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Two Kinds of Mystery Novel

Posted in Literature

After studying philosophy for years, it became difficult for me to read  fiction. I worked my way back into stories by listening to Neil Gaiman’s excellent recordings of his own excellent books, then Jim Butcher’s excellent Harry Dresden and Codex Alera novels, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s (a name I continue to find amusing) excellent Vorkosigan novels.

Recently, however, my focus has been on Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels. But I’ve also listened to a random scattering of others: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, John Sandford’s Rules of Prey, Jo Nesbo’s The Bat, Lee Child’s Killing Floor, and Alex Bledsoe’s horribly-named, but very good, The Sword-Edged Blonde.

(Why those and not others? They had good covers. I am not ashamed of this. I’ll write a post about it sometime.)

What I’ve noticed is something everyone else already knew: there are two kinds of mystery novels. There are stories where the “detective” is an interesting character, and stories where she or he is just there because someone has to discover the facts and stuff.

If I have to choose, I prefer the first type. The Flavia de Luce novels, for instance, are boring stories with a fascinating main character. I want to know how Flavia and her family turn out, so I keep borrowing them from the library. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night — the best mystery novel I’ve ever read — is also of this type. I hardly remember the central mystery; I remember the character development and “big themes.”

But why? If stories are important — and I think they are (though I’m not sure why; I’ll write a post about this sometime) — why do I prefer the stories with interesting characters and boring plots, over the ones with interesting plots and boring characters? Do I just prefer things to happen “inside” the characters rather than “outside” them, if I have to choose? Am I just emo?

Help me out here. Is character more important than plot, or do I have it backwards? Does that distinction even make sense? I’m genuinely confused (which is fun, for a philosopher).


  1. Dan Richwine
    Dan Richwine

    I have a hard time reading fiction for the same reason I enjoy reading history and philosophy, I love studying human nature. Most fiction does this badly. For that reason, I prefer interesting characters to a good plot every time. If it’s just an interesting plot, I’ll read a plot summary in about 5 minutes, enjoy it just as much, and save myself lots of time.
    A good character to me will give me insights as to his or others internal mind, which is why mystery is so good at that kind of thing. To solve the crime, the detective must understand the perpetrator.
    Personally, I’ve never read anyone better than Agatha Christie at this, particularly her Poirot character.

    October 30, 2014
  2. You know what’s awesome? It’s awesome when both plot and characters are brilliant. As a writer, I can also attest that It is also extreme difficult to do. Books that do this are masterpieces. (To Kill a Mockingbird.) I think you might also be undervaluing some plots that are good because they just aren’t quite as good as the characters. Have you read the Dalziel and Pascoe books by Reginald Hill? The later ones meet my exacting standards, as does An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

    October 30, 2014
  3. I agree that characters are most important. And that Gaudy Night is the best mystery ever. I liked all the Dorothy Sayers mysteries that I’ve read. (Also liked all the Nick and Nora mysteries.)

    October 30, 2014
  4. Dan:
    That’s really helpful. Thanks! I totally agree, and that’s a good way to describe what I’m thinking.

    Yes and amen! That is an excellent point. Thanks so much for the recommendations as well. When I’m not judging books by their covers, I’m reading them because someone recommended them. I appreciate your doing the “scouting work” for me, as it were. 😉

    My (already high) estimation of Kerry Greenwood went up significantly when I discovered Sayers was her favorite 🙂 I’ve never read any Dashiell Hammett, though I love the movies. I shall have to find them “on tape”!

    October 30, 2014
  5. I’m about to read my first Phryne Fisher novel… decided to go for very light reading, but I am grateful to this blog post and the comments for adding to my list of “to read” mysteries!

    November 5, 2014

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