Open Letter to All Mystery/Thriller Writers

I’m a writer, but I’m also a reader. And today, I want to put on my reader’s hat and talk to you about my pet peeve.

I love all genres, but since my kids were teenagers, I have tended to genres that have some semblance of closure or happy endings. I lean heavily toward romance (guaranteed HEA) and mysteries (generally solved). Now that my kids are grown and gone, I might be more tolerant of books that don’t end, only stop–but probably not. I want closure in my entertainment.  I don’t want the bad guy to get away… he might be out there stalking me next.  I want justice to prevail.  I want the monster to be killed.  Find some cool way to resurrect him in the next book, but make this one END.

I want to take this opportunity to make a suggestion to all you mystery and thriller writers out there… Your Hero Doesn’t Have To Be Miserable. There. I said it.  There are plenty of life lessons to learn that do not revolve around the romantic trappings of life.  In order to be an amateur sleuth, you don’t have to be single, unlucky in love, or recently bereaved.  A happily married person can solve a crime.

You can have conflict and back story without killing off every significant other. People who are happy and settled can be just as good at following clues as your tormented just-been-widowed person.

When I was a teenager, I read every Robert Ludlum book that hit the bookshelves.  Even as a youngster, I noticed the ‘formula’.   Almost every book starts out with a woman’s death.  Then her husband/boyfriend/lover is shown to be shattered and ruined while the plot thickens with a conspiracy of frightening proportions.  I wasn’t seventeen before I stopped buying and reading Ludlum.  If you haven’t read all his books, you just need to imagine the Matt Damon movies.  First in The Bourne Identify, he finds a girl… first scene of the second movie… you get my point.

I love Dana Stabenow‘s Kate Shugak series, but I haven’t read the past few books.  I finally realized why.  In the first few books, Kate has a boyfriend and just as they are getting serious–willing to bend and share a life together–Stabenow killed him off.  Then, for the next few books, Kate is tortured and miserable.  Then she starts dating again, and the character she dates is one that has been around since the beginning.  We know him.  He’s a charmer.  I am so afraid that she’s going to kill him off (TOO!) that I quit buying her books.

Mystery and Thriller authors–I don’t want to stop buying your books.

I understand that some protagonists will have tragic circumstances.  Tony Hillerman‘s Navajo Tribal police books are classic examples.  Joe Leaphorn would not be the interesting detective he is without his wife’s longterm illness and death.  But now that he’s moved on, I don’t want his new love interest to be a casualty.  I like Joe with a little happiness in his life.  He’s suffered enough.  Same with Kate Shugak.  She can find some dead bodies and identify the killer without any more personal angst.  I know she can.

Think of The Thin Man movies based on Dashiell Hammett’s book.  Nick and Nora Charles drink and dance the night away while Nick solves crimes.  They are happily married and have a cute little dog.  The movies that popularized these characters were more successful than the original short story which didn’t focus on the couple.

I get that some characters have to be sad and tortured.  But not all of them.  Some people can be happy and just deal with baggage left over from childhood.  JD Robb’s highly successful franchise Eve Dallas is happily married.  She has enough angst going on for all of us.  Not all protagonists have to have an outstanding romantic loss to solve a crime or track down some conspiracy.  Just sayin’.

–Sandee Wagner

14 thoughts on “Open Letter to All Mystery/Thriller Writers

  1. Thank you for the tip!
    I’m usually a kids’ lit mystery writer, but I’m writing an adult mystery for NaNoWriMo, and I’ll bear in mind your request. My main character is a lively, strong and so far, reasonably happy young woman, but I’ll definitely place her in situations leading to joy and laughter, as well as terror and danger.

    • Tree, you do that and you will have my undying respect and admiration. I have to admit, the longer you read a genre (especially as a writer) you begin to see so many things reoccur. It can kind of ‘kill the love’ for you.

      I’ve certainly had my fill of the ‘kill off the love interest’ book kick off so the protagonist can be tortured by it. Plenty of happy people are out there, living their lives. They can solve the crime or debunk the conspiracy. I challenge you to DO IT!! Good luck with NaNoWriMo. I’m doing it this year too. spw

  2. I remember seeing some British mystery series (starring the actress who plays Hyacinth in KEEPING UP APPEARANCES) where she became a PI after her kids left home. She was happily married though her husband wasn’t crazy about her taking cases that might endanger her. I only saw a few episodes, but I loved what I saw.

    • I think people forget that some of the most famous sleuths in history were not tormented at all. Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot both managed to solve crimes without the stories being about them… of course, those two were not in romantic relationships, but neither were tormented, damaged or grieving. The action doesn’t have to begin or revolve around the main character’s angst when you’re writing a mystery. I love, Love, LOVE Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody mysteries. And in those, Amelia is happily married and managing her families’ lives. spw

  3. Thank you for stating it so well. We were watching the last Jesse Stone movies a few weeks ago and when he went to bed with the pretty curly-haired girl, I commented, “Well, darn, I liked her.” That town should have a billboard with a picture of him, warning, “Sleep with this man and you will die.”

    I’d like to add that not all mysteries/thrillers need to have a high body count and the deaths don’t have to be graphically violent. All body parts CAN be intact, including skin. Ocean of blood are not necessary. Killers can be something other than total psychopaths. Just once in a while.

    • Marilyn,

      I completely agree! Some of the scariest thrillers are still Alfred Hitchcock movies. You never saw the graphic gore, just visual inferences shadows, blood drips. Still the gold standard for your directors who want to learn to build suspense and tension.

      I think as the special effects have improved, to a certain extent, the suspense plots have suffered. Do you agree? In visual media, they can show so much… so they do. Never wondering if it would have been creepier and more effective if they left it up to our imagination to fill in the scary parts.

      I have not seen the Jesse Stone shows, but I’ll be on the lookout for them while I’m back in the states. I’ll want to buy up some US TV to take back with me to the UAE. spw

      • I do agree. I think a lot of the time it’s a case of “We CAN do this, so we’re going to,” whether it’s the best way or not. I guarantee every filmmaker and author out there, I can imagine stuff that’s way bad enough. I don’t need them to fill in the brutal details.

        The Jesse movies are based loosely on Robert B. Parker’s books. They’re unique in that they’re fairly slow stories. They take their time building into it, developing characters and having entire minutes where nothing actively happens. They remind me very much of books when I first got into the business, where you took however many pages necessary to tell your story. None of this constant action/sound-byte stuff. I do recommend watching them in order, though, because Jesse is a complex man and while they do stand alone, I think, you’ll appreciate them better if you start at the beginning.

    • Meggie,

      I agree. My daughter, Emm, and I have discussed this at length. She reads a lot of horror (and I don’t cause I’m a big baby!) But some of the authors use monsters that are physical and real, and others utilize the ‘man as monster’ theme. I find the ones where a man is the monster to be much scarier and harder to forget. I guess the ‘possible’ sticks with me? Psychological is always scarier. Hannibal Lector spent most of the movies chained to a board and behind bars and he’s still one of the creepiest bad guys out there. spw

  4. Marilyn,

    Jesse will be on my list. I do like to see the whole TV series, one right after the other. I imagine this is how the writers wish we’d view them too. I like to see the character development, and the overarching story lines. I’ll check it out. spw

  5. YES!! That’s part of why I don’t buy books very often anymore :o(

    Even with the three books you JUST bought me, Craig read the back and commented on how is seems like yet another “strong chick who is half-human/half-something saves the day, only the chick is a guy.” LOL, it made me laugh but has stuck in my mind as I’ve begun reading… I’m still hoping this series isn’t that predictable!

    • Well, Craig has a point about some of the urban fantasy set ups, it requires someone who isn’t quite human to set it apart from well, urban fiction.

      You’ll like the first two of those books, in the third one, he kind of “jumps the shark”. spw

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