Jessie Raymond: Some books’ popularity a mystery

I recently started thinking about writing a murder mystery set in Vermont.
I know nothing about writing mysteries, or fiction of any kind, for that matter. And I really only read classic British “cozies” — Agatha Christie, P.D. James and that crowd. I’m not sure my familiarity with early-20th-century English villages, with their glut of vicarages and parlor maids, would help me write a contemporary New England mystery.
I decided to read a few new releases, set in the U.S., to figure out whether an old crowd-pleaser such as arsenic poisoning would go over well in the age of forensic testing.
I chose, at random, three new mysteries from the library and headed home to learn from them.
It didn’t go well.
I took away these dubious writing tips from the first book, written by a New York Times best-selling author:
•Be sure to have your characters do more than “say” things. They must “squeal,” “whisper,” “insist,” “purr” and so on. (“The florist is dead!” he asserted.)
•Forget “show, don’t tell.” In case readers can’t decipher the mood of a character who is smiling and singing to herself, say, “She was unusually cheerful.” (Use a lot of adverbs.)
•Be sure to detail irrelevant processes step by step; for instance, how one character sends a cell phone photo to another. Repeat it several times throughout the book, augmenting with dialogue:
“Did you receive the photo yet?” she inquired.
“Yes, thanks,” he confirmed gratefully. “It is right here on my phone now.”
•Use dialogue for exposition, ignoring natural speech patterns. For instance:
“Katie Jones?” I grinned excitedly. “I haven’t seen you since we were in school together at Bowdoin, which is a college in Maine.”
“Yes, we were best friends until I stole your boyfriend Luke,” Katie muttered spitefully.
•And last — specifically for mystery writing — don’t worry about motive. Someone has killed the victim for reasons that make no sense, but it doesn’t matter. You wrote the book; you don’t have to explain yourself.
When I was done, I tossed the book on the coffee table and glared at it. I was, as its author might say, “highly irritated.”
Not only had I not picked up anything about mystery writing, I’d wasted hours on a supposed mystery that read more like a cell phone user manual. How could anyone have published this?
Looking for validation, I went to Goodreads.com, a website where readers can post reviews. To my shock, the book had garnered outstanding praise.
People called it “sweet” and “cute.” Only one person had reservations, writing, “I don’t get why the murder was committed” (same here!) — but even she gave it four out of five stars.
I don’t believe I’m a book snob. I steer clear of novels with intense jacket blurbs, like “The protagonist’s ennui in post-war Belgium will find you reflecting on the abstract otherness of time, of meaning, indeed of existence.” I look for words like “rollicking.”
I don’t expect to be deeply moved by a cozy mystery. I’m willing to accept the premise that a small town endures a couple of outlandish murders each year and no one finds it unusual.
But a good mystery should be fun to read. It should be well written. It shouldn’t insult the reader’s intelligence. And characters shouldn’t be insisting and muttering all the time.
After my rage settled, I opened the second of the mysteries I had brought home. Maybe all I needed to soothe myself was a few pages of a better story by a different best-selling author.
On the very first page, I ran into something like this:
Beth deftly pressed the “talk” icon on the upper right side of her steering wheel, activating Bluetooth, which allowed her to speak hands-free.
She greeted her husband, Trent, gleefully. “Hello, Trent!” she cooed.
“Hi, Beth!” he gushed romantically. “When will you be back at our tasteful four-bedroom home in the suburbs of Chicago?”
“Right after I pick up our two children, Max and Bella,” she giggled warmly.
I closed the book.
To be honest, I’m not confident that I can write a decent murder mystery. But my research did teach me one thing: A book doesn’t have to be good to be popular.
What a relief.

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