The other day, against my better judgment, I sat down with a mystery novel by a best-selling, widely acclaimed mystery writer. I wanted some easy escapist fiction, something that wouldn't require much in the way of emotional involvement and which could be read in bed until the wee hours. I went into my office and looked at the pile of books I had on the floor and began thumbing through the ARCs and unshelved TBRs for something that didn't involve a serial killer, an amateur chef-turned-crime-stopping-machine, a newspaper reporter, a drunk cop, an ex-drunk cop who might hit the bottle again at any moment, a novel told from the perspective of both the serial killer and the drunk cop (in whatever form of drunkenness said cop presently occupied), or anything that said underneath the title A Bill Jones Mystery. After that search ended with a net total of zero books from the crime genre, I changed my filter and put back in the drunk bit and was able to make a selection.
The book I read sucked. It had plot holes on every page, as if someone had been fisting it. I solved the mystery in the first ten pages. The villains were stock. The hero was suitably flawed but easily redeemed and the ending was so schmaltzy that I literally said aloud, "Oh, come on!" I then went and looked at the reviews of the book and was stunned to learn it was the writer's "best book in years." That the novel was the "finest mystery of the year." That the writing was "superb" and evoked "Chandler." That the twists and turns of the plot kept reviewers "constantly guessing." That the ending packed "an emotional wallop that will keep fans chatting for months!" Had I read a different book?
I used to read a lot of mystery novels but in the last several years have found myself easily disappointed by the easy conventions I find in what are acclaimed as the finest in the genre. The writer of the novel in question used to be, in my opinion, one of the finest in the genre, regularly turning out mysteries that had depth of character, nuance in plot and a sort of social relevance found in the finest fiction of any genre. But in the last several years, this writer's novels have lost all their edge: character depth has been replaced by witty repartee (which isn't all that witty), nuance in plot replaced by white space and one-note characters with little motivation for the ill (or good) they do, and the social relevancy of Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals cookbook. Oh, the books sell, perhaps better now than ever, but they suck comparatively and, yet, they are reviewed as if graced by the divine.
It makes me wonder: do crime novels get reviewed with less harsh of a hand because we -- the readers and reviewers -- expect something less? We'll take the trite dialogue and characterization as long as the crime and the mystery compel us?
Most of the mystery writers I admire don't really write mystery. Scott Phillips is a perfect example of this. None of his 3 novels are mysteries -- the Ice Harvest is closer to noir than anything, the Walkaway is some of the dirtiest literary fiction ever, and Cottonwood is the first Gothic Western I think I've ever read -- but that is where he is shelved. Daniel Woodrell is another -- anyone who calls The Death Of Sweet Mister a mystery novel has some explaining to do. Perhaps it's their reliance on the other side of crime -- the criminals themselves in some cases -- that makes their work so much less cliched. Or Kem Nunn. Or, in recent years, T. Jefferson Parker and Dennis Lehane for a more popular angle. I just don't think I can read another mystery novel about a tough-wise-cracking-cop-who-can-beat-ass-and-cook-a-meal-and-make love like a porn star-and-solve-the-crime-and-not-have-any-emotional-scarring-but-who-really-needs-to-find-the-truth-about-his-dead-mother/father/sister/dog/-while-figuring-out-it's-the-crooked-cops-on-the-force-who-keep-the-code-and-the-mayor-and-the chief-are-in-on-it-and-the-FBI want to take over ever again.
Whenever I get in one of these funks, invariably someone says, Oh, you need to read X, it will change your outlook. And sometimes that happens, but most of the time X reads like a more violent Spenser novel. Or X is the same as all the other ones, but it takes place in Holland. Or Australia.
Part of it is a craft issue: I find a lot of mystery novels lazy in characterization and lazy in drama, relying more often on tricks than truth, and filled with the kind of dialogue that would fell a literary novel. I wrote a review this week of a new literary novel and talked much about the cliched nature of the dialogue and then realized I'd read much worse in most crime novels. Sure, cops aren't always linguistic wizards, but when you look at novel like Cruisers by Craig Nova, that has a cop and a villain as it's main characters but is a novel like no other I've read in years, cliche never once steps foot on the pages. There is the sense that these people live on and off the page in a book like Cruisers, whereas most mystery novels I've read lately feel like just another episode, the characters stuck in a commercial break until the next book comes out. That, certainly, was the case with the novel I read...a continuing series character, widely loved, widely praised, widely selling and so cliched and trite now that it makes the previous works by the author now seem something less. It's a bland book, inoffensive in every way, except that it made me wonder what mystery reviewers (and readers) truly consider classic or brilliant anymore. Maybe some of you can tell me.