WR Book Review #2: Mysterious Writers, The Many Facets Of Writing Mysteries Compiled And Edited by John Henry Mead

For all you aspiring or practicing mystery authors. In this second edition of WRITER READS, I’m reviewing a not-so recent release. Mysterious Writers by John Henry Meade (Poison Press, 2010) is a compilation of 73 mystery, thriller, and crime author interviews and essays, short but succinct, that should hold something of interest for any aspiring writer of mysteries.

Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness.

Author, Carolyn Hart

Books on writing often break down, in terms of the overall structure, into the two most popular formats; those written by a sole author (such as the last book last reviewed here, Storyville by John Dufresne) or those books that are constructed of compiled articles, interviews, essays, etc. featuring a number of authors and either focusing on a given subject (genre, plotting, character), form (novel, short story, playwriting, screenwriting, poetry, etc) or giving their views on the subject overall.

Mysterious Writers, The Many Facets Of Mystery Writing, compiled and edited by John Henry Mead and published by The Poison Press is a version of the latter but done in combination. That is, it is a compilation of interviews with many mystery writers, but then broken down into genres and sub-genres. And with mini-essays at the end of each interview.

The first thing a prospective purchaser of this book on writing mysteries will discover is that it is not only about writing mysteries. Chapter 1 focuses on cozies and senior sleuths and includes interviews with Carolyn Hart and Nancy Pickard, among others. But then we move on to Suspense/Thrillers, including Jeffrey Deaver, Jason Pinter, and Robert W. Walker, Historical Mysteries with Rhys Bowen and Carolyn Dunn, etc., Western Mysteries with C.J. Box and Craig Johnson, and so on. So if you were looking for a book solely on writing the mystery form, this isn’t it. But I don’t think there is any interview in this book whose advice can’t also be applied to the pure mystery—or any other genre for that matter. Plus, with a glance at the table of contents, a writer/reader can easily find their particular genre or sub-genre and read those interviews first before expanding out to read the rest.

…Mysteries are about solving a crime, wheres thrillers are about preventing one

Jason Pinter

The second thing a reader of this book will notice (or at least I did) is the names of the many well-known authors interviewed, some best-selling, some mainstays in the genre. Not just the ones previously mentioned, but also Elmore Leonard, Louise Penny, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Lee Goldberg, and more. So there is a lot of credible and attractive star power within the pages from hugely famous writers who I’m sure most readers will jump to first. But then there are also the voices of those authors who are not necessarily publishing phenoms but who consistently sell well within their genre, as well as some unfamiliar upstarts (back then). And I appreciated the balance. Sometimes when reading the interviews of a best-selling author, particularly one who writes in your genre, is a favorite, and has been interviewed many times before, you are re-reading their perspectives on how they write, plot, develop character or worlds, etc. for the umpteenth time. With those authors not interviewed so widely you are getting fresh perspectives that often come across particularly refreshing and insightful because the interviews focus more on craft without the distractions of what it’s like being a famous author; publicity, fans, media, etc. (distractions, if you are reading this book, you probably do not yet have to contend with yet). These authors are also closer to the level of a beginning writer and so some of their candid answers can be particularly relatable and encouraging. The interview with Jim Doherty where he discusses, among other craft-oriented subjects, using pseudonyms, slagging sales numbers, and the perils of chasing trends is a good example of a candid interview with a hard-working writer.

The third thing the reader will notice is that this book is dated. Originally published in 2010, there are Q&As to do with the publishing industry at the time, the economy, reading trends, technologies, etc. that are just not relevant today and so not useful. However, the content and insight that stays true to craft by these writers—the important stuff–is timeless and does not feel at all dated. It’s also interesting to note some recognizable names and how their careers proceeded from that time. C.J. Box and Craig Johnson were nowhere near the superstars they are today (Netflix helps). Meanwhile, John Gilstrap’s career after his big contract for Nathan’s Run has sort of withered (though he is still publishing). And, yes, it is a little disheartening to read of some of the up-and-comers back then who, now, eleven years later, have not quite yet up-and-come. But all aspiring writers know the odds going in and this is not to say that there still isn’t much to learn from these writers’ advice as any other.

The interviews in Mysterious Writers are generally short (they have to be–there are seventy-three!) but helpful. They cut to the chase. The common denominator questions throughout are all the usual suspects: where do you get your ideas, how do you plot, writing schedule, creating the mystery, etc. Which is good. Trite and obvious as those questions may seem, these are the questions aspiring writers want to be answered first from the writers they are trying to emulate. This isn’t 60 Minutes, after all. Readers want information they can use. And there are some great insights that catch you by surprise–even though you may subconsciously know it beforehand–or succinctly sum up a point to keep in mind when writing (one of Jason Pinter’s quotes comes to mind: ‘Mysteries are about solving a crime, whereas thrillers are about preventing one.’ Obvious in hindsight, perhaps, but a clear demarcation a writer of either type of story might want to keep in mind when plotting). There are some other questions that seem irrelevant; what would you be if you weren’t a writer? What writers would you most like to have dinner with? etc. Still, the interviews generally get to the heart of writing craft and do not linger much on peripheral matters.

Something I thought that was a great idea in this book was having each interview end with a mini-essay by the author being interviewed. Sometimes this works better than others (Carolyn Harts’ succinct distinction between the crime novel and traditional mystery and Rick Mofina’s helpful reminder of 16 tips to writing a great thriller—useful. Tim Halliman’s meandering meditation on writing in an Asian coffee chop and Amy Carter’s promotion of her radio show—not so useful to writers looking for insight on craft).

Another unexpected and welcome addition was a chapter late in the book on mystery resources beyond the novel. It includes interviews with crime historian EJ Wagner, crime biographer Jeffery Marks, and police procedural expert, Lee Lofland, and others. These sections not only provide some great interviews and resources from people who, like the reader, are passionate about mystery and crime novels, but also highlight some genre alternatives for writers and lovers of the genres. Who knows–you may want to write some non-fiction one day.

I was not as impressed with the chapter on niche mysteries. I understand the inclination. They were extremely popular back then and still are. But success in that genre has predictably narrowed in the intervening years to its most popular authors and most of these mysteries are actually cozies that could—and probably should–have been merged with the first chapter on cozies. Even an interview/essay with one niche author on turning your passion into a mystery novel would have summed the sub-genre category up fine, I think.

This book does not go into a lot of depth on the craft of writing mysteries with any one author, and at times can feel sleight. You want more from Elmore Leonard. You want more from Louise Penny. But for those writers who want to write mysteries (or thrillers or procedurals, etc) and who love reading interviews with writers and to compare their own methods with published authors, this book is great to peruse and skip through and underline as you wish.

This is exactly that book when you remember a piece of writing advice but can’t remember who said it and so rush to your bookshelf to pull it out, find your highlights, and read more.

Random Kick-Ass Quote On Writing

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Happy writing!