Fifteen years ago my buddy Jim Coudal was staying at The Tropicana and he got on an elevator with some guys who were in Vegas attending a shoe convention. For several floors Jim eavesdropped on their foreign-sounding shop talk--wrap-ups and ten-bennies and knockdowns and books--and finally one of them said to the other, "Oh, that Florsheim 860 is a good shoe. I could sell that shoe even if the heel was on the front."
Ed Champion was at a convention recently. Ed is a litblogger who doesn't normally cover the suspense beat, at least not closely, but he went to Madison last week to observe Bouchercon as an outsider. I think that's what he was doing. Maybe he had another reason for being there, I'm not sure.
Bouchercon, if you don't know, is the annual mystery writers convention and it's basically a social and professional networking opportunity for writers and aspiring writers and hardcore mystery fans. (I explain this because I didn't know what Bouchercon was until I was out on my first book tour and was told by my publisher that I had been booked on a panel.) So Ed flies from San Francisco to Madison and he pokes around a little bit and it doesn't sound like he had much fun. Then at least one person he tries to talk to about "experimental" mystery fiction is inexcusably rude to him, and that plus a conversation he overhears between two strangers in a coffee shop causes him to conclude that Bouchercon is "a colossal joke."
Okay, fine. Ed is making some hasty generalizations and later he begs the question when he tries to use his Madison experience to explain why "the genre isn't taken seriously" and why mystery fans are "pilloried at home" without providing evidence that either of these statements is true. (His only attempt to establish this is to speculate why newspapers don't cover the event, but this isn't an industry convention like BEA, and guild conventions aren't exactly a staple of daily lifestyle sections. The sci-fi and comic cons you hear about are much more fan-oriented than Bouchercon and the only reason the dailies sometimes cover those is to get pics of all the dentists dressed up like jawas.)
But I don't bring this up just to nitpick the logic of Ed's post and I certainly don't bring it up to get people all frothy over his comments. Bouchercon can be great fun (and it's an important venue for building relationships with other authors) but even writers are ambivalent about how many books it sells. In fact Ed's impressions are pretty much what you'd expect. To a person with little or no interest in the subject, any convention probably should seem uncomfortable and pointless. Like a shoe with the heel on the front.
The reason I bring this up is because the question Ed posed to this unnamed and unmannered Bouchercon attendee is an interesting one, and it's too bad Ed didn't get the discussion it deserved. Since the writers and readers who congregate at this site are like a mini-Bouchercon of sorts, I thought I'd bring it up here.
Specifically, Ed wanted to know if there are "any mystery novelists, outside of James Ellroy, who might employ an experimental style?" I talked a little about this in the comments of Ed's post but I'd like to expand on it a little.
Genre distinctions are a primitive version of the algorithm that provides Amazon and Netflix and Tivo recommendations. If you like Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly then you might like John Sandford and Jeffrey Deaver. Or whatever. They can be helpful to certain readers who, for better or worse, want to narrow the field of possibilities for their next read. To qualify as genre a book has to meet a certain set of reader expectations. If it doesn't, then it's probably not a good recommendation for them.
So a writer who does much experimenting with the conventions of genre is probably no longer writing genre. A guy like Mark Danielewski used many horror staples to write HOUSE OF LEAVES, but HOUSE OF LEAVES isn't really a horror novel. David Mitchell riffed on a half-dozen different genres in his brilliant CLOUD ATLAS, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to fans of, say, Patrick O'Brian. Everywhere I go I tout the work of Walker Percy. Each of his later books was a genre novel on the surface--a thriller, a southern gothic romance, a dystopian sci-fi satire--but few would suggest Percy is a genre writer.
Most stores shelve CAST OF SHADOWS in the mystery section but I've gotten an earful from a few mystery fans because my book doesn't have a clearly defined hero and because, in the end, good doesn't necessarily triumph over evil. I like that kind of ambiguity in stories, but I also understand that not everybody does.
Nevertheless, the framework of the mystery is certainly flexible enough that it allows for boundless creativity (and I would even argue that some restrictions are necessary to produce great art, but that's a post for another day). There are plenty of writers who still meet certain expectations of the mystery reader while creating characters and stories and structures that are original and unexpected. Ed mentioned Ellroy. Another poster talked about Pete Dexter. I added John Burdett and Michael Gruber and Henning Mankell--all of whom write series procedurals about police detectives but with a real freshness, I think.
Stephen White has written 14 installments of his bestselling Alan Gregory series, but in his last one, KILL ME, Gregory is only a minor character. That was no doubt a risk for White who must have worried how his longtime fans would react, and while I have no idea how sales were for that book compared to previous ones, I think KILL ME is one of the very best in the series.
Experimental? Not in the way Ed was suggesting, I don't think. But I know it's a good book.
I would bet almost everyone here has read more books within the genre than me. Is there a suspense writer you'd call a real experimenter?