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.
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.