Tuesday, September 28, 2021


Larry Maness: Case Solved: Mystery Readers are the Smartest

No one, writers and readers alike, enjoys discovering an error in a book. However small, be it a misplaced comma, incorrect spelling, or in the case of one Barry Thomas Reed who pointed out in a precisely crafted letter to my publisher what he called a ‘factual conflict in the early pages’ of my novel, Nantucket Revenge. Mr. Reed writes that on page 26, lines 9-10, on page 30, lines 2-3, and on page 32, line 19, there appears to be some confusion on whether the passenger ferry Eagle sailing out of Nantucket ran aground before or after the Coast Guard boarded her. 

I wrote Mr. Reed a warm Thank You note pointing out a different line on page 26 stating that the Coast Guard successfully boarded the ferry and had her towed back to the dock after she’d grounded. Conflict resolved. 

Over the years I have had occasion to correspond to readers with questions ranging from who a certain character is modeled after—if any-to where best to begin a hike given the locations mentioned in A Once Perfect Place set near New Hampshire’s Pitcher Mountain. 

All reader’s questions and comments reinforce something that I’ve believed since I began writing mysteries: Mystery readers are some of the most intelligent and actively engaged readers in the reading world. 

Years ago, I was one of several book reviewers for “Boston Review” and “The Boston Phoenix.” In the days before electronic submissions, publishers sent advanced copies or galleys to Arts Editors who made reviewer assignments, if we did not find on our own something that we wanted to read. Finding that soon-to-be-reviewed tome involved a trip to one office or the other and rummaging through stacks of books until selecting a book. 

Other reviewers did the same and would often make comments on a book someone had selected. The jab went something like, “Why review that (substitute any genre here) when you could write about something more serious?” The slight was obvious: mystery, thriller, Sci-Fi (add any genre fiction) is less than so-called serious fiction. To take that thought further, genre readers are somehow inferior to readers of serious fiction. They want page-turning escape. They want to ignore the struggles of life, which is the purview of the serious novel. 

P.D. James and John D. MacDonald, both excellent stylists to name but two, would likely challenge the notion that their best fiction was anything other than serious work, and that their readers were somehow inferior. In my view, readers who enjoy puzzling out the guilty in the pages of a well-written mystery are actively engaged in characters, plots, and places like no other readers. 

One reason for this is that the nature of a mystery novel invites the reader to participate in solving a puzzle. A crime or murder is committed. What was the motive? How was it done? Who did it? These and other questions create a unique bond between writer and reader. As the characters develop and the plot hurries along, the mystery reader transforms him or herself into an additional detective trying to solve the case along with the fictional characters. This is especially true when the author writes in first person since the reader and the fictional detective learn about the crime and possible solutions simultaneously. 

This participation in the novel occurs because readers of mysteries are basically curious. To solve the mystery requires careful, thoughtful reading mixed with a bit of logic that helps spot the red herrings. These readers really do want to know who did it. But they don’t want the answer to come too easily. Readers feel cheated when after 100 pages they have figured it all out. No, they want a challenge and good mysteries provide that. 

There is another, perhaps more important, reason that mystery readers are actively engaged like no other readers and that relates to their book selection process. Publishers’ marketing research has been done in how the background color of the dust jacket and shelf placement effects sales. Books with black covers placed on the bottom of the retail book shelf sell fewer copies than novels with lighter covers placed near the top. But more than the cover and shelf placement, readers of mysteries relate to the underlying theme of all mystery novels: The never ending battle between good and evil played out in a familiar arena. 

In the real world, crime often does pay and amoral, vicious men and women can and do get away without penalty. In most mystery novels, the good and virtuous win. The victory may not be tidy, some rough edges may remain, but the bad guys pay their debt. The victory over evil is sweeter when the protagonist overcomes his or her many flaws to gain the upper hand. Again, in the real world, our flaws are often not overcome. We don’t win all the entered races and the girl of our dreams may have run off with the crook who lives next door. 

In a mystery novel, the crook gets busted, the girl comes to her senses, and we are all breaking the tape when we cross the finish line first. So for all the Barry Thomas Reeds out there who take the time to spot a factual conflict in any of my work, I thank you in advance for taking my and all other mystery writers novels seriously enough to offer your thoughts. We are, after all, moving through the pages together. 


Larry Maness is the author of Nantucket Revenge, A Once Perfect Place, and Strangler—all featuring Jake Eaton, Private Investigator. The Jake Eaton mysteries and his novel The Voice of God were reprinted last year by Speaking Volumes Publishing who published his newest novel, The Last Perdoux, in the Spring. 


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Great post - enjoyed that. Provided food for thought

HonoluLou said...

Wise words. I love ending each day with a little murder and mayhem inside a good book. It gives one hope things will be better, despite the world around us.