Friday, April 5, 2013
The Return of the Slow Mystery?
Frank Bruni of the Times wrote earlier this week about the return of “slow TV.” Inspired by the new Holly Hunter cable series Top of the Lake, he wonders if complex dramas with multiple themes might not be making a comeback and finding some sort of market niche with people who are tired of the in-your-face reality shows.
As a former food writer for the paper, he also wonders if such a movement might not be akin to the “slow food” movement, which has been gaining a following among people fed up with fast food and chain restaurants.
Maybe that’s all wishful thinking, and there will never be any turning back from the louder, faster pace of both food and entertainment. Maybe it’s all been dumbed down for keeps. But there’s a part of me that would like to hope it isn’t so and would also like to see a return of the “slow mystery.”
They Were All Slow Mysteries Once
When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I styled it in part on the classic mystery novels of the “Golden Age,” which ran from about 1920 to 1940. In most of those books, the author would set up a situation with a variety of characters and predicaments. The murder would arise organically from the people and the situation, and part of the pleasure of reading such a book would be, for instance, trying to figure out which of the financially strapped nephews had the best motive and most likely character to have dispatched the rich uncle.
As originally written, The McHenry Inheritance opened with the courtroom scene that now begins Chapter Two, then proceeded for a couple of chapters, introducing other key characters and dramatic situations. Only in Chapter 4 (now Chapter 5) did the simmering characters and tensions boil over into the murder that then drove the rest of the book forward.
I felt pretty good about the way I had handled all those elements, but the first time an agent took an interest in the book, she said in no uncertain terms that I had to get the murder into the first few pages of the book because that’s what readers expect these days.
Do Readers All Think Alike?
At the time I had my doubts about that argument, and I still do. My feeling is that agents and publishers expect that body in the opening pages because everybody does it now, and no one is willing to take a chance on failing by departing from the template.
Readers, I think, have different tastes and sensibilities, and there should be a market out there for a book that offers a more deliberate development, provided the book is well written and plotted. After all, Agatha Christie typically took her time turning a character into a corpse, and no one has sold more mysteries than she has, even through today. And she still sells.
When you want to get published, there’s a limit to how much you want to argue with the people who can help you get there. So I took the agent’s advice and wrote a new first chapter, “The Angler and the Sharpshooter.” It’s a flash-forward to the murder in what is now Chapter 5, but told from the alternating points of view of the killer and the murder victim. I thought it turned out pretty well, and the agent loved it, but at the end of the day she decided not to represent the book and I wound up putting it on Amazon myself. And I’ll never really know for sure it the change reluctantly made really helped the book find more readers.