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Writing a mystery novel? Observe the new conventions but don’t get carried away

Conventional ways of writing style for any given year in the mystery novel can be as follows: tone, (richly sepulchral, as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde,) descriptional method (light on scenery or heavy), conversational expression, organization of plot sequence, or use of inner dialogue or not (stream of consciousness). Conditioned to fast-moving life and visuality on screens, we no longer appreciate the plodding, brilliant heaviness of Stevenson or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The conventions of the 19th century mystery seem like a movie proceeding in slow-motion to us.

Since we live in a world of cultural changes which proceed at the speed of a tweet or text, conventions in mystery stories particularly can change over a period of a couple of years.

An exceptionally well written mystery, a “cozy,” that is, a Victorian novel set in England, my favorite genre, is Canadian Steven Price’s By Gaslight. I’m aware of the changing conventions in the book by this prize-winning author. Not the small stylistic things he chooses—God isn’t capitalized in this book, for instance, to emphasize the humanistic world the author wishes to portray, devoid of meaning without an overall good creator. The book also observes the popular rapid shifts in time—we are in South Africa, then the Civil War, and turning quickly, in the 1880s with Allan Pinkerton’s son William, trying to find a ghost-like villain his dad pursued unsuccessfully to his dying day. Or even the symbolic character naming; the villain is called “Shade” and in another incarnation “Foole.”

What I’m really aware of is a definite departure from a hundred years of fictional story-telling: doing away with the setting off, and use of, conversational quotation marks to mark who is speaking and what that person is saying.

It’s odd and it takes some getting used to. The speeches are incorporated in indirect dialogue, just this way:

The sky turned black; the wind came up. Jonas I don’t’ believe you, he said. Still that is what I think. You can’t prove it. Their coat-tails flew behind them and it was difficult to hear. He is dead. You don’t know that.

And so forth.

This is major. What does it accomplish, other than showing that this author is very trendy, on top of “the latest” in writing or even inventing new conventions? Sublimating the conversation into the narrative description without any waypoints adds to the tone of darkness, of sinister foreboding, dullness, and fear supposed to be conveyed by the general plot. We don’t have any lively exchanges or clever repartee;  just murmured questions and answers.

The effect in general is to highlight, to emphasize something beyond what the characters are saying; the description of period scenery, the background so essential to the “Cozy.” It comes forward. All of these Victorian novels seem to be flowing rivers of scenery. Every author has done prodigious research in the way living rooms looked, (fire screen and cabinet of curiosities), the way breakfast was prepared (toast over the fire), type of dogs, women’s bustles etc. etc. etc. And so we get every detail in every living room. Lots of times we don’t need all of that.

In the case of the Price book we are well aware of the research done to create a scene from a Pinkerton raid on the outlaws out west, the Battle of Malvern Hill in the Civil War, a séance in an Indian lady’s parlor. He is a master of this type of full rendering, from all sides, of a scene.

But at times we believe we are being taken on a ride in a roller coaster through the Haunted Mansion. The author is joy-riding through hundreds (I do not exaggerate) of details of a battle in the Peninsular campaign: surgeon’s tent’s pile of legs, lethargic aides and sentries, flies on blood buckets, dangers of limbering up, collapsing espionage balloons, groaning and stinking of dying men, gray clouds overhead with Confederates advancing, death everywhere. Of course it was that way but scene after scene of grim details with slow-moving action and no interesting conversation leaves us yawning at times. All the detail and incorporated, limited conversation makes for slow reading. And we can draw a wrong impression, to say nothing of the author’s chance of making a mistake drawn from observing only the scenery. “No man returning from that conflict [the Civil War] can ever leave all that horror behind.” Now he is in my side yard as a long-time student of our Civil War, and he is wrong about that. Of course the returning men never did forget the horrors, but what came to predominate in most cases was something else: the honor and bonding of camaraderie in a large and important cause, satisfaction, really.  You can miss the woods for the ragweed on the path if you allow yourself, as an author, to be carried along by a sea of details, muting human conversation.

It does not mar the superb story-telling in this good novel. Still, it does diminish its impact a bit.  We need to be careful about letting story-telling conventions take over from us when what we are really doing is telling a human story.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor, Hawthorne Publishing.

Discover  Nancy Niblack Baxter’s books about the Civil War by clicking back to the website.