Many people divide literary fiction from mystery fiction based on considering these elements: memorable characters and/or prose, sensory details, pacing (timing of events); high stakes; and tone (serious to humorous.)
Which elements do these literary fiction authors, and one mystery writer, incorporate into their work?
Most of these authors use all the elements. Since they’re so skilled, shouldn’t their books point up differences between literary fiction and mystery fiction?
Krueger is considered the only mystery writer among them, but Shakespeare, Lee, Krueger, Doerr and Hannah also depict suspense and crime.
Mystery fiction needs a puzzle to solve or dilemma to resolve. Shakespeare and Joyce present dilemmas; the others offer dilemmas and puzzles.
Mystery fiction restores justice. Shakespeare is big on retribution, or he plants the seed justice will ultimately prevail. Joyce has his characters feel justified.
Prevailing wisdom says literary fiction is darker and less optimistic than mystery fiction. But there are lots of dark, pessimistic mysteries.
Literary fiction supposedly deals with more complex themes. Yet Krueger, the mystery writer, deals with complex themes, as do many others writing in the genre.
That leaves us with pacing and emphasis. In mystery novels, events change the trajectory of the story more frequently. Slower-paced, melodic literary fiction gives the reader more time to absorb the prose and think…”perchance to dream”…perchance to switch books.
Mysteries emphasize plot, but a reader who isn’t captivated by the lead character will search elsewhere. Yet if literary fiction emphasizes character over plot, it does so at the risk of having the reader long for something to happen.
Confusing, isn’t it?
Judging by the last four acclaimed authors listed above, it appears there’s more and more crossover between literary and mystery fiction. Master Shakespeare, of course, gives us exquisite language, moving plots, unforgettable characters, pathos and humor, along with mystery and mayhem.
Harper Lee takes a serious subject, creates unforgettable characters, a palpable sense of place, gravity and humor, and produces a classic literary mystery.
William Kent Kruger creates an idyllic world where chaos should not happen; yet it does. And we are so enmeshed with the characters, we tremble that events will destroy their world. Our world.
Anthony Doerr buries us in the hearts and minds of his characters until, as the evil of the plot unfolds, breathless chapter to breathless chapter, we can hardly bear it. Is this not the pacing of a mystery?
Kristin Hannah starts with the lyrical, measured sense of place and deep characterization familiar to the literary novel. Then the increasing pace of horrifying events envelopes us with such anxiety and urgency that we are propelled faster and faster to a heart stopping climax on the very last page. Brilliant. Literary. Suspenseful. A mystery.
What should mystery writers strive for? We love mysteries: we like suspense and puzzles. We like order restored, justice achieved, and we want our books to be memorable. So we have to toil at our craft until we understand how to incorporate all the elements of great fiction. A tall order. We have to keep working to find that sweet spot: literary mystery fiction.
Nancy G. West has written articles, the biography of artist Jose Vives-Atsara, a suspense novel, and poetry. Her poem, “Time to Lie,” was featured by Theme and Variations for broadcast on NPR. Then Aggie Mundeen captured her attention and made Nancy promise to feature her in a mystery series.
In Fit to Be Dead, Aggie Mundeen, single, pushing forty and author of the column “Stay Young With Aggie,” moves to Texas in 1997. Fearing nothing but middle-age decrepitude, she tries to shape up at the health club before anybody discovers she writes the column. Rusty at flirting, klutzy with machines, and plagued by a past that propels her into trouble, she angers club members, then stumbles into murder.
Lefty Award Finalist for Best Humorous Mystery
In Dang Near Dead, Aggie convinces friend Meredith and San Antonio Detective Sam to vacation with her at a dude ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Besides wranglers, dudes, poison ivy, scheming and murder, what could go wrong? A “Must Read.” Southern Writers Magazine.
In Smart, But Dead, released this year, the Human Genome Project is in full swing. Aggie hears scientists have discovered genes linked to aging, so she enrolls in a genetics class and persuades Meredith to go. When she finds a dead academic, Ag assures San Detective Sam she’ll avoid his investigation. But dangerously curious and programmed to prod, she finds herself the prime suspect and is on target to become next campus corpse.
Anyone who has tried to start over, get in shape, stumbled into trouble or loved the wrong man should appreciate Aggie Mundeen.
Smart, But Dead is live for pre-order in all formats.
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