My Genre: The Sort-of Mystery (Guest Blogger: Lisa Lutz)
After my first novel, The Spellman Files, was completed, I often found myself in situations in which I had to answer the question, "What's your novel about?"
The rest of the conversation would go something like this:
Me: It's a novel about a family of private investigators and how the tools of the trade affect their family life.
Other person: What's it called?
Me: The Spellman Files.
Other person: It sounds like a mystery.
Me: It's sort of a mystery.
The covers of mystery novels often display the word "mystery," which helps booksellers place it in the store. Both of my books simply say "novel," but if you go into a bookstore, you're more likely than not to find it in the mystery section.
I have a mixed reaction to all of this. On the one hand, the mystery audience is huge, and many mystery readers wouldn't pick up my books if they thought it was just a comedic novel about a family. On the other hand, "mystery" creates certain expectations that my novels weren't intended to fulfill--there's no murder, no drug rings, nothing terribly sensational in the plot, no giant twists or turns (a few minor ones), and the story focuses fairly little on the external cases the Spellmans solve. At an early publicity meeting with my publisher, months before publication, my editor was adamant that we not push the novel as a mystery. "It doesn't succeed as a mystery," she said.
She was right. I never conceived The Spellman Files as a mystery. I read and enjoy all kinds of mystery and crime fiction, but they're not genres I felt inspired--or equipped--to write. If pressed to choose a genre for the Spellman books, I guess I'd call them comedic novels (sounds kind of blah, but the shoe fits). I liked the apparent contradiction of a novel about a family of private investigators that wasn't a mystery.
About a decade ago, I worked for two years at a private investigative firm in San Francisco. I'd like to repeat again in writing that I was never a licensed private investigator. I was an assistant at a private investigative firm--the lowest on the totem pole, in fact. I answered phones, I generated bills, and when business was really slow, I was sent to the basement to shred old files.
While I had a few intriguing assignments--I managed to work my way onto one or two surveillance teams--for the most part it felt like any old office job. In the two years I worked there, we didn't solve a single "mystery." What we did was answer questions. Sure, sometimes the "plot thickened." For example, say a wife was having her husband investigated for having an affair; maybe we'd learn that he was not only having an affair but also gambling away their retirement fund. (This specific twist never happened, but it illustrates the kind of turns investigations sometimes took.)
What we didn't do was hunt serial killers or uncover child pornography rings. We might have been asked to look into a cold missing-persons case, but we didn't solve it. As far as I recall, no one got into a fistfight, fired a gun, or was followed by a shady character who thought we were getting too close to the truth.
My point is, after gaining some insight into the real world of private investigators, I wanted to write a novel that took a more realistic approach. From the start, I always knew that what I was writing was only "sort of" a mystery. I used the PI angle as a way into family dynamics and the mysteries of everyday life.
So maybe what I'm trying to suggest is that we broaden our scope about what a mystery is. Anytime you have an unanswered question, it's a mystery. Watch a complete stranger on the street for 15 minutes. I bet you'll notice something--however small--that seems completely inexplicable. And if you do figure it out (let's go double or nothing), I bet it'll be weirder and more intriguing than your initial puzzlement.
Recently I was walking down the street behind a guy carrying a baseball bat. He was dressed in street clothes, wasn't carrying an athletic bag, and didn't exactly fit the profile of a mob goon. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I walked up alongside him. "Hey," I said. "What's up with the bat?" He proceeded to tell me a very long story about getting a paw print for his friend's dog. Somehow the bat was involved, but his explanation was so long-winded and nonsensical, I never uncovered the truth. Like so many real mysteries, that one too remained unsolved. --Lisa Lutz