Right at this very moment, as you read this, my agent is hard at work peddling two mysteries I have been working on. One is titled Double Tap, Baby and the other is the first entry in the McCabe County series. I have been tossing around ideas for titles for that one. Not actually tossing them around, of course, but considering them in my mind. Considering them, and dismissing them. I thought about just calling it McCabe County. But if I do that, then what’ll I call the series? I considered Left Behind. Once you read the story, the title will make sense. However, there’s one little problem with that one. There was a very successful series called Left Behind a few years ago, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. I wouldn’t want anyone to mistakenly think my McCabe County series is connected to them. Not that their Left Behind series is in anyway a bad thing, but it would be misleading to the reader. Just like if I called it Star Trek or Hawaii Five-O. I also considered calling it No Man Left Behind. Great, except it’s terribly clichéd. As a writer, you don’t want the reader yawning when they read the title. So, for right now, I’m giving it the incredibly original title of Untitled McCabe County Novel.
Despite my trouble with titling books, I’ve been studying the mystery genre for quite some time. I have come to believe there are generally three distinct types of mystery. And two of them aren’t really mysteries at all.
The first kind—The Traditional Mystery. A classic whodunit. A murder victim is found. The sleuth finds a steady line of clues. and tries to figure out the answer before the reader can. These stories generally have a memorable sleuth, a character the reader of the classic mystery can really come to love. Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first one, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. He published this in 1841. Truly a man ahead of his time. Arthur Conan Doyle created the first memorable sleuth, and probably still the most outstanding, in Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie gave the world an outstanding body of work featuring two memorable sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Rex Stout gave us Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The traditional mystery was celebrated on television a while back with a TV series called Murder, She Wrote. This type of story is fun, and they are still inproduction, though they are kind of falling back behind the more sensationalistic thriller. John Sanford wrote that there are two kinds of mystery, defining one as the clockwork novel, where the sleuth tries to solve the mystery and discovers the culprit as the reader does. The traditional mystery would be a clockwork novel.
Which leads us to the second kind—The Thriller. John Sanford’s called the second kind of mystery a chaos novel, and most thrillers would seem to qualify. A chaos novel reveals who the killer is, often in the first scene. No secrets are held back from the reader. We witness the sociopathic, sadistic villain at work throughout the book, killing victim after victim. We get into the villain’s head and learn why the villain is what he or she is, even if the victim doesn’t actually know the reason himself. Or herself. We also follow the sleuth as he or she (all right, enough of the he and she stuff. For the rest of this blog, I’m just going to say she) follows clues and such, and tries to figure out who the killer is. It’s a chess game, with the reader privy to the thoughts of both the hunter and the hunted. What qualifies these for the thriller label is the crimes are usually quite horrific, over-the-top stuff, and getting into the head of a sociopath can be quite unsettling. James Patterson is one name that comes to mind as a writer of the chaos novel, the thriller, with titles like Kiss the Girls, and Along Came a Spider.
If you consider the classic whodunit to be the definitive mystery, and you’re in a large majority if you do, then you probably don’t consider thrillers to be real mysteries. They are seriously edgy, sometimes almost frightening crime novels with a twist of mystery to them. Some bookstores shelf them in the mystery section and others under general fiction. But the publishing industry usually lumps them all together under the word mystery.
Then there is the third kind. The tough-guy mystery. One of the earliest really popular tough-guy mystery heroes was Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. There are also the works of Raymond Chandler. In recent decades, we have the Spenser and Jesse Stone novels of Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child with his Jack Reacher series. These are actually action/adventure stories. It could be said that Spenser and Jesse Stone and Jack Reacher are actually contemporary gunfighters, living by their own code of justice that sometimes is a little contrary to the law. Since Jesse Stone is a police chief, this can lead to interesting conflicts within the character. Again, Mike Hammer was one of the first. In I, The Jury, Hammer doesn’t even hesitate to pronounce himself judge, jury and executioner.
One difference between the classic gunfighter story and the modern tough-guy mystery is gunfighter-oriented westerns work best in remote, frontier towns with names like Tombstone and Dodge City. The tough-guy, modern-day gunfighter stories often work best in urban areas. An exception to this would be Craig Johnson and his Walt Longmire novels, and the TV series inspired by it, and my own as-yet-untitled McCabe County novel.
Like with the Thriller, these are not really mysteries. Not in the traditional sense. They are adventure stories, oftentimes glorified contemporary westerns at least in the structure of the story, but also with a little mystery served on the side. And like with the Thriller, they are often shelved under mystery or general fiction, but the publishing industry qualifies them fully as mystery.
As a writer and as a reader, I have a lot of respect for the classic mystery, and I have enjoyed a good thriller once in a while, but my heart really belongs to the third category. The tough-guy, adventure mystery. This is the category that both of my mysteries belong to.
Double Tap, Baby takes place in and around contemporary Atlanta, and follows a private eye by the name of Alexander Hollis as he deals with two mysteries, which eventually tie together and lead to an explosive outcome. The McCabe County novel takes place in, you guessed it, McCabe County, Montana. It follows Rick McCabe, the county sheriff, as he also tries to deal with two mysteries. Like with Double Tap, both mysteries wind together with an explosive outcome.
The McCabe novel is a tie-in to my western series, The McCabes. Rick is a descendant of Johnny McCabe, the gunfighter protagonist in the westerns. It takes place in the same county and in the same town, only generations later. This novel should appeal to those who like the McCabe westerns, but it also stands on its own. Double Tap, Baby stands alone, in that it’s not tied into anything else. I hope that readers who like the tough-guy adventure mystery can like either one of my novels. Or, what the heck, maybe even both of them.
Am I ending this with a shameless plug? Maybe. But if you read one or both, let me know. Throw me an email. I’d like to know what you liked about them. Or if you didn’t like them, let me know that, too. I’m a junkee for reader feedback. And this is the only way we writers are going to know what you, the reader, wants to read.