The essence of a genre

As I discuss in my genre lecture in my readers’ advisory class at UCLA, crime fiction accounts for as much as a third of the fiction published in English worldwide. If you regard that statistic you must conclude that there are many for whom the reading of mysteries is an attractive or even compelling way to occupy their leisure time.

A basic definition of mystery fiction is “any work of fiction in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the theme or plot.” But there is so much beyond that basic definition—at the very least, Who are the characters? What is the situation? and Who will figure it out? Think about all the elements that can be components: the red herring, the false clues, the inside job; the amateur vs. the professional detective, the reconstruction of the scene and circumstances, the procedural details of discovering the means, motive, and opportunity—the list goes on. There is also, amongst mystery readers, a certain vicarious authority or presence indulged in by their choice of protagonist. In other words, since most mysteries are part of a series, you as the reader are going to be spending a lot of time with that protagonist, i.e., the detective or person acting as such. That protagonist is
going to become far more important to you than any individual plot or story.

If you ask a mystery reader to describe Harry Bosch, the main character in Michael Connelly’s long-running series set in Los Angeles, they can give you a complete catalogue of what he looks like, how old he is, where he lives, how many times he’s been married and to whom, his relationship with his daughter, how many times he has been hired and then fired by the LAPD, in what other capacities he has performed as a detective, and even his war record in Vietnam; but if you ask that same reader the plot of one of the 24 Harry Bosch novels, that person may say “they all run together after a while.” It seems that everything about a series protagonist is recalled as a unit, with little or no memory of which specific texts revealed these details.

That’s not to say that plot isn’t vitally important to the experience; by reading a mystery, you are participating in the process of going from the unknown (the whodunnit) to the known, and following many indicators to get to the resolution, and mystery readers are notoriously unforgiving of a poorly laid-out plot. But characterization, of both the protagonist and the other participants, is key to a successful mystery.

I say all this as a lead-in to discussion of the book I just read, the first of a fairly long (10 books) and apparently successful body of work by a well-respected author whose other, more recent writing (Shetland Islands) I have recently enjoyed. It was because of those books that I decided to sample Ann Cleeves’s more well-known series about Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, beginning in 1999 with The Crow Trap.

Having finished the book, I am utterly baffled about why, once having read this first one, anyone would bother to continue onward with the rest. Perhaps, if I had first seen the television show Vera, based on the series and starring the wonderful Brenda Blethyn, I might barrel on through, convinced that things could only get better. But if it were left to The Crow Trap to convince me, it simply wouldn’t happen.

To me, this book violated so many of the criteria we mystery readers have come to expect from our genre: A compelling story, an interesting if not charismatic lead, an engaging mystery. Instead, there is a vaguely presented low-key conflict in a country town, about which even the principal players don’t seem passionate, and a detective who isn’t introduced (beyond a cameo appearance where she is mistaken for someone else) until about the 45-percent mark in a book that is about 150 pages too long. There are multiple murders of people that everyone, including the principals, seems hard-pressed to care about. The main characters are not well defined or described, and each of their personalities border on irritating to downright unlikeable. The detective herself is repellent in a way that would, for me, be hard to recover from in subsequent volumes, because I disliked her so much—both her manners and her methods. There is little order or logic to the investigation, and the resolution is so completely underplayed that I had a hard time understanding that yes, indeed, it was this person for these reasons, and the story is over.

This book received a preponderance of four-star ratings on Goodreads, while I struggled between the flat three-star “I liked it” score and the more accurate (but still maybe too enthusiastic) “it was okay” of two stars. I won’t descend to one star, giving Cleeves credit for at least creating an initial interesting scenario, but beyond that I would say, Read her Shetland books instead, or, hey, watch the TV series guilt-free.

2 Comments on “The essence of a genre

  1. Thank you so much! It’s nice to know someone else reacted to a book this way. I haven’t read it, and now I don’t plan to do so. I’m glad to not invest energy and time in an unpleasant book. I’ve wasted so many hours reading stories I think will get better and been disappointed.


    • I often hesitate to write a negative review such as this; people’s tastes are so different, and some liked this book and series quite bit. But I was so disappointed by it, especially because I had enjoyed her other series and people told me this one was better! Not my experience.


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