her stories are mystery in nature. She publishes in Ellery Queen, The New Yorker, and everywhere in between. There are so many good authors out there today who are writing in this subgenre that I’m calling Literary Mystery. Some include Tom Franklin, Holly Goddard Jones, Donald Ray Pollock, Scott Wolven, and Daniel Woodrell. These are writers at the top of their game, mixing literature with suspense and mystery. Another is Ron Rash. I had the privilege of being on a panel with him a couple of years ago, where the main focus was discussing Appalachian literature, his bread and butter. But one question I asked him went something like this: “Many of your stories and novels, though always Appalachian in nature, have a mystery element to them. And I don’t mean an Agatha Christie type mystery, but instead that sense of darkness, of suspense, of intrigue. Could you comment on that?” His response was nearly identical to something I tell my students all the time. He said, and I’m liberally paraphrasing here, but this is the gist: “You can write down all the pretty words in the world. You can make it flowery, and describe setting, and create characters, but if you can’t tell a story then none of it matters. You have to be able to tell a story. And that’s why a lot of what I write has a mystery feel, because at the heart of all mysteries is story.”

The above is not a new idea. Dashiell Hammett knew it, so did Raymond Chandler, yet they are never mentioned in the same breath as, let’s say, Faulkner or Steinbeck, who were both obviously revered as literary icons. But those two icons wrote plenty of stuff I’d consider mystery. Light in August? Of Mice and Men? Yep, those are literary mysteries. Or how about Flannery O’Connor? Take for example “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” arguably the most famous short story ever written. You won’t find many English professors who will scoff at O’Connor. But what exactly is that story if it isn’t a mystery? It’s suspenseful, filled with tension and conflict, there’s a crime, and it has a cast of characters who are complex and forever ingrained in our minds. The Misfit? The grandmother? Who can forget either of them? Is it a literary story with much deeper meaning? Absolutely. Are there questions of religion at play? Yes. Are there underlying themes about O’Connor’s own Catholic faith? Yes. But it’s also an excellent mystery and lends itself perfectly to my point. It’s exactly what many of today’s modern writers are doing: blending genres. Or, back before the days of pigeonholing, it was simply called good storytelling.

Mystery and literature don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Mystery is not a bad word. In fact, it’s a wonderful word. It means I can feel confident knowing that the author has put a lot of thought into the story while still paying attention to the craft. It means sharp writing and spot-on dialogue. It means imagery, setting, and plot. But what solid narrative, mystery or otherwise, doesn’t have those qualities? And perhaps that’s where the lines get blurred. Ultimately, what it comes down to is one simple thing: mystery means story. As acclaimed writer (and my grad school mentor from years ago) Pinckney Benedict used to say: “Just tell me a story.” And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that why we read?

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