2 June 2009

The Dangers of Genre Mixing

Currently I'm reading SILENT IN THE GRAVE by Deanna Raybourn, and a recent review of the same book by Bernadette on Reactions to Reading set me thinking about the risks that an author runs if he/she decides to mix genres, in this case mystery and history.

And then today Crime Scraps touches on a parallel subject in What Makes a Novel feel Right?

So what can go wrong if a writer decides to straddle two genres? Reginald Hill tried something similar last year with A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES when he combined crime fiction with a tribute to Jane Austen. Both his Dalziel & Pascoe followers, and Jane-ites, expressed feelings of dissatisfaction, and it did seem as if he had not pulled it off for all.

I think the problem with trying to write historical crime fiction is that the author can go astray on at least two counts.
  • First of all those who love their historical fiction will expect an authenticity that is hard to achieve. As Bernadette says "the writing of it is deceptively difficult". The readers don't want the details laboured or forced, but they do demand that not only the visual elements but the incidental details support the story.
  • Secondly those who are reading it for the crime fiction will not be tolerant if the historical stuff appears to get too much emphasis. They want the book to get to the mystery or crime relatively quickly.
It is hard to strike the balance between the two.

A historian by training, and history teacher for many years, I don't actually specifically choose to read historical crime fiction. So my acquaintance with this cross-genre is not all that deep, although I have come across some that I really enjoy.

For example the Charles Todd books that I have recently discovered do a really good job of setting the series in the period just after the First World War. There's a good post on the Todd books over on Mystery Fanfare. There are other authors such as Elton, Greenwood, and Winspear, who manage to re-create that period too.
Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness series similarly seems to me to do a good job with the post war period.

From an entirely different period: Ellis Peters showed just how it could be done with the Cadfael series.

If you are looking for some other recommendations about who does the historical mystery thing well, you might like to follow Sarah Weinman's articles on Barnes & Noble, beginning with Ancient Plots. If you find it hard to get to the next article, go to the last (there are 4 articles) and work back.


Bernadette said...

LOL Kerrie I just posed a question about this very aspect of SITG for the discussion on Oz Mystery Readers. Great minds think alike eh?

I think some writers think it's really easy to stick a mystery or romance in some arbitrary period in history by throwing in a few obvious references and not a lot of detailed research and I don't think you can get away with that. You have more chance if you treat it a bit lightly (as Rhys Bowen or Elizabeth Peters do). but if you're going to treat it seriously you do have to get it right and give your characters contemporary thoughts, actions and behaviours. My favourite example of getting it right that I've read this year is Tom Rob Smith's CHILD 44. Awesome book.

Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for the link. I agree with everything you and Bernadette say; historical crime fiction needs research, a good plot and a feel for the period.
I haven't read Charles Todd but it sounds as if I should but Ellis Peters was marvelous. I would not know my monastic herbs from my habit, but my wife is a bit of an "expert" [she denies this] on the medieval period and enjoyed the Brother Cadfael books immensely.

Maria said...

On a related subject, there are authors that write mystery that decide to add a fantastical element (like a ghost). I actually read a lot of fantasy and enjoy it, but I guess it's all about expectations. It can be jarring if you're reading what you think is a "straight" mystery and suddenly fantastical elements show up. Case in point, I'm reading "Criminal Tendencies," a collection of crime fiction--there's a couple of stories with a fantastical element. In this type of collection it feels kind of like it's being sprung out of nowhere because it's so unexpected.

I don't read a lot of historical mysteries. Perhaps it is because it is very difficult to merge the two and make it work. Another reason is that some I have tried tend to have too MUCH by way of facts and it bogs the story down. In a lot of ways it all about expectations. If I sit down to read a historical, I expect to keep a slower pace. If I sit down to read a thriller...I don't mind some historical elements, but I probably picked the thriller because I wanted ACTION!


Belle said...

Great discussion. I don't like reading much historical fiction, but I do like a blend of historical and mystery usually. I also like mystery/fantasy blends. I'm a Reginald Hill fan, and a Jane Austen fan, and as it turns out, I loved A Cure for All Diseases! I thought Hill's characters were just lovely, and the mystery worked for me, too. So I guess I'm just someone who likes blended genres.

Susan said...

I do read some historical mysteries - Candace Robb is my new one, set in York England in the 1100's. I quite liked the one I read, but the others are out of print so I have to hunt for the rest now. I've read some of Charles Todd - both my mother and i like him. I'm reading Susanna Gregory as well, set in 1600's England (Thomas Chaloner series) which having been to London recently, I am really enjoying the series and atmosphere and landmarks.

I would have to say that mystery and history do combine very well if the historical aspect is complementary to the mystery - ie, not too much historical fact gets in the way, and is just used as setting, atmosphere, and character realization. I enjoy thoroughly reading about other times....oh yes, Ariana Franklin's Art of the Poisoner series is fabulous!!! set in 1100's England as well.....

Kerrie said...

Thanks for the recommendation Susan. Another to add to the growing lists!


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