That’s a good question and one I hear frequently when I tell people I’ve published a mystery novel. Mysteries come in so many varieties that telling someone you wrote a mystery is only slightly more informative than saying you wrote a novel.
Yes, there are certain conventions–dead bodies, for example–that mysteries have in common, but the characters, style, language, length, point of view and many other elements differ from one mystery to another and especially from one sub-genre to another. And sub-genres are plentiful, from hard-boiled PI novels to cozy, drawing room mysteries.
But to answer the question of how to categorize Death in Nostalgia City, let me begin with Agatha Christie. She was the first mystery author I read as I was growing up. I liked the short stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s mystery magazines, but the mystery novel was defined for me by Christie. I loved the complex puzzles, the multiplicity of clues and the usually large cast of characters. It made me think. But Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot almost always figured out whodunit before I did.
Gradually, however, my taste changed and I wanted a little more action, a little more suspense to keep me turning the pages. I read, not only to find out who were the bad guys, but to follow imperiled protagonists and see them safely through the story. In sum, I like mystery stories with intricate puzzles, twists and turns that challenge my cognitive abilities (such as they are), but also those with swift action and continuing threats to the detectives (amateur or professional) that appeal to my emotions.
Raymond Chandler, the famous detective novel writer–creator of Philip Marlowe–said he didn’t care for manor-house mysteries because the entire value of the book is contained in the final chapter, the denouement. He said each chapter of a mystery should be rewarding itself, without regard to whodunit.
One of the ways a mystery novel can do that, in addition to providing compelling characters, believable dialog and necessary action, is to include secondary mysteries and physical challenges for the protagonists. I like to read mysteries that continually throw obstacles in the way of the main characters so they must solve intervening questions before they can ultimately succeed.
To me then, the best mystery stories appeal to the head and to the heart.
That’s what I tried to do in Death in Nostalgia City. The book has 74 chapters in just more than 300 pages. Each chapter is not self-contained, but it includes something unique, something that puzzles, challenges, or startles the reader or keeps the plot moving quickly forward. Anxiety ridden–some say crazy–ex-cop Lyle Deming and Kate Sorensen, the gutsy theme park PR director and former college basketball player, are constantly tested and their progress hindered by circumstances and the mystery they’re trying to solve. At times they’re also in physical jeopardy.
There’s always something happening.
Next time: Checklist of elements for a good mystery