First, the anthology I co-edited with R.G. Emanuelle is now available in print! WOOO! Go get some.
And second, I’ve been doing a lot of mystery/thriller reading these days, trying to get inspired to write a mystery/thriller short story. I’ve never written a short story in that genre, so I’m a little tentative about it. I do have an idea, but I haven’t really had the time to sit down and hammer away at it. I’m hoping this weekend is the key.
Anyway, I just finished Walter Satterthwait’s Joshua Croft series, which he published in the late 1980s and early- mid-1990s. Croft is a PI in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the five books (listed HERE) are full of local color and the quirks and vagaries not only of Santa Fe, but of northern New Mexico and its myriad characters. For that alone these are worth the read, but what Satterthwait does so damn brilliantly is characterization and dialogue.
Croft is a wiseass, and the snappy interchanges between him and the other characters that fill these books with New Mexico goodness and maybe a touch of Southwestern noir lend great pacing to the plot arcs and subplots. Satterthwait is a master at pacing, and his descriptions and turns of phrase can be both brilliant and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Witness this, from The Hanged Man, the fourth in the series (that deals with murder most foul in a part of Santa Fe’s new agey community). Here, Croft is about to interview someone who was at the gathering at which a man was later found murdered. He’s gone to her house and is noticing its décor:
The basic motif here appeared to be Egyptian. …There was enough marble in the room to slap together a life-sized replica of the Parthenon. Even the floor was marble, black, as shiny as obsidian. That floor might be pleasant in the summer, on the two of three days when the temperature in Santa Fe rose above eighty-five degrees. During the winter, it was probably a bitch to keep warm. But I suppose that if you could afford a marble floor, you didn’t worry about heating the thing. You just marched your Nubian slaves in from time to time and had them breathe on it. [p. 26]
And one of the interesting things is that there are LGBT characters that pop up in some of the books, and they’re not treated disparagingly. They’re part of the fabric of the culture in Santa Fe, and for books written in the late ’80s and early 90s, that’s actually really cool.
Anyway, I also read crime fiction written years ago to get a sense of how investigation has changed over the years, and what techniques people used to track down suspects. Having a historical sense of shifts in methodology, I think, can help a writer develop a better sense of the many different ways people use to find information. And indeed, ol’ skool is still used for some things today. Reading authors like Satterthwait not only gives you a sense of shoe-leather approaches, but also of how that type of investigation can influence pacing, characterization, and plot arc.
Reading someone like Satterthwait, who weaves the setting so beautifully into his plots and whose characterization is so good, can also provide you some guidance on writing a thriller/mystery with regard to those elements, and how they should work.
So with that in mind, read the oldies, friends. You can find lists of them at links like this:
Stop, You’re Killing Me!
The Top 100 Thrillers of All Time
100 Mysteries and Thrillers to read in a Lifetime (Amazon list)
Mystery Thriller Writers (Wikipedia list)
Edgar Awards Database at Mystery Writers of America
History of crime fiction
Happy reading, happy writing, happy Wednesday!