Seducing Readers: The Slow- Burn Traditional Mystery
- February 18, 2020
- C. Michele Dorsey
I’ll start by saying I love a traditional mystery, one that was called a “slow burn” by author Sarah Hilary on Twitter when she recently lamented, “Please can we bring back the slow burn for books, TV, film, etc. I feel this frantic push for thrills and twists is killing the art of involvement. And I really struggle to remember those kinds of stories/shows whereas the slow burners stay with me.” Amen to that, Sarah. I was surprised to see how many people engaged in the conversation and supported the slow burn, which I have also called the slow dance and the slow simmer.
My husband and I are both insatiable readers but rarely do we like the same book. It’s almost by definition that if he likes a book, I won’t. The exceptions are when there is a traditional mystery so compelling, he can dispense with the plastic explosives, assault rifles, etc. that usually appear on page one of the books he reads and on every other page from thereon. People like different kinds of foods, hobbies, and clothes. Why wouldn’t people enjoy different kinds of books?
But writers don’t just write books. They have to sell them to survive, so the market may influence what kind of books they write. The slow burn doesn’t give the immediate gratification that a thriller can, and so, it would seem in times when the instant pot is the cooking vessel of choice, so is the instant thrill in books. It seems the traditional mystery that slowly seduces the reader, often surreptitiously, is on the wane.
But not entirely. There are excellent traditional mysteries that are being released and recognized and nominated for awards. One of the “Books I Saved For Mexico” (a portable TBR pile I pack and savor during a two-month hiatus in Mexico) was Elly Griffith’s The Stranger Diaries, a slow simmer that drew me into the world of public schools in the UK and kept me entranced until its conclusion, and which is nominated for an Edgar. Griffiths writes the widely acclaimed Ruth Galloway series, a successful series featuring character-driven slow-burn plots.
Similarly, I was seduced into an odd group having a reunion at a dark sky park, something I didn’t even know existed, in Lori Rader-Day’s Under a Dark Sky, also nominated for an Edgar. There was the requisite dead body early in the book, but what propelled the plot was the way the fascinating characters, most notably the protagonist who was afraid of the dark, reacted to one another and the events that unfolded. This slow simmer had the bonus of an unlikely romantic interest, whose name was as geeky as he was.
Edwin Hill’s The Missing Ones, second in his Hester Thursby series, had so many plot twists and turns, it almost felt like a thriller. But what drew me in was the steady, yet not rushed, evolution of the characters as a steady stream of incidents revealed information. I was glad I had placed this book in the “Books I Saved For Mexico” so I could pause and carefully consider all of the clues left by the cast, which I might otherwise have rushed through.
I enjoyed being drawn into the world of clutter-conquers in Hallie Ephron’s slow simmer, Careful What You Wish For. The steady progression of the plot as the characters revealed themselves kept me engaged until the end, which was quite satisfying.
My now read-pile of traditional mysteries has given me enormous pleasure as a reader. As a writer, I’ve learned quite a bit from these authors. Each has remained faithful to their voice. There is no suggestion in any of these books that the author is trying to write something that doesn’t come naturally to them. I also learned that calling a book a “thriller” in a blurb or on a cover doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a thriller, but just because a book isn’t a “thriller” doesn’t mean it can’t take you on an adventure more enduring.
But once in a while, I do like to feel the adrenalin rush through my veins. Thrillers for readers who don’t like thrillers tomorrow.
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