January 10th, 2012

promise tea

Decoding Mysteries

I haven't talked about reading in a while. I read a lot over the holidays but don't really have any books I particularly want to single out and discuss, with one exception. I read the Steampunk anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and I found myself thinking about most of the stories, "Yes, more like this, please." Steampunk is kind of a problematic genre for me. I LOVE the idea of it. I like the Victorian esthetic and Victorian fiction, and the idea of adventures in airships or with fantastic machines that should have existed thrills me. But I haven't been all that crazy about most of the actual steampunk books I've read. I'm looking for stuff that maybe could have been a lost Jules Verne book, but most of what's being published in the adult market is essentially urban fantasy or paranormal romance with bustles and maybe an airship in the background. The closest I've found to fulfilling my wishes for the genre is the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld and the Hungry Cities and Larklight series by Philip Reeve -- all written for young adults. But the stories in this collection -- written before the current steampunk vogue -- were closer to what I imagine when I think of the genre. I don't object to mixing in fantasy, since the clash between magic and technology would seem to fit the theme and since there was a great interest in the occult during the Victorian era, but it's very, very hard to find something published as steampunk without vampires, werewolves, demons or zombies in it. I want my airship adventures, darn it!

Meanwhile, I've been binging on those paranormal mysteries, with an eye toward maybe writing something like that. I've discovered that there appear to be some challenges in the mystery genre, particularly with the amateur sleuth kind of stories. One is that the genre practically requires that the heroine (and in the amateur sleuth cozies, it's usually a heroine) come dangerously close to Too Stupid to Live. If someone close to most of us dies or if we come across a dead body, we're likely to limit our involvement to calling 911, giving the police whatever information we have, maybe making a tearful plea for information on the evening news and nagging the police for status updates. We generally don't take it upon ourselves to investigate the case. It seems to be rather tricky to come up with a strong enough motivation that most reasonable people would totally believe would make the character actually get involved like that. In the first book in the series, it usually seems to be that the heroine or someone close to her is the prime suspect, with the police not interested in looking at anyone else, and so to clear her name or her loved one's name, she has to find the real killer herself. In subsequent books, it's a little more understandable that she'd get involved after having successfully solved previous cases.

Then there's the climax of the book, where it seems to be fairly mandatory that the heroine have some kind of dangerous confrontation with the killer. I guess the old Agatha Christie thing of gathering the suspects in the parlor and going over why each one may or may not have committed the crime is no longer considered exciting enough. Getting into this situation generally involves a big dose of Too Stupid to Live, like the heroine going alone into the creepy place where she knows someone who's already killed at least once is likely to be, or else going alone to meet with someone she doesn't realize is the killer until he pulls a knife on her. Again, motivation seems to be the key, where we have to believe she has no other choice than to confront the killer alone or where there's a good reason for her not to realize the person she's meeting alone in the secluded place is the real killer.

Adding the paranormal element seems to be a mixed blessing. On the down side, it can come across as a bit of a cheat if the sleuth is just pulling clues from the ether instead of really solving the case through investigation. I read one where the heroine is such a good psychic that she pretty much picks up on everything she needs to know about the case, so the "mystery" is mostly about putting together the clues (though I suppose it does skip past the more tedious parts of the investigation), and the police totally trust her, so when she tells them where a body's buried, they pick up their shovels. I think it works better when whatever supernatural gift the heroine has mostly serves to get her in trouble. It seems to be a great way to motivate a civilian to investigate a crime -- like one where she has a vision of a buried body, but she knows if she just tells the police they'll likely dismiss her as a crackpot, and if they do dig for it and find a body, she'll look like a suspect, so she has to at least make some headway on the case on her own to have some hard facts to give the police. Or there's another where the heroine picks up on "vibes" from ghosts, so when the police think a death is an accident but the ghost is too unsettled for that, she has to prove it's murder. If the heroine is too powerful, that can amplify the Too Stupid to Live at the climactic confrontation, since shouldn't a good psychic have known that the person she's meeting is the killer?

Mostly, I think it works best when the paranormal part provides more complication than help and when it's not openly accepted by the authorities. I'm afraid that this genre may have a similar issue for me that steampunk does, where I love the idea of the genre but haven't yet found the specific book that makes me go, "Yes! This is it!" Though in this case, I've liked the books I've read, and they're all stories that interest me, but I haven't yet hit the series where I'm suddenly desperate to find all the rest of the books because I can't wait to see what these characters will do next. I've been reading a lot of first books in series, and when I'm done, I read another series, not rush out to get the next in that series. I don't know if this is a bad sign or an opportunity.