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A Mystery About Mysteries

A popular genre among readers has always been M/T/S: mystery, thriller, suspense. Given the success of writers like Agatha Christie, John Grisham and John Le Carre, an aspiring writer would be foolish not to toy with turning out a page turner.

Which makes me foolish, because I’ve never flirted with the form, at least not yet. A common snatch of conversation at a cocktail party might be, “Oh, anyone could write a Grisham if they wanted to.” Oh? I disagree. John Grisham happens to be a very good writer with excellent plotting skills. He knows tension when he sees (hears) it, and he packs his books with it. Those assets eliminate about 90% of the wannabe writers out there, not to mention the wag at the cocktail party.

So why haven’t I tried it? Maybe I’m in the 90%. For another thing, the ending is preordained, which is to say the crime must be solved and the perp identified among five or six suspects. While I understand the fascination some writers have with constructing subtle clues and formulating hints to throw bloodhound readers off the scent, it isn’t my fascination. The formula for holding reader interest is well known, as least to most who attempt it. Formulas lead to sequels, particularly when a writer hits on a popular character, like Christie’s Detective Hercule Poirot. As I write this, the NYT best seller list includes a book starring a lawyer in his 28th appearance. Making the list attests to popularity among readers, and having myself never read one of this author’s works, I cannot judge other than to observe the obvious; that making anyone interesting 28 times is a challenge. Hell, making a character interesting once is a challenge.

All this brings me to a confession regarding A Southern Girl. A spoiler alert may be needed here, so if you haven’t read the book but intend to, skip the rest of this paragraph. For those of you still reading, I wrote two endings. In the unused one, the vote by the Board goes the other way. I like both endings, and I really struggled with deciding which to use.

Endings can be tricky, because every writer wants to give his or her reader the sense of satisfaction the writer feels when the story wraps up. My favorite ending may be the double one in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant's Woman. If you’ve never read it, treat yourself.

The worst ending ever brings me back to mysteries, and as I alluded to in my last blog, I may need your help on this one. On a flight to Hawaii in 2005, I read an account of the man reputed to be the worst mystery writer in human history. The article gave examples of how bad this guy was, and the one that has stayed with me is this. He once wrote a murder mystery wherein the killer is identified in the last sentence of the book. Okay, that isn’t so bad, and it is not without precedent. What made this so laughably absurd is that this last sentence was the very first in which the character was introduced to the reader. Imagine following the clues given for five or six suspects only to learn, at the very end, that a character you never heard of is the guilty party. This writer may be the infamous Harry S. Keeler, a writer so bad he attracted a following, but I haven’t been able to confirm that and haven’t been able to locate the book. Any help would be appreciated.

So if the M/T/S genre isn’t my cup of mocha, what about historical fiction? I’ll tackle that in the next blog.

john warley murder mystery legal thriller book

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