Yesterday, in a conversation I had with my daughter, I described a “problem” I just had with the mystery book I finished very recently. While I really appreciate the author’s writing style, my “complaint” is that since I LOVE cozy mysteries, I put a lot of weight on the “mystery” part of the book. I have only read two of this author’s mysteries. I don’t know if the third will prove to be different, but in the first two books of her series, I knew exactly who the culprits were as soon as I was “introduced” to the characters.
I don’t mean to say that the characters first appeared holding knives, while their clothes were drenched in a telltale crimson-colored substance >>> I mean that the characters did something as simple as say hello. I absolutely KNEW they were the culprits… Why else would they have been included in the mystery books?!? The culprits seemed to ingratiate themselves with the sleuth >>> becoming overly friendly with the sleuth in a very short time >>> always asking about the sleuth’s progress solving the crime.
Of course, mystery books are full of new characters… Some are added to the series’ rosters of “regulars” and some are simply there for one book. So, why is it that in both books by this author, I knew which characters were the “bad guys” upon meeting them? Have I read too many mystery books? Nope!!! That could never be the case for me!
Why am I not able to do this with every author? Why can I be left wondering whodunit in the vast majority of the mysteries I choose to spend my time reading?
When I told my daughter about this particular “problem,” she asked me if the author’s style of writing outweighs the “problem.” And, she suggested that I write an entry about this and ask you all:
If you really enjoy the writing style of an author, is it important that the mystery be well-played? Do you continue with authors who aren’t able to keep the culprit a mystery until the end of the book? Do you enjoy going along with the author as he/she weaves red herrings in and out of the mystery?
PS>>> I am currently taking a break from the author described above while I read my next Susan Wittig Albert mystery. She keeps me guessing all of the time, and I love her writing style!
While I enjoy going along with the author until the end of the book, I don’t mind it if I do manage to figure out the culprit before the end. In fact, because I generally don’t try really hard to figure it out, I’m often pleased with myself when I do. And I’ve found the more cozy mysteries I read, the more I’m figuring it out. It doesn’t ruin the series for me because the reason I read cozy mysteries usually is because of the richness of the regular characters. I return to find out what is going on in their lives as much as whatever the current mystery is.
Having said that, there was a book recently where I figured out who was the culprit and I was angry because the heroine didn’t. Given the profession the author put her in, she SHOULD have figured it out and the fact that she didn’t until the very end made me feel that she was a complete idiot. (And it wasn’t that we saw the culprit do things the heroine didn’t so we had information the heroine was unaware of.) It completely ruined the heroine for me. I won’t be back to the series at all.
Maria BearMountainBooks.com says
Gosh, good question. I think both the writing style and the “whodunit” are pretty important. If I really, really, REALLY like the author’s style–perhaps the books are LOL and there is a secondary mystery or a romance…guessing doesn’t bother me too much. BUT the case you describe where the regulars are so obvious that anyone else MUST be the culprit doesn’t sound like much fun.
I guess the preferred case is to not guess until the end. But there were some Janet Evanovich books where I wasn’t even sure there WAS a mystery. There was just lots of chaos across the page. I still enjoyed reading them, but…yes, I do recall those books not being quite as entertaining.
I think in Elizabeth Peter’s last Vicky Bliss book in the series the mystery was the weakest part. The book was good–a reliving of the characters that had become so dear to readers (to the point of pastiche). The book was fun, endearing and very much a nostalgic read, but the mystery/whodunit took a bit of a back seat to the rest. I’d still read it again because those characters were so strong and I enjoyed them so much over the years. So I guess sometimes, the mystery part doesn’t have to be perfect!
I was so busy trying to figure out who wrote the book you described that I had a hard time concentrating on the question…guess I really like mysteries and make them where none exist? I try not to figure out the books either. And like the others will continue to read them even if they are not strong because of the characters. And some I stop reading no matter how good the mystery is if the characters are not appealing. So it goes both ways to me.
Mary Anne says
All of the above comments are very good. Personally, the characters, setting, etc. would have to be extraordinarily well done to keep me reading if I guessed the outcome. Some books I’ve read recently have had so many stereotypical characters AND the outcome so obvious, I had to stop reading (listening in my case) to the book. I especially agree with Jeannie – I don’t like it when the “crime solver” is supposed to be smart and can’t see what’s in front of their face. Also, when the author makes the main character suddenly stupid in order to find a way through the mystery.
I’m not sure I’m making my point clear, but your question elicited an immediate reaction within me.
Danna - cozy mystery list says
You have a great point about the characters. I find myself first drawn to the characters. I also usually go along for the ride, and try not to figure out the culprit. Your point about the heroine not being able to figure out who the culprit is until the end of the mystery, while we know exactly who it is… that’s exactly what I’m talking about! I have decided to give this author another try because I know she is a good writer… I’m just not sure I can stick with a sleuth who isn’t as good of a sleuth as (apparently!) I am.
I didn’t mean to mislead in that post… It’s not that the regular characters are so set in stone that anyone else who happens to come along is the culprit… I really can’t describe it, but the degree of ingratiation (Is that even a word?!) the culprit had toward the sleuth, and the amount of interest he had in her progress (although he didn’t seem at all concerned with what the police were doing with the crime…) just made him stand out. ALSO, and off-topic >>> The next time I am ready to use “hodgepodge” > I’m going to try to remember “pastiche”… I love its sound! Like something I would order at an Italian restaurant, and I love almost everything on those menus!
What you described is sort of where I am right now… I like the characters, but because I only just finished the second in the series, I could go both ways. I am definitely going to try the third book… after I cleanse my “reading palate”… (I have that Italian menu on my mind!)
You and me both! When the main character/sleuth suddenly becomes a silly-lily who doesn’t have a clue as to what is going on, and then the author has her go back to being the # 1 sleuth in her city (since she always has to solve the mysteries that her town’s police force, which just can’t quite solve the crimes) I’m out of there!!!
Most mysteries I can figure out fairly well. So for me it’s the getting to there that is important. However, when I get to a cozy ending and find that the author has chosen someone as the culprit and left out the motive, means and any modicum of a clue, I put down the book and never bother again. (I’m looking at you, Laura Childs).
Funny you should mention Susan Witting Albert because the last two books of hers I have read , I guessed who the murderer was right away. However-because I love her writing so much and the fact that the setting is my own backyard -I got over it and started a third book . This one has me guessing so far. But yes, when I guess too early on-I get annoyed-although sometimes I think it is due to me reading too many mystery books : )
I’m generally more concerned with the characters than solving the mystery when I read cozies, particularly since I am a re-reader. I have quit reading series when the main character does something that annoys me – but will keep reading series with beloved characters even when the mysteries aren’t that mysterious. However, there is at least one series I have not been able to pick up the third book even though I liked the character because of how the mystery was resolved in the first two books. In both books, the murderer was someone the heroine did not suspect until they tried to kill her because her investigations were getting too close. Once, I might buy that – but both times!
Actually, I mostly jump to the back of the book once I know the characters and look up the culprit… So I don’t really mind when the culprit is obvious and the heroine can’t see it. It’s a bit like Who Wants To Be A Millioniare – it’s easy to critize the heroine/candidate from a back seat. As long as the heroine isn’t completely stupid of course.
But!! I really hate it when there’s no plot. One series where I really love the characters has gone stale for me not because there wasn’t much of a mystery but because at least half of the book was a kind of lecture about the theme of this mystery (in this case, silk). It’s great if an author does a lot of research and is accurate in his/her facts, but he/she doesn’t have to ram it down my throat.
Uuups, I seem to have drifted off topic! Back to culprits, I think it’s a lot worse having a mystery where the murderer is someone who is there in the beginning and then won’t even be mentioned for the next 200 pages. By the time he pops up again I have forgotten all about him and feel cheated when the herione suddenly pronouces him the culprit!
Vickie B says
If the story has other redeeming factors going for it, I am likely to keep reading it and others by the author. If there’s nothing else and I end up getting mad at the author, characters, whatever….I use my motto, ‘Life is too short to read bad books.’