Friday, August 26, 2011

Six Mystery Writers You Should Be Reading

One of my favorite genres for reading is the mystery genre. I especially like private investigator stories, but read a wide variety of other types of mysteries as well. Most of my writing has been in science fiction, fantasy, and horror but recently I've been adding some mystery stories, too.

Writers almost always benefit from being well-versed in the work created by others in their genres of interest. To that end, I've put together a list of six mystery writers whose fiction I believe is of use to people who are new to writing mysteries. Even beyond that, since many of the attributes of these writers' works I discuss aren't specific to mystery fiction, they could be good examples for writers of all genres.

This isn't an attempt to say who the best six mystery writers are, these are six that came to mind as being a good list of authors whose writing represents different particular strengths. They are presented in alphabetical order.

Lawrence Block is the first of four Mystery Writers of America Grand Masters on this list. The things I would specifically draw attention to in his writing are his sense of setting and his dialogue. Block's novels, particularly those set in his native New York City, frequently make good use of their setting. In his Matt Scudder novels, in particular, the city becomes very nearly a character of its own. There's also a very distinctive "voice" to Block's dialogue; his characters make interesting and (when appropriate) witty observations, without it feeling forced or inauthentic. I love listening to his characters "talk." In addition, Block has done a great deal of writing about writing; for many years he had a Writer's Digest column and those columns have been published in collections.

Dick Francis (Grand Master #2) is notable for creating dozens of novels which all dealt with the same overall milieu (British horse racing) while mostly not being series novels. It's interesting to see just how many different angles Francis, an accomplished jockey, was able to take on the idea of "a mystery novel associated with the world of horse racing."

Sue Grafton (Grand Master #3) has created one of the classic Private Investigators, Kinsey Millhone. One thing that's interesting about her series was the decision to keep them all set in roughly the same time period, even though they've been written over a span of nearly 30 years. They've gone from being contemporary novels to being period pieces. It's an interesting approach and a contrast to Block's Scudder novels where the characters have aged in basically real time.

Jonathan Kellerman has drawn on his background in psychology in writing his novels featuring psychologist Alex Delaware, who gets pulled into various police investigations. These are both good examples of psychological-based mystery/thriller novels and also an example of an amateur investigator.

Ed McBain (Grand Master #4) may be best known for his 87th Precinct novels set in fictional Isola -- a thinly-veiled New York City. These are great both as examples of the police procedural sub-genre but also for world-building. Setting his novels in Isola allowed McBain to provide a background setting which readers would basically understand while freeing him from the need to stick to specific details of a real city. (Grafton's novels are also set in a fictional location.) In addition, the novels have a large extended "ensemble cast" of characters, adding to their richness.

One of the things I find fascinating about the novels of S. J. Rozan is the way her pair of private investigators "take turns" being the point-of-view character for her novels. Lydia Chin and Bill Smith work well together, but are very different people. Seeing the world through their eyes independently is interesting, and it provides an example to a writer who wants to deal with multiple POV characters either within or between works.

Obviously, this list shows my personal tastes. I have a particular affinity for New York City-based mysteries and three of my six use a NYC or pseudo-NYC setting. There are plenty of other authors who could have easily gone on this list. Who would you put on your list of suggested mystery reading material for writers?


  1. Hi Michael - Fellow Write Campaign Fantasy Group Member stopping by to say hello. Love Jonathan Kellerman, I think Milo Sturgis is an amazing character - I have a bit of a crush! I also enjoy Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker series and their son, Jesse, writes some cool books too. I will put your suggestions on my TBR list.

  2. Hi, Kate, thanks for stopping by to say hi!

    Yes, the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis rapport is another thing I enjoy about Kellerman's books.

    I've never read any of the books by Faye or Jesse. I'll have to keep those in mind as future TBR items! Thanks for your comment.

  3. This is really helpful Michael. I'm beta-reading a friend's mystery novel now, and it's good to have points for comparison. I haven't read Dick Francis in years; I know Sue Grafton, but the others I'll have to check out. Fellow campaigner here; nice to meet you.

  4. Hi, Gail. I love your blog's header art!

    Nice to meet you. I'm looking forward to getting to know more about you and your writing during the campaign.

  5. Thanks for the list! After reading Lawrence Block's Burglar books (so fun!),
    I've been thinking of reading more mysteries. This gives me a few names to look for!