Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Sounds of Sub-Genre

To keep in line with my March Mystery Madness theme (sadly ending next week), I've decided to follow up my post on Poe by listing a number of sub-genres in the mystery field.  These sub-genres transformed and expanded upon the classic whodunit that Poe created, with authors who took the pandemonium of literary murder and restored order in their own unique fashion.  I can't say that I've read exclusively in each and all of these sub-genres, so I'll admit that I'll need a little Google help in finding some authorial examples.  However, I think when you read a diversity of mysteries, which all seem to involve a series of some sort proximating one main sleuth, you get a taste of each.

So without further ado, let’s break this down…

Regional Mystery

First on the list is the often missed regional mystery.  At least I tend to think of this sub-genre as often missed.  Why?  Because just about every mystery has a particular region in which the sleuth detects.  Except for something like Lee Child’s traveling ranger, Jack Reacher.  In any regard, regional mystery appears to expansive to always contain.  Take Jessica Fletcher’s [Murder, She Wrote] atmospheric blend of cozy and regional, where her cozy-style sleuthing takes place in the idyllic coastal town of the fictional Cabot Cove, Maine.  A defining characteristic of regional mysteries place a chunk of the setting as a character in itself.  In turn, this requires the author to shed information on the setting’s history, economics, and local color/culture.  Maybe those requirements are set above the actual mystery element, however, to a careful degree.  Still, those elements must be there and present, as they are what educates readers and draws color around the sleuth and his/her list of suspects.  Additionally, the regional aspect may also construct itself into the culprit’s modus operandi, as well as the list of evidence.  At least that’s how I see it.  A quick example: Honey Island swamp drownings in New Orleans and the bodies recovered with botanical pieces specific to that swamp region.  When I think of regional fiction I think of two authors who I recall shelving with a double glance at their covers.  Those covers were undoubtedly a sign of their regional based content.  First, Tony Hillerman’s settings take place in New Mexico and Arizona, capturing each of their local zest mostly through Native American culture.  Like I said, this is obvious from the cover but I haven't read him (only researched him).  That second example belongs to Elizabeth Peters.  From the covers of her Amelia Peabody Emerson books, you automatically gather that her regional sparkle takes place in sands of Egypt.

Historical Mystery

I think this sub-genre comes easier to mull over than the last.  They are mysteries that take part in a historical era prior to our own.  In a sense, historical mysteries go hand-in-hand with regional.  They both seem to call on an author’s affinity--or rapport--for a certain setting.  With historical mysteries authors can take their sleuth to China’s Qin Dynasty, sniffing for clues around the Terra Cotta Army.  Or see a sleuth in a lost tribe before the drought of Africa’s the Green Sahara.  Though I imagine that would be tough to pull off.  Nevertheless, some of the common historical locales of this specific sub-genre are European places like Victorian England.  The possibilities go on.  A loose example resides in Diane Wei Liang’s Mei Wang series.  Mei Wang is a private detective in today’s China; however, Liang fuses her protagonist’s personal struggles and job-related riffs with references to China’s outcome years after the Cultural Revolution.  Also included are mounts of discussion about the Red Guards, as well as references to the Tiananmen Square protest.  The only sad part is that the series is currently two books deep after its 2009 release of Paper Butterfly.  Just the mention of this series warrants a re-read.  Also worth mentioning off the top of my head is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Tess Gerritsen's The Bone Garden.

Cozy Mystery

Cozy mysteries are one of the most diversely themed mystery sub-genres.  You walk into a bookstore’s mystery section and see an assortment of murder mystery books adjoining murder and subjects such as sewing, knitting, baking, pasta, ghost, witches, librarians, cats, dogs; it just goes on and on.  Cozies are considered cozy because of their customary blend of light and comical tones.  That’s not to say that many aren't darker, like Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard series.  Nevertheless, one common trait of cozy mysteries are the off-stage murders.  An immediate example of off-stage murders emerges in Rita Mae Brown’s cozy, Wish You Were Here.  The first murder consisted of a character‘s body found crushed in a cement mixer.  The main protagonist, Harry (she‘s a woman), never saw the body, but had it described to her--as well as the reader--second-handedly.  I should point out that one strong stipulation to the off-stage murder topic is during the final reveal.  It's here that the protagonist sometimes witness or cause the killer's own demise.  Nonetheless, the same example could be said about sex in cozies--which is usually off-stage also.  But that's another post.  However, the off-stage sex deal brings me to another cozy commonality: cozies are often explored by a female amateur sleuth residing in a small town/community.  This amateur sleuth knows the population and their individual ticks as characters, which helps guide her detection toward the murderer.

Police Procedural Mystery

Simple enough.  Mysteries underneath this sub-genre use a professional detective operating underneath the auspices of law enforcement.  Therefore, said detective has access to certain resources that an amateur--or good-natured P.I--would not.  Usually authors portray these departmental sleuths from a big-city precinct’s homicide division, whether the sleuth status himself as detective or lieutenant.  Nonetheless, narcotics, high-tech crimes, undercover, and vice make for conceivable intermingling into murder.  So you often get a blend of much more than a simple murder mystery.  The key of the police procedural lies in the detective’s almost step-by-step case-handling.  Under an authoritarian view, this detective responds to the crime, process and collects evidence, then follows suspects and leads related to the victim.  That’s my simplified version at least.  I won't go into the use of marking paint and traffic cones, blood splatter and insect evidence.  Nor case clearance rates.  It’s hard to find others who talk about this particular series, but one police procedural writer I love is Eleanor Taylor Bland.  She wrote the Marti MacAlister series.  The series follows an African American homicide detective through the streets of the fictional city of Lincoln Prairie (near Chicago).  There will always be series far popular than this, but I point this out specifically because it’s rare to find an author sporting a black woman as the resident detective.  Granted that Bland was black herself.  Nevertheless, Paula L. Woods and her L. A. detective, Charlotte Justice, are murder mystery sisters with Bland and MacAlister.  For more on women of color solving crimes click here.  

P. I. Mystery

So of course the P.I. mystery sub-genre is my favorite.  I like it because it has this lonely hearts taste to it.  Which I can identify with, and also why I would love to write a series in this sub-genre.  I learned to really submerge myself into hard-boiled P.I. novels through Sue Grafton.  Consequently, her Kinsey Millhone detective is high on my list of favorite gumshoes.  I was at a used bookstore recently where a customer asked me to recommend her a mystery to help her out of a reading slump.  Without hesitation I told her to start with Sue Grafton.  Needless to say, Grafton and Kinsey deserve a post of their own.  So I’ll rein back and stick to the topic.  P.I.  Private Investigator.  Characters working in this vocation need a license to sleuth gracefully; a vigilant comprehension of liabilities and insurance; and a profitable, operating niche.  Secondary requirements consist of a good camera, binoculars, digital recorder, and some powerful mettle.  Oh, and sometimes a pack of cigarettes and a liver that can handle alcohol.  For all it’s worth, the P.I. sub-genre is probably the most familiar and easiest to reference.  However, two examples besides Grafton/Kinsey are Raymond Chandler’s classic hard-boiled defining P.I., Philip Marlowe; and Valerie Wilson Wesley’s single mother P.I., Tamara Hayle.  Both show the range and spectrum of characters and voices you'll find in the P.I. sub-genre.  Before I move on, you want to know something funny?  Female private investigators like Kinsey Millhone unearths my need to listen to Giorgio Moroder and Joe Esposito's "Lady, Lady." 

Forensic Mystery

The forensic sub-genre applies a gamut of varied physical evidence to uncover its criminals.  Normally operated in a lab or morgue, an evidence tech or forensic pathologist concerns him or herself with crime-related matters such as the autolysis of a corpse, DNA, bones, fingerprints, and blood splatter velocity.  This science pushing sleuth also uses hard facts, as well as chemicals like fluoresce and cyanoacrylate vapor, to corner criminals with harder evidence.  Considering we're speaking from a murder mystery stance, in the real world these coroners and medical examiners spend much of their time in a lab or court room.  They use their services to aid law enforcers in building a solid case.  However, in the literary world these individuals take on the role of a gumshoe, following their own trace evidences and firearms examinations to the criminal.  It goes without saying that Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series is the king of this sub-genre.  Speaking of Cornwell, I once had a mystery writing instructor mention that she's mean?  Is that true?  Okay, back on the subject.  Tess Gerritsen’s use of medical examiner Maura Isle pulls her own weight, as well as Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan forensic anthropology series/sleuth.

That is it for now.  I haven’t forgotten about the Caper sub-genre which involves a complicated plan designed for a character to break into an impenetrable establishment of some sort.  It might be a little off beat to mention, but Eric Jerome Dickey’s Tempted by Trouble works as a caper of sorts.  It’s not easily recognized, but it involves thieves and an elaborate set of schemes used to relieve its characters of a financial, economic bust.  Naturally, it goes all wrong.  Then there’s the Suspense/Thriller sub-genre (sometimes subcategorized between Romance and Psychological Suspense).  I look quickly to my set of Greg Iles books, remembering the little old lady who suggested his book 24 Hours.  Needless to say, it took me less than five to read it because I couldn't put it down.  

Having years of bookseller experience, I know without a doubt that John Grisham is the defining force of the Legal sub-genre.  That’s not without a healthy mention of Michael Connelly and Lisa Scottoline.

Of course the subject of mystery sub-genres go on.  Listen, we could be here all day discussing it.  We could even have a sub-sub-sub-genre discussion filled with tiers and diplomatic ramblings on the details that make them all difference.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that the mystery genre is about chaos, puzzles, and the necessity to swerve life back into order.  Tact in themes surrounding social issues and personal disparities and you can't go wrong here.

The video below is one of my favorite summaries of mystery sub-genres, delivered gracefully by Lisa Scottoline...  

Each of us like our mysteries like our coffee.  So how do you get your fix?  What’s your favorite sub-genre and why?  Also, share your favorite author and what it is about this particular writer that appeals to you?  And if you like this post and found it entertaining and informative, please share it through the provided networks below.

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