Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here, continuing my discussion of traditional mysteries, particularly those labeled cozies. To read part one, click here
I’ve seen a lot of discussion about likeable and unlikeable characters. The sleuth, it’s said, should be likeable, as should her friends. The victim and the villain . . . not so much. A great many of the victims in cozies seem to deserve their fates, but there is no rule that says they have to be unlikeable. I killed off a woman everyone in town loved in the first book in my series, Kilt Dead . . . on the advice of my agent. By the same token, some of my continuing characters are obnoxious. That could mean they’ll end up being victims in later books . . . or not. If I were to kill off everyone who’s annoying, I could end up with a bunch of very dull characters!
Personally, I don’t believe the sleuth always has to be likeable either. In the case of Liss MacCrimmon, some readers find her fresh and interesting while she annoys the hell out of others. In my current historical series, the sleuth is someone I spun off from the earlier Face Down series. She was a child in those, a spoiled brat with rather despicable parents. Frankly, I think her flaws make her more interesting, as well as giving her room to grow and mature. I toned her down a bit on the advice of my agent, but she’s still got some bite. My publisher loves her—which frankly is all that really matters—and although a few reviews have indicated that readers find her annoying, most seem to have had a positive reaction to her unique situation and personality.
And with that, let me segue into the historical mystery subgenre. Historical mysteries are not always traditional mysteries, but they certainly can be. It depends on the level of sex and violence. Historical, at least in the definition used by the Bruce Alexander and Agatha awards, refers to mysteries that take place prior to 1950. Novels that were contemporary when they were written, such as those by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, are not historical novels.
Another type of traditional mystery is the humorous mystery, which includes the caper. In these, humor is the most prominent feature. Examples are the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess’s Maggody series, Dorothy Cannell’s Ellie Haskell series and, of course, all four series written by the late, great Maine writer, Charlotte MacLeod.
One caveat if you are going to attempt to be funny: humor is always tricky because it is so subjective. What one person finds hilarious may strike another as just plain stupid. Worse, readers who miss the point of something that is meant to be funny quite often get snarky about it when they post a review.
You’ll sometimes hear the criticism TSTL leveled at the heroine of a novel. Too stupid to live. It’s best personified by the Gothic heroine who, in the middle of the night in her flowing white nightgown with only a candle for light, goes down in the basement, or up in the attic, or out into the night, because she hears a strange sound. I decided to have a little fun with this in one of the Liss MacCrimmon books by turning it into a running gag. Liss finds this trait annoying when she comes across it in a book and when others do stupid things, and then, of course, ends up doing something equally stupid herself. Most readers seem to have caught on to the joke but one reader, one who, naturally, posted a review on Amazon, got so mad at Liss that she quit reading before she got to the punch line.
Sometimes you just can’t win.
What’s funny . . . and what isn’t . . . is in the mind of the reader.
Another subgenre of the traditional mystery is romantic suspense, although you’re as likely to find these books shelved in the romance section of the bookstore as in the mystery aisle. Classic romantic suspense written by people like Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Barbara Michaels have always been considered traditional mysteries, too. What’s being written today tends to include romantic encounters that are a little more explicit than some fans of the traditional mystery want to read, and offer plots that are about a 50/50 split between the romance and the suspense, but if you skip over the more graphic sex scenes, writers like Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz, to name just two prominent, bestselling authors, fit quite easily into the traditional mystery genre.
When you stop and think about it, most mysteries nowadays contain some elements of romance. Although there are readers who avoid reading series that burden the sleuth with a love interest, convincing relationships between the detective and those close to him or her—family and friends as well as lovers—are what turn a character from a cardboard cutout into a human being. Some of the best mysteries, past and present, include romance. Even series where the detective is celibate, such as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael, contain subplots where a pair (or two) of young lovers complicate the case.
Most traditional mystery novels weave together the mystery plot (the sleuth discovering who dunnit) with one, and sometimes two, subplots. Usually, the main subplot involves an aspect of the sleuth’s private life. It could be a romantic dilemma, conflict with another character, or a secondary mystery that needs solving. Whatever it is, it adds depth to the novel and aids in character development. Ideally, the plot and subplot are inseparable.
“Murder without the Gore: Part III” will be posted next month on September 8. In the meantime, feel free to chime in with opinions, reading suggestions, and general comments on the subject. Happy Reading.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries as Kathy (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall). The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com