Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why I Write Mysteries, by Jess Lourey

My story starts out the same--loved Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and the Hardy Boys as a kid, was always drawn to puzzles--but takes a sharp turn toward a cliff after that. You see, I never intended to be a mystery writer. In fact, around age 15, I stopped reading mysteries in favor of sci fi and fantasy. Then came college, and a Master's degree in English, and I couldn't break up with genre fiction fast enough.

I still devoured novels, but they were of the John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy variety. I took a few detours through Carlos Castaneda and Tom Robbins, but otherwise it was the classics, books that some elite "they" had signed off on, The Canon of Dead White Guys Born in a Previous Century. Lots of good stuff, none of it mysteries, which were, in my mind, the fluff of the fiction world, second only to romances. How soon we lose our roots.

Then came 2001, the year I lost my husband and my world became unmoored. I had a difficult time focusing on anything for any length of time, forget reading. But my aunt shoved a Tony Hillerman book in my hand, maybe so she wouldn't have to see me wandering aimlessly, maybe as a kindness to redirect my looping mind. I couldn't step out of my loss and into the story at first, but I read the words out of habit. Soon, though, I was completely immersed in this other world, and I can't describe to you the relief not thinking about myself for those few hours gave me.

It would be a stretch to credit my recovery from that dark pit to mystery novels, but they played their part. I swung from Hillerman to William Kent Krueger to Sue Grafton to Laura Lippman, and each one gave me relief and justice. I was feeling human again by the time I got to Janet Evanovich, and it was when I found myself laughing out loud at someone else's story that I realized I wanted to write funny mysteries, too.

And so I do. And that's why I write mysteries.

My thanks to those of you out there who write and read these fabulous books.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Jess--One of the great things about mysteries is that they engage the reader in an activity, don't they? I love the 'figuring out the puzzle' aspect of them. I'm so sorry for the loss of your husband.


Paul Lamb said...

Though I haven't experienced your level of grief, I do know what it means to stop thinking about myself for a few moments. I do that through volunteer work, when I literally must be other-directed for periods. It's palpable.

I think too much is made of the (false) dichotomy between Literature and genre novels. Sure, there are literary works that are impenetrable to me (Finnegan's Wake) and there are genre novels that are forgettable moments after reading them, but I don't see why genre writers can't strive to make their works more substantive than merely plot and character. Dorothy Sayers is credited with bringing the mystery novel close to the level of literature (I'm not so sure the claim survives too close examination, but the spirit is there).

Every writer should write the story he or she has, and it's really not healthy for us or the industry to be drawing lines and staring across them.

Lisa Bork said...

The library had a slogan, "Loose yourself in a book." Genre fiction makes for great escapism, which has merit and value.

I'm so sorry you lost your husband, but I'm glad you found comfort in the words of others.

Jessica Lourey said...

Thank you, Elizabeth and Lisa. Isn't being a reader one of the great joys in life?

Paul, I agree that mysteries should always strive to be compelling character studies, but the truth is that the majority of them aren't, and until that changes, the dichotomy isn't false. What for me is false is the idea that mysteries are considered "less." Kudos on your volunteer work!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

After such a devastating loss (I'm very sorry, Jess), most people would bury themselves in something to ease the pain. Unfortunately, it's often depression, booze or drugs. I'm so glad your aunt shoved that book into your hands! It not only eased your horrible grief, it was fruitful in other ways. Growing up in a rocky home, books became my salvation at a very early age and gave me my desire to become a writer.

Jessica Lourey said...

Thanks, Sue Ann. Cheers to healthy choices when it looks like we don't have any choice at all.

Keith Raffel said...

Jess, Losing myself in another world -- that's why I write crime fiction. I especially admire your determination as a writer. Bravo.

Jessica Lourey said...

Thank you, Keith. Happy Thanksgiving to you and all the rest of you out there!

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Jess. Goes to show mankind's desire to figure stuff out. And not just in solving mysteries.

You got a lotta moxie.

Jessica Lourey said...

Love the word "moxie," Mike. We don't use it nearly enough. Cheers, and thanks for reading!

G.M. Malliet said...

It is hard to imagine how anyone could begin to cope with such a loss. I am so sorry, Jess.

I have to say, having met you, that the word "moxie" applies perfectly.

[p.s. I am a big supporter of literacy causes, because the thought of anyone's going through life without the solace of books simply scares me.]