Friday, June 22, 2018

Mystery/Crime Fiction: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Jacqueline Seewald

During the holiday season this past year, a good friend who also reads and writes mystery fiction gifted me a copy of THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER by Martin Edwards which I appreciated.The book got me thinking about what I want to discuss in regard to mystery and crime fiction.

The traditional mystery features a detective or several detectives who investigate a crime or series of crimes. The amateur sleuths can work in any number of unique and unusual professions which provide interesting background and setting for the story. They can live in any place in the world. They can be nosy spinsters who live in small English villages or gifted professors who investigate bizarre historical crimes. From cozy to thriller, the amateur sleuth fascinates readers.

The private detective novel is a mystery genre unto itself. In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the most famous of all fictional detectives. Sherlock Holmes was not the first fictional detective. However, his name is one we think of immediately. Conan Doyle stated that the character of Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from small observations.  The quirky Holmes was renowned for his insights based on skillful use of observation, deduction and forensics to solve puzzling cases. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, and all but four stories are narrated by Holmes's friend, assistant, and biographer, Dr. John Watson. The Sherlock Holmes mystique is still celebrated today in books, short stories, films and television programs. Holmes, the “consulting detective,” still fascinates a modern audience of devotees.

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the 1920’s and 30’s, brought many writers of detective stories to the forefront. British female authors like Agatha Christie are particularly memorable. Of the four "Queens of Crime" of that era: Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, all were British except for Marsh who was a New Zealander.

In the 1930’s, the hard-boiled private eye novels began to evolve with American writers. Over the years, many interesting writers have emerged in this genre. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Ross Macdonald, and Robert Parker are just a few of the writers who still resonate with readers. P.I. detectives are tough guys dealing with seedy characters on the mean city streets, the so-called underbelly of society. They are professional detectives who live by a code of honor but rarely earn much for their efforts. They generally have antagonistic relationships with the police and, like the amateur detective, tend to be more intelligent than professional law enforcement counterparts. The P.I. novel was male-dominated until the late 1970’s and early 80’s when writers such as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Miller and Sue Grafton began creating women investigators who were as tough as men. These novels offered more in-depth characterization and, in the case of Paretsky, a social agenda.

The police procedural provides the reader with a different type of detective story. In reality, most crimes are investigated by police. This type of mystery stresses step-by-step procedures followed by professional detectives such as processing crime scenes to collect physical evidence, canvassing the area for witnesses or suspects, postmortem examination of bodies in the case of murders, identifying a victim if that is not known, and interviewing known friends, co-workers, relatives and associates. The list is often long and tedious. Not generally so in a novel. Although it is agreed that the police procedural should be accurate in portraying what law enforcement officers actually do, it is not necessary to bore readers to death. Like the P.I. novel, this is action-oriented genre fiction. While the plot may be the backbone of a police procedural as O’Neil De Noux, a longtime police officer and homicide detective, observed in an article written for The Writer (“How to Write the Police Procedural Novel,” October, 1992 issue), the novel won’t interest readers unless there are well-developed central characters-- witness the great success of Ed McBain's 87th precinct series in books, film and as a television series.  Much of the appeal of the novels rest with main character Steve Carella and his relationship with Teddy, his deaf-mute wife, as well as his interaction with fellow police detectives such as Meyer Meyer.

Distinctive places also add interest to the modern police procedural. For example, moody Scandinavian settings have provided bleak backgrounds for the investigations of Inspector Martin Beck (Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the 1960’s) or Wallander  (Henning Mankell) and more recently Inspector Tell (Camilla Cedar).

It goes without saying that all books should be researched for accuracy of detail. However, Eric Wright observes (The Writer, October 1990 issue, p. 9) that writers should do their research last. His reasoning: once a story is written the writer will know what information is actually needed and necessary. Collecting unnecessary facts proves to be a waste of valuable time. I am of the opinion that it also leads to information dumping as many writers then cannot resist the temptation to include material that should be cut and which has no purpose in the book or story.

Of course, the more traditional view is that authors who write police procedurals must insist on total accuracy. Margaret Maron, for instance, has explained how she used interviews with police detectives and civil service clerks, attended “criminalistics” classes and took notes on the trivia associated with everyday police activities in a station house to depict realism in her police novel series (The Writer, June, 1993 issue).

Patricia D. Cornwell’s novels have long graced the bestseller lists.  Her Dr. Kay Scarpetta forensic pathologist crime novels are strongly associated with her own career. Cornwell describes herself as having been a crime reporter. The character of Dr. Scarpetta appears to have been initially inspired by an interview she had with a female medical examiner. She went to work for the medical examiners and eventually became their computer analyst. Her opinion: stories that lack credibility and authenticity will be unread (The Writer, December 1991, p. 18-20).

P. D. James is another author of police procedurals we can describe as the real deal. James held a position as a senior employee in the Criminal Policy Department in England. Joseph Wambaugh has given us some memorable characters who happen to be police officers based on his personal experience and knowledge. 

Cross genre fiction combining elements of romance, the paranormal, and suspense with mystery have become more common in today’s crime fiction. I believe this less traditional approach is becoming a trend in modern mystery fiction. The traditional lines are blurring and authors are experimenting with a greater variety of style and technique in a genre that is now more dynamic, fluid and exciting. What remains the same is the need for a well-developed plot, well-rounded and well-defined characters, and a distinctive setting.

My latest novel DEATH PROMISE from Encircle combines elements of mystery thriller with romantic suspense. Set in Las Vegas, New York and London, the pace is fast-moving and exciting which is more typical of the modern crime novel and appealing to today’s readers who do have a shorter attention span.

For more about the novel, check it out here:

DEATH PROMISE is now available  in print and e-book from:

and many other booksellers.

Positive reviews are starting to be posted:

Library Journal

"Romantic suspense with an interesting plot...the plot kept this reviewer turning the pages."

Your thoughts, input and comments welcome and appreciated!


Unknown said...

I tend to like my mystery with a little romance or a lot. I like the mystery thriller, Gone Girl because of the POV changes. It was a very refreshing read. Very little romance in that one, but there was a small aspect of disfunctional love.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Zari,

The unreliable narrator has strong appeal these days in mystery fiction. I think first person narratives have always done well with readers in this genre and continue to do so.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Good overview, Jacquie. This genre has an interesting history, and so many good writers to discover in previous decades.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you, Susan. So many talented writers are fascinated by mystery fiction. I notice the #bestseller at this moment is a mystery collaboration between former President Clinton and top bestselling crime author James Patterson.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Hi Jacqueline, The Golden Age of Murder is on my bookshelf too. -t's a great reference book. I loved the section on hard-boiled private eye novels and that this genre evolved in America.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Kathleen,

I agree the book is a great reference source for fellow writers.

Alice Duncan said...

I've been wanting to read THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER for a long time. I edited one of Martin Edwards' books for Five Star. It was a fictional retelling of the Crippen tale, and it was great. Must get the GOLDEN AGE! Interesting blog, Jacquie.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for stopping by, Alice. It really is a good book, very comprehensive.

Paul D. Marks said...

A really good roundup of the various genres or subcategories, Jacqueline. Thanks.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Such interesting information!
Thanks for sharing.
Good luck and God's blessings

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thank you, Paul, for coming by and reading my rather lengthy blog! I should mention you as an important mystery writer of today.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I appreciate your continued support!

Earl Staggs said...

This was a terrific summary, Jacqueline. I've saved it for future reference. I may also refer to it if anyone ever has any questions about mystery fiction. People may think I'm as smart as you.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Earl,

I think you're very smart. I enjoy reading your mysteries.

Unknown said...

The story seems interesting I love to read the full story of the novel so I will go to get eBooks Download online. So I can read the rest of the story. Well thanks to aware me such a beautiful story.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you for visiting this blog, Deepak. Glad you enjoyed reading about my novel.

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