Sunday, August 1, 2010

Echo Park/ What makes a good mystery?

Echo Park (Harry Bosch)
Echo Park (Harry Bosch)
by Michael Connelly
July, 2001
Grand Central Publishing

This is the third Harry Bosch mystery I’ve read in the last three months and while I’ve enjoyed each of them I don’t think I can bear to write another review (or you can bear to read one that is if anyone is reading). Let me just say if you read the Michael Connelly detective series that features Harry Bosch you will find Echo Park as good as any book in the series. If you haven’t read any of these mysteries take a look at my reviews of The Black Echo and A Darkness More Than Night for a representative sample of Connelly’s work.

So instead of a review, I thought I’d write a little about what makes a good mystery or at least what aspects of the mystery genre appeal to me. I’ve been reading mysteries my whole life, I started out reading Nancy Drew and then went onto Agatha Christie (there are 82 of them!) and continue today.  It's not the only genre I read but I do read a lot of mysteries.   I have some favorite mystery writers – in no particular order - Michael Connelly, Tami Hoag, Steve Martini, Nelson DeMille, Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Daniel Silva, Brian Haig, Harlan Coben whose work I read faithfully. There are other best selling mystery writers that I have a problem reading - Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, W.E.B. Griffin, Iris Johansen, Robert Parker, Clive Cussler and Nora Roberts. So what makes a good mystery? If good writing is a given then the short answers are great suspense, good plotting, and sympathetic characterizations  but exactly what do those aspects mean?

1. Puzzles and Suspense - I like a mystery that is puzzling enough that the suspense continues throughout most of the story. Plots that are one dimensional and easily solved don’t work for me even if other story elements are strong. A good mystery drops clues along the way so a reasonably intelligent reader can hazard a guess at the murderer. Well integrated red herrings are particularly appreciated and add to the enjoyment. I really don’t like humor mixed in with suspense (r/o Janet Evanovich) or mysteries where the love story supersedes the mystery (r/o Nora Roberts and Iris Johansen).

2. Connecting to The Protagonist – The detective, amateur or professional, needs to be multi dimensional - hard boiled monosyllabic detectives ala Jack Webb are not for me. Protagonists who have families, love interests, friends, quirky sidekicks, interesting hobbies and other emotional connections all add to the depth of the character and enjoyment of the story. It’s ok for the character to be flawed (Harry Bosch) but total disregard for law and authority doesn’t work for me.  I am not looking for a cozy mystery but then again  I am not looking for a Dirty Harry type character. Same thing for gratuitous violence, not my cup of tea to be reading a detective story that includes numerous killings or intensely described crime scenes. Lastly I don’t like dark and introverted characters, I have always been unable to read the very popular Robert Parker’s work I think because I can’t find any common ground with Spenser, just can’t make the connection. Continual development of the detective persona over sequels is also a plus; I like the way Elizabeth George has done this over the early books in the Inspector Linley series.

3. Minor characters that are interesting and recognizable – Nothing is more annoying that a multitude of characters that are not well defined, confusion reigns and it is easy to lose interest when this happens. I’ve always thought that the minor characters in the W.E.B. Griffin novels are fairly one dimensional, particularly his development of the women who appear to only be present as sex objects for the men in the story. I do like the depth of description given to recurring characters in PD James novels - Emma Lavenham, Adam Dagliesh’s recently married wife in that series I think is well drawn. My favorite minor character though was Inspector Linley’s wife Helen, whose death in With No One as Witness was devastating as I had grown to know her over her courtship and marriage to Linley in several earlier books in the series.

4. Good openings, confusing stories and implausible endings – I am hooked from the beginning with a strong opening chapter.  An intense scene with action that has some mystery and creates cognitive dissonace works for me in that it promises more drama to come. Plots that are too complicated or too confusing (see my review of Strong Justice) leave me continually trying to get my bearings in the story and detract from the enjoyment. Two or at the most three plots going on at once is surely enough for most readers (and authors) to keep straight. 

I think the ending must be the toughest part to write. Tying up all of the loose ends without creating unbelievable events is a real talent and I believe separates the really good writers from the pack. I am often disappointed when the murderer comes out of left field, all of the clues dropped throughout the book are ignored and we are asked to accept some outrageous conclusion.

So I have gone on a bit long here, but what do you think? What makes a mystery work for you? Who are your favorite authors and why?


Carole said...

I like many of the same books & authors so I really enjoyed this post. For me, I especially think it is about the main character. You didn't mention Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone - who I enjoy and I am okay with Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. But your analysis of things you don't like reminded me of Lee Childs books about Jack Reacher...I have a hard time connecting with him, as well as all the violence. (The plots are equally implausible but that is not a deal breaker for me in many other books that I DO enjoy.)

Certainly food for thought here. Good post.

Darlyn said...

The truth is, I never read any from Michael Connely but mystery,thriller and suspense always be one of my favorite.Thanks for introducing a new author.And all the list from your point of view is really great =)