24 October, 2012

Fiction Friday: Reading out of your Comfort Zone

I write traditional mysteries because that's what I like to read.  A traditional mystery, by my definition, is a novel of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred in a closely-knit setting with a limited group of suspects, and the amateur sleuth's job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. Think Agatha Christie, but allow for sex, bad language, and possibly unmentionable crimes such as molestation or prostitution.

But reading only one genre can be limiting, especially when you're developing your own writing style, so about a year ago I decided to branch out into reading other mystery genres—but not too far.  I've been adding thrillers, capers, historical mysteries and police procedurals to my library (along with lots of traditionals). I draw the line at supernatural and truly gory fiction, mystery or not.

I started with a list of contemporary authors (Grafton, Clancy, Block, Mosley, Rendall, Scottoline, Follett, P.D. James) and then decided I should go back to the basics, or more acurately, the classics.  I made a "To Be Read" list started reading.  I've finished Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe,  The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, and several in the Ellery Queen and Charlie Chan series.

There's a reason these are classics.  They have it all: suspense, character development, plot, setting—basically, every thing we all strive for in our own writing. If you're like me, you've taken courses on each of these skills, but what better way to learn than to see them all combined in one place? We learn by example, whether it's painting or writing, and who better to learn from than those who stood the test of generations of reader?

Here's my remaining TBR list:

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins   
  • The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, written in Chinese in the 1700s and translated
  • The Compleat Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Laura by Vera Caspary
  • The Mystery in the Yellow Room by Gaston LeRoux
  • The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
  • The Case of the Crooked Candle by  Erle Stanley Garder
  • The Toff by Sir John Creasy
  • The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, England 
Any suggestions for additions? Which mystery writer do you aspire to rival?


  1. Tiger,

    Some Val McDermid (Dr. Tony Hill series) might shake you up a little. She's a very powerful writer. I find that if I allot myself one to read every now and again, I get through them just fine.


  2. Like you, I prefer the traditional mystery, but will branch out into other mystery genres although I'm not into the vampire, zombie stuff. In addition to mysteries, though, I belong to two book clubs that only occasionally will pick mysteries, and I find I usually enjoy and learn something from them, too. Sometimes they even pick an old classic like something by Willa Cather or a non-fiction book like "The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks." I may have this a little wrong because I've lent it out.

  3. DuMaurier's "The House on The Strand" is a terrific mystery involving time travel. I read it years ago, but remember enjoying it tremendously.

  4. Louise Penny is my favorite mystery writer. She writes police procedurals based in Quebec (Canada). In her latest--The Beautiful Mystery--Chief Inspector Armand Gamache travels to an isolated monastery to investigate the brutal murder of a monk. Lots of history and lots of drama with twenty-three cloistered, contemplative monks. There are eight books in the series, but all can easily stand alone.

  5. Hi Tiger, I'm less traditional and more specifically a cozy reader, but I do have the reading habit and read broadly.

    I'm going out on a really big limb and suggest a Fantasy book by L. E Modesitt, Jr. The book's title is Scholar.

    In a medieval

  6. Hi Tiger, I'm less traditional and more specifically a cozy reader, but I do have the reading habit and read broadly.

    I'm going out on a really big limb and suggest a Fantasy book by L. E Modesitt, Jr. The book's title is Scholar.

    In a mostly medieval setting a scholar is dispatched by the local ruler to find out what's going on in one of his distant lands. So there's an element of mystery involved. My reason for recommending the book is that Mr. Modesitt does an excellent job of characterization. His fantasy land has very cohesive and well thought out rules and the plot is very much action/reaction driven. The manipulation, lies, half-truths, and class differences highlighted in the book could easily be borrowed for a traditional mystery or a cozy. Unraveling all of this, reporting covertly through letters to the ruler's sister, and cleaning up the mess is well played out.