Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book


My basic grid

Twice in my life I’ve accepted a request to serve as judge for an annual mystery award. The first time was during the 1980s, when I served as one of the five judges to determine the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery Novel. The Edgar is given by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The second time was this year (2016), when I served as one of three judges to determine the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA).

For the Edgar Award I read approximately 200 submitted novels. There were more than 200 submitted, but some weren’t eligible (mainly because they weren’t mystery novels). The reading and evaluating of those novels was difficult, especially because the novels didn’t arrive at my doorstep at an even rate of, say, 20 a month. Instead, the bulk of them arrived after September — and the voting took place at the end of December. During some days I read one novel all morning long, finished in mid-afternoon, and started another novel in the evening.

For the Shamus Award I read about 20 novels. Here, too, some weren’t eligible (because they weren’t private eye novels). Instead of having a twelve-month reading period, as with the Edgar, I had about a four-month reading period, with voting due at the end of May, 2016. Still, even though in both cases I read each eligible novel from beginning to end, it was far easier to read 20 novels in four months than it was to read 200 novels in twelve months.

The real question in judging books for a contest, however, isn’t the number of books submitted — it’s how to evaluate them while reading, how to remember them, and, ultimately, how to rank them at the end of all the reading.

Conceivably a person reading 20 books in four months could remember what she thought of each and list her top five choices without having taken notes of any kind. She could, for example, stack the books in piles as she read them, the best going in the #1 pile, the good-but-not-best going in the #2 pile, and the others going in the #3 pile. Then, when the time came to vote, she could quickly skim the books in the #1 pile to refresh her memory, then rank them in the order she thought best.

I don’t think anybody could do this with 200 books, though.

And because my first book-judging experience was with the 200 books, I developed a chart and filled it out for each book. I kept the filled-out charts (and not the novels themselves) in three different stacks.

Somewhere along the route of computer upgrades, system upgrades, and word-processing upgrades, I lost the chart I developed for the Edgar judging. But when asked to read and judge books for the Shamus, I had almost no difficulty reconstructing it.

My approach was to read each book from beginning to end, thinking about it as I read. After I finished, I would fill in the chart by marking an X within each box. I also used the space within each box to more accurately record my impressions. To the left end of Average brought that aspect of a book close to Very Good. To the right end brought that aspect close to Poor.


Not a contender

Above is an example of how I filled out the chart for one of the books. I have left off the title, author, etc., because I don’t want to identify the book, I simply want to use it as an illustration. It was not a contender, as you can infer from my ratings and comments.

Many people think that a book that deserves an award will be so good, so clearly dominant, that everybody will agree and vote it #1. This is certainly possible: there are years in which all the judges vote for the same book as #1. But it’s also possible, and in fact likely, that judges will vote for different books as #1.

The book with the highest number of points wins the vote and therefore the award. That is to say, each first-choice book receives 5 points; each second choice 4 points; and so on down to each fifth choice, which receives 1 point. It’s possible that a novel all five judges rank as #2 ends up being the winner. Therefore, it’s not a matter of simply voting for the novel one considers best, and not caring about the other four. A judge must think carefully about each of his final five choices, and think hard about how he would rank them.


The book I ranked first

I found that the best way for me to rank the books in order was by evaluating them as I read them, recording my judgements, and then examining both the novels and their charts before voting. Above is my chart evaluation of the novel that I ranked first. It’s also the novel that received the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.


The book I ranked second

Above is my evaluation of the novel I ranked second. As you can see by my notes, I thought the novel I ranked second was a good book, but I was critical of some weaknesses in the plot. I might read another book by this author, I might not. But I will read another book by the winner, because her characters and their situations were compelling. And her writing is excellent. She was, by the way, in my opinion the only one out of 20-some authors who wrote a mystery filled with tension. In fiction, tension is essential to a good story. If there’s no tension about what’s going to happen . . . who cares?

Now that the Shamus Award judging is done and the winners in each category were announced at the 2016 Bouchercon, I can put my master grid away. Until, perhaps, I need to use it again.


Barbara Gregorich does not discuss award judging in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. But she does talk about how to develop characters, plot, and tension, and the importance of the solution.

Plot: The Steps of Struggle

In fiction writing there’s an endless debate over which is more important when you’re coming up with a story: character or plot. Personally, I don’t believe that one comes before the other, but that’s because when I’m planning a story, character and plot (as well as setting) come to me at the same time. I can’t create characters without at the same time creating their struggles — and their struggles and actions are the plot.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle, in his Poetics, explained what plot was: a series of causally related events. Aristotle considered plot the single most important element of drama, and he believed that it was plot which had the ability to arouse emotion in the audience.

Strictly speaking, it’s the characters’ actions (their taking steps that become elements of the plot: A, B, C, D, etc.) which arouse emotion. Characters alone, doing nothing, do not arouse emotion. But characters acting do.

Plot is a series of events that constitute a chain: each event is linked to another through cause and effect. In a linear novel, Event A causes Event B, which causes Event C, which causes Event D, and so on down the line.

But even though plot events need to be understood in linear order, they need not be presented to the reader in that order. For example, in my novel She’s on First, the first event is baseball scout Timothy Michael Curry sitting on the bleachers in a college stadium in Pennsylvania, watching the Liberty Bells play a game. That could be considered Event A . . . except that the story gives an immediate flashback to a Little League game several years earlier. This event (let’s call it Event B), appears to be the cause of Event A. But about two-thirds of the way into She’s on First there are more flashbacks, revealing that Event B was not the precipitating event. It, in turn, was caused by previous events.

No matter how complex the order of telling a story (and She’s on First is of very minor complexity — there are some super-complex novels out there!), the chain of events that form the plot can be reconstructed in linear order, joined by cause and effect.

master_mediumI highly recommend Robert Kernen’s book, Building Better Plots. He defines plot in this way: “The arrangement of events in a story to elicit a desired effect on the audience. A series of events organized to progress from inciting incident through rising action to climax and finishing with the resolution.” Aristotle, who felt that drama should achieve an intended effect on the audience, would have agreed. Good writers create plot points that reveal who their characters are.

Another good book on plot is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. When I first encountered this book many years ago, I thought that a book which compressed all plots into one of twenty types couldn’t possible help me.

I was wrong. Writing a novel is a complicated business, one that requires rethinking, restructuring, and rewriting, and during that process it’s often necessary for the writer to remind herself what the story is about: What is the basic plot? During that complicated process, it often helps to question the basic nature of your plot. Are you writing a Quest plot? An Escape plot? A Rivals plot? A Riddle plot? Or maybe an Underdog plot? According to Tobias, each plot requires a certain structure. His book helps you understand that structure and develop it.

The fact that plot events are related by cause and effect gives a novel great continuity. The plot events, and the character choices based on plot events, help expound the novel’s theme: the observations the author is making about life.

Writers to whom plot comes first don’t necessarily neglect character. They trust to the plot to reveal character.

UnknownAn example of how good plotting can result in greater character development is the example of Earl Derr Biggers. Back n the 1910s Biggers was a very successful novelist of popular fiction. He was, as well, a playwright and collaborator on other plays. In 1920 he and his family took a long vacation from New York through Canada, down into California, and, finally, to Hawaii. There, lying on the beach at Waikiki one day, Biggers came up with the idea of “how to commit the perfect murder.” He was so excited by this that he wrote to his editor about it.

It would be four years before Biggers found the time to return to his “perfect murder” plot, but when he did, he of course created the characters who would carry out the plot. One of the characters Biggers created was Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, Charlie Chan. This character became popular around the world, from Sweden to China, and places between. The Chan novels were translated into 33 different languages.

From a plot, Biggers was able to create a character who became bigger than the plot.


Barbara Gregorich discusses different aspects of plot in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture

In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.

Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.

Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.

9780897335843In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads  woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.

In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.

PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.

Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.

Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.

Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.

CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”

In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.

Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.

“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.

LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.

87c8d93b34e60b34717d82d37a5f667dIn Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.

That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.

Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:

• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.

• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.

• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.

When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.


Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.

The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions

Photo by L. Miguel Bugallo Sanchez

African grey parrot. Photo by L. Miguel Bugallo Sanchez.

When I was sixteen years old I read Earl Derr Biggers’ first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key. And then I read his second mystery featuring Chinese-Hawaiian police detective Charlie Chan — The Chinese Parrot. The bilingual parrot (Chinese and English) is an African grey parrot, though most book covers take liberties and depict it as a more colorful bird.

In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting, I detailed how I read each of Biggers’ six mysteries four times, in order, and how, because I was growing older and presumably smarter as I read them, I saw more within each novel each time around. What I saw in my third and fourth readings of The Chinese Parrot was that Biggers made some important navigational decisions in his second Chan novel: decisions that would determine the direction of future novels in the series.

Despite the fact that the reading public was crazy about Charlie Chan after just one novel, Biggers himself was not sure he wanted to write a sequel. He feared that if he did so, the Chan-crazed public would then demand another. And another, and another after that. His fear, as he expressed it to his editor David Laurance Chambers, was that the public would then accept nothing but Chan novels from him. His freedom to write novels such as his earlier ones (non-mystery novels which put him on the literary map) would be gone. This is, in fact, what happened . . . but the telling of it is another story.

After some thought Biggers decided that with his earlier books, particularly the highly popular Seven Keys to Baldpate, he had (by choosing not to write a sequel) failed to capitalize on an economic opportunity. He determined to rectify that error by accepting the challenge, and thus he wrote The Chinese Parrot.

All of Earl Derr Biggers’ notes, original manuscripts, and rewrites were destroyed after his death: this was something he had requested of his wife, Eleanor Ladd Biggers, and she was true to her promise. So we don’t really know what Biggers’ thinking was as he set out to write his sequel. But as a writer myself, and as a writer of both mysteries and mainstream novels (as was Biggers), and as one who has studied Biggers’ novels, and as one who has read all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, I’m going to make some educated guesses regarding Biggers’ navigational decisions.

Here I go.

• If Chan is what the public wants, I’d better spend a bit more time on him, a bit less on other stuff. In Biggers’ first mystery, Chan doesn’t enter the picture until a quarter of the story has been told. In The Chinese Parrot, he enters in the middle of the second chapter. And even though Chan is outside his Honolulu jurisdiction, he is still in charge of the investigation by weight of his knowledge, his insight, and his trustworthiness.

Joshua tree in California desert. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.

Joshua tree in California desert. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.

• I like Hawaii, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to set every novel in that little crossroads of the Pacific, beautiful as it is. Biggers probably wanted to explore different settings (even different within the Hawaiian Islands) and incorporate them into his stories, but he couldn’t keep going back to Hawaii to do that. So he looked around (he was living in Pasadena) and decided to incorporate California into the stories.

• I’m good at developing setting and atmosphere, and the public has expected that of me since Seven Keys to Baldpate, so I’ll continue doing what I love with setting and atmosphere. Biggers set the beginning chapters of The Chinese Parrot in San Francisco, with Charlie arriving on the mainland for the first time in his life, but most of the novel is set in California desert country. Biggers creates a desert atmosphere for readers, including not only the flora and fauna, but the temperatures, sunrises and sunsets, mountains, ghost towns, dirt roads, fences, gardens, and abodes.

• All of my previous novels, even The House Without a Key, center around a romance. That’s what the public wants, isn’t it? Even in a mystery? In his second novel Biggers followed the same romance pattern he had followed in all his earlier books (a young man meets an independent-minded young woman), but it’s possible he began to suspect that a mystery required less romance and more investigation. Future Chan novels did, in fact, have less romance and more investigation. The romance in The Chinese Parrot occupies less of the story than did the romance in first Chan novel.

• I had that really clever perfect-murder plot in my first Chan novel, so I’ve got to do something equally clever in this one. Indeed, Biggers did do something equally clever in his second Chan novel. After just one reading of The House Without a Key, I remembered the villain and the motive immediately on subsequent readings. But the second time I read The Chinese Parrot I failed to remember the solution. Likewise the third time.

Unknown-1When I began reading The Chinese Parrot for the fourth time, I remembered (once again) that I didn’t remember who the villain was. I didn’t even remember what the crime was! And that was Bigger’s “equally clever” gambit: he created a plot in which it appears there might be a crime . . . but it isn’t clear what the crime is . . . it isn’t clear who the victim is . . . it isn’t clear who the villain is.

On my fourth reading, I forced myself to close the book and talk out loud to whoever would listen, listing the possibilities. This turned out to be a good thing, because halfway through the novel I recognized that my proposed solution was the only solution that explained everything that had happened thus far.

My proposed solution was, in fact, correct. (And I swear I didn’t remember it from the first three readings.) Having finally figured it out on my own, I’m convinced that, should I read The Chinese Parrot a fifth time, ten or fifteen years from now, I will remember the solution. And if I ever come to write a similar mystery, I’ll remember the plot construction and the clues.

My thanks to Earl Derr Biggers for accepting the challenge of writing a sequel, and for making the decisions he did.


Barbara Gregorich writes about mystery sequels and decisions in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. You can read a sample chapter here.

Putting Sisters in Crime on the Map

IMG_2884In 1986 Sara Paretskey helped found a new mystery writers organization, Sisters in Crime. Its purpose was to help women who write mysteries win equal treatment with men who write mysteries, particularly regarding book reviews and award nominations. (For a good article on the founding of SinC, click here.)

Sisters in Crime fought against the belittlement of women mystery writers and at the same time worked to make its organization grow. In 1990 mystery writer Susan Dunlap was elected President of SinC. One of the things Sue worked toward was “to put Sisters in Crime on the literary map” — to help bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and readers everywhere become aware of female mystery writers.

Sue asked several Chicago mystery writers to help with this project. Specifically, she asked Barbara D’Amato, Jacqueline Fiedler, and me to help. My husband, Phil Passen, who was working for Madden Communications at the time, offered to donate the paper and printing for the project, and this went a long way toward making the project possible.

RedHairedFor at least six months Barb, Jacquie, and I met a couple of times a week. We came up with the idea of a map of the US, with small graphics depicting mystery novels, and a line locating the setting of each novel on the map. Jacquie, who did the design work, thought of the black background and red outline of the United States.

I don’t remember how we found the almost-50 authors and novels that populate the map. We might have put an announcement in the SinC newsletter asking authors who wanted to be represented to contact us. It was definitely an opt-in proposition.

Once we had the authors and one novel of choice from each, we searched for an illustrator.

Our first choice didn’t work out: we felt the illustrations were missing a sense of energy and fun. What to do? It’s not easy to come up with an illustrator . . . especially since we were now behind schedule because the first one didn’t work out.

DragovikThat was when I thought of Robin Koontz, whom I had met through projects in educational publishing. I knew that Robin could bring both energy and fun to the map. And so I asked, and Robin said yes, she would attept this tight-deadline, 46-individual-drawings idea.

As Robin awaited instructions on what to illustrate, I got in touch with each author via telephone. It was up to Barb D’Amato and me to summarize each novel in 12 words or less (!), to the satisfaction of the author. And it was my job to describe the proposed art work for each title to both the author and to Robin. (Barb and I ended up reading a lot of mystery novels in a very short time, all the while thinking of illustration possibilities.)

Some authors were calm, some worried — but when the posters were finally published, I think everyone was happy beyond expectations. Solving Mysteries from Coast to Coast went out to libraries, bookstores, newspapers, and magazines. (It appeared in Publishers Weekly, and that alone alerted every bookstore in the country to its existence.) Authors autographing at various venues had their photos taken under the poster. There were several years during the 1990s when I couldn’t walk into any bookstore or library without seeing that exciting poster on the wall.

RattlesnakeAs Susan Dunlap anticipated, the poster did indeed help put Sisters in Crime on the literary map.

Having done its job, the poster is now retired. Sisters in Crime has more members than ever, with a web site and a continued presence at book events of all kinds.

The poster you see with this blog hung on the wall of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park, Illinois, for many, many years. Visiting authors happily autographed their spots on the map. I recently attended a talk and autographing at Centuries & Sleuths — for Julia Buckley’s new series, launched with The Big Chili — and when I asked proprietor Augie Aleksy if I could see the poster (which he now has in storage), he brought it out, I photographed it, and we reminisced about the project and its impact.

Not all publicity campaigns turn out this successful — I’m delighted that this most-deserving one did.

Barbara Gregorich’s Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, consists of 25 chapters containing explanations, examples, charts, and graphs but, alas, no enticing oval drawings.

The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence

Mysteries written during the Golden Age of Mystery, roughly 1920-1940, influenced all mystery readers and writers who lived then. And even now. I’m sure it influenced me, mainly because at one time I read hundreds of mysteries from that period, and these stories helped shape my idea of what constituted a satisfying mystery. (And perhaps even what didn’t.)

90599-86823Agatha Christie epitomizes the Golden Age of mystery. Such is her influence (particularly in plotting, her forte) that she is still the best-known mystery writer in the world. Many scholars date the beginning of the Golden Age with the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first novel. Not only did this novel introduce the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (he of the egg-shaped head, drinker of tisanes), it also introduced “the little grey cells” he employs to solve mysteries.

I think of Poirot’s little grey cells as a symbol of Golden Age mysteries, for these novels stressed the intelligence of the detective, his/her ability to observe and deduce, to solve intricate puzzles, to see inconsistencies and contradictions, and, often, to possess arcane knowledge.

16322I’ve read each Agatha Christie novel at least twice, and some I’ve read three times. My favorites are all Poirot novels, particularly The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express. I can recall the very first time I read Murder on the Orient Express, when I was in my late teens. At some point I muttered out loud, “This is ridiculous! They couldn’t have all done it!”

English intellectual Dorothy Sayers wrote poetry, plays, essays, literary criticisms, and translations, including a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She also wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. I love these, particularly Strong Poison, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. But I find the Scottish dialect in Five Red Herrings difficult to read. In addition, the intense use of time tables makes the solution of the mystery less than riveting. While The Nine Tailors is a long book, and tells me more about bell ringing than I might want to know, I nevertheless liked the mystery and its solution. Sayers’ use of timetables is very much a Golden Age characteristic. As is the arcane knowledge about bell ringing.

Philip MacDonald wrote mysteries in the 1930s and onward. He’s best known for his novel The List of Adrian Messenger, published in 1959 and made into a movie in 1963. The book was very Christie-like in its plot. A seemingly unrelated series of murders turns out to be very related indeed: somebody is killing all the men who were prisoners of war in the same camp in Burma. John Huston directed the film, which featured well-known actors in disguise — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Mitchum among them.

Philip MacDonald was even better known for his screenplays than for his novels. He wrote the screenplays for Charlie Chan in London and Charlie Chan in Paris; for several Mr. Moto film; for an Agatha Christie movie, Love From a Stranger; and he did an early adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for screen. In addition, he wrote TV scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and for Perry Mason.

imagesNgaio Marsh was a New Zealand writer who moved to England in her early 30s. She wrote 32 novels featuring Roderick (Rory) Alleyn, a detective on the London Police squad. Because Marsh was interested in theater and painting, many of her mysteries feature artists and/or the stage. I think she plotted well and wrote well, though, compared to Christie’s, her plots don’t move as quickly. (Compared to Christie’s, few plots move quickly.)

Edmund Wilson, an American, had little regard for Golden Age mysteries. In his famous critique, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, 1945), Wilson, an author and critic, claimed that Golden Age mysteries were subliterary. He called the reading of such mysteries a harmless vice and said that people were addicted to them the same way they might be addicted to solving crossword puzzles.

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Puzzles is a key word when it comes to Golden Age mysteries. Many who read these novels compared them to crossword puzzles, in that the reader is given cryptic clues that she or he can use to solve the mystery before the detective solves it. It’s interesting to note that the Golden Age of mystery grew and flourished during the same time period (1920s-30s) as did the crossword puzzle (first printed in the New York World on December 21, 1913;) as did Mah-jongg (first sold in the US by Abercrombine & Fitch in 1920); and as did contract bridge (Vanderbilt rules set in 1925). One of the similarities between mystery novels of the Golden Age and the these games is that they all require use of the intellect: the faculty of reasoning.

It would be coming full circle for me to say that in my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, I was so influenced by the British Golden Age mysteries I read that I wrote a puzzle mystery.

But I didn’t.

Because, much as I admire the puzzle mystery (particularly when it’s turned into a stage production, which seems to emphasize the puzzle aspect even more than a novel does), I also admire realism, a certain degree of hard-boiled sleuthing, and emotional involvement with characters. More about these in a future blog.


In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies I offer chapters on “Plot Complications”; “Casting Suspicion”; “Planting Clues”; and “Disguising of Motive, Means, and Opportunity,” as well as other mystery-writing topics.

The House Without a Key: Four and Counting

9435893_origThe first time I read Earl Derr Biggers’ The House Without a Key, I was sixteen years old. Having just received my drivers license, I drove to the Warren Public Library, where my brother and I browsed through mystery novels. That was where we discovered six mystery novels by Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan. The books were in the “Local Authors” section because Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1884. We borrowed the first of the six books, each of them a well-worn hardback . . . possibly from the 1920s and ‘30s.

As soon as I read The House Without a Key, I expressed two wishes: (1) I wanted to read more of these Charlie Chan novels; (2) I wanted to visit Hawaii! The first of these wishes was easily fulfilled: more trips to the public library. I enjoyed each of the following Chan novels even more than I had enjoyed the first one, and I was sad when the series ended with the sixth book.

In Hawaii, 1970s

In Hawaii, 1970s

The second of these wishes was fulfilled quite by luck, and as the movie Chan once said: “One grain of luck sometimes worth more than whole rice field of wisdom.” During the 1970s, when both my husband and I were working as letter carriers during a Chicago winter that saw about 90 inches of snow . . . we won a trip to Hawaii! We took it immediately: during the cold, snowy, windy, sleety month of January.

And what was there to greet us at the Honolulu Airport? Besides leis, I mean. What was there, was a wire book rack that contained copies of The House Without a Key. I immediately bought one of these mass market paperbacks and read it. On my second reading, I recognized that Biggers had written a mystery that was also a romance and an adventure story, as well as being a coming-of-age novel and an unabashed touting of Hawaii as Paradise. The novel had more going on in it than I had been able to appreciate as a 16-year-old.

Unknown-1Almost twenty years went by before I read The House Without a Key for the third time. During that time, the 1990s, I was writing magazine articles, and I had proposed a lengthy article on Earl Derr Biggers for Timeline: The Magazine of Ohio History. As part of my research for the piece, I once again read all six of Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels.

The third time around, I was struck by how Charlie Chan as a character earned the respect of all those he dealt with. He was very good at his job, which was detecting the reasons for and the perpetrators of individual crimes. In The House Without a Key, that crime is murder.

Now here I am, fifteen years later, having just read The House Without a Key for the fourth time. One of the reasons I wanted to read it again was that several years ago Academy Chicago Publishers reissued all six Chan novels in quality paperback editions. I have never read a Chan novel that wasn’t falling apart — either from having been read by hundreds and hundreds of readers for decades, or from being an inexpensive mass market paperback printed on cheap paper. Something in me wanted to hold a book that was physically sound.

UnknownThe fourth time around, I was struck by two things I hadn’t noticed before. First, Biggers refers to algaroba trees throughout the book. Algo-what? I had to look this tree up. How could I have missed this in my first three readings?

Second, I noticed that in The House Without a Key (Biggers’ first attempt at detective fiction) the author allows the police and the reader to suspect one person who seems obvious as the killer. Then that person is eliminated as a suspect. Another takes his place. That person is also eliminated. And so on. Having recently written Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, in which I write about patterns of suspicion, I recognized this as the A-B-C-D-E approach, in which the villain is the last person on the list.

As I point out in Guide, this pattern can be satisfying to the reader, but usually more complex patterns (such as A-B-C-D-E-B, in which the villain is not the last person suspected, but is, rather, a person previously suspected) are more satisfying.

And I think that in his other Chan novels, Biggers went on to write more complicated plots. But just to make certain, I’m going to read each of these novels again. Whether that will be in Chicago or Hawaii, only time will tell.