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.


Jill said...

I have read and read and read mysteries galore. I have also studied them a lot (much of my MA coursework focused on crime fiction). And I have even written (and published) a mystery.

I confess: I know NOTHING about the cross genre of westerns and mysteries.

I enjoyed the post and will check out some new books, new authors. It'll be fun to stretch my reading horizons.

Thanks! Jill

Larry D. Sweazy said...

Jill, glad the post was helpful. Here's a link to January magazine titled Sleuths and Spurs. It might prove to be interesting reading:


Larry D. Sweazy said...

Oh, the author of that article is Bill Crider.

Vicki Lane said...

Interesting post, Larry! I've not been a big reader of Westerns recently (except for Tony Hillerman and Craig Johnson.) But I grew up addicted to Zane Grey and have probably read all of Larry McMurtrey and a fair amount of Louis L'Amour.

Give me good writing and I'll read anything. Your post is an excellent reminder to me to check out the Western section (and Larry D. Sweazy.)

While I write mysteries -- they're not necessarily my first choice to read. Again, what I really want is good writing. But isn't there an element of mystery in almost every novel? Will she marry him? Will the ranchers and the sheepherders resolve their difference? Will the neon blue energetic beings from the planet Zarquon conquer the galaxy?

Msmstry said...

If the truest form of flattery is imitation, consider yourself truly flattered! I just realized you've given me a perfect topic for my library talk next week--"Cross Genre Mysteries." Thanks for the inspiration!

Larry D. Sweazy said...

I do think there is an element of mystery in every novel...though I think there are some genre rules (there has to be a crime, there has to be an investigation, etc.) that get used beyond mystery novels, and they don't get marketed that way. Unfortunately, I think readers miss out on some good stories and writing.

Oh, and glad to have inspired you Msmstry... :)

Johnny D. Boggs said...

Larry's way too modest. He's a top-flight writer of Westerns and mysteries. He has an excellent YA mystery short story, "The Trouble With Wind," in the November 09 issue of Boys' Life magazine. My 7-year-old has been reading that story regularly, and the little brat never reads MY work!
I'm a big proponent of tearing down walls and fences, and destroying, or at least, blurring genre boundaries. Was quite pleased when Leisure Books decided to cross-promote my novel KILLSTRAIGHT, mm pb due out in January, as a mystery to indy mystery bookstores and a Western. And it's both. I think the Western needs to think broader, crossing over to other genres. Emma Bull does a wonderful job in her novel TERRITORY, which retells the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday story as a FANTASY novel.
Bottom line, of course, is it's all about the writing and storytelling. Give me great writing, great characters, great plot, and I don't care what you call the novel, Western, Mystery or Crossover!
Good job, Larry.
Johnny D. Boggs

Larry D. Sweazy said...

Thanks, Johnny... And thanks, Molly, for allowing me the time and space on your blog. You're the best.

Anonymous said...
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Lilium said...

We have the same name! First and last :P I just wanted to say that, although Lilium is my pen name :)

Lilium said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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