Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"There is no smart-aleck and omniscient detective"

Publishers are in the business of selling books, so what they say about the books on dust jackets tells us something, surely, about how publishers perceive the buying trends of readers.  Today I'm posting a scan of Random House's blurb for Dorothy Cameron Disney's HIBK mystery novel Strawstack, along with the front panel of the dust jacket. Both items happened to be pasted in and thus preserved in my copy of the book.

2011 George N. Dove Award winner Catherine Ross Nickerson (whom I've been mentioning a bit in blog posts lately), sees the Golden Age, female-authored HIBK (or romantic suspense) novel as the primary alternative style within the mystery genre to American hard-boiled and British classical detection (she sees American classical detective novels as mere knock-offs of the British variety, which I think greatly slights the American tradition of classical detection; the recent Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction that she edited does not mention, for example, Melville Davisson Post or Ellery Queen).

Certainly the Random House blurb positions Strawstack as an alternative to classical, intensely puzzle-oriented detective fiction:

"Miss Disney has cleverly avoided the annoying devices that spoil the fun in so many murder stories nowadays.  There is no smart-aleck and omniscient detective, no boring and repetitious interviews with servants and finger-print experts, and, best of all, no complicated and confusing house and room plans that the reader is expected to paste inside his hat."

They've just dismissed a slew of things I love in mysteries!  Gosh darn those "complicated and confusing" house plans (ironically, there's a great one in the HIBK Urtext, Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, by the way, not to mention one in Mabel Seeley's HIBK The Chuckling Fingers, just reviewed here).

Clearly, though, Random House was trying to appeal to an audience that was perceived to be wearied with heavily puzzle-focused mysteries and more interested in depictions of emotional tension.

See how two modern readers reacted to Strawstack ("a murder story"), here and here.


  1. I haven't read Dr. Nickerson's work, but I'm already predisposed to dislike it, based on what you've been saying about it. Based on what I see in her CV at Emory, I'm thinking that she's taken a little-used button of appreciation for the HIBK and sewed a feminist hoop skirt on it. But then, it might just be that her and my likes and dislikes are polar opposites. I have to think, though, if there was any literary merit to the HIBK it would have survived, and to the best of my knowledge it has been entirely unseen since about 1960. The puzzle mystery, however, has a slight but active presence and it shows every sign of continuing. To me the HIBK is like the Old Dark House thriller or the dossier mystery, deservedly gone, and if Dr. Nickerson cares to keep mining that played-out lode, more power to her. She will continue to fail to convince me that the public's tastes have anything to do with anti-feminism.

    The Random House blurb you cite made me laugh. Aren't they really saying, "Here's a mystery for those of you who are tired of all that pesky THINKING that murder mysteries ask you to do!"? Yes, thinking "spoils the fun" of guessing whodunit based on how you FEEL about the character, I guess. (Although I'm always baffled why this hypothetical audience bothers with mysteries at all.) Perhaps, then, this is how the HIBK mutated into the Gothic romance and then the cozy/ultra-cozy -- by removing first logical plot structures and then anything that smacks of violence or unpleasantness, trying to appeal to an audience (apparently female) that doesn't really seem to want books that qualify as mysteries. If Harlequin would only up its game a little and aspire to a slightly less industrial quality prose, all those readers would quit pestering mysteries to become romances and go away and read something else entirely. We could then reclaim the word "mystery" to label books that make you think difficult thoughts and experience strong and frequently unpleasant emotions.

    By the way, it wasn't until I followed the links that I realized I'd read this Disney novel under a slightly different title in its mapback edition. I've always thought that particular novel was one of the most beautiful examples of that beautifully-designed line of books; definitely worth looking at.

  2. Yeah, Noah, I think there are limits to the feminist gloss one can put on some of these HIBK tales. And I too part company with those who pooh-pooh plot complexity. I like plot complexity! But I think it's an interesting development to document.

    Agree about The Strackstack Murders. It has been reprinted under that title too, by some POD company, apparently. Not to be confused with Kirke Mechem's The Strawstack Murder Case!

  3. I've encountered quite a few mysteries that included floor plans. I've never yet found these floor plans to be complicated and confusing.