Book Talk: Mixing Genres

by Sherwood Smith

I was talking about mysteries the other night, while standing in line. I don’t actually read a lot of mysteries—when logic was being handed out, I was over in the line getting an extra helping of cluelessness. But I’ve read and enjoyed many that were suggested to me.

So anyway this woman is talking about mysteries, mentioning a few authors I’ve heard of and a few I haven’t, and it’s on the tip of my tongue to mention ones I’ve liked, when she sneered, “The thing I do not understand is cozy mysteries. How can a murder mystery be cozy?”

“Isn’t that kind of a marketing term for comedy of manners, except you have the structure of a mystery?” I asked.

“You cannot have a real mystery and a comedy of manners mixed,” the woman said. She went on to explain that a proper mystery had a detective in charge, outsmarting a criminal through a building up of evidence. The only variation in structure she seemed to accept was the Law and Order type—you have your police work in the first half, and the second half is riveting courtroom drama. The cozy was lazy authorship, shoving in a lot of clutter instead of building a careful case to be solved.

By then I picked up that this person had a logical mind, wanted logic in her fiction, and she didn’t really want to discuss mysteries, or books, she wanted to lay down the law. So I just nodded and smiled, and kept my cozy mysteries to myself.

If she’d been willing to discuss, I would have admitted that mysteries that depend on an elegant, logical structure lose me at the outset, especially when the good guys start totting up and evaluating clues. I know from the formula that most of the clues are worthless, or the story would be over, so I don’t want to read red herrings, especially as the logical connection usually totally escapes me. My instinct is to skip ahead looking for character interactions; if the mystery is solved by intuitive reasoning, I am so there. And that’s the lure of the cozy mystery. Not only will I (I hope) not be offered scenes of grisly forensic delvings and tough detective types dispassionately totting up the clues, I’ll have a community of people whose interactions need watching to suss out secrets. The villain will be deserving of retribution, and the original body will have been someone nobody much liked.

That probably suggests comedy of manners with a hint of mystery. Kind of the way I like lattes, a lot of steamed milk with a teaspoon of coffee.

Comedy of manners is a favorite of mine, but I also like a mix of mystery and other genres because it shakes up the formula a bit. There is sure to be other types of interaction rather than those interminable discussions of clue-evaluations.

Like Jo Walton’s Farthing, an intense mystery/science fiction/alternate history novel. It has the form of a country house mystery, but within that form it takes intense twists and turns while building to a genuine mystery climax. I made the mistake of starting to read that one at bedtime, and this was before I retired. I finished it about an hour before I was supposed to wake up and get ready for work.

Just this week, a new mystery mix came out, offered here at Book View Café, Chris Dolley’s  Medium Dead. In this one, we’ve got a mystery with a serial killer, but the genre mix is comedy and science fiction (or is it fantasy?) along with the slam-bang action of a mystery.  It opens with Brenda, an ordinary woman trying to recover from being dumped by her husband . . . ordinary except that she sees ghosts. Whiny ghosts. Until one warns her that “he” is coming.

Brenda is wondering whether or not to take the warning when she finds a strange man knocking at her door. She’s not an idiot. She won’t open the door . . . except the guy outside seems genuinely in trouble.

Before she knows it, she’s got a nice businessman outside—with a psycho gunman pressing his pistol to the man’s head. Soon Brenda is trying to deal with Brian, the businessman who seems so nice, so helpless, and her own mounting terror, as the psycho prowls around listening for police sirens. Then . . . the psycho knocks Brian’s head off, and everything changes. I mean everything. That was one rollercoaster ride, I could not guess what was going to happen any more than Brenda could.

I love the mixing of genres, because one can’t rely on the formula when there is no formula. I’ve said before that this might be one of the reasons why Harry Potter took off so well. Rowling mixed the school story with a magic story and with the orphan who is special. Result? Wow!

What novels mixing genres are favorites of yours, and why?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe



Book Talk: Mixing Genres — 11 Comments

  1. I always describe the detective series written by Elizabeth George, P. D. James, Deborah Crombie (and others) as soap opera plus detective stories. And I mean it as a compliment, because I enjoy these series. Relationships evolve while riddles are solved, with both professional and personal arcs leaning weightier/darker.

    Soap opera’s probably not the technical word. What would a literary theorist call it?

  2. Playright: that’s a good question. Since I have’t read any of these (but now I want to!) I can’t guess which marketing term would best fit . . . but maybe someone else will?

  3. I’m a fool for historical mysteries–have to say that I tend to think of Brother Cadfael as being not only historical but cozy, in spite of a little gore and some PG-13 sex. But alternative history mysteries like Farthing–even better! And if there’s a ghost or an interdimensional being involved, so much the better (McIntyre’s The Sun and the Moon–maybe not so much mystery, but love the mix of history and science fiction). And Kim Stanley Robinson mixes history and science fiction delightfully in Galileo, though I’m sure his plots would drive a mystery purist bonkers.

  4. Mysteries seem to be the universal solvent — i.e. they can combine with just about every genre successfully in the hands of a skilled writer who understands the genres she’s combining.

    It’s interesting though, how seldom sf and the western have been successfully combined, considering how many critics believe that it is the western that begat at least the space opera. Sometimes this is true, as with the Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series, and it works very well. And sometimes, um, well with Firefly, it did not.

    What we come back to evidently is that the writer really must know the genre/s and their objectives inside out — and their histories even — to get it right.

    John Carter still works for so many.

    Love, C.

    Love, C.

  5. Interesting idea about the universal solvent. Maybe it’s just “Problem, problem solved” and the story being the solving of the problem.

  6. Or, perhaps it is that all novels need something to drive the plot. If the driver is “will they Find Love” then it’s romance, and if the driver is “Who Done It” then it’s mystery. Whereas F&SF tends to be a Where & When issue. My thesis is that romance is character driven, mystery is plot-focused, and F&SF is setting-centric.


  7. Hmm. In my experience if you mix the genres and don’t give both the expectations fulfillment, it doesn’t really work.

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  9. I think the mystery structure goes beyond deaths: something bad has happened – usually a crime – and the protagonist needs to stop it and restore justice. That can be sheep rustling, or murder, or blackmail, or someone systematically seeking to ruin a competitor. And *of course* that works in historical as well as sfnal surroundings.

    I much prefer the more intimate scale and scope of mysteries over thrillers. Given how populat historical mysteries seem to be right now, I don’t think that speculative fiction will be very far behind.

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