Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Guest Blogger Laura Childs

As we're smack in the middle of the holiday season, which I hope everyone is enjoying, let's stop and give a warm welcome to today's guest blogger. Laura Childs is one of the hardest working authors in the mystery genre, with three New York Times and USA Today best-selling traditional series: teashop, scrapbook, and Cackleberry Club. I was delighted that Laura agreed to guest blog—and absolutely dumbfounded when she sent her copy in early!

Please join me in welcoming Laura Childs!

A funny thing happened a couple weeks ago when Eggs Benedict Arnold, my new Cackleberry Club Mystery, was released. I decided to do a promotion.

Because Eggs Benedict Arnold is a fun cozy mystery about three forty-plus women who run The Cackleberry Club, a café that specializes in egg dishes, I immediately thought of chickens. Wouldn’t it be great, I wondered, if I could run a flock of chickens right down the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis?

Then I thought – hold everything – I could get arrested! Me and the poor chicks could end up cooling our heels (if chickens even have heels) in jail.

That led to a far saner and safer idea. I decided to donate one chick for every copy of Eggs Benedict Arnold sold during the two weeks of my book launch. I immediately contacted Once Upon a Crime mystery book store and they hopped on board.

So it worked just like this: For each book copy sold, I donated a baby chick through Heifer International, a non-profit organization that delivers farm animals to poor families across the globe. Just think about it. A small flock of chickens to a family in Nicaragua or Tanzania guarantees a protein-rich food source, as well as income from selling eggs and chicks. Pretty cool, huh?

At Heifer International’s website you can read about their other projects, too. Like providing a pair of goats to a poor family so they can start up a small herd. Or sending sheep to a group of women so they can launch a knitting business and turn it into a cottage industry that employs more women. It’s amazing how just a small donation can purchase these farm animals and send them around the globe to families and villages in need. What a great concept – a hand up instead of a hand out.

So, did I enjoy a traditional book signing with cookies and tea and holiday cheer? Absolutely. But it was also a joint celebration with caring, wonderful book lovers (like you!) who acknowledged a need and helped someone less fortunate during the holiday season.

What a bunch of wonderful readers. What a lucky author I am!

Happy New Year all, and have a great 2010!

Laura Childs

Saturday, December 26, 2009

WHO KILLED THE PINUP QUEEN? by Toni L. P. Kelner (Berkley)

The second book in the "Where Are They Now?" series is first class! Freelance journalist Tilda Harper is researching two articles—one about former pinup models, the other about an old Western TV show. She soon learns that the pinup models were (like today's wait staff) looking for their break as actors and that some of them will go to any lengths to hide their tawdry past. Can murder possibly hide their secrets? Not with Tilda on the case!

PINUP QUEEN is not only a solid mystery, but an interesting look at old-time television and pop culture. Two thumbs up!

FTC full disclosure - book provided by the publisher

Monday, December 21, 2009

Guest Blogger Cathy Pickens

Today's guest blogger is Cathy Pickens, author of the delightful Southern Fried mystery series. Cathy lives in Charlotte, North Carolina now, but she sets her books in nearby South Carolina. A Southerner born and bred, Cathy's characters are true to her heritage—down to earth, salt of the earth, and just a little bit wacky.

Please join me in welcoming Cathy Pickens!

Christmas Reading Then and Now
by Cathy Pickens

Our old family photos include one of me, age 8, sitting beside the Christmas tree, wrapping paper and gifts scattered about, my bangs flopped over my eyes, my shoulders hunched over as I read the brand-new Trixie
Belden book in my lap.

Ah, those were the days, when most of any holiday break from school could be spent reading. Even now, picking out just the right book (or books, if I’m lucky to have the time) to enjoy for the holidays is a consuming task
for me.

This year was unusually easy. As soon as Molly’s review of the Brixton Brothers and the Case of the Mistaken Identity appeared on this blog, I rushed to the bookstore down the street for a copy. Hilarious! The good-natured spoof on the Hardy Boys Detective Handbook was only part of the story, but laugh-out-loud funny. And it reminded me how I’d wished
Nancy Drew had a detective handbook instead of a cookbook. But I digress.

If you have younger readers in your circle, give the Brixton Brothers a try. Even if you don’t have any kids who can provide a disguise for why you’re reading the book, get it anyway.

I also shared my latest favorite book with one of my sisters: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Oh, my, what took Alan Bradley so long to “discover” and write about Flavia? Any grown-up Nancy Drew lover will recognize her darkly humorous twin in 11-year-old Flavia. I can’t wait for
the next installment, if the voice is even half as fresh.

Then I moved to less humorous fare. I’d gone to a local bookstore to sign stock for the new paperback edition of the latest in my Southern Fried mystery series: Can’t Never Tell.

Everyone has been raving about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so as a treat, I finally picked up a copy. By page 40, I was hooked. It was particularly comforting, as I read of 30 below zero weather in Sweden, to cuddle in a blanket in front of the fire.

For a holiday motif, I’ll have to re-read the opening scenes of Charlotte MacLeod’s Rest You Merry. Her professor-sleuth Peter Shandy and the holiday shenanigans designed to drive uptight neighbors nuts is one of my favorite mystery openings.

So what have you picked out for your holiday treat/reading? Or for gifts? Do tell us!

And I hope you are having a wonderful, joyous season full of plenty to
make the holiday bright. Happy reading!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

GUEST Blogger Linda O. Johnston

Today's guest blogger is Linda O. Johnston. I think I opened her first book because of the cover. It featured a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that reminded me of my own dog, the late, great Lollipop. I've spent a lot of time with Linda and her protagonist Kendra Ballentine since then. Linda's a busy lady, as you'll see just from reading her blog today. Please join me in welcoming Linda.

What's Mysterious about the Holiday Season?
I’m delighted to be a guest blogger here at Meritorious Mysteries. This is a fun time to come up with a topic--right in the middle of the holiday season. So, I’ll discuss me, and some of my thoughts about the holidays, and presents, and more.

I write pet related mysteries--the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries, and I’m also working on a spinoff series about Lauren Vancouver, a pet rescuer. Personally, I'm owned by two dogs --adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels named Lexie and Mystie. (Coincidentally, Kendra also has a Cavalier. Hers is named, again coincidentally, Lexie.)

In addition, I write paranormal romances for Silhouette Nocturne, including a mini-series about Alpha Force, a secret military unit of shapeshifters.

As a result of my pet proclivities, I wonder a lot about what animals are thinking. What, for example, will my Lexie and Mystie think this year as our relatives arrive in waves to celebrate the holidays? My delightful mother-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law will be traveling to be with us this week, as will our younger son who lives in San Diego. My nephew and his girlfriend, who live in L.A., will join in our festivities. Then, next week, our older son and his wife will visit us from Chicago. Since we’re empty nesters, it’s usually just my husband and me around to be servants to the dogs. What will be on the dogs’ minds with lots of other people around? More treats? More play time? More people to boss around?

And you? Do you have pets? How do they react to the holiday season and any extra folks you have visiting, for parties or family get-togethers or whatever? Is there anything mysterious about their reactions?

Then there are the other thoughts that might only come to authors this time of year, sort of like the beginning of the TV show Castle, where the protagonist points out that that there are only two kinds of folks who think about how to kill people--psychopaths and mystery writers.

I wonder at times, as I stand in the checkout line at Bed, Bath and Beyond, why that guy two people ahead of me is really buying that set of sharp knives. Or whether that rolling pin in the hands of the woman behind me will be used solely for baking projects, or also for battering... Okay, enough of that.

Better yet, I wonder how many people give books as presents. I seem to give a lot, and not just my own books. I’ve purchased books for nearly everyone in the family, based on their interests.

Do you buy books as presents for your family? If so, have you considered buying some of my Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries... just kidding. Sort of. But if you’re not buying Kendra books, or perhaps the Nocturne anthology Awakening the Beast, which contains a short story featuring Alpha Force, “Claws of the Lynx”--also available online as a Nocturne Bites--what books are you buying, and for whom?

I don’t want to be too specific in case my family members are reading this post, but I’ve already gotten them some biographies and books containing information on a number of topics... as well as a couple of research books I’m wrapping for my husband to give to me!

Please come visit me at my website: www.LindaOJohnston.com Also, I blog each Thursday, mostly about pets, at Killer Hobbies. My fellow bloggers there write hobby-related cozy mysteries. I’m happy to be among them, even though pets aren’t hobbies; they’re family.

Thanks for reading me here at Meritorious Mysteries! I’d love to learn your answers to the questions I’ve posted above, so please comment below.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

NEW TRICKS by David Rosenfelt (Grand Central)

There are some authors whose books go immediately to my to be read (TBR) pile. David Rosenfelt is one. Not only does he write great legal thrillers, his protagonist, Andy Carpenter, has a great golden retriever, Tara.

In this outing Andy, who inherited millions, is called by the court for a pro bono assignment: He's to determine who will inherit Waggy, a Bernese Mountain dog pup. When Andy goes to take possession of Waggy, he witnesses a horrific crime. Very soon, Andy has a human client who's facing murder charges. While working the case Andy is delighted to have the love of his life, Laurie Collins, visit from Wisconsin. After Laurie is shot and wounded while playing with Waggy and Tara, Andy realizes that his case might be much more complicated than he suspected.

As always, the legal aspects are clever, the plot is twisted, and the dogs steal the show!

FTC full disclosure - provided by the publisher

BUNDLE OF TROUBLE by Diana Orgain (Berkley)

In only six weeks Kate Connolly goes from bed-rest pregnancy to the beginnings of a new private investigation career—and all because of her husband's n'er do well brother. Before Kate and her husband Jim leave for the hospital, Jim gets a call from the San Francisco coronor's office asking about George. George's bags have been found on a dock where a body has just been fished from the bay.

Almost as soon as Kate and Jim bring baby Laurie home from the hospital, things begin drawing Kate into finding out more about the dead man. A chance meeting with an old friend when Kate goes to the corronor's office to pick up George's bags leads her further into the crimes. Break-ins, questions from a private invesigator, and more questions about George intensify her worries about going back to work when her maternity leave is over.

Orgain divides the chapters into sections following Laurie's birth. Kate's frustrations with breast-feeding, lack of sleep, and weight retention offer chuckles and realistic challenges of new motherhood.

I look forward to Kate's further adventures—and challenges.

In accordance with FTC full disclosure, this book was provided by the publisher.

THE NIGHT MONSTER by James Swain (Ballentine)

It's been a long time since I stayed up past my bedtime reading a thriller, but I did it last night.

Jack Carpenter is no longer a police detective, but he's still doing the same job: tracing and rescuing missing persons. For nearly 20 years he's been haunted by an abduction he witnessed but couldn't stop, that of a young college coed by a monster of a man.

When Jack investigates a man who is filming his daughter Jessie's Florida State basketball team, the man and his partner attack him. Jack realizes the partner is the abductor he's been seeking for years. When Jackie's teammate is taken from her hotel room, he's sure of it.

Jack's search for the missing Sara is complicated, treacherous, and long. The story unfolds as in a newspaper account, not like a movie. Jack Carpenter's commitment to his job makes the journey realistic and worthwhile.

If you've not read this great thriller writer, you owe it to yourself to put him at the top of your TBR pile!

In accordance with FTC full disclosure, this book was provided by the publisher.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Guest Blogger Katherine Hall Page

Today's guest blogger, Katherine Hall Page, is a three-time Agatha Award winner. The Body in the Sleigh is the 18th book in the Faith Fairchild series. Please join me in welcoming Katherine to Meritorious Mysteries.

I’ve just had the pleasure of doing three events here in the Boston area with the incomparable Carolyn Hart. Both of our latest books, The Body in the Sleigh and Merry, Merry Ghost are Christmas mysteries from Wm. Morrow. They went on sale the same day in late October with terrific l’heure bleue covers by James L. Iacobelli. Life sometimes offers these pleasurable coincidences. The two books complement each other and in many ways Carolyn and I do too. She’s a treasured friend, and I’m also a long-time fan—especially of this new series. Bailey Ruth Raeburn is my kind of ghost and takes me back to Noel Coward’s play, "Blithe Spirit" and Thorne Smith’s book, Topper, as well as the movie and TV series.

Anyway, Carolyn and I had great fun and each event had its own distinct personality. The questions were different—at one we were asked if we had ever written a mystery without a corpse! I learned all sorts of new things about Carolyn (she’s a huge baseball fan, an avid tennis player and has a fascinating family background that includes a true South Carolina gentlewoman). The one constant at each event was our descriptions of the message we convey in these two books—order will be restored at the end, triumphing over chaos. Light conquers darkness, especially during the times we need it most.

More than a year ago, there must have been something in the air currents that travel back and forth between Oklahoma and Massachusetts. Neither of us knew the other was writing a Christmas mystery; nor that the plot would center on an abandoned child—a child who ultimately finds a safe haven. The first line of my book is: “The Christmas Eve sky was filled with stars the night Mary Bethany found a baby in her barn.” And off we go to follow this Mary’s journey, with Faith Fairchild at her side, along with another odyssey involving two young people on the Maine island where the story is set. Santa arrives on a lobster boat and there’s plenty of Christmas cheer, but as Harlan Coben said about the book, “ Not only is The Body in the Sleigh a gripping whodunit but it’s a classic tale of hope.” (Harlan and I hail from the same town in New Jersey-yay!)

I’ve dedicated the book to librarians and include the names of some who have been very important to me in my life. I’ve also included an Author’s Note at the end about libraries and librarians. It’s an appreciation long overdue. The access to information we have and the role librarians play in our communities is unequalled anywhere in the world.

And now to Christmas. The following is a sample of some of my favorite Christmas mysteries from the past (roughly 1933-1998) and I would love to hear from you about yours, old and/or new ones! My best wishes to all for the holidays and many thanks to Molly for her wonderful blog.

“The Necklace of Pearls” by Dorothy L. Sayers was published in Great Britain by Gollancz in 1933 in the collection, Hangman’s Holiday, which included three additional Lord Peter Wimsey stories, six featuring Montague Egg, and two others. In this tale, Lord Peter is unmarried and has been invited to spend Christmas at Sir Septimus Shale’s country house in Essex “in a touching spirit of unreasonable hope, on Margharita’s [Shale’s daughter] account.” Sir Septimus indulges his wife’s moderne tastes throughout the year, but puts his foot down at Christmas insisting on crackers, plum puddings, and games in the drawing room beneath the holly and mistletoe. It has been Sir Septimus’s custom to present Margharita with a priceless pearl on her Christmas Eve birthday each year and she now has twenty-one, enough to gleam “softly” on her “slender throat.” She takes the necklace off during a game of Dumb Crambo (a rhyme must be acted out silently, similar to charades) and it disappears. The denouement is a marvelous example of “Hidden in Plain Sight,” and provides Sayers with the opportunity to show off both Lord Peter’s ingenuity and theatricality. He arranges for the guests to tear down the Christmas greens and toss them in the fire—even the mistletoe, much to the horror of the culprit, a “man about town” who “speculated,” But the pearls with which he perhaps hoped to recoup some Madoff-type losses had, of course, been removed by Sayers’ sleuth. One straight pin had been enough to tip Lord Peter off that the waxy white flora had been joined by some less perishable cousins.

For Hercule Poirot the notion of an old-fashioned Christmas at Kings Lacey is a chilly one and he is only persuaded to retrieve a priceless ruby lost by “a young potentate-to-be” who was sowing some Western style wild oats by the assurance that the manor house has adequate central heating. “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” (changed to the unfortunate “Theft of the Royal Ruby” in the US) is the title story in the 1960 Crime Club edition, published only in the UK, also containing: “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest”, “The Underdog”, and “Four-and Twenty Blackbirds.” It is the sole collection in which both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple appear; these stories were published in other editions in the US. In an exuberant forward, Agatha Christie declares “This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection.’ I am the Chef!”

It was a Christie for Christmas and “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is dedicated to Christmas Past, the celebrations of her youth spent at Abney Hall in the north of England, when “Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions.” Oyster Soup, Turbot, Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey, Sirloin of Beef, Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle, and chocolates. “We never felt, nor were, sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!” In this homage, the proof is indeed in the pudding and there are some fun twists and turns for the reader. Hercule Poirot is, of course, never in doubt.

In Dancing With Death by Joan Coggin, Lady Lupin Hastings’ friend Duds Lethbridge is filled with nostalgia for the pre-war Christmases of her childhood as well and determines to do her best to replicate them with a Christmas week house party at Old Place, a modest manor house in Buckinghamshire. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the house party from Hell, especially after the hard-to-obtain liquor runs out and yes, there’s a body too. Duds summons her old friend, Loops, for help.

Dancing with Death was published in 1947, or 1949 according to some sources, by Hurst & Blackett and happily reissued, with the previous three Lady Lupin mysteries, by Rue Morgue Press in 2003. A review of the time aptly describes Coggin: “Here is a detective storyteller with a welcome sense of the ludicrous, or perhaps a humorous writer with a detective flair.” (The Field)

The quartet of mysteries, are apparently the only ones Coggin wrote; the first is Who Killed the Curate (1944); followed by The Mystery of Orchard House (1946); Why Did She Die? (1947), US title: Penelope Passes; and Dancing With Death. The books are addictive—an effervescent cocktail equal parts Nancy Mitford, E.M. Delafield, Gracie Allen, and Carole Lombard with a dash of Faith Fairchild (Lupin is a highly unlikely clerical spouse like Faith).
With strict rationing still in effect, there’s plenty of holly and ivy, but the Christmas pudding is concocted from dried eggs and beer. Hot water is in short supply. The guests, whom Duds has not seen since before the war, are a quarrelsome bunch and she’s regretting her Yuletide impulse, almost upon their arrival. The plot involves an inheritance, blackmail, and disappointed love, concluding with a car chase straight out of "Bullitt."

Ngaio Marsh has one of the best Christmas titles—Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)—and best Yuletide opening lines—“On the 25th of December at 7:30 A.M. Mr. Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set.” (“Death on the Air”-1947).

In the novel, Tied Up in Tinsel, detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s artist wife Troy is painting a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman, owner of Halberds Manor. With her husband out of the country and unlikely to return home in time for Christmas, Troy accepts Hilary’s invitation to stay on at Halberds for the holiday, joining a small house party that includes his fiancée, Cressida. Halbers is being exquisitely restored and filled with tasteful and precious objets d’arte. Breathtakingly beautiful, Cressida will be the jewel in the crown. Halberds is also filled with another sort of collection—murderers. Single-job men. They are Hilary’s solution to the servant problem since Halberds is so isolated that more conventional help has been impossible to find. What ensues is a marvelously funny satire with Gothic, Victorian, and even Druidical overtones. It really should have been filmed with Alec Guinness, Terry Thomas, and especially Alastair Sim. Alleyn returns early to find himself in the unusual position of interviewing his own wife in a homicide investigation. And despite an earlier mortal impulse, this time the butler did not do it.

British mystery writers do such ingenious things with wirelesses. One is reminded of Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. Marsh’s short story “Death on the Air” is satisfying not only because of its intricate locked room plot, but also for her choice of victim—a truly horrible, despot who is crushing the life from his family and employees, especially his secretary Richard Hislop. The corpse could well have been tied up in tinsel and placed beneath the tree to the delight of all. Even the murderer, the doctor who calls in his old friend Roderick Alleyn, discreet and “a gentleman” to spare the family, is portrayed sympathetically, confessing in a final note, “ I’m sorry, Alleyn. I think you knew, didn’t you? I’ve bungled the whole game, but if you will be a supersleuth…”

In 1982, Mysterious Press issued two wonderful volumes of Murder For Christmas, edited by Thomas Godfrey notable for the trove of short stories, but almost equally for the Gahan Wilson illustrations and covers—a very unsaintly Saint Nick wrenching a diamond ring from the finger of a screaming young woman, as a monkish looking man face down in the plum pudding with a carving knife in his back sits at Santa’s side. Rex Stout’s “Christmas Party” is in Volume II. It was originally published in Collier’s as “The Christmas Party Murder” in 1957 and published the following year by Viking in And Four to Go, with “Murder is No Joke” and two other holiday short stories, “Easter Parade” and “Fourth of July”. Thomas Godfrey’s introduction describes the setting as “that most barbaric of all holiday institutions, the office Christmas party.” He sums up the plot: “Wolfe stews, Archie engages, orchids bloom and a good time will be had by all.” “Engages” refers to Archie’s role as a sham suitor, but that role is usurped by Nero Wolfe dressed up as Santa Claus—needing no padding— the prime suspect so far as the police are concerned.

Valerie Wolzien has written a number of holiday mysteries, (All Hallows’ Eve (Ballantine, 1992), A Star-Spangled Murder ( Fawcett, 1993), Deck The Halls with Murder (Ballantine, 1998), but the two Susan Henshaw Christmas mysteries, We Wish You A Merry Murder (Fawcett, 1991) and ‘Tis The Season To Be Murdered (Fawcett, 1994) will strike a resounding chord with everyone who has ever tried to achieve the impossible: a stress-free, serene holiday. They are a tribute to individuals trying to squeeze in shopping for the perfect gift with cookie exchanges, reproducing Chartres in gingerbread, and mediating between warring relatives, all of whom seem to be staying at one’s house somehow. When the UPS man delivers an additional parcel that he’s found propped up outside the door, it’s a relief for Susan to have something as relatively straightforward as a corpse with which to deal.

The last work, Jane Langton’s The Shortest Day Murder at the Revels draws upon a large cast, literally. Since 1971, the Christmas Revels, a festival of dance and drama that draws on ancient rituals from all over the world to drive the dark away, has been performed at Sanders Theatre in Harvard’s Memorial Hall. It is not Professor Homer Kelly’s thing at all he tells his enthusiastic wife, Mary—“Oh God…Morris dancers. All this folksy stuff, Ph.D.s and computer scientists pretending to be peasants.” Despite his initial skepticism, he becomes captivated by “this fanciful Cambridge version of the Middle Ages. It was nice, it was the Très Riches Heures come to life, enhanced by the mystic Victorian woodwork of Memorial Hall…"

First one death, then another. Homer had dons a mask as part of the performance, which puts him on the spot to unmask the killer. Langton’s lovely poem-and-ink drawings illustrate her own très riches heures, filled with Christmas lore and plenty of wassail.

At every performance of the Christmas Revels, the Master of the Revels sings “The Lord of the Dance” as first the actors, then the audience rise, join hands, filling the aisles and streaming out into the Hall’s corridors:
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.

Similarly, all of these writers have led us in a Christmas romp, a merry dance of cheer and fear. What could be better?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Guest Blogger Larry D. Sweazy

Today's guest blogger is Larry D. Sweazy.Larry won the Western Writers of America (WWA) Spur Award for Best Short Fiction in 2005, and was nominated for a Derringer Award in 2007. He has published more than 40 non-fiction articles and short stories which have appeared in, or will appear in, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; The Adventure of the MIssing Detective (Best Short Mysteries of 2005); Boy's Life; Hardboiled; Amazon Shorts, and otther publications. Larry’s first novel, The Rattlesnake Season, featuring Texas Ranger Josiah Wolfe, was published by Berkley in October 2009. Three more Josiah Wolfe novels are set to follow with The Scorpion Trail available in April of 2010, The Badger's Revenge in November 2010, and The Cougar's Prey in April of 2011.

Larry lives in Noblesville, Indiana, with his wife, Rose, two dogs, and a cat.

Please join me in welcoming Larry! He'll be checking in today to answer your questions and reply to your comments.

Cross-Genre Mysteries

One of the hottest subgenres in the mystery world today is the Western mystery. Think C. J. Box and Craig Johnson for a start. Both writers are at the top of the list whenever this subject comes up. And it comes up often, at least in the circles I travel in. But those two writers are far from the only ones writing Western mysteries, now or in the past. The question is, are they writing cross-genre mysteries or regional mysteries, and why does it matter in the first place?

“Categories are like walls,” says bestselling author Michael Connelly in a recent Publisher’s Weekly article, “and walls keep people out.”

I wholeheartedly agree, but there are a lot of people who don’t want their mysteries mixed with their westerns, or romances, or science fiction novels, and then there are other people who do. We know categories make it easy for publishers and booksellers to put a book in a certain spot so a reader will find it. How can a reader find a hybrid—a cross-genre mystery? Easy, slap mystery on the spine and it goes in the Mystery section of the bookstore. And readers walk by the other sections (that is, if said imaginary bookstore actually has a section for Westerns) without giving them a glance. I think readers are missing out on some fine writing.
Do you read other genres? And are you surprised when you discover you’re really reading a mystery novel, even though it wasn’t marketed that?

Since I’m obviously focusing on Western mysteries, lets look at a few popular ones. C. J. Box writes the Edgar-award winning Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming. Below Zero, Box’s latest, is the ninth book in the Joe Pickett series. Pickett is an interesting character because he’s pretty normal—married, raising a family, has a decent job, is content without any major demons to battle. His job, however, is one of the major things that makes him interesting. He rides alone with his dog in his pickup covering a huge territory by himself. He doesn’t have a lot of backup, and he has to face the elements of nature, man, and weather alone. Sounds a lot like a cowboy to me. He’s just driving a truck instead of riding a horse (which he does sometimes). There were range wars, water rights, and environmental struggles in the Wyoming of the 1870s.
Question is, if Box would have put Joe Pickett in the past, in the 1870s, would we be talking about him right now?

That question, naturally, brings us to Steve Hockensmith. Hockensmith writes the "Holmes on the Range" mystery series. The two main characters in this series are brothers, “Big Red” and “Little Red” Amlingmeyer. They are fans of Sherlock Holmes and using his methods try their best to employ critical thinking to solve the mysteries they come across. The first book of the series is set in Montana in 1893. This seems to be a true cross-genre mystery, a brilliant intersection of both western and mystery—so why isn’t it in both sections of the bookstore? It’s not. You’ll find it in the mystery section. Would the premise work like C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett series if you changed the time frame, put the Amlingmeyer brothers in modern day Montana? Probably, if they were written as well as they are. I’m just curious why nobody thinks they’re westerns when they really are.
Would the premise work like C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett series if you changed the time frame, put the Amlingmeyer brothers in modern day Montana? Probably, if they were written as good as they are. I’m just curious why nobody thinks they’re westerns when they really are.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, also set in modern day Wyoming, is extremely popular right now. His novel, Another Man's Moccasins, won the Western Writers of America (WWA) Spur award for Best Novel in 2009. But it’s a mystery? Well, actually, it’s both, since it’s set in the West. WWA doesn’t categorize by era, but they could.

OK, the mystery field is a diverse playing field. That’s its strength, but it can also be its weakness.

Remember, “Walls keep people out”, which in this case is readers and fans.

Here’s the other side of the coin. Ed Gorman just published another of his Leo Guild westerns, Death Ground. Publisher’s Weekly says, “This is a western for grown-ups, written in a lean, hardboiled style that should appeal to readers who ‘don't read westerns.’” Guild, a bounty hunter, is acting as a bodyguard for a very unpleasant man who is soon murdered, and Guild goes after the killer. It’s not that simple. Gorman’s novels never are. But a dedicated mystery fan, unless they know Gorman’s work in that genre, too, will walk right by the western section and miss a heck of a good book.

Loren D. Estleman is another writer who currently writes both westerns and mysteries. His long-running Page Murdock series about a U.S. Marshal traversing the West shouldn’t be missed by fans of either genre. Port Hazard takes place in San Francisco and has Murdock dodging assassins, an undercover Pinkerton detective, and a dwarf with an attitude. Estleman’s work is always fast-paced, but his true talent is snappy, realistic dialogue. The next Page Murdock novel, The Book of Murdock, comes out in March 2010. You’ll find it only in the Western section.

I could go on about the writers who wrote, or who write, both westerns and mysteries, like Elmore Leonard, Donald Hamilton, and Richard Matheson, to name a few, but that’s a whole other topic—other than to say the cross-genre mix has been going on for a long, long time.
What are some of your own favorite cross-genre mysteries?

Would you consider buying a book “outside” the genre if you knew a specific novel had all of the qualifications (in your mind) to be a mystery novel?

And, finally, what really qualifies a mystery novel to be a mystery? Is it just because the publisher or bookseller said it was one, or is it something else?

What are your rules for a mystery?

So, it’s confession time. I write westerns. But there’s a mystery in each of my novels, a fair whodunnit, red herrings and all. My first novel, The Rattlesnake Season, about Texas Ranger Josiah Wolfe just came out in October. I love both genres, western and mystery. But more than that, I love a good story, and I hope you’ll stop and browse outside the Mystery section the next time you’re in a bookstore. You might be surprised that you’ll find a good mystery in a place you least suspect—like the Old West.